Atheist confab in Ireland comes as Europe confronts religion in public life
The first World Atheist Convention this weekend in Dublin comes at a time when Islam, the pope, and blasphemy are front and center in Europe.
(Page 3 of 3)
The Rev. Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest and member of the liberal Association of Catholic Priests, says local and global trends have put the question of religion and secularism on the agenda across Europe.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“Pope Benedict talks a lot about secularism in Europe. He would see Christianity, and Catholicism specifically, as in conflict with it. Ireland, meanwhile, is in ferment with the Catholic Church in disarray and an enormous amount of the population looking for answers elsewhere,” he said.
Father Flannery says worries about the Pope's conservative agenda may be overstated: “I don’t think Pope Benedict is having any great influence. The Catholic church is quite weak across Europe.”
Atheist conference organizer Michael Nugent notes the irony that official church and state tie-ups in Europe have produced a decline in religious observance.
“In some countries where there is an official state religion, such as Sweden and other Scandinavian nations, it is almost as if the fact of having this state religion dissipates the need to prosthelytize.”
Mr. Hjelm of University College London says the deeper question is whether Europeans have long misunderstood the presence of faith in society. “Maybe Europe was never as secularized as we sociologists like to think,” he said.
Religion in Ireland
After reeling from the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, this is a country that has certainly seen its faith tested. Eurostat put believers at 73 percent of the population and atheists at just 4, but things are changing.
In the Irish 2006 census, 186,300 respondents from the population of 4.2 million chose to enter “No Religion”, making nonbelievers the largest group after Catholics.
“In 1960, the first time ‘No Religion’ was an option, only 1,000 people marked it,” says conference organizer Michael Nugent.
Mr. Nugent, founder of campaign group Atheist Ireland, says the goal of the event is not to bash religion but to cement political life as secular, thus making religion a private matter.
“An atheist organization is not like a religion, it’s more like a political and social advocacy group. We don’t come together because people believe silly things, we do it because religion exerts political power.
“The challenges are different on different countries," says Nugent. "The campaigns in Ireland are about getting the government and institutions to recognize changes in society."
RECOMMENDED: Are you smarter than an atheist? A religious quiz