John Hamill is a Member of the National Committee for Atheist Ireland. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
John Hamill: I graduated in Computer Science from Queen’s University, Belfast. For most people, that educational background doesn’t seem at all relevant to atheism, but it has been for me. Computer Science undergraduates typically spend some time studying Turing’s work.
The new mathematics he created, broadly speaking represented the invention of computer software and programmable machines, but he also did some of the formative work on artificial intelligence.
Taking all of this work together, I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that the human brain is just a wet meat computer, even if it’s still much more complex than our best silicon equivalents.
This is a view that is impossible to reconcile with the religious perspective, whereby our most important decisions are made by our eternal immortal soul, which will be accountable for those decisions after we die.
Since Turing published his most famous papers, I think that more recent advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence have supported the idea that acts of thinking and decision-making, are mechanistic and deterministic.
Jacobsen: As a Member of the National Committee within Atheist Ireland, what tasks and responsibilities come with the station? Why is this an important position for the advancement and, indeed, the protection of the atheist community in Ireland?
What remain the perennial and, potentially partially, unique concerns of the Irish secular communities? How is this translated into practice over the course of Atheist Ireland’s history?
Hamill: The most time-consuming activities within our committee over recent years have related to some significant referendum campaigns that we have been engaged with.
In Ireland, we have had consecutive popular votes to introduce marriage equality, to introduce abortion services, and to remove our constitutional provision on blasphemy.
Our organisation invested huge energy in these campaigns and in the case of the blasphemy referendum, Atheist Ireland was the primary voice arguing against such religiously-inspired artefacts in our statute book. These successful campaigns represent very significant progress for our agenda, but there is much still left to do.
Ireland still retains several laws and constitutional provisions that discriminate against atheists.
We are working hard on lobbying about these issues within our own parliamentary processes, at the Council of Europe, at the European Parliament and within the United Nations. There are also human rights abuses of atheists in Ireland within core public services, like health and education.
For example, Ireland is unique in that 90% of out State-funded primary education system is controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, such that a Catholic ethos pervades the entire school day. The fact that the Irish State is imposing this ethos on non-Catholic families, is an issue that will take up a large part of our time and attention in 2019.
Jacobsen: In personal opinion, what is the central concern of the secular and freethought community within Ireland?
Hamill: These are issues in which our population seems to be a long way ahead of our politicians. Secular people in Ireland generally do not want to interfere in any way with how the Catholic majority practice their religion.
Similarly, most Catholics in Ireland do not want to impose their faith on non-Catholics through the civil law or through public services.
I think our recent referendum campaigns demonstrate a large majority in Ireland for State neutrality in matters of faith. For example, even when we were working on the blasphemy campaign, we had some strong support from devout and pious Catholics.
Jacobsen: What have been and can be resolutions or solutions to these concerns of the secular and freethought community within Ireland? Who have been the main opposition to the efforts, in activism or even in basic community-building, of Atheist Ireland?
Hamill: However, as an outsider it seems to me that there is an increasing distance between the institutional Catholic Church and the average practicing Catholic.
Both the recent referendum results and some consistent outcomes from polls, agree that there are large numbers of people in Ireland who describe themselves as Catholic, but disagree with central tenets of the faith on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, divorce, and many other issues.
It seems to me that in Ireland at least, the more doctrinaire institutional wing of the Church is in decline. For example, there is a crisis in vocations, with the numbers of trainee priests in seminaries dropping steeply.
There are also increasingly vocal movements within the Church itself who are campaigning for reforms, such as the Association of Catholic Priests and the Roncalli Community. It’s no small thing that the priests within these organisations should be so publicly critical of the institutional Church.
Consequently, I hope and expect that as we seek to follow the Canadian lead in removing Church control of State-funded schools, we will actually have some support for those changes from within some parts of the Church itself.
Conversely, of course we will also anticipate that the institutional Church and other conservative Catholic groups, will strongly oppose the changes that we will be seeking, just as they have been the main opposition to our agenda for many years now.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Hamill: In our history, Atheist Ireland has never sought or received State funding. While this imposes many limitations and we could always do more if we had more financial backing for our campaigns, it is also relevant to note that our campaigns are very often critical of the State.
Personally, I’m grateful that when we are doing this work, we never need to be concerned about some livelihoods being dependent on institutions that we need to be very critical of.
However, this independence also means that we are especially grateful when we can recruit new members. People can join Atheist Ireland online at www.atheist.ie and we’re always delighted to hear from those who wish to help with our work.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, John.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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