Better off without religion?

David Quinn of The Iona Institute and Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland discuss the place of religion in Irish society and the world and whether we are better off without religious belief. David argued that secular humanism is based on Christian foundations it either won’t acknowledge or takes for granted.

The debate took place on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk and can be found here.

The transcript of the debate is below, divided by topic.

Better off without religion?

Newstalk – 18 August 2021

Presenter: Pat Kenny

Guests: David Quinn of The Iona Institute, and Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland

The situation of religion in Ireland

Pat Kenny: The Archbishop [Dermot Farrell] has painted a fairly bleak picture of declining vocations, aging priests and a lack of interest in many of the citizenry in practicing the religion to which they normally are exposed.

David Quinn: He’s correct about all that, it’s undeniable. Religions as organised set of practices and beliefs that people take part in, that has vanished out of the lives of lots of people. There is still about -depending on the polls you look at – 25% 30% of practicing Catholic going to mass each week, at least before Covid. But if you look at people about 60 and under, it’s far less, and obviously among young people it’s far less again. There was a report from DCU last week about bullying in school and they discovered that, according to the religion teachers, if you are a kid and you’re known to be a practicing Catholic, you can get basically mocked by your classmates. So, it is a kind of full reversal of what it might have been in the past but the actual situation is people not getting involved in things [in general]. How many young people join political parties now? And I’d say, it’s far fewer than the past. Members of trade unions, for example, read newspapers, watch terrestrial television. I think a lot of markers of what you might call institutional belief and belonging, and the signs and symptoms of that have gone down an awful lot in society and religion is simply one more factor in that. But I think, it’s probably because we’re seeing a very strong rise in individualism and a lack of institutional belonging in general.

PK: Michael, I know that obviously as a chair of Atheist Ireland, you will probably welcome the idea that more people are secular in their outlook and thinking, but there is something about religion, organised religion, that did bring an order to society and that just may collapse.

Religion and crime

Michael Nugent: I think that’s a bit of an illusion. And I think it’s a very significant statement by the Archbishop to recognise that the visibility of the Catholic faith is vanishing in Ireland. It’s part of a global thing. Two thirds of Roman Catholics live in the global South, instead of the three quarters. That’s where the current Pope comes from. One of the first things that he said when he became Pope, was to endorse an organisation of [inaudible] in the Vatican, so that’s where the market for Catholicism is currently. But in terms of Ireland, its relations of the wider society are not, as you suggest, positive. In general, secular countries have lower rates of social outcomes, such as murderers, juvenile and adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, abortion and so on. Secularists have been shown to be typically less nationalistic, prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, etc. But the most significant thing, I think, is the implications for its relationship with the State because the State gives privilege to religious beliefs over non-religious beliefs, it finances the evangelisation of these beliefs, by funding schools and hospitals and charities, including David’s. And giving them privileges in things such as solemnising marriages, so that’s to end. The State has to give equal status to non-religious and philosophical convictions, such as atheism, and not give privilege to either and just treat everybody equally, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

DQ: There is plenty of solemnisers of marriages and so on, without being religious. There’s been a big change in that regard but Michael is pointing at secular societies. These are more peaceful and law-abiding. He is comparing essentially poor countries with rich countries and you can’t make a comparison like that but you’ve got to compare like with like. So, inside secular societies, which section of the population is more likely to be law-abiding? Etcetera. Because, obviously in poor countries you will going to get more crime, police are going to be less efficient. There is going to be more police corruption. That is a huge function of poverty. We have to compare apples with apples here.

MN: But if you do that, and if you compare apples with apples, say in the United States, you will find that it is the Bible Belt states that have that higher incidence of those malign social outcomes.

DQ: That is still a poverty function.

MN: That the liberal states on the coast have better social elements.

DQ: That is a social class function as well because a place such as Massachusetts is much richer than Alabama, so again you are not comparing apples with apples. You have to drill down deeper and have to look at affluent middle-class people who are religious or not.

MN: So, you are saying that religion can’t affect that.

DQ: I am not saying that.

Religion and human rights

MN: It is, in places where religious is more powerful. It is, as you are saying, in the global South, such as Southeast Asia and Central America, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Those are the places precisely where is at its strongest. Because what religion preys on is that the people focus on survival values and when people are focusing on survival values they find comfort in religion, and as people move away from survival values, towards self-expression values then societies move away from religious values and toward secular-rational values. So, what you’re saying is correct but implications for religion are not good.

DQ: What you’re saying there is partly true but there is also a compliment to religion in some ways because, obviously, if you are living in very poor circumstances, religion gives you comfort. That is an extremely good thing. But look at the secular societies, they take a lot of their religious foundations for granted. So, for example, there is a big debate right now over the Taliban in Afghanistan. They must abide by universal standards. Where do universal human rights come from? They come from the idea that everybody is created morally equal and in the Western world, that cannot be found in secularism. You look at atheist philosophers like John Gray, they recognise perfectly well that if we are the accidental by-products of evolution we are not all created morally equal. We are simply well-organised atoms.

MN:  Where morality comes from is, evolutionary things like empathy, compassion, reciprocity, cooperation …

DQ: And what about competition? Competition is a huge part of our evolutionary background as well.

MN: Those are the things that evolved into an expression of human rights. And what we are gradually doing in secular societies is moving away from the idea that those rights are [created] by supposedly supernatural commands that you should do something that is clearly not rational, but simply something that someone wrote in a book a couple of thousand years ago, and moving towards more recognition of individual rights and increasingly of the rights of non-human animals, and that is a positive thing.

Atheistic societies

DQ: Society organised in explicitly atheistic lines like Soviet Union and China, are hardly models of human rights, are they?

MN: No, because they are authoritarian.

DQ: The Soviet Union, is the first society in history to organise itself specifically on atheistic lines, and it was anti-religion. China under Mao, down to the present time is the same, North Korea is the same. These are not the bastions of human rights whatsoever. These are the only societies, by the way, in history that have organised themselves on specific atheistic lines. Again, no bastions of human rights by any stretch. If you look at Europe, for example, after World War II, you have the rise of Christian Democracy. And Christian Democracy and its view of human rights heavily influence the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and also the European Convention on Human Rights. These have [an] extremely Christian bedrock which any objective secularist is willing to acknowledge. The literature is absolutely full of the Christian Democratic influence upon these documents. So, basically, the kind of atheism and secular liberalism you are talking about is trading on hundreds of years of moral foundations laid down by Christianity and by the belief that we are all created morally equal, which does not arise from atheism. You are talking about evolutionary morality. Yes, human do cooperate, but humans also compete because the law of competition is very much part of evolution as well. And if you look at human history, competition and survival of the fittest, the powerful dominating the powerless, that’s absolutely part of nature and of the natural order.

The record of Christianity

PK: Just before we give Christianity the credit for all of developed Western thinking, sometimes it was “do what I say, rather than do what I do”, you look at the Borgia popes and you look at the Crusades where the human rights of people of the Islamic faith were certainly denied by the Crusaders, so Christianity has not been perfect in the implementation of the philosophy that you say it is the foundation of.

DQ: This is absolutely 100pc correct because it has often failed to abide by its own standards because Christianity as an institution has often been about its own power and has often abused its own power. But the history of the Churches in some ways is a demonstration of the Christian view that sin is endemic in the world, it is ineradicable, and we need a saviour. That is the Christian point of view and, unfortunately, to some extent, it has been proven by Christian history. But also, if you look around the world today, Catholic organisations run 5,000 hospitals, mainly in developing countries, they run 16,000 clinics, they run 70,000 schools, often in very dangerous part of the world.

There was an elderly nun I was trying to get to give a talk recently, for the Iona Institute. She couldn’t. She was in South Sudan. She was educating the next generation of nurses. And there was another group of Irish nuns, also retired, educating the next generation of teachers. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous parts of the world. The amount of good work these people do is absolutely enormous, and they have been doing this for centuries.

PK: So Michael, that is the question, would secularists be bothered doing this kind of works which are inspired by people’s religious belief?

MN: Secular societies, and particularly if you look at the Scandinavian countries have very strong record of looking after the last privileged.

PK: Do you see secularists heading off to South Sudan to do the kind of work that is religiously inspired?

MN: It is not religiously-inspired. There are many charities around the world that are not religious, that are secular based. And the difference it that religion – and this is something of the Catholic church itself would say – religion says that charity has to be associated with evangelisation. That’s why they do it. They don’t do it in in order to protect people, they do on the ground to save people’s souls.

DQ: That is not true.

MN: It is not religion that causes those good things. It is activities and characteristics that can be associated to religion, such as that type of activities that we are talking about, such as social participation generally, such as the sense of meaning, but that’s the case regardless of whether they are associated with religious or non-religious belief. It adds a corrupting element of saying that even if things are intuitively good, and you can see they have a positive impact, you should not do it because somebody says that the creator of the Universe has told me to do it.

Christianity and the Welfare State

DQ:  I think, once again, that Michael is taking too much of the Christian heritage for granted. What struck me when the Covid outbreak in Wuhan happened last year, I was reading some of the background to this. The first hospital in the history of Wuhan, which is quite an old city, was founded by a Franciscan missionary in the 19th century. Much of the world had no hospitals whatsoever until Christians arrived. So, we think that hospitals are something that would arise naturally in all civilizations eventually but actually it’s not true. Hospitals were essentially invented by Christianity and the welfare state Michael is talking about, rests on Christian foundations. All the immense structures of charity set up by Christianity down the centuries and the welfare state is an inheritance of that, it didn’t come out of nowhere, it grew out of Christian routes, which is why the welfare state originated in the West.

MN: It grew out of a history where, as you said yourself, where in developed countries, in developing countries, which is where we all came from ultimately, in developing countries which coincide with people relying on a religion, these various things will they evolve.

DQ: But why didn’t they evolve in other cultures?

MN: As they evolve, away from survival values, they recognise that they don’t need that false comfort from religion, in order to be kind in order to be compassionate, in order to be just, and what we need to do now is the state needs to stop funding these religious beliefs, and the finance of the evangelization of these religious beliefs and continue to provide the positive elements that you’re talking about and I will be just as opposed to the State promoting atheism as the State promoting religion. You are quite correct, David, that authoritarian secular states are just as bad as authoritarian religious ones.

PK: Last word to you David.

DQ: In terms of what gets funded, for example schools, it depends on what the public want. If the public want Catholic or Christian schools, a certain number should be provided, responding to public demand.

PK: Question for you finally from Brian in Athlone. He says, long before the arrival of Christianity we have the Brehon laws, far more socially liberal than the Catholic church, and obviously trying to be just as well. Does David have an explanation for that?

DQ: We had human sacrifice in Ireland back in Celtic times, before Christianity, so I am not quite so sure that is such a good thing.

PK: All right, we will leave it there, with kudos to you both because, as one listener said: an intelligent and respectful discussion. Welcome and so unusual.