The papal visit this weekend will see plenty of celebratory flags and bunting on show but the Ireland of today is very different to the one which greeted John Paul II in 1979. One small, yet vivid, symbol of our changed country is the advocacy group Atheist Ireland, founded in 2008, and which has some 500 subscribers, as well as 13,000 likes on its Facebook page.
Galway’s Kelvin O’Connor is a member of Atheist Ireland’s management committee and earlier this week he spoke with me about the group’s goals and experiences. “We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year and we’ve already achieved quite a bit,” he begins. One thing we are proud of is the degree to which we have normalised the use of the word ‘atheism’. That’s illustrated by the statistic that in 2015 the word atheism was used in the Dáil 26 times, which is as much as the previous 15 years combined. Before we were founded I think atheism was confused with Satanism, it had really bad connotations and historically when the word was used in the Dáil it was as a pejorative term rather than as part of any meaningful discussion.”
I ask Kelvin about his own personal path to ‘atheist Damascus’. “My grandparents on both sides of the family were very religious but my parents weren’t particularly religious,” he replies. “I was baptised and made my Communion and confirmation but that was primarily to fit in. I kind of knew it was a facade. At home I was always told to take the Church stories with a pinch of salt and make up my own mind about them. Even as a kid I knew there was something odd about that because it was the only aspect of my life where I was one thing at school and another thing at home.
"Later, after the 2009 Ryan Report into child abuse I decided I did not want to be associated with an organisation whose members were responsible both for perpetrating child abuse and then covering it up. There was a website set up at the time, countmeout.ie, which revealed a formal process for leaving the Catholic Church. They gave you a form to print off and told you what details to fill in and where to send it.
'Most of the reaction we get is positive; you do get the odd negative one but it tends to be along the lines of someone saying ‘You’ll find out you’re wrong when you’re dead''
"However the Vatican closed the canon law loophole which allowed that to work and I was just too late to avail of it. If they had let me leave I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you now, but it annoyed me that they effectively said ‘We won’t let you leave’. I don’t think many people realise there is no leaving the Church per se, it will continue to count you as a member once you are baptised.”
“I read books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and it seemed to me that in most aspects of life religion did more harm than good,” Kelvin continues. “I then saw Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland’s chairperson, on a TV debate with Vincent Browne and I thought he was a great speaker and made a lot of great points, and after reading US and UK authors it was good to see an eloquent Irish atheist. Soon after that TV show he was at a meeting in Galway and I went along and had a great chat with him and I decided then I wanted to do what I could to help.”
On the last Saturday of every month Kelvin and a colleague are usually manning a table on Shop Street promoting Atheist Ireland. What kind of response does he get from passers-by? “Most of the reaction we get is positive; you do get the odd negative one but it tends to be along the lines of someone saying ‘You’ll find out you’re wrong when you’re dead’,” he reveals. “We have two core goals, one being to promote atheism and, more importantly, to tackle secular issues in this country. When I’m on the table I talk about our education system or the religious oath required for the President and issues like that. We also offer advice and information to parents who might be experiencing issues with the school system on matters of religion.
'Our schools are publicly funded, yet we’ve handed them to the Catholic Church to run and they can’t possibly run them in a neutral way. Our Constitution enshrined the right to receive a neutral education but that is not happening'
"I do get practicing Catholics wanting to know why I am there, but even many of them would agree with me that it is probably wrong that Michael D Higgins, who has come out as agnostic in the past, had to swear an oath before Almighty God as his first presidential act. If these things are forced on people it diminishes the validity of the oath itself. I once met a Muslim man who had to baptise his kids to get them into a school, and I think the fact he had to do that undermines the sanctity of baptism. If people are just treating it as a box-ticking exercise, it takes away from it I think. So in fact I find when I talk to Catholics on the street that we have a lot of common ground.”
The school system is an area of strong focus for Atheist Ireland and it identifies four areas that need reform which they label with the acronym PACT; patronage, access, curriculum, teaching. “Patronage refers to the principle that children should have a right to attend public schools," Kelvin explains. "Our schools are publicly funded and yet we’ve handed them to the Catholic Church to run and they can’t possibly run them in a neutral way. Article 42 of our Constitution enshrined the right that you can receive a neutral education but that is not happening.
"The next part is that children should be able to access a local public school and not be religiously discriminated against, yet you often hear of parents needing to add an hour to their commute to bring their kids to the nearest Educate Together school and they shouldn’t have to do that. The religious education curriculum is heavily influenced by the Church and if we had a properly neutral education system that wouldn’t be the case. The last part relates to teachers; kids should be taught by the best teachers not just those who happen to be Catholic.”
October will see a referendum on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, a move Kelvin ardently supports; “I feel strongly about blasphemy because I am a staunch believer in freedom of speech,” he declares. “We have a unique situation in this country in that our blasphemy law was updated in 2009 by Dermot Ahern. It’s a modern blasphemy law whereas other European countries have blasphemy laws that date back to the 19th century or earlier. We already have incitement of hatred and libel and slander laws that encourage responsible speech and writing so there is no reason for a religious version of these laws.”
In conclusion, I inquire whether Atheist Ireland will be taking any public stance during Pope Francis’s visit; “There are two protest gatherings in Dublin and we will participate in the one billed ‘Stand For Truth’ which focuses on the redress scheme for sexual abuse victims,” Kelvin tells me. “We have no problem with the Pope coming here per se. Our main issue would be the €32 million being spent on the visit, largely funded by the State. The Church has plenty of money to pay for the visit if it wanted to and rather than enabling the visit the way it is happening I suggest we should be encouraging them to pay the sexual abuse victims instead.”