The Empowering Women through Secularism Conference

As AAI President I had the pleasure of meeting numerous Atheists from all around the globe, during the Empowering Women through Secularism conference, held in Dublin, Ireland by Atheist Ireland in June 2013 (, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the future faces and voices of our movement. I asked, Sarah Mee, one of these young, future voices to write a short entry for me to post about the conference. Sarah, who also writes regularly on gracefully obliged and sent the article you will find after the break.

Carlos A. Diaz
AAI Vicepresident

By Sarah Mee, from

The “Empowering Women through Secularism” conference took place in the O’Callaghan Alexander hotel in Dublin on the 29th and 30th of June 2013. The main topics of the conference were; reproductive rights (and Irish abortion law), secular values in society, separation of church and state, human rights, politics, campaigning and the Dublin declaration on empowering women through secularism. I found the conference to be very informative and successful.

Annie Laurie Gaylor of “Freedom From Religion Foundation” gave the introductory speech. She spoke of her mother’s role in helping make abortion legal in the USA. Annie herself, as a teenager, travelled around with her mother on her campaign, she described the experience as eye opening.  As Annie said, “abortion for a woman who is either unhappily or unsafely pregnant is a matter of life and death”.

The 1st session was on reproductive rights and Irish abortion laws. In Ireland, abortion is illegal. The recent death of Savita Halappanavar has caused a huge public outcry and has led to changes to abortion legislation. The panel discussing this issue was composed of; Ophelia Benson, Clare Daly, Anthea McTiernan, Aibhe Smyth, and Ross Kelly.  Ross Kelly’s quote “they talk about faith, then shouldn’t they have faith in their followers”, implying that the Catholic Church should not need to have laws against abortion because catholic women would just say no anyway. He also spoke about how doctors want to do as much as they can for their patients while also respecting patient’s views and beliefs. The example he gave was not giving blood to a Jehovah witness, even if it was the medically sound thing to do. Clare Daly an Irish politician spoke about TD’ s saying that they supported her past bill for abortion legislation, but would not vote for it, due to fear of losing the support of their voters. Many of the panel also called for the 8th amendment to be removed from the constitution.  The “pro-life” supports were dubbed as “anti-choice”. I personally feel that this is a much better name for their cause. There is no point in saying that Irish women don’t have abortions as 4,000 women travel abroad every year for abortions.

The 2nd session discussed the topic of secular values in society. The panellists were Leonie Hilliard, Nina Sankari, Farhana Shakir, and PZ Myers. Leonie Hilliard said that secular values in society were reason, equality, empathy and reality. Personally, I would love to live in a society which involved people being able to reason with each other on all matters and particularly religious matters. A society where what religion you are (or aren’t) is respected. I feel that a secular society would mean that the education I receive would not involve the discrimination that I am sometimes subjected to. 

She also stated that “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”. Leonie talked about how rape victims were sometimes made to feel partly responsible for the horrendous crime inflicted on them. Nina gave us a great insight into what Poland was like in terms of religion under both communism and then under capitalism. She described the USSR as having a policy of state atheism.She talked about how the Catholic Church was instrumental, after the fall of the USSR, in the reintroduction of anti-abortion laws. PZ Myers said that “feminists don’t hate men, atheists don’t hate religion”.

Session 3 was on the separation of church and state. Panellists were Ann Brusseel, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Rebecca Watson and Michael Nugent. Ann Brusseel, who is a member of the Flemish parliament, talked about the situation in Europe. France and northern Europe states are usually secular. In terms of the dress code for civil servants, France has a total ban on any religious dress being worn and Belgium has no clear regulations: it depends on the city. In Germany and Italy, tax payers fill in tax forms to say where their contribution to religious and NGO’s should go.  Michael Nugent talked about how the Vatican had used the production of its own stamps so that it could enter the UN. 

The 4th session was on human rights. The panellists were Jane Donnelly, Maryam Namazie, and Dan Barker. Dan Barker was able to give us a very in depth insight into what it was like being a Protestant cleric. He talked about feeling privileged in terms of class and gender. He noted that human rights are absent in the bible. Maryam Namazie made it clear that there is a difference between Islam and individual Muslims, and how important it is that we don’t generalise and blame all Muslims for the few who are radical. Jane Donnelly talked about the lack of human rights education children receive in Ireland and how important it is to not ask for your rights, but to demand your rights. In Ireland there is a problem with education being in the hands of the Catholic Church as this leads to the discrimination of non-Catholics and Indoctrination. 

Keynote speaker Taslima Rasrin ended the first day with a wonderful speech about Bangladesh and what it is like for women living there. She herself is a writer who has been exiled from Bangladesh. She was not even allowed home to see her dying parents. In Bangladesh, violence against women is not a crime. It is legal to stone a woman to death (although there are rules relating to the size of the stones that may be used). At the end of Taslima’s speech, I felt it was clear what an incredibly brave women she was. It clarified for me that human rights should take precedence over religion, culture or tradition.

The final panel discussion was on Politics and Campaigning, Rachel Donnelly, Maryam Namazie, Ann Marie Waters and AAI President, Carlos Diaz were panellists. Rachel is very involved in pro-choice Galway; this is the group that has been at the forefront of battling for abortion legislation since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. It was refreshing to listen to a panel of such knowledgeable people who were all actively campaigning for their own causes.

Personally, the conference afforded me an opportunity to learn from interesting, articulate people with powerful ideas from around the world. I feel that I was empowered by the conference on “Empowering Women through Secularism”.