On Tuesday 12th March a proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, described as ‘entirely inappropriate’, ‘tacked on’ and ‘ill-thought out’, fell when it failed to gain cross-party support. This amendment was pushed by the unlikely partnership of the DUP and SDLP, and while I wouldn’t usually go out of my way to attack such surprising unity, in this case I and many others felt we had to. This amendment aimed to further curtail the rights of women in Northern Ireland by making abortion illegal outside of NHS premises.
Now what does this have to do with atheism, agnosticism, scepticism, secularism, etc.? At first it would seem not a lot as the vast majority of labels which the irreligious community tend to use describe only that, we lack a belief in the existence of deities. In many cases (though not all and it is in no way part of the definition) this extends to lacking a religion or any belief in the supernatural, and embracing the scientific method, as well as the vast majority of scientific knowledge. This is where I find the link.
In watching the debate I was appalled at the utter disregard many of the MLAs had for scientific understanding, not to mention their inability to grasp basic human biology. At one point an SDLP MLA was corrected on his spewing of nonsense, had it broken down and explained for him; his response, “Ah, well I don’t accept that.” That was seen as a win for the SDLP MLA. At various points MLAs even broke out into Christian sermons, quoting the bible and calling each other’s religiosity into question as a way to win an argument.
Even if we just look at this rejection and wilful ignorance of logical reasoning and evidence, there are grounds enough for sceptics (whether they prefer the C or the K) to be annoyed by this and pursue a course of activism. Likewise, secularists should be cringing and banging their heads upon tables in unison at the idea of not only religious groups having power over legislation, but that our political leaders personally and willingly bring it into this debate; turning a medical matter which they want to twist into a criminal one, somehow into a holy crusade.
Then I suppose the question remains, why call on the wider atheist community (by which I mean ‘a-theist’, lack of a belief in the existence of deities) to become involved? One argument I have heard against this is that anti-choice, so called ‘pro-life’, atheists do exist and that the atheist community must embrace them as well, unless we want to drive them away and reduce our numbers. Well likewise I’m sure that there are racist, homophobic and more widely sexist atheists too, but most atheist groups will have standards enough to say ‘change or leave’.
What I am suggesting is not a redefining of the word ‘atheist’, the religious do that enough for us, but rather that we use our numbers to affect positive change which would seem to fit the ideals of secularism and scepticism. If anything, this positive activism would attract more people and allow them to come out of the atheist closet than it would drive away. Plus, they’d likely be individuals you would rather spend time with over the bigots. If you want to see an example of a movement like this I’d suggest Atheism Plus.
I’d like to ask all atheist groups, no matter their focus, to support women in this effort to extend free, safe and legal abortion to Northern Ireland (I’d also love to see those in the south get involved as well). In doing so you’d be standing alongside the vast majority of medical and scientific evidence, that the limit should be set at 24 weeks and that women do not need to be ‘protected’, but should instead be trusted with their own bodies. I’m sure this argument could be extended to other causes as well and I warmly welcome that.