Is Atheism a religion? A controversial application of the Lisbon Treaty's new requirements for holding regular meetings with all European religious leaders is putting that question to the test.
Yesterday the presidents of the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament held a rather awkward press conference with various religious leaders from across Europe. Watching the leaders crowd together for the 'family photo', there was a temptation to make some kind of joke about a priest, a rabbi and an immam walking into a bar. Inevitably, reporters pressed the EU and religious leaders for their opinions on the upcoming burqa bans in France and Belgium, but the leaders wouldn't take the bait. Both Barroso and Van Rompuy said this was a member state issue that does not involve the EU.
The occasion of this very holy family photo (courtesy of the commission) was the first ‘annual dialogue’ between the EU and Europe’s religious leaders since the Lisbon Treaty came into force. The meeting has actually been taking place every year since 2005, but the Lisbon Treaty has now made the meeting mandatory. This has introduced new political issues that weren’t present before.
Certain EU member states raised objections to the fact that the meeting would give religions greater access to the EU than non-religious groups, and that this was inappropriate for a secular society. Belgium, which has a strong secular tradition and even gives financial support and constitutional protection to atheist and humanist groups, demanded that the EU hold a similar annual meeting with Atheists that would mirror the meetings with religious leaders.
The first such meeting will be held in October. But as reported yesterday in the EUobserver, the commission has recently taken the decision to add Freemasons to the summit. This has deeply annoyed Atheist groups, who point out that the fraternal organization is actually a semi-religious group that believe in mystical rituals and ancient myths.
In fact, the Anglophone chapters of the Freemasons even require that their members believe in the existence of god (continental European chapters do not). And it isn’t just the group’s flirtation with organised religion that is bothering Atheists. Speaking to the EUobserver, the president of the European Humanist Federation called Freemason meetings “boys’ games” that engage in fraternity-style initiations. Many atheists feel insulted that they would be grouped in with such an organisation.
Of course these annual meetings don’t give religious groups any specific influence within the EU, it was more of a compromise measure to appease the most religious EU member states - Poland, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania. There was great conflict during Lisbon Treaty negotiations over whether the treaty should give official recognition to Christianity as Europe’s main religion. Given that secular states outnumber religious ones in the EU, there was little hope of achieving this.
But the conflict between the religious member states and the secular ones will no doubt continue, and annual meetings of religious leaders and “communities of conviction” is unlikely to heal the rift between the two groups.