On Wednesday, President Jerzy Buzek of the European Parliament made his first official visit to the Parliament’s Secular Platform, invited by its chair, Sophie in ’t Veld MEP (who is also NSS Honorary Associate and winner of Secularist of the Year 2011). Accompanying him was vice president Laszlo Tokes.
Article 17 of the Treaty of Lisbon requires dialogue between the EU and religious organisations. There is a similar requirement in respect of “non-confessional” organisations and this meeting was held under this provision.
Ms in’t Veld, Keith Porteous Wood and other speakers told President Buzek that despite at least half the population being non-religious, their voice comes a poor second to the religious in this dialogue. By the very nature of churches hierarchical structure, they were much better placed in this respect. NSS Honorary Associate Michael Cashman also challenged President Buzek strongly over this – as he did his fellow Pole Joanna Senyszyn, MEP, Vice Chair of the Secular Platform.
Keith observed that polls confirmed how unrepresentative that hierarchy was, particularly the Catholic one, relative to those in the pews especially on crucial social issues where the churches exercised most influence. The majority of those identifying as Christians were markedly more liberal over such matters than their hierarchy and their voices were totally absent from this dialogue.
President Buzek raised some eyebrows by rejecting the term “separation” of church and state, preferring instead “autonomy”: each responsible for their own affairs and not taking direction from the other. He did however accept that religions should “render unto Caesar …” and paid tribute to the enlightenment. The difference is more than semantic; he thought that the public role of religion should be much greater than the secularists did, and that the EU had an obligation to listen to the “well organised” religious voices. He did agree, though, that the EU should try to compensate for the resulting imbalance, but offered no ideas as to how it should do so.
Both President Buzek, a Polish Lutheran, and Vice-president Tokes, a bishop of the Reformed Church in Romania, who is responsible for the Article 17 dialogue, mentioned their own churches’ leading role in delivering their countries from totalitarian rule, and clearly felt that this exemplified or justified the need for their greater public role.
Mr/Bishop Tokes was criticised at the meeting for taking an overtly religious stance in discussions with religious bodies. Many of those at the Platform meeting were irritated by his inability to grasp the concept of acting in a secular manner in his official capacity, or even his determination not to do so.
Sophie in ’t Veld reflected that, ironically, the person sitting on one side of her (the deputy) was the victim of totalitarianism – which he ascribed to atheism. Sitting on her other side was an MEP, Miguel Angel Martínez, was also a victim of totalitarianism, but it was religious – he had been to jail under Franco, because of his failure to support the Catholic Church.
Not that all participants at Platform meetings are non-believers; the meetings are open. But on this occasion a much larger number than usual opposed to secularism were present. Some came with the express intention of being disruptive: one young intern, an evangelist, rose ostensibly to ask a question only to embark on a sermon, before being silenced by the chair.