Only human

03/08/12 at 07:19 AM | 0 Comments
Keith Watterson
Aaron Keohane and Annie Hoey, who established the Cork Humanists group in October 2011

Cork’s non-religious population has grown by over six per cent since 2006. From those who have turned their backs on organised religion, one small alternative community has emerged; but how wide is the gap between organised religion and the non-religious stance advocated by the Cork Humanists?

While much of the debate around civil partnerships in recent times has concerned gay marriage, another sector of Irish society recently experienced a quiet but significant breakthrough when the Government backed the Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill to allow members of non-religious groups to perform civil marriages.

The proposal (brought in as a Private Members Bill by Senator Ivana Bacik, passed by the Seanad, then submitted by Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton to and backed by the Government in early May) will amend the Civil Registration Act 2004, which authorised only members of religious bodies, or Health Service Executive registrars, to perform marriages.

While organisations such as Pagan Federation Ireland and the Spiritualist Union of Ireland were recognised as religious groups (defined in the 2004 Act as “an organised group of people, members of which meet regularly for common religious workshop”), the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI), which routinely conducts wedding and funeral ceremonies, was excluded. The HAI has no fewer than nine accredited celebrants, and conducted no fewer than 153 marriage ceremonies last year.

According to Brian Whiteside of the HAI, “we’ve been left out in the cold”. Couples who have been wed at Humanist ceremonies have had to undertake their wedding twice; firstly before a State registrar, and then before a Humanist celebrant. For Humanists, naturally, it is the latter ceremony that is crucial.

For Douglas man, Pierce deCourcy, one of nine celebrants of the HAI, the day when the first couple undergoing a Humanist wedding in Ireland can sign the register at the ceremony will be “a massive day for the Republic”. While doubting that Humanists have felt like second-class citizens, he says that it will “make the process of marriage that little bit easier”.

“When you get married in a church, you have the religious sacrament, and then you fulfil the legal part by signing the registry. Why should you have to go to more than one place to get your wedding legally recognised? That’s illogical. This normalises things,” Pierce said.

“Normalising things” in terms of marriage is at the heart of the story of Humanism as an alternative to organised religion in a modern Ireland where the proportion of couples who choose a civil wedding over a church ceremony has increased dramatically (from 6% in 1996 to almost 29% in 2009).

 “In the past three years, I’ve noticed a change. For the first three years, the brides and grooms have been English or American, looking for a Humanist ceremony in Kerry. But now, the majority of couples are Irish. In my first year, I was a celebrant at six weddings. This year, that has risen to at least 23. I have been to ceremonies in people’s backyards, hotels, the Conor Pass, and I would imagine venues throughout Cork, due to the scenic beauty of their locations, would become increasingly popular now that the situation regarding the ceremony is becoming normalised. Naming ceremonies are becoming a popular alternative to christenings too, and I have also conducted Humanist funeral services at the crematorium in Rocky Island. It’s all about celebrating the life of the person.” he said.


A secular philosophy

Humanism is gathering force for increasing numbers of people who describe themselves as non-religious. According to the 2011 census, 269,811 throughout the State view themselves as non-religious, just over five per cent of the population, and a growth of 44.8% on the level recorded in the previous census in 2006. In Cork, just over 6.1% of the population ticked the ‘non-religious’ box on the census form; 10,134 more than five years previously, bringing Cork’s non-religious population to 31,693.

So what have these growing numbers of people opted for as an alternative to organised religion?

Humanism is a secular view of life; a philosophy based on a concern for humanity in general and human beings in particular, grounded in ethics, combining reason with compassion. According to the HAI, it is for people who base their interpretation of existence on the evidence of the natural world and its evolution, and not on belief in a supernatural power.

As the HAI’s website rallying call puts it, if you are “an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, secularist, sceptic; do not believe in a god, are non-religious or have no belief in the supernatural, Humanism may just interest you”.

Interestingly, given the scandals that have rocked the dominant Roman Catholic Church in modern Ireland, few Humanists attribute the controversies in and of themselves as prompting their move away from the Church towards organisations such as the HAI, or the Cork Humanists, who held their inaugural meeting in a conference room of the Cork Imperial Hotel on Sunday October 2nd, 2011.

The Cork Humanists group was established by two young postgraduate students at University College Cork, Aaron Keohane and Annie Hoey, who spent almost a year putting the new organisation in place. Aaron, from Youghal, and Annie, from Meath, had been involved in the UCC Chaplaincy service, but began to drift away from the church, enquiring into other perspectives on existence.


A gradual process

“It definitely wasn’t the scandals,” Aaron (25) says. “Becoming a member of a new community is a gradual process. The epiphany moments are over-sensationalised. I think that I had a growing realisation that dogma and morality don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and that the religious authorities were telling me what was right, instead of encouraging me to think for myself.”

“While I was involved in the UCC Chaplaincy service, I preached the occasional sermon. I have a number of LGBT friends, and due to the Church’s position on homosexuality, there was a conflict within me that was irreconcilable. When myself and Annie discovered Humanism, it seemed natural for us. It is actually quite difficult to communicate with people how completely okay and grand it is to be non-religious. Tons of people are not going to church, so they are effectively non-religious, and they are getting on just fine. They are just thinking for themselves about what the best thing to do is in particular situations, balancing and weighing up questions of morality and compromise,” he explained.

The Cork Humanists recognised the Amsterdam Declaration, passed unanimously at the 50th World Humanist Congress in 2002, which outlines the seven principles of the philosophy:

1. Humanism is ethical

2. Humanism is rational

3. Humanism supports democracy and human rights

4. Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility

5. Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion.

6. Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination

7. Humanism is a life stance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living.

But isn’t this replacing the 10 commandments of Christianity with seven other rules? Not so, according to Aaron. “Because of its very nature, Humanism is not fixed or concrete. The movement has struggled to come up with guiding principles, but they are principles rather than rules. They frame our ongoing debates into what is ‘right’. Members of the Humanist movement come from a position of respect, albeit a critical respect. They are participative. The principles invite debate and thought, rather than having one person at the top saying this is the right thing to do.”


“I was never a ‘joiner’…”

Pierce deCourcy (44) is not a member of the Cork Humanists, and almost stumbled upon his role as a HAI celebrant seven years ago, after his first daughter was born. “We were not going to get her christened, but we still wanted to have a ceremony to introduce our daughter to both sides of the family. I Googled ‘non-religious ceremonies’, and the Humanist Association came up, and I thought, ‘That seems like me’. A celebrant came to us and we put together a naming ceremony, and he asked me if I was interested in becoming a celebrant. My jaw hit the ground, because I hadn’t done anything like it before, but I did some training and became accredited as a celebrant a year later.”

“I hadn’t been aware of it before, and didn’t even know the association existed. I was never a joiner. I was christened and brought up as a Catholic, I went to a Catholic school, was an altar boy, was confirmed. But as I got older, I started to question the authoritarian thing. There were a lot of decent priests at my school, but I slowly began to realise later, ‘Wow, these guys really are untouchable’. My position is that the Church needs to move on. The lived experience is very different from someone standing in judgement over us, based on academic arguments. For instance, on birth control, if you do not want to have 14 children, and the science exists to enable you not to have 14 children, then go for it. Life is complicated, and the Church needs to accept that.”

Catholic-born Michael O’Brien (39) from Macroom describes himself as “an agnostic atheist humanist” who discovered the Cork Humanists on a Google search, and the movement’s emphasis on free-thinking enquiry chimed with his exploration of Deism and Theism among other philosophies.

“I was moving along the lines of Deism, the idea of an impersonal god who started the universe and stepped back, and then I looked at atheism, which rejects belief in deities, and suddenly I realised that I was one. While searching for a framework for this, I found secular humanism, and through Google, I found the Cork Humanists, and joined,” he explained.

“While agnosticism and atheism are stances, secular Humanism is a philosophy that we should care about each other and respect one another in this life, and make this life a better one, rather than assuming that there is another life,” Michael explains.



Pierce deCourcy claims one of the things that appealed to him about Humanism was its non-adversarial stance on organised religion. Indeed, Humanism has a huge amount of respect for churches.

“I have a friend who says he would never knock religion as it offers huge consolation and community to millions of people. Whereas I don’t know if there would be a huge number of Humanists who would feel the need to be part of a communion, I would see it differently. It’s easy to go to a church, because the social nature of it keeps people happy. It is much more difficult, and sometimes lonely, to take a stand. While I’m active in the HAI as a celebrant, for family reasons I’ve been unable to go to the Cork Humanists, but that is something I hope to rectify. They’re a fantastic group of free thinkers, and it’s fantastic they have set up a community here in Cork where people who have moved away from organised religion can have an exchange of ideas.”

Cork Humanists founder Aaron Keohane has subjected not only his inherited Christian faith to the most rigorous academic enquiry, but also Humanism itself. Anyone who would consider Humanism a ‘woolly’ concept would do well to read his paper, available online at, Building Humanism Locally, which begins with the blunt statement, “Humanism, as a movement, is too selfless.”

Aaron’s view is that the only way in which Humanism can provide an effective alternative to organised religion is to ensure an active community of Humanists. He takes the view that with the HAI having been taken up in the process of dialogue with the Irish Government acting as the voice of the non-religious, Humanist community development at grassroots level, especially outside Dublin, has not received the level of attention that it requires.

Obliged under the fifth of the Amsterdam declarations to provide “a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion”, Aaron insists that while people can be Humanists by themselves, the individual life stance cannot in and of itself provide a community to facilitate and celebrate this choice.

“Not adhering to the values of an organised religion does not mean I should have to sacrifice all the social and psychological benefits which go along with membership of traditional religious communities. I want to have it all—and I believe I can,” he writes.


The greatest challenge

Aaron cites social research into religion and life satisfaction to contend that religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they build social networks in the congregations of the religious services that they attend.

That, he argues, is one of the biggest benefits for Humanism, but also provides the movement, and grassroots organisations such as the Cork Humanists, with their greatest challenge.

Fr Alan Neville (37), of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Ireland, and also a member of the chaplaincy service at Cork Institute of Technology, is intrigued by the pass at which the Catholic Church finds itself in modern Ireland.

He admits, given the scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years, that he was surprised by the number of people in the 2011 census who identified themselves as Roman Catholic—84% of the entire population, and as high as 89% of Irish nationals.

“Given some of the media coverage about the Church, you would imagine that people are not going to Church. For instance, I was at the Eucharistic Congress recently, and there were 15,000 people at the opening Mass, and there were about 50 people protesting outside. And who got the biggest share of the coverage? We also had stands at the event in the RDS, and there was an average of about 16,000 people who passed through, and not all from an older demographic,” he said.

Fr Alan who was ordained three years ago, and revealed that he explored alternative stances such as atheism before following the path of Christ, insisted that the Church was not, and should not be, defined in terms of a peer group.

“We are a family, drawn together by a belief in God, who wants to relate to us. He wants to refer to us as father. It is a notion that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and we are joined together. But it is not just a social club,” he said.

“I always think about the strength of the Church as being best symbolised by the cross. The horizontal bar of the cross is us relating to one another, while the vertical bar is the relationship between us and God,” he explained.

However, Fr Alan is intrigued by atheist and Humanist writers who have identified the strengths of organised religion in terms of community-building.

“I certainly don’t think Humanists are a threat to the Church. The values they hold have been Christian values for thousands of years—justice, fairness, compassion. It’s a bedrock of values; of what they understand to be truth. There is a lot of value in dialogue between the Church and such groups, such as the recent debate between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins. This notion of strength through community is one thing, but it does not define the church. The really important thing is the focus on the bedrock, on the values, as people search for the truth in a way that is respectful and positive. Ultimately, anyone reflecting on life by focusing on these values can never be a bad thing,” Fr Alan said.


How to get involved:

Cork Humanists hold their main monthly meetings on the third floor of the Quay Co-Op Restaurant, Sullivan’s Quay, as well as workshops, book clubs and other events. Visit for further information.

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