Category Archives: Social Affairs

The Practice of Religion

Irish Times columnist Breda O’Brien stated: “The right to practise a religion is a fundamental human right”.  But she’s wrong (what’s new?).

Religious freedom is indeed a basic right,  but there is a world of difference between the right to believe and the right to practice.  By definition,  religious freedom includes freedom from religion.

Many religions encourage practices that are illegal,  dangerous or downright barbaric.  Ms O’Brien implies that we should allow everyone to practice whatever they believe just because their beliefs are shared by others (making it a religion in the accepted sense of the word).  Religious belief can’t entitle people to do whatever they choose,  majority or not.

Laws have evolved over the ages for the most part to protect people from the actions of others.  Many sprung from innate or instinctive morality that has evolved because it helped our species survive in the shared social settings that humans have lived in for as long we know.  Morals are nothing more than rules to protect us from each other.

Most religious bodies try to influence civil law to favour their own views and write them into civil law.  The definition of true democracy is not majority rule,  but an accommodation of differing views,  particularly of minority views,  subject to reasonable social behaviour that complies with the law.  Suggestions that societal behaviour must be defined by religious belief creates sectarian division by dismissing  opinions from differing faiths or views not based on any religious faith.

Some Christian denominations have views about medicine that run counter to our normal idea of best medical practice.  We have in recent times heard much about the denial on religious grounds of medical intervention to save a pregnant woman’s life,  but there are many others.  Jehovah’s Witnesses would ban blood transfusions and various other medical treatments,  preferring to let people die rather than accept treatment.  If people want to die instead of accepting medical intervention,  that is a freedom they should enjoy for themselves,  but when they make these decision on behalf of others,  particularly their children,  that is when the state must,  and often does,  intervene.
Some of the more extreme Christian denominations would like to impose compulsory closure of businesses on Sundays,  or ban alcohol entirely (look at prohibition achieved in America).  If all religious laws were to be followed we would close shops and workplaces for the Islamic Sabbath on Friday,  the Jewish Saturday and the Christian Sunday,  to mention just three.  Those who describe Ireland as a Christian country seem insensitive to making  non-Christians feel segregated in their own country.  AngelusI have heard many contributors to radio and newspapers in recent days (in making their case to have the Catholic Angelus retained by the State broadcaster) claim that Ireland is a Catholic country,  whatever that means.  There have even been suggestions that people who don’t like this approach should leave the country!

To deny equal rights to minorities or to refuse to accept that minorities can be offended by the imposition of the will of the majority is bigotry, plain and simple.

The argument is frequently advanced that the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) belief system is part of our cultural heritage.  The fact that something has been around a long time may make it culturally established but we can’t be culturally attached to archaic laws.  Most of our laws have adapted and changed over the years and must continue to do so as evolving social circumstances demand.

Nearly all religions have established their own education institutions,  primarily to segregate their children and to “protect” them from the beliefs of others.  The only non-sectarian way the State can participate in education is to be religiously neutral.

Our recent history has many cases of the Catholic Church in particular trying to impose its doctrine on the civil law,  mostly on issues with a sexual connection.  Though their numbers and influence are falling,  their failure to dominate social change hasn’t dampened their ambitions as self-appointed moral police,  even after the exposure of widespread decades long child abuse and persistent cover-up using the privileged position they enjoy in this country and others.

The only way to stop religious discrimination is to keep a total separation between church and state,  to refrain from imposing partisan morality on public law.  Religious bodies have a right to lobby for their ideals the same as everyone else,  but the State must protect the rights of everyone equally.  A real democracy is one where the rights of minorities are regarded as equal to the rights of the majority.  The alternative,  a majority imposing its religious views on society in general,  is a sectarian state.  Belief or non-belief in deities is a fundamental right for everyone,  but its practice must have boundaries for the common good.