The Irish Roman Catholic bishops have thrown down a gauntlet with their recent description of Irish people as “pagans”.

What a pagan is depends on who you ask. The dictionary has a variety of definitions… “a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim” or “an irreligious or hedonistic person”, or “a person deemed savage or uncivilized and morally deficient”, or “a person deemed backward, savage, or “uncivilized or morally or spiritually stunted” or “a member of a religious, spiritual, or cultural community based on the worship of nature or the earth”. Take your pick, none of them are complimentary and only the last one is accurate.

It would be interesting to know which of these meanings the Irish Catholic bishops meant when they declared that the Irish people have “to all intents and purposes, become pagan” (as reported by the Association of Catholic Priests). Whichever definition they have, we can safely assume the term is used in a pejorative sense, not surprising from an organisation that describes itself as “the one true church”, a claim also made by many other religious groupings.

Ireland’s links to Christianity are too embedded in a secular society. There are far too many publicly funded references to religion, particularly the Roman Catholic sect, especially since the people of Ireland decided to abolish the constitutional preference for that denomination in a referendum in 1972 (Fifth Amendment). Although this was forty years ago, practical steps to implement the decision have been largely ignored. We still have State funding and State support for a wide variety of sectarian practices and institutions. All religions are by definition sectarian.

The national broadcasting company, RTE, supported and paid for by everyone in the country through the compulsory licencing system, still broadcasts a Catholic call to prayer twice daily on radio in the prime time spot just before the six o’clock news, a space that can’t be bought by other (paying) advertisers. This is a State funded propaganda minute for the Catholic church and no amount of dressing it up (or agreement by other denominations) changes the fact that the Angelus is a Catholic call to prayer, imposed on everyone who wants to watch or listen to the State broadcaster’s news programmes.

The houses of the Oireachtas opens every session with Christian prayer. Why people who are not believers should be subjected to this as they go about their legitimate business is beyond reason. It is enforced religion.
This is the prayer recited at the commencement of each day’s business in the Dáil by the Ceann Comhairle, and in the Seanad by the Clerk of the Seanad:
“Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

According to the Oireachtas website: The above prayer is said at the commencement of each day’s business in the Dáil by the Ceann Comhairle, and in the Seanad by the Clerk of the Seanad.  It is clearly a message of Christianity and necessarily excludes non-Christians. Proclamations of multiculturalism are in reality just so much rhetoric.

The only way to have a non-sectarian society is to be secular. Freedom of religion necessarily includes freedom from religion. This gives everyone the freedom to choose their own beliefs and practice them, subject to the civil law. What’s at issue is State support for any particular denomination.

There is nothing implicit in secularism about restricting anyone from having whatever beliefs they want, just that beliefs are not imposed.

Many religionists claim that secularism is another word for atheism, but that is a deliberate obfuscation. Secularism is completely neutral, it does not preference any particular code and allows everyone freedom to have their own beliefs (including atheists).

Atheism is not a belief but an absence of belief. It does not try to impose a belief system through statutory means. Neither does it demand respect for beliefs, just the freedom to believe whatever takes your fancy, whether privately or publicly.