First person interview: Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland

First Person: Michael Nugent
Published in the Sunday Business Post on 28 June 2009, by Alex Meehan

Michael Nugent, 48, writer, activist and chairman of Atheist Ireland, Dublin.

As far back as I can remember, I have been an atheist. I probably stopped believing in God around the same time – and for the same reasons – as I stopped believing in Santa Claus. It seemed to me to be just another fictional story.

Atheist Ireland stands for two things. The first is promoting atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and the second is promoting an ethical and secular Ireland in which the state doesn’t fund or favour any particular religion.

We’re campaigning against Dermot Ahern’s attempt to introduce blasphemy legislation. We’d like to see a secular constitution and we’d like to see religion taken out of the state-funded education system.

I’ve always felt that religion, particularly in the Irish context, is damaging to society. It hinders our quest for knowledge by imposing imagined answers to big questions, and then insisting that those answers are the final word on the matter.

There were a number of issues that encouraged me to campaign on this issue. The Catholic Church’s role in the recent sex abuse scandal in Ireland and the role religion played in encouraging fundamentalist Muslims to destroy the Twin Towers were just two of them.

You don’t need the idea of God to know what is right and wrong and how to live a morally good life. In fact, the idea of God facilitates otherwise good people doing bad things, because they can justify it to themselves based on texts written in the Bronze Age by some tribesman.

After Catholics, atheists are the largest group of people expressing an opinion on religion in Ireland. In the last census, a total of 180,000 people ticked the ‘no religion’ box. On top of that, there were around another 60,000 who didn’t answer the ‘what religion are you’ question.

At the moment, to be president or a judge in Ireland, you have to take a religious oath. So that rules out the quarter of a million people who don’t believe in God, unless they want to be a hypocrite.

Small religions, which are described as cults by large religions, engage in disgraceful behaviour in order to brainwash people into their activities. However, the only reason that mainstream religions don’t do that is because they don’t have to – they indoctrinate children when they’re too young to be critical of what they are learning.

The ideas found within Catholicism are no madder than those found in Scientology, it’s just that most people are used to Catholicism. Transubstantiation is particularly silly, but it makes sense when you’re six because you make no distinction between rational and magical behaviour.

I think some people don’t believe in God, but don’t want to describe themselves as an atheist as the word has negative connotations. Instead they call themselves agnostic or humanist, or just non-religious. It’s more a concern about the label than the beliefs behind the label.

The only way to overcome that prejudice is for people with that shared world view to use the term atheist, and to be seen to make rational and reasonable contributions to society. In time, the use of the word will be seen as a normal part of general public discourse.

Atheist Ireland holds its first annual general meeting on July 11 in Dublin. For more information, visit

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