Secular disagreements and the risk of circular discussions

27 Apr 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 27 Apr 2018

A still from the new NIHRC/EANI animation
A still from the new NIHRC/EANI animation

Northern Ireland - like much of the world - is becoming more secular. However, this means different things to different people, which makes the process more difficult.

Society is changing. This change is far from frictionless.

Difficult conversations happen and not always productively but, while teeth grind, people get frustrated and talk past one another, change takes place regardless.

The influence of religious institutions on society is far weaker than it has been for centuries, if not longer. Northern Ireland, like many other countries, is becoming more secular and, at the same time, it is also becoming less religious.

These are not quite the same thing but, for some, they amount to as much. Secularism - like so many other words - means different things to different people, which only adds to the noise, heat and light but not mutual understanding.

Last week the NI Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) held an event with the Evangelical Alliance to launch a new animation they have jointly produced.

Let's Talk About Rights and Religion was held at The MAC and featured address from Human Rights Commissioner Les Allamby and the Alliance's NI Director Peter Lynas, the video's debut, and a subsequent panel discussion (with mixed results).

This animation is the latest in a series of short films produced by NIHRC, each one with a different partner organisation. Their previous effort, released earlier this year, was a look at LGBTI rights, working together with the Rainbow Project.

The rights-and-religion production is a short video - about two minutes - that makes no effort to be comprehensive, instead focusing on being an accessible starting point for some of the tough debates we need to have that will, it seems, inevitably leave a lot of people disappointed.




It was well received and was followed by a half-hour discussion that got cantankerous; a prescient emblem of the bigger picture.


Included on the panel was the Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton OBE, Former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church Ireland, who opened the discussion by saying: "The first thing to say is that everyone in this room has a set of values that gets them out of bed in the morning, and there's no such thing as a neutral set of values.

"Whether you have a secular set of values, or a humanist set, or Bahai set or a religious set of values, then you ought to have an opportunity not only to celebrate those values with others in a place of your choosing - whether that might be a temple, or synagogue, a church or wherever - but another key issue is the freedom to express your views.

"We live in a society that's increasingly politically correct. One of the ways that government is trying to deal with these issues is to try and manage them, which seems to me to go against a healthy democracy."

He questioned how, in this context, we are meant to develop the capacity to express ourselves, in a civil and respectful way and in various social settings - including school, places of work, and so on - such that, "all views are valued and none are cut or relegated to the back benches as incorrect or unacceptable.

"All of us need to be free to articulate and express our views wherever we are, and whatever point of the day we are at."

Most people probably have some sympathy with what Dr Hamilton has said here. However, these issues have grey areas and the rights and wrongs within these areas can be very complicated.

Boyd Sleator, from the NI Humanists, firstly agreed that no-one should be discriminated against on the grounds of religion, including in the workplace, before pointing out that in some circumstances this is allowed in NI; namely in Catholic schools, where prospective teachers can be ruled out because, euphemistically, "they do not match the school's values or ethos."

However, he said he did not think any arguments the role of faith, or non faith, in civic life had anything to do with political correctness and, furthermore, emphasised that there should be limits on the manifestation of an individual's own beliefs or opinions in their behaviour.

"We should have the right to express our opinions, but not in formal settings, and not when we are in a position of power."


At a later point, the discussion looked at some specific examples of how these debates are affecting society. Former SDLP MLA Alban Maginness, who was a member of the audience, brought up the example of two Glaswegian midwives who went to court to argue that abortions should not have to take place under their remit before - a case they ultimately lost after it went to the Supreme Court.

Mr Maginness said: "There is a right to conscientious objection in the Abortion Act of 1967. What does the panel think about that specific decision, given these women were not given the right to fully exercise their conscience in relation to abortion?"

Mr Sleator said: "Firstly, abortion should be a health issue, not a justice issue. In terms of whether we should have conscientious objections... if I'm a doctor or a nurse, should I have a conscience clause to decide to not give you a liver transplant? Can I say, 'No, I don't like the idea of organ transplants, so I'm not going to give you one?' No, you wouldn't be able to do that."

Dr Hamilton called the court ruling "regrettable" and questioned why there should be a problem with an expression of faith that does not destabilise the work of an organisation.

And here, then, we turn to the central question of this article. Mr Sleator accused Dr Hamilton of not understanding what secularism actually means. Dr Hamilton did not take this well and, moreover, denied the assertion. He clearly felt that Mr Sleator was using ad hominem arguments rather than entering into the spirit of a civil debate (including during an exchange with Mr Maginness).

However, is this fair? First of all, it's one thing for one person to dislike another's tone, and Mr Sleator was certainly prepared to make his points without apology - but at the same time it is a perfectly proper, indeed necessary, potential tool of any debate to suggest that someone is misunderstanding, or simply wrong, about a specific point of difference. Whether the assertion is correct, or not, is another matter.

Dr Hamilton had compared, per the quotes above, "a secular view" to holding a particular faith, such as presbyterianism. He said further that, "Secularism is not neutral. It's no more neutral than anything else."

When it was pointed out to him that there is such a thing as a secular Christian, he said he did not think too many people in church on a Sunday morning would describe themselves as such.

Secularism is not anti-religiousness. Or, at least, it shouldn't be. Secularism is supposed to be a division between church(es) and the state - but this does not mean that religious views are not allowed to influence the ethical framework of society, instead that religion and religious institutions should not have some special, undue or overbearing say.

However, if you search online for secularism, you find several competing (and, in important ways, conflicting) definitions, depending on where you look - with meanings such as "the belief that religion should not be involved with the ordinary social and political activities of a country" and "a system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship".

Meta disagreement

The fact is, it is unclear if Dr Hamilton does misunderstand the nature of secularism or not, this was a one-hour event and it ran out of time just as this was being discussed - and just as things were at risk of turning into a shouting match.

It is a perfect – and meta - illustration of the difficulty of these conversations that a short event to promote understanding featured a dollop of feistiness.

Which, of course, is why it was an important event in the first place, why the animation is a good idea, and why NIHRC and the Evangelical Alliance - organisations with some significant and fundamental disagreements - should be praised for working together in this way.

None of the participants were acting in bad faith - that should be made clear - but this fact only strengthens the point. It is not easy to balance all our rights as citizens and as we, as a society, keep trying to have these arguments, and find ways to have them productively, the big issues carry on apace.

In the Republic of Ireland, they have their own big decision to make about abortion with the upcoming referendum.

Here in NI, the row centred on Ashers Bakery is set to come to a head when the MacArthur family take their case before the Supreme Court next week.

Ideally, however, this could all be ironed out ahead of time.

In the case of the 8th Amendment, whether you think this is a health issue or a justice issue, it is perhaps not ideal that rights should be determined by referendum.

This is still better than a legal battle that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, as with the Glasgow midwives and, now, Ashers.

Change is hard. If we can talk about it better, maybe it will be easier.

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