Secularism is nothing to fear

More often than I care to admit, people claim secularism has negative connotations. Many misunderstand the term and see it as a concept for the eradication of religion or as an anti-religious tool. However, if secularism is done correctly, this could not be further from the truth.

Is Ireland not a secular country? In many ways it is, however there are also many areas in Ireland where this is just not the case. Frequent references are made in the Irish constitution to God, religion in education, the holy trinity and extensive references to oaths to god.

While alone not very controversial, combined they alienate many non-religious citizens from a host of judicial and legislating positions including Taoiseach and President. A pragmatic approach to rectify these problems is needed and now is the perfect time to effect meaningful change.

Secularism by nature is denoted as the clear separation of church and state; many see this as an affront to religious freedom and as an attack on their own ability to practice their religion. However, this is not the case: pragmatic secularism wishes not for the destruction of religion but rather for the empowerment of religion to be practiced freely, without the state hindering it and vice versa. Modern Ireland is a prime example of the need for a more liberal secular state to emerge.

Ireland’s connection with the Catholic Church has historically been quite strong. The church has been a staple feature of Irish history for countess generations. However, following the recent child sex abuse scandals and the terrible legacy it leaves, as well as the recent McAleese report on the Magdalene laundries, it is clear that the relationship Ireland has with religious institutions is unsustainable. Perhaps it is time for the position of religion in the Irish state to be renegotiated.

Such changes could only be achieved through joint cooperation by both the state and religious institutions. The changes required would include: constitutional restructuring alongside the constitutional convention currently running, reform of the educational system and the setting up of a boundary that defines parameters of religious involvement in state affairs. Such a system may ensure that scandals which have so rocked the Irish state may be mitigated in future.

In light of other nations having adopted a secular approach, the situation in France represents an example why we must be vigilant that we do not accept an approach that alienates Irish citizens. While many religious communities have praised the French approach as a source of social peace and reaffirmed their commitment with it, recent laws prohibiting the wearing of niqab and the burqa outraged the Islamic minority in France.

Such extreme policies have led to religious movements moving into the private sphere and thus there has been a resurgence of somewhat more extreme religious views. Much like in present day Turkey, rather than push religion out of modern society and thus drive it underground, as some extreme secularists would call for, it needs to be respected but with a given a different position within Irish society.

Ireland is at a pivotal point in its long history with the church. Given the countless scandals and problems we have faced in the past perhaps it is time that we renegotiated the position of the church in Ireland to benefit not just the state and her citizens but also the church and her adherents.

Nathan Wheeler

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