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Atheist Ireland’s secular State would reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship

Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, has presented the usual litany of discrimination allegedly suffered by atheists and religious minorities in Ireland in an article [1]for The Irish Times this week.  He calls a more secular state.  But what kind of secular State? The kind he wants would have almost no place for religion in public life. That would not respect true religious freedom.

Nugent lists various examples of discrimination, real and imagined, including even the innocuous one-minute item on RTE that shares practically nothing with the Angelus apart from its title.

Those issues mentioned in the article – denominational schools for example- have been addressed individually many times, including in the Iona blog, so I will concentrate on the ideological framework that lays behind Nugent’s comments.

In particular, I want to discuss two concepts that are often invoked, with a certain level of confusion, in these debates: the secular state, and the separation between church and state.

We often hear people invoking more separation between church and state in Ireland but are we very different, in this respect, when compared to other European countries?

Detlef Pollack is a distinguished German sociologist who has produced an index of church-state relations according to five criteria: the existence of a state church, theological seminaries in state universities, religious education in public schools, spiritual guidance in the military and in prisons, and tax privileges and financial support of the church by the state.

In a scale from 1 to 8 Ireland scores 5, in the middle. At the bottom of the scale we find France, with 2 points, while at the top (strong church/state links) there are Sweden and Norway, with 8 points, and Denmark and Germany with 7. (Note 1)  Nordic countries have kept a strong relationship between the established (or only recently disestablished) Lutheran church and the state.

Paradoxically these countries, with a long tradition of social democracy are often presented as a model by those who want a more secular state.  Still, in Ireland we have a higher degree of church-state separation when compared to them. It might be more accurate to call the Nordic countries secular societies as distinct from secular states. It should also be noted that church-state relations in these countries makes the Church very much subordinate to the State. So, what is a secular state? What model of secular state do Atheist Ireland want? Is it the one we really need?

It is interesting to note that the degree of church-separation has no statistically relevant correlation one way or the other with frequency of church attendance. Which is to say, a strong church-state relationship doesn’t imply strong or weak religiosity among the population.

Michael Nugent correctly notes that Ireland is changing fast and is becoming more secular but the ‘solution’ he offers is to push religion almost entirely out of public life and the public space. He would reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship only. Individuals would be allowed to worship and practice according to their beliefs but the state would exercise a direct or indirect hegemony over every aspect of social life that lies outside the private sphere.

In contemporary Europe, laïcité (a strongly secular State with religion relegated to the margins) is not the prevailing model and even in France it has to face the challenges coming from the growing presence of non-Christian religions, particularly Islam.

The defenders of the laïcité model fail to recognize that between the private sphere and the public sphere, which they identify with the state, there is a whole spectrum of intermediate bodies, what it is generally called the civic society. They can be motivated not only by religious values, but also by political ideologies, common interests (sport, hobbies), etc.

It is a normal practice in all the European countries that those intermediate bodies receive state support in terms of funding, tax exemptions, special regulations. It is also a normal practice to favour one religion over the others because of its historical association with the nation. This is especially the case in historically Protestant countries.

In terms of funding bodies with a religious ethos, Ireland is not exception at all.

The radical model of the secularism (laïcité) understands the state as a monopolistic provider of services like education and health care, and only one ethos, its own, is allowed to receive public funds. (Even in France, by the way, church schools receive public funds). Other bodies are tolerated but are considered private.  This model promotes conformity rather than pluralism and choice.

The alternative to laïcité is a model inspired by religious freedom that does not relegate religion to the private sphere but recognises its value not just for the individuals involved but also for society as a whole. The work done by religious charities, associations, congregations, movements, is supported by the state on behalf of society. A diversity of values is not simply tolerated but appreciated.

So yes, let’s have a secular state by all means, but let it be a secular state that permits and appreciates and, in some cases (schools for example) facilitates religious beliefs and values. This is not the type of secular State Atheist Ireland supports, however. Their secular State would be a cold house for religious believers.



  1. Motzkin G. and Fisher Y. (ed.), Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe, pp. 97-98.