It’s a cold bright Sunday morning in November and I’m in the lobby area of the Trinity Capital Hotel in Dublin’s city centre talking to a man called Brendan Maher. He’s with a small group of people from Atheist Ireland who have met up for their monthly Secular Sunday Brunch. Brendan is telling me about the stall he set up on O’Connell Street last year promoting secularism, atheism and humanism.
“I set up the stall on the 6th of October 2012” he tells me. He had seen lots of street preachers in the area from different religions – Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, Scientology, Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses – and he had engaged with them all and then decided that there had to be an alternative voice. “So I bought a table” he says “it cost me €30 or €40 and it was the first stall of its kind in the world”.
He tells me that he was extremely nervous the first Saturday. “I had no idea what would happen” he says. “Would I be arrested? Stoned? Here were all these other people talking about their gods and here am I saying “that’s all rubbish””.
The stall is outside the GPO in Dublin City Centre on the first Saturday of every month. Brendan says they don’t approach people and they don’t try to give out information but instead that they let people come to them.
“Overall the reaction has been positive” he says “although Muslims see me as the anti-christ”. He’s also been told many times that he’ll go to hell “one Texan millionaire guy said to me “all I can do is pray for you”. Around 60 to 100 pieces of literature are taken from the stall each Saturday” he says “and I talk to around 40 people a day. I enjoy it, it’s great fun”.
When I arrive at the hotel there are only about five people gathered but more arrive and soon there are twelve. There’s only one woman besides myself and she tells me that the gender balance isn’t usually like this, that there are usually more women. Two more women arrive a while later.
Atheist Ireland was set up around five years ago as an organisation to promote atheism, reason and ethical secularism. Its chairperson, Michael Nugent, who is at the lunch, tells me that there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings about atheism.
“Religious people assume atheists have specific answers and at the same time they haven’t thought of the implications of their own belief” he explains. “Most atheists say we don’t know, instead of inventing explanations.”
He says people sometimes pose the question “how did the universe begin?” as though it’s a trump card proving the existence of god. “Our answer is that we don’t know how the universe began, and neither do religious people, but everything that we do know about the universe suggests that it is likely to be yet another in a long line of natural explanations, rather than an invented supernatural explanation.”
Another question he is asked is “what happens when we die?” He tells me that he sometimes counters this question by asking “what happens when dogs die?” A few other members of the group then ask jokingly “what about cats? Caterpillars?”
There’s plenty of jokes and laughter during the lunch. At one point I say I might not stay for food and one man sardonically tells me they won’t be eating babies. I stay for food.
I ask if the secular Sunday brunch is open to religious people and I’m told “if they are accompanied by responsible adults”. More laughter. On a serious note, they say that everyone is welcome to come along.
Atheist Ireland is currently fundraising to develop a course on atheism and humanism which is to be piloted in Educate Together schools. They have raised €4,000 of the €10,000 needed for the course. They are hoping the course will start officially in 2015. “God willing” one man says. More laughter.
I ask what books they would recommend for people who are interested in atheism or ethical secularism and one man says “Scooby Doo”. Another says “The Wizard of Oz”. I think they are joking but they are serious. “Just peep under the curtain” one man explains. Other authors are listed: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain.
The conversation ranges widely during the lunch – from religious issues to pets, procrastination and the current Constitutional Convention. There are also stories of “coming out” as atheist, discussions about religious education in Ireland, discrimination against atheists, their O’Connell Street stall, and the story of one woman who lost her lift home from a friend after posting a picture on Facebook of Jesus on a trampoline bouncing to heaven.
The chairperson, Michael Nugent, tells me about an event he attended in Limerick last year when two theologians said “atheists aren’t fully human”. There’s also talk of the new atheist church, Sunday Assembly, which held its first ever Dublin event at the beginning of the month.
The Sunday Assembly is basically a church without god. It was set up in London earlier this year by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans and now their vision is expanding with the idea to open branches in towns and cities around the world. At the church in Dublin last week they sang songs such as ‘All you Need Is Love’, and ‘Get By with a Little Help from My Friends’. There was also a talk and a minute’s silence. There are plans to hold regular gatherings.
The church is not connected with Atheist Ireland but a few members of A.I. did attend and there’s mixed reaction – including questioning the inclusion of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as it contains the lyrics “I believe in the kingdom come”. Another guy said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The national census of Ireland in 2011 recorded 3,905 people who self-identified as atheists. However, the number had jumped so much from 2006 (when the category numbered 929) that atheism has now become the fastest growing ‘religion’ in Ireland. Atheist Ireland themselves suggest that the real number of atheists may be closer to the 270,000 who ticked the ‘No Religion’ box on the census.
Atheist Ireland currently have around 300 paid up members and around 2000 Facebook members. As well as the once-a-month Secular Sunday Brunch they have meetings, take part in debates and discussions and are politically active by making submissions on government policies (including on issues of education and health) and campaigning for human rights and equality issues.
Most recently they took part in the Constitutional Convention on blasphemy laws and Jane Donnelly, Human Rights Officer with Atheist Ireland, is now working on a submission relating to the legal discrimination of atheists and secular citizens in areas of health and education in Ireland which will be submitted to the Equality Authority.
Atheism is not a unified belief system – there are many diverse strands – and Atheist Ireland is more than an organisation for people who do not believe in a god or gods. It’s a community, a forum for discussion and perhaps most importantly it’s a politically active group who seek change and who campaign on ethical issues.
Michael Nugent tells me that they used to hold an ‘atheist in the pub’ night but it was so difficult to try to find a wheelchair friendly pub to rent a room that they’ve stopped the meetings for the moment. “Do you have members who use wheelchairs?” I ask. “No” he tells me “but the policy in ethical atheism is to try to be as open as we can be”.