The EU’s ‘very odd’ atheist and freemason summits

In 2010, under pressure to balance the EU’s treaty-required regular consultations with religious leaders with those without faith, Brussels launched an annual summit between the three Roman Catholic presidents of the EU and representatives of atheist organisations. Oh, and freemasons too.

I first broke the story in ahead of the first summit and have followed the issue since in a series of three articles so far.

Full text of the three articles follows these links to the original texts:

EU to hold atheist and freemason summit

EU atheist-freemason summit ‘very odd’, says Europe’s chief unbeliever

Atheists say EU privileging religious leaders over non-believers

EU to hold atheist and freemason summit

News article originally published in the EUobserver on 19.07.10.

Brussels is to hold an EU summit with atheists and freemasons in the autumn, inviting them to a political dialogue parallel to the annual summit the bloc holds with Europe’s religious leaders.

While the EU is a secular body, the three European presidents, of the commission, parliament and EU Council, alongside two commissioners, on Monday met with 24 bishops, chief rabbis, and muftis as well as leaders from the Hindu and Sikh communities. The annual dialogue, which has taken place since 2005, is for the first time this year made legally obligatory under Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Under pressure from Belgium, which constitutionally protects and financially supports humanist organisations as well as churches, the EU has been forced to hold a mirror-image summit, but of atheists, scheduled for 15 October.

However, in a move that perplexed and annoyed humanist groups, the EU atheist summit will also welcome under the rubric of ‘non-religious groups’, the Freemasons, the secretive fraternal organisation, according to commission spokeswoman Katharina von Schnurbein.

“I find it rather odd,” David Pollock, president of the European Humanist Federation, told EUobserver. “Some of the Grand Lodges are secularist organisations, and strongly for separation of church and state, but they also retain all sorts of gobbledygook and myths such as the Great Architect of the Universe.”

Emerging in the late 16th century in England and subsequently spread 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.

“Their public face is that they do charitable work and they do indeed engage in this, but there are also rituals involving blindfolded candidates with their trouser-legs rolled up during initiation,” continued Mr Pollock.

“It’s boys’ games sort of a thing.”

Mr Pollock told this website that humanists had opposed any inclusion of the ‘religion clause’ in first the EU Constitutional Treaty and subsequently the Lisbon Treaty, arguing that “no one has any right to some special summit any more than any other type of organisation, and we should wait in line to speak to commissioners, to access at the highest level, like any other NGO, which is what churches are.”

“Neither religious groups nor non-religious ones have any greater claim to taking up the time of commissioners.”

“But sadly we lost that battle, and so with the atheist summit, at least we’re being treated equally, although I’d rather if we were there along with the churches. Instead we’re being bundled off with the Freemasons.”

According to the commission’s Ms von Schnurbein, Brussels views the Freemasons as a “community of conscience interconnected throughout Europe,” and “a form of humanist organisation.”

She dismissed concerns that while churches and atheist groups are free for anyone to join, membership in the Freemasons, a private organisation of men, with some separate Grand Lodges for women, is by invitation only and requires initiation fees and an annual subscription.

The EUobserver attempted to speak with the United Grand Lodge of England, the oldest Grand Lodge of masons in the world, regarding this development but without success.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has had its nose put out at the annual EU summit with religious leaders by the presence for the first time this year of Hindus and Sikhs.

According to La Croix, the French Roman Catholic daily, the church, happy to embrace an ecumenism of the great monotheistic faiths at the EU level, fears that the enlargement of the meeting to include such groups beyond those “more anchored across the whole of the continent,” suggests the EU is being “religiously correct”.

According to a spokesman for President Van Rompuy, next year the meeting could include a Buddhist.

Beyond the annual summit, religious leaders interpret Article 17, which commits the EU to holding “an open, transparent and regular dialogue with… churches and non-confessional and philosophical organisations”, as meaning regular meetings with senior civil servants, not just on grand themes such as Monday’s topic of the battle against poverty, but on more concrete legislative measures dealing with climate change, education, immigration, social services and labour laws.

In the future, they hope to have similar relations with EU agencies, notably the Fundamental Rights Agency, as well as with the bloc’s new diplomatic corps, the External Action Service.

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EU atheist-freemason summit ‘very odd’, says Europe’s chief unbeliever

News article originally published in the EUobserver on 21.10.10. 

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.

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.

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Atheists say EU privileging religious leaders over non-believers

News article originally published on 30.11.11.

The European Union is keen to involve religious leaders in a policy dialogue, as required by the EU treaties, while consultations with atheists appear to be more of a chore that Brussels is resigned to, representatives of European secularist organisations are complaining.

At the second annual ‘summit’ in Brussels between the three presidents of the European Union and representatives of atheist groups and freemasons, the secularists demanded to be put on an equal footing with faith communities.

“There is a clear preference for consultations with religious representatives,” the head of the European Humanist Federation, David Pollock, told EUobserver.

Under pressure from church groups, and in particular from the Vatican, efforts to involve religious leaders in the crafting of legislation were surprisingly successful with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty, which, under its Article 17, requires a regular dialogue with religious associations, but also with “philosophical and non-confessional organisations”.

“We are also concerned about the need for the EU’s interpretation of Article 17 to be conducted in a more balanced way,” Pollock continued.

“They spend much longer with the religious leaders,” he added. “We are kept completely in the dark about how anybody is selected for these meetings. There is no consultation about the subject areas, about who is invited. We do not feel as though we have any ownership over the process at all. There needs to be a new start.”

There are also no minutes of the meetings with the religious leaders, nor records of the speeches given by the presidents.

Beyond the regular summits that the three presidents hold with church, temple and mosque leaders, for a number of years, the European Commission has also held ‘dialogue seminars’ with the two conferences of European bishops.

However, when the European Humanist Federation (EHF) requested a similar dialogue seminar with the commission, on the topic of religious exemptions from EU laws and anti-discrimination legislation, the EU executive refused, saying that the subject lay outside its area of responsibility.

The EU ombudsman on 23 November subsequently requested the commission to explain why it had rejected the proposal for a seminar. The commission must reply by February next year.

According to the EHF, church groups are now pushing for the Article 17 dialogue with them to be “stretched to all levels” beyond the summits and dialogue seminars, with “working contacts” and “quick and efficient exchanges of views” on all subjects. There has also been a request for the establishment of a special office in the European Parliament to deal with religions.

Following the meeting Pollock said that he had been “provisionally reassured” by a commitment by European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso to take into account the concerns.

The atheist contingent at the meeting was also wondered why there is such an emphasis on the presence of freemasons. Ten out of the 16 invited came from masons’ lodges from different countries. Only six individuals were invited from expressly non-theist organisations.

“While the continental freemasons are distinctly secular, we do question the balance in these meetings. The last meeting, three quarters of those there were freemasons,” Pollock added.

At a hearing in the European Parliament later in the day on the implementation of Article 17, MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, the head of the chamber’s European Platform for Secularism in Politics complained that letters from the platform about how the summit had been organised had gone unanswered.

Vice-president of the parliament Laszlo Tokes, who also stressed the atheist nature of the Stalinist dictatorships of eastern Europe, said that he had not seen any letters and subsequently prevented in ‘t Veld from speaking, saying that her worries should not be voiced until the president of the parliament, Jerzy Buzek, was present in the room.

Atheists fear for democracy in Europe

The secular summit took as its theme democracy and pluralism in the EU.

According to commission spokesman Jens Mester, those present used the occasion to express their concern that democracy is under threat within the EU in the face of the economic crisis.

“A general concern by really most participants whas that in the current crisis, there is a risk that democratic values and liberties are being downgraded,” he said.

“There is a worry that there is an increasing separation of the institutions from ordinary people, about the increased powers being assumed by technocrats especially in the context of the current crisis, about what has happened in Greece and Italy,” Pollock explained.

“But there is a broader feeling of a disconnect, that with what Europe is going through, democracy is being curtailed. People feel that they have no control over Europe, that everything is being decided for them, without their input,” he said. “There is a need for politicians to get back in charge and reassert democracy in Europe.”

The three presidents responded with “general reassurances” that democratic values inform all of their work, according to those in the room.

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