“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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