Humanism's Proud Week
But Ulster's cold house
It was a proud week for Humanism in Ireland”. Ivana Bacik, who spoke these words in the Irish Senate on Thursday 10th November, was referring in part to the fact that, for the first time, a humanist element was included in the presidential inauguration.
In keeping with his own beliefs, Michael D Higgins had asked for a humanist ‘reflection’ along with the main faith groups. At the ceremony on Friday 11th November, Susie Kennedy (see posting below) said that the Humanist Association was honoured and delighted to take part, adding: “this presidency, we believe, will continue to promote inclusiveness, equality and diversity where people of all backgrounds with an ethical outlook can play an equal role in forming a fair society”.
The other cause of humanist pride last week was the unopposed Labour Bill that Ivan Bacik was moving which would enable members of the HAI to perform legal civil marriages. This right already exists in Scotland but not yet in Northern Ireland or England and Wales.
These developments are partly the outcome of a dialogue process announced in 2007 by the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern between the government and churches, philosophical and non-confessional organisations. The HAI has been involved in annual meetings with government ministers, at which it raises issues of concern, such as the lack of choice in education and respect for non-religious people in religious-run hospitals.
The changes are also a reflection of the growing diversity within Irish society in which non-believers now form the largest single group after Catholics. In his inspirational inauguration speech, Michael D Higgins promised a presidency of transformation which would encourage a profoundly ethical society and an active, inclusive citizenship.
The contrast with Northern Ireland is stark. Politically, two tribal parties dominate the local landscape and seek to impose their exclusive visions on the rest of the community. The two moderate parties are rapidly shrinking under pressure from the extremes. Individuals or groups who do not belong to either camp are ignored or marginalised.
In ethical matters, a narrow religiosity prevails. So, for example, whenever greater freedom and equality for the non-religious are proposed, we are constantly told that Ulster is a Christian society, which seems to imply that Christians have a right to impose their values on non-Christians whether they want them or not. This exclusive attitude simply fails to show respect for diversity and choice. It does not cherish all the people equally.
The non-religious are also a growing presence in Ulster society – 14% according to the last census. Yet for us the province remains a cold house. We are largely sidelined and disregarded. We are not consulted by our local MLAs on anything. Humanism is not on the RE Syllabus as it is in the rest of the UK and the Irish Republic.
Some leading politicians in Britain have declared their non-belief and all three main parties now have Humanist groups attached to them. So there is a good chance that in the near future Britain could have an atheist or agnostic Minister, just as Ireland now has an agnostic President. We know that some MLAs are non-believers because some party spokesmen have told us as much, but at the moment they remain firmly in the closet.
Atheism is one of the last taboos, and Northern Ireland is similar to America in this respect. Remember that George Bush Senior said atheists shouldn't be considered as citizens because America is one nation under God. It's such a shame because 200 years ago both Ulster and America were dominated by radical, progressive and sceptical voices, such as the Founding Fathers and the United Irishmen.
The project of the latter was to substitute for Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter the common name of Irishman in a free, inclusive and tolerant society. Sadly, we allowed the lethal cocktail of sectarian religion and ethnic nationalism to poison and destroy these laudable ideals.
In his speech, Michael D Higgins outlined his dream and his vision for all the people of Ireland and said he wanted to open a new chapter which would require a transition in Ireland’s political thinking, its view of the world, its institutions and, most difficult of all, in its consciousness. To this end, he would seek to create a presidency of ideas, recognising and open to new paradigms of thought and action.
If people in the province are also to achieve a similar transition, then there must be more public space given to those with independent minds who challenge the existing templates and seek a new paradigm beyond Orange and Green which is both open and inclusive and which creates a Northern Ireland of which we can all be proud.
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