EU atheist-freemason summit 'very odd', says Europe's chief unbeliever
The first ever summit between representatives of secularist, atheist and masonic organisations and the leaders of the European Union's three main institutions was "very odd," Europe's top unbeliever has said.
On Friday (15 October), leaders from what the European Commission describes as "philosophical non-confessional organisations" met with the presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council to discuss their views on poverty and social exclusion. The first meeting of its kind, it is the secular counterpart to the summits the three institutions are now obliged by the Lisbon Treaty to regularly have with religious leaders.
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David Pollock, the president of the European Humanist Federation, told EUobserver that his organisation is against the idea of the meetings but went along to balance out a previous EU meeting with religious figures.
"There is no reason why we as atheists or freemasons, any more than religious leaders, have any particular expertise on poverty reduction strategies. There were a series of fairly predictable expressions of outrage that citizens remain in poverty and demands for greater solidarity but nothing especially specific in the way of any strategy. There was lots of good will and not a great deal else," he said.
"It was all a bit odd."
The representatives gave short three-minute statements on the topic of poverty in the union and then lunched with the three presidents.
Mr Pollock said the EU should go beyond charity payments and its focus on poverty reduction and look instead to specific legislative efforts to reduce income inequality, such as raising minimum pay rates and setting and subsequently reducing maximum pay rates.
The group has opposed the Lisbon Treaty's institutionalisation of religious consultation, but: "As the treaty has passed, this can't be undone, and the churches have this ready access at the most senior level, so it is important that we take part in order to make the counterargument."
Atheist Ireland, the UK-based National Secular Society, the European Association for Free Thought and Belgium's Secular Action Centre also took part in the two-hour meeting, as well as the masonic Grand Lodges or Grand Orients of eight EU member states: Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Romania.
"In total, of the 18 representatives there, atheist or secularist organisations were outnumbered two to one, with five from the humanist groups and 12 from the freemasons," Mr Pollock explained.
He believes it is inappropriate that atheist groups have been lumped in with the secretive freemasons.
"I suppose they were there insofar as they are in favour of a separation between church and state, although some did make a few friendly references about Christian values. But I don't have any particular quarrel with what they had to say about poverty," he said.
Emerging in the late 16th century in England and subsequently spreading throughout the world, the Freemasons split in 1877 between the English-speaking lodges and their continental counterparts over the question of god. Anglophone Freemasons require that their members believe in a deity, while continental freemasons do not.
The atheists are more concerned about what they describe as the "privileged access" offered to religious groups. The last EU religious summit, in July, also focussed on the question of poverty. Previous meetings with religious leaders have considered climate change, immigration and "flexicurity" - a Danish model for the welfare state.
"It is not just the meetings. The process involves a lot more. What we are worried about is that churches - and in particular the Catholic Church as it is in the best position to exploit this process - to insert themselves at the earliest stage of policy formation. They explicitly want pre-legislative consultations," Mr Pollock said.
Other international fora where churches have been offered institutional access, he added, give an idea of what the Vatican hopes to achieve in the EU.
"When it comes to family planning, women's rights, gay rights, they are very active at the UN. The Church is positively crowing about how recently they have been able to eliminate language on access to abortion, safe pregnancies and sex education in a recent report on the Millennium Development Goals," he noted.
"One should be very worried about similar moves that might go on as a result of this process in the EU."
For its part, the Catholic Church denies it has any ulterior motives in engaging in the consultations.
"Abortion, these other topics are of course a concern to the Catholic Church, but we know very well that these are not competences of the European Union," Johanna Touzel, spokeswoman for the Commission of Bishops' Conferences of the European Union (Comece), the Church's European lobby outfit.
"Even if we would want such influence, we cannot do this because the EU has no responsibility here. They are instead raised at the national level," she continued.
"The diologue is open, very transparent, a democratic procedure," she continued. "It's not done behind closed doors. You can see the list of all participants and all proposals and contributions are published."
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, a devout Catholic, said after the meeting: "We acknowledged the experience of humanist and philosophical leaders when dealing with this challenge [poverty]. I look forward to further strengthening this dialogue."
One in three Europeans have no religion, according to the European Humanist Federation.