Atheist Confab in Ireland Comes as Europe Confronts Religion in Public Life

Article excerpt

The first World Atheist Convention this weekend in Dublin comes at a time when Islam, the pope, and blasphemy are front and center in Europe.

This weekend, about 350 conventioneers descend on Dublin to discuss matters of faith and its place in public life. It's not a meeting of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but the first World Atheist Convention.

Organizers claim they aren't trying to make a statement by selecting Ireland, often seen as one of Europe's most religious nations, but the get-together of nonbelievers does come in a country where religiosity has been in steady decline.

In fact, faith seems to be on many European minds of late and questions of religion in public life have reentered political discourse here - from the French "burqa ban" to Ireland's antiblasphemy law to frequent complaints from Pope Benedict XVI about perceived moral relativism. Long considered a private matter, some say public questions of faith are even threatening Europe's traditionally secular politics.

"Broadly speaking, religion is back on the agenda in a way people didn't think it would be 10 or 15 years ago," says Titus Hjelm, a sociologist of religion at University College London.

Islam in particular has been singled out as a threat to European life - by left and right alike. Last year, German banker and socialist politician Theo Sarrazin made waves with the publication of his book, "Germany Abolishes Itself," in which he argues the immigrant Muslim population would "overwhelm" the country.

The famously liberal Netherlands has also seen the rise of anti- Muslim political sentiment with Islam perceived as a threat to the Dutch way of life. Most recently, right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment has grown at the polls in Finland and Hungary.

Mr. Hjelm, himself Finnish, sounds a cautionary note, saying growing fears of Islamic influence in Europe are overstated: "The discussion is really around issues of identity rather than what's really going on. There is definitely a change going on with immigration and so on, but the idea of being 'swamped' is not accurate. Also, the attention religion gets is disproportionate."

The atheists' agenda

It's not just Islam that worries secularists. For the delegates at the World Atheist Conference the question of separation of church and state has taken on new urgency.

Despite the relatively small numbers, the conference includes high-profile figures such as outspoken US atheist and biology professor PZ Myers, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who has become a kind of figurehead for nonbelievers worldwide, and Iranian human rights activist Maryam Namazie, a member of the Council of Ex- Muslims of Britain.

Mr. Myers says Europeans' sense of their politics as wholly secular is inaccurate. "You guys aren't secular, or at least you aren't secular enough - there's all kinds of tensions between religion and society."

Myers notes that despite constitutional separation of church and state, the US remains more religious than Europe, but says this itself holds lessons for Europeans hoping to protect and expand secularism in society.

"America is much less secular than any country in Europe. The one thing that can be learned from the US is that you have to be watchful [for the encroachment of religion into politics]."

European beliefs

The most recent pan-European statistics reveal a secular Europe, but not quite a nonbelieving one. …