Old Testament Christianity in NI is seriously out of touch



Humanist Brian McClinton

Humanist Brian McClinton

The Ashers Case was much more than about the icing on a cake.

It encompassed some of the basic values at the heart of liberal democracy.

Contrary to the view of evangelical Christians, the verdict, like the gay marriage referendum in the Republic, was a triumph for both freedom and equality.


Ashers argued that the message on the cake was against their freedom of conscience. But it was nothing of the kind. Freedom of belief is an empty concept if we deny our opponent the same freedom we demand for ourselves. As George Orwell put it, “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

Orwell knew that throughout history every tyranny in the world has demanded freedom of speech when it was a minority or in opposition, only to deny it to everyone else once it acquired power. Freedom of speech only for our own point of view is really a total contradiction of liberal democracy.

Is it not also being intolerant to wish to suppress an opinion you dislike? Is the bakery’s ‘freedom of conscience’ not really a euphemism for the freedom to be intolerant? And is it not also fundamentally unChristian in that the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would want them to do unto you is an alternative form of the principle of showing respect and tolerance for opposing views?

Fundamentalist Christianity and its associated political parties do not have a good record of supporting freedom of opinion here. During the period of Stormont rule they censored plays and films, and they were still doing it recently when they sought to ban a play in Newtownabbey and a painting in Banbridge. Freedom of conscience was in reality a euphemism for religious privilege.

Ashers also discriminated against the customer on grounds of sexual orientation and political opinion. Essentially, people owning businesses which provide public services cannot pick and choose their customers on these grounds. In this way the judgment struck a blow for both sexual and political equality.

In the Irish Republic 62 per cent of voters have just given their support for gay marriage. Like the Ashers ruling, this too enhances freedom and equality. It means that gay people who love each other can now choose if they wish to marry – a freedom which in no way inhibits a straight couple’s similar right. It also means that they will no longer be treated as second-class citizens and thus it entrenches their sexual equality.

In short, it establishes the Irish Republic as a truly pluralist democracy.

Northern Ireland is now the only part of the British Isles that still prohibits gay marriage, and the fact that a gay man had to bring a court case merely to establish his right to put a political message on a cake demonstrates how far it has to go.

The Archbishop of Dublin has stated that the Catholic Church needs a reality check. Clearly, all the main churches on the island need to examine the reasons why they seem to show less Christian tolerance and generosity of spirit than the mass of Irish people.

As for Northern Ireland, the question that has to be asked is whether the exclusive Old Testament conception of Christianity that has long dominated this society is seriously out of touch with the open and inclusive values of the modern world.

• Brian McClinton is a director of the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland

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