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Coming together as humanists

WHILE people of the same religious views have congregated together for thousands of years, it’s relatively new for people who are opposed to the power of organised religion to come together.

Robert Bennett and Patricia Murray from the  Humanist Association of Ireland. Photograph by Declan MonaghanThe Mid-West Humanists are a group of people from throughout the region who are seeking social and political changes, requesting that society be secular, treat equally those who are religious and those who aren’t, and that society be more open to non-believers.

There are several Clare members of the group, which meets on the third Wednesday of each month in Limerick’s Absolute Hotel.

Ennistymon man Robert Bennett is a member of the society. he explains a little about humanism.

“Humanism is based on the concept that human’s can organise their affairs without reference to gods or divinity and that they are responsible for their own society. They respect proven knowledge on the basis of science.”

He says their meetings are open to all. “We meet in Limerick monthly. The meetings are open to everybody because humanism is very, very broad. People may be religious and may be leaning towards humanism away from religion, or whatever. there is no prescription of any sort on who comes to the meetings, it is totally open. The meeting doesn’t have a chair or any rigid structure, it is expected that people will contribute to the meeting through a discussion in any way they wish, there isn’t a hierarchy.”

The power of the church has declined massively since the time of De Valera and McQuaid; indeed it exerts less influence now than in the ’80s or ’90s, but Robert feels religion is still too closely linked to State institutions, something that is regularly discussed at the society’s meetings.

“One of the major issues at the moment would be the separation of the churches and the State in Ireland, in every area, but in particular with reference to constitutional changes that are coming up. There are numerous references to religion and God in the Irish constitution, which precludes people who don’t have a religion from even becoming president, because oaths have to be pledged on holy books such as the Bible, which is inappropriate for people who don’t believe in that.

“In public life, in the courts or the swearing in of judges of the court, it is also necessary that holy books of one particular religion or other are used. Humanists are opposed to that on principle, they are in favour of separation of church and State so that everybody in a society is equal in that context.

“The education system is something else that we’d be critical of in the present system. More than 90% of our primary schools are run by a particular religious group and the students are taught what to think rather than how to think. We, as humanists, would see education as a right and that all students should be educated together and be educated to think for themselves, rather than be told what to think.”

Born into a Catholic family, the 67-year-old drifted away from organised religion rather quickly.

However, he feels his upbringing helped give him an insight into Irish society. Interestingly, he believes that the confessional mindset inherent in Catholicism has led to people not taking their responsibilities as seriously as they need to and led to a failure to understand the full implications of contracts.

“I’m just an ordinary person but I understand Ireland and the difficulties that the confessional mentality causes where people can do things and not see long-term consequences because of the residual confessional mentality, where they can confess it and it’s all sort of forgotten about.

“There should be long-term consequences for one’s actions, they shouldn’t be just erased by a confessional type of act. I see that as an impediment to the development of Ireland in terms of people taking contractual obligations seriously.”

Patricia Murray was raised in an Irish Catholic family in London, but has been living in Corofin for the last 24 years.

She has been attending the society’s meetings for the last year, but was a practising Catholic until the late 1990s.

Moving away from the Church was a gradual thing. She said after the Dunblane shooting, she began to seriously wonder about the relevance of the Church.

“About the time of the Dunblane massacre I went to mass and I couldn’t believe that the priest was talking about virgin births and resurrection and I thought, ‘oh this is so irrelevant to life now’. Then I began to question and to look at agnostics and look at atheists and decided that humanism was more all-embracing.”

About six years ago she came to the conclusion she couldn’t accept organised religion any more.
Now she says she doesn’t have any faith in Catholicism.

“If, on occasion, I do have to go to a church for a funeral or a wedding, none of it makes any sense. What the priest is saying at funerals about the resurrection of the body on the last day, the Trinity and bread and wine being turned into the body and blood of Christ; I think it’s the same as believing in fairies.”

She is agnostic now, despite her disdain for religion in general.

“I just don’t know about an afterlife, I’m not 100% sure about that. But I do feel that organised religion has done more harm than good.”

While she has no faith in any church any more, she says she does find the message of Christ quite inspirational, although she doesn’t feel he was divine.

“I don’t believe he was God. I believe he was a very good man and that he taught us very good lessons.”

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