Friday, 5 July 2013

On Secular Values in Society - EWTS Session Two

Notes and thoughts on session 2 of the EWTS conference, which was about Secular Values in Society. Speakers were Leonie Hilliard, Nina Sankari, Farhana Shakir and P. Z. Myers. 
Trigger warning - contains discussions about rape and rape culture.


Leonie Hilliard is a member of Atheist Ireland. 
(TW: rape)

As women born in a republic, we have a voice. But as atheists in a Catholic country, our voices are not as loud and are not yet equal to others’. 

The combination of ‘secular’ (defined as relating to the present world, not spiritual) and ‘values’ (defined as moral principles) give us secular values – moral principles that are related to the here and now which are free from religious ideology or influence.  Even the best intentions in the absence of reality can result in harm. Religion is a insult to human dignity. We will always have good people doing good things, and bad people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, we need religion. 

Some of the secular values we should uphold are equality, reason and empathy. These things should be a given, part of human nature, but the society we live in means that this isn’t the case. Hillard describes a night out at a pub a few years ago. When she went to the toilets, she found a poster on the back of the cubical door which was endorsed by the area’s police force. It was a poster detailing how to not get raped. It contained the usual victim-blaming bullshit of ‘don’t walk home alone at night’ and ‘don’t drink too much’. When she asked a male friend on his return from the gents, he told her there wasn’t a similar poster in the men’s toilets advising men on how to avoid raping someone. What was there was a WKD ad, which I won’t post, but which said ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try it on her friend’ and a picture of the alcopop. So while women are being told they can avoid rape, men are being told to get women drunk. While women are being taught it’s their fault if they get sexually assaulted or raped, men are taught that girls are expendable objects – if one doesn’t like you, move on to the next one. 

A horrifically common excuse for rape is that rapists are sociopaths or psychopaths, and that’s why they commit these atrocious crimes. However, the majority of rapists and abusers have the capacity for empathy.  In 1 in 1,000 people in Ireland have an inability to be empathetic, yet 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted or raped, with 70% of them knowing their victim. 
As a secular society, we need to uphold reason, empathy and equality, all of which are clearly absent when we examine Ireland’s rape culture.


Nina Sankari is a Polish feminist and free-thinker.

Secularism is the beautiful child of the Enlightenment of the 17th Century. It needs women’s liberation, and women* need secularism. Until recently, most secularist groups were not heavily involved in women’s rights – many societies and conferences were dominated by men, with men holding all the higher positions within secular organisations. But the links between feminism and secularism have become more apparent in recent years. Both will benefit greatly from a secular, more equal society. A secular society does not mean the complete absence of religion – people cannot be forced to think a certain way (the world isn’t quite the same as Orwell’s 1984). A secular society is one in which religion and religious doctrine have no place in the public sphere. Religion will become what it should be in the first place – a private, personal matter, a private relationship between an individual and their god(s). 

Women need to rise up against the laws and discriminatory practices of religion. Yet once separation of church and state has been achieved, it can also be taken away again. Sankari uses Poland as an example of this. Under communism, things were far from ideal in Poland, but there was a separation of church and state, and women had full control over their own bodies. However, with the fall of communism, Poland also saw the de-secularisation of its society. Institutions which were once secular, such as schools and hospitals, now had to respect Catholic feelings and ideologies. If you managed in some way to hurt their religious feelings, you faced imprisonment. 

The Catholic Church was placed above the law of the land, and was seen as one of the most important public institutions. Abortion, contraception and divorce were promoted as wrong and immoral by the media, which has strong religious leanings. Abortions were only allowed in cases of rape, fatal fetal abnormalities or when there was a risk to the life of the pregnant person. But many doctors refused to perform even these limited abortions under conscientious objection grounds. Many even refused tests which had a small potential risk to the fetus, such as amniocenteses. There was also the fear that the pregnant person would request an abortion in the amnio showed there was a fatal fetal abnormality. Illegal abortions were commonplace. While 50 legal abortions were carried out per year, over 80,000 illegal abortions were happening in various places. 

Doctors also didn’t have to prescribe contraception if they objected on religious grounds, including the morning after pill. Comprehensive sex education was non-existent, as it was predominantly taught by chaplains. As such, many young people believed urban legends surrounding sex and pregnancy such as alcohol can be used as contraception and that swallowing semen can make you pregnant. One of the recent Nobel prize winners was a Polish doctor for his work on IVF treatment, however just days earlier, doctors in Warsaw were threatened with excommunication if they voted in favour of IVF in Poland. It is common practice to deny women anaesthesia and other pain relief when they are giving birth in Catholic hospitals, following the idea that it must be ‘natural’, i.e., you must be in pain when giving birth. 

There are parallels with Ireland too. There is a fear that if we do get broader and more accessible abortion legislation, access to services will slowly be chipped away as has happened in the US. Just because we’ll legally have abortion, doesn’t mean that it would be in any was accessible in reality. Secular gains are always in danger of being lost. This is why we need mass education and leaders who aren’t afraid of excommunication. People would be allowed to worship in private, or be atheists in private, but the state and laws should be based on human rights and human dignity, not religious ideologies or persecution.


Farhana Shakir is a legal consultant from Pakistan. 

The focus of all this needs to be on education – it is the basis of every development and all progress. There is a similar situation in Pakistan as in Ireland, they are both theocracies. Pakistan was once secular, it has a long history of human development as it was the site of one of the earliest human settlements - the Indus Valley. Many religions have pilgrimage or holy sites in Pakistan, where they seemingly co-exist.

When Pakistan was established in 1947, 40% of the country was non-Muslim. Today, this number has reduced to 4%. Islamic education up to the 10th grade (aged 15/16) is compulsory. This is biased, based heavily on religious ideology, and any contradictions are rejected. 
If the constitution of a country gives an endorsement to any one religious belief, it has an influence on how the entire society thinks. It easily leads to people of other religions, and of none, becoming outcasts. It says that they are not as welcome in that country, that they are not as important as those of the endorsed religion. Theocratic states infringe on people’s human rights in this way, and in the way that religious laws often supersede actual laws, for example the marrying off of 9 year old girls – it is technically illegal, but not under religious laws in Iran. The laws which prevent these kind of human rights violations go unimplemented. They are not reported, and if they are reported, they are rarely followed up on. 

Shakir notes that this is something that happens in Ireland too, regarding many issues including rape and abortion. Most rapes and sexual assaults go unreported in Ireland (in 2011, the DRCC notes that 30% of assaults were reported), and today, yet another case shows that even if a rape is reported and the rapist pleads guilty, they will be given a suspended sentence. With regards to abortion, women* have had a constitutional right to have a termination in Ireland if their life is at risk, including through suicide, for 21 years, and yet this was never implemented, it was never made accessible. It took three brave women to go to the European Commission of Human Rights to get this government to finally act. One of the reasons it’s never been legislated for is the (perceived) majority’s religious opinions on abortion. 

This is the cycle of theocracy at work. The constitution upholds one religious belief, this religion then influences society, which in turn influences the constitution and legislation. 


P. Z. Myers is a biologist and writer/blogger from the US.

It is na├»ve idea that we just have to remove religion and all the world’s troubles will be gone. There are asshole atheists in the same way that there are genuinely lovely religious people. We need something more than disbelief in a god/gods to make a better world – we need more than secularism. Secularism is the floor, the foundation, the minimal standard. Religion is a tool for authoritarianism, it is hierarchical, ordered, demanding obedience. The concept of faith is anti-theoretical; there is no path for verification. You must trust but not verify, believe without reason. It is continuous assessment not based on reality, with the focus being more on how many angels fit on a pinhead than real issues. 

There is no one central source of morality. This is a big misconception surrounding people who don’t look to a higher power to know right from wrong. Yet, as an atheist, I don’t go around murdering people, not to get into heaven or to avoid hell, but because it’s a bit of a dick thing to do. All values are personal and subjective. Adding ‘in the name of god’ doesn’t add importance, but neither does adding ‘in the name of Dawkins’. 

We can have a secular tyranny or a secular utopia. Having a secular government means that values have imperial, real-life consequences. With a religious government, there are often no real consequences, merely the treat of hell or denied access to an afterlife. Any set of values which limits people based on their gender/race/sexual orientation/class are detrimental on the whole. Being born a woman, or black, or poor, doesn’t make you any less of a human being. Those in power have an obligation to make choices which benefit all of humanity, not just a privileged few. Secularism encourages change and improvement, not maintaining the status quo and remaining static. 

If you are born a white, middle class, straight man, you’ve won the cosmic lottery. It does not make you an inherently better person; it’s not a matter of ‘deserving’ to be privileged. It is a matter of choice – the decisions we make are not dictated to us from a power above, we decide for ourselves using values like equality, empathy and justice. 

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