Humanism in Malta: starting somewhere

  • post Type / Members and partners
  • Date / 30 July 2010

is no doubt a predominantly Christian country, but like Christianity itself, a
large part of this perception is founded on myth. Any child of six will tell
you that the country boasts “an unbroken Catholic tradition” going all the way
back to St Paul’s visit in 60AD (Acts 27, etc.) In reality, however, both visit
and tradition are at best open to doubt. Raphael VassalloStill, it would be futile to deny that in recent centuries, Malta has
overwhelmingly (and often belligerently) identified with the Catholic Church.
Up until the early 1970s – when the Socialist government introduced civil
marriage, and other reforms aimed at “removing the cobwebs of the
Inquisition”—you could talk of a near absolute Catholic hegemony on the island,
much of which is still palpable today.

The Independence Constitution (1964) still proclaims the Roman Catholic
Apostolic faith as ‘the religion of Malta’, and accords the Church ‘the
right and the duty’ to ‘teach right from wrong’ – which in practice translates
into a near total Catholic monopoly on State and private education. Divorce
remains unobtainable from local courts (though we recognise divorces obtained
overseas, and there is mounting pressure for its introduction). Abortion is
illegal in all cases, without any exception whatsoever. Blasphemy remains a
crime punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment, and on other issues where
the Church holds strong views—same sex marriage, assisted fertility treatment,
sex education, etc.—legislation (or lack thereof) bears the very recognisable
stamp of Catholic thinking.

For all this, Catholic influence on the public at large can be seen to have
diminished. Church statistics indicate that Sunday mass attendance has declined
on average by 10% each decade since 1960, and now stands at just under 50%. But
the drop in practising Catholics does not appear to have corresponded with a
noticeable rise in secularist thinking. Instead there has been an exodus
towards other denominations – Evangelical Christians, New Age, etc.—and Islam
has grown substantially, though numbers remain small (estimated around 8,000 of
a total population of 400,000).

Outspoken atheists do exist, but are a tiny minority. And while no direct
discrimination exists on paper, popular prejudice against atheism (mainly
social and family pressure) remains an issue. This in turn suggests that the
actual numbers may be higher than many would assume. But conditions for ‘coming
out’, as it were, are not exactly optimal.

Matters were not helped when the Catholic Church declared a full-scale holy war
on secularism in 2008–with the bishops variously comparing the ‘threat of
secularism’ to Nazism in WWII, a barbarian invasion, the H1N1 virus, and so on.
It was against this hugely encouraging backdrop that some of us decided to
found the Malta Humanist Association (www.maltahumanist.org) in April 2010.

That same week, Malta
was convulsed by hysteria surrounding the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, on the
personal invitation of the President of the Republic, George Abela. Greeting
the Pope upon his arrival at the Luqa airport on April 18, Dr Abela helpfully
outlined a few of the reasons we felt the association was necessary in the
first place:

“Today, we face the wave of secularism which has as its starting point the
strict separation of Church and State: a laicist model advocating that the
State should be strictly separate from religion which is conceived as belonging
exclusively to the private domain. This profane character which has developed
in some European States is driving people to be laicist or even

“However, as we all know or as we all should know, the moral
foundations of a society as a whole, comprising believers, agnostics or
atheists, are better served not with the falling away from religion but with
the reinvigoration of the moral consciousness of the State.. .”

In view of this, one of our first initiatives was to write to the President to
ask for a meeting. This was duly held on Monday 28th June, and in a frank
exchange of views we aired our concern at the sectarian direction he appeared
to be taking the country (of which the above is but a taster). We also raised
individual areas of concern to humanists, including a bias in the educational
system against non-Catholic teachers, among others. On his part, HE President
assured us that he was mindful of the rights of minority groups, and insisted
that no hurt or offence to such groups had been intended in any of his public
pronouncements. On the whole, we agreed the meeting was generally positive,
though we can’t talk of any tangible results.

Since then the need to make our voices heard has been steadily growing.
Opposition to divorce (including the beginnings of a Church campaign) is
becoming more vocal by the day, and there is concern about new legislation
reinforcing the existing, draconian censorship regime.

Our biggest battle, however, is likely to remain the item at the very top of
our agenda: “to promote Humanism in Malta by encouraging a greater
knowledge of Humanism among (our) members and the wider community.” Since
forming the association our membership has grown to more than 300, which we estimate
to be only a small fraction of the actual representation of secular humanists
on the island.

Still, you have to start somewhere.

— Raphael Vassallo, [email protected]

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