“with no social or public significance..”

When Tony Blair was getting ready to say ‘goodbye’ he took the opportunity to get a few things off his chest, such as his opinion of the “feral media”. Bertie Ahern seems to be doing the same – it was his last full day in the Dáil as Taoiseach today. We’ve already had his view of the prospects, or otherwise, of a united Ireland. Today the Irish Times reports that, as with Blair before him, Ahern might have been holding back on talking about his supernatural beliefs – he certainly thinks others have. Although I doubt it was because they were afraid of being called “a nutter”.. Here, of course, politicians are less reticent about such things while in office.. From the Irish Times report [subs req] on Ahern’s comments at a reception for churches and faith communities at Government Buildings yesterday.

“Over the course of my political career I have observed a growing hesitation in public debate to refer to religion, the churches, issues of faith and belief, and sometimes even to acknowledge the very fact of the impact on our culture and institutions of the historical contribution of the church communities,” [Bertie Ahern] said.

“Some of that” reflected the increasing percentage of people in Ireland who did not profess a religious faith or were less likely to practise. Some of it reflected “the tragic reality” that sectarian conflict had “scarred the face of this country for too long and at too high a price”, he said.

But, he believed, another “far more worrying” factor was involved. It was “the attempt to exclude matters of faith and religious belief from public debate and confine them to the purely personal, with no social or public significance”. He recalled that “on a previous occasion [ at the launch of the Structured Dialogue in February 2007] I referred to this as ‘aggressive secularism’.”

He continued: “It is, I believe, fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic to silence opinions and views, and marginalise institutions and communities which draw their identity and ethical positions from a background of religious belief.” This was his “deepest held conviction in many of the things I said while in this office and before I held this office”.

Saying so, he was “acutely conscious of the large and growing number of our citizens who do not subscribe to any religious belief . . . We must be acutely aware of how our democracy provides an inclusive and respectful approach to all our citizens, from whatever religious of philosophical perspective they come.”

But, he continued, “from the perspective of Irish republicanism, I believe that the political challenge is to build a society which has the allegiance of ‘Catholic, Protestant and dissenter’, and free-thinkers as well”.

This was “equally central to the tradition of Irish parliamentary politics as set out by Daniel O’Connell who said that in a self-governing Ireland, there would be a ‘perfect religious freedom, perfect freedom of conscience for all and for everyone’.”

A couple of points occur to me in response to Bertie Ahern’s comments.

Firstly, there is no censorship involved. In other words, it’s a decision by any individual concerned not to make those religious references and not one forced upon them.

Secondly, whilst some might presume to include me among the “aggressive secularism” referenced by Ahern, I have no problem with anyone making reference to their personal beliefs during political debate – the only issue of matter is whether any argument put forward is rational.

And, with the Irish Times report also noting that “President Mary McAleese will address the Church of Ireland General Synod when it convenes in Galway next month”, it’s worth reminding readers that it’s a point that was well made by the primate of the Church of Ireland, Archbishop Alan Harper, in an interview last year.

The Archbishop said: “We can no longer rely on having a place as of right in terms of public affairs, or the influence that the church used to exert simply by being the churches.

“We have now to command that, as a result of delivery and providing a critique of society that others can take with a degree of respect…. persuading people by the power and quality of our argument and the genuine strength of our analysis, rather than merely by weight of numbers.”

Adds Mick has a somewhat related post here.

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  • Kon Fucious D

    Wasn’t it those religious institutions that agressively pursued and attacked secularism for decades here in the first place.
    Faith and spirituality will always be a personal matter, no matter how the tide turns for the religious establishment.
    The moral certainty and grandstanding practised by the Roman Catholic Church in past decades turned out to be just a facade behind which darker forces lurked, protected.
    It’s just that extant practitioners exercise more caution in extolling the virtues of a particular faith in ordinary discourse, as a consequence of the recent/ongoing scandals. Unfortunately, such caution is not necessarily accompanied by a compensating increase in rational thought.

  • circles

    Pete do you really reckon Ahern may have been referring to you (among others)?

    I wonder though if old Bertie got his “ethical positions from a background of religious belief” and if so is Mammon now a recognised god in the south?

    And finally “from the perspective of Irish republicanism, I believe that the political challenge is to build a society which has the allegiance of ‘Catholic, Protestant and dissenter’, and free-thinkers as well”…… Well even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

  • Pete Baker

    Kon

    A good point about the decline in references to religious views in public debates.

    circles

    “Pete do you really reckon Ahern may have been referring to you (among others)?”

    Read it again. That’s not what I said. I’ve added a clarifer in the quote below.

    “whilst some [here] might presume to include me among the “aggressive secularism” referenced by Ahern”

  • George

    “the only issue of matter is whether any argument put forward is rational.”

    If you do that, you exclude faith. There you go with your “aggressive secularism” again Pete.

  • Pete Baker

    “the only issue of matter is whether any argument put forward is rational.”

    “If you do that, you exclude faith.”

    No, George.

    As long as any argument put forward doesn’t depend, for its authority, on a supernatural belief.

  • George

    “As long as any argument put forward doesn’t depend, for its authority, on a supernatural belief.”

    There you go with that faith-excluding “aggressive secularism” again.

  • Pete Baker

    “There you go with that faith-excluding ‘aggressive secularism’ again.”

    George, you might want to re-assess your defintion of rational argument.

  • George

    Pete,
    you might want to look up the definition of “faith” and what Ahern calls the the attempt to exclude matters concerning it and religious belief from public debate.

  • BfB

    Rumour has it that Mr. Blairs portrait will frighten small children, but most English people have that odd, old world look, that makes we yanks do a double take..

  • Pete Baker

    George

    “you might want to look up the definition of “faith” and what Ahern calls the the attempt to exclude matters concerning it and religious belief from public debate.”

    I’m perfectly happy with the definitions I’ve chosen in regard to public debate.

    Perhaps you’d like to highlight the areas you have problems with..

  • George

    Pete,
    I am pointing out that by setting “rational” parameters to all debate, and therefore as a logical result excluding any point based on faith, you are excluding faith.

    This is the very point that Ahern is making about “aggressive secularism” and, true to form, you are holding the “aggressive secularist” line.

    Ahern has a major problem with your line. In fact, he is calling you “fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic”.

    In reply, you are saying you won’t even countenance a argument that isn’t set within the parameters that “aggressive secularists” like yourself have set.

    How can I highlight problems that you refuse to accept should even exist?

  • George, perhaps, at this point, I should throw in the Devil’s Dictionary definition of bigot: “One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.”

    Why limit ours to the rational? Why not give our imagination its head?

    Must go. It’s a beautiful day and I’m on the genealogy trail with some folks from the USA who’ve got roots in Ulster soil. Have a nice day!!

  • the world is secular, that’s the space we live in.

    there’s public debate and then debates about issues in relation to the government and the people which should be held in secular place and rules.

    ahern has yet to name any ‘aggressive secularists’, i think what pete and other says is secularism 101