Humanists win debate on religion and society at the Oxford Union

Oxford students voted 120 to 80 against the motion that ‘Religion is a force for good in this country’ at the Oxford Union debating society.

The opposition used survey data to demonstrate that there was no difference in pro-social behaviours such as volunteering between religious and non-religious people, pointed to historical and contemporary instances of the tremendous harm that has been done by religions to offset against any good they have done, argued that religion did not in any case add anything to compassion and human morality, and that religions clouded our ability to understand the world through reason, science and experience. See the BHA short report on the debate. It is critical that this discussion is picked up in Malta where the prevailing notion is still that whatever huge defects the RC Church might have, it still a force for good in Malta and the rest of the world.

MHA elects new committee

The Malta Humanist Association has elected an official committee to replace the ad hoc committee originally set up by its founder members in April 2010.

Elected during the association’s first annual general meeting – held at Europe House, Valletta, on April 6 – the new committee consists of Godfrey Vella, Raphael Vassallo, Philip Manduca, Ramon Casha, Michael Mercieca, David Friggieri, Raisa Tarasova, Joshua Degiorgio, Kevin Cassar and Jackson Levi.

The following roles were approved at a subsequent committee meeting:

Chairman: Godfrey Vella

Deputy Chairman/PRO: Raphael Vassallo

Secretary: Philip Manduca

Assistant secretary: Ramon Casha

Treasurer: Michael Mercieca

Assistant Treasurer: Joshua Degiorgio

PRO: David Friggieri

Education/Research: Raisa Tarasova, Kevin Cassar

Student Affairs: Jackson Levi Said

Letter to the President of Malta

The committee of the Malta Humanist Association has written to request a formal appointment with H.E. The President of Malta, Dr George Abela, in the light of his recent statements regarding the close ties between Church and State in Malta.

Here is the full text of the letter, dated 26 April 2010:

Your Excellency

We write to you on behalf of the Malta Humanist Association: a newly formed non-governmental organisation which aims to represent the interests and concerns of a growing number of secular humanists in this country.

As secular humanists we believe, among other things, in the need for a clear distinction between State and Church. We are therefore deeply perturbed at the sectarian direction the Republic of Malta appears to be taking under your Presidency.

We feel that this direction was amply demonstrated in the tone and thrust of your welcoming address to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of his visit to Malta on April 17-18, wherein you stated that:

'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 anti-Christian...

'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.. .'

The Malta Humanist Association is alarmed to note the underlying assumption, inherent in the second paragraph quoted above, that the 'moral consciousness of the State' is rooted in religion - not just any religion, but one religion in particular to the exclusion of all others.

We believe this statement to constitute a direct and unequivocal threat to the rights of non-religious minorities to be represented equally under the banner of the State. As such, we would like to request an appointment for a meeting, to be held at your convenience, in order to discuss the issue as a matter of urgency.

We trust that such a meeting would be beneficial to all sides, as we are confident that Your Excellency intended no deliberate offence to Malta's non-Catholic population. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that non-Catholics in general, and secular humanists in particular, have justifiable cause for concern at an apparent increase in hostile attitudes extended in their direction.

We look forward to exchanging views on this important subject in the near future.

Yours sincerely,

Godfrey Vella, Raphael Vassallo, Philip Manduca, Ramon Casha, James Debono

MHA dismayed by President’s anti-secular stance

The Malta Humanist Association wishes to convey its disappointment and consternation at remarks made by the President of the Republic, HE Dr George Abela, during his address welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Malta on Saturday.

“We were surprised and alarmed by the apparent aggression with which our President rejected the secular principles upon which so many modern European democracies are founded,” MHA spokesman Raphael Vassallo said on Monday. “Dr Abela at one point stressed that Malta ‘is not a confessional state’. Sadly, however, it seems the rest of his speech was devoted to flatly contradicting this very message.”

In a televised address watched by thousands, Dr Abela made various attempts to forge a direct link between Catholicism and Maltese identity, and at one point even appeared to directly challenge the notion that Church and State should be kept separate: “... 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,” Dr Abela said.

The Malta Humanist Association strongly rebuts this inference.

“As an association representing the interests of both atheists and agnostics in Malta, we feel we have a duty to correct the President on this particular detail,” Vassallo said. “How can an atheist’s interests be best served when his or her own country’s President publicly dissociates himself from atheism, and even talks of secular humanism in terms of a threat to the nation’s moral and ethical fibre?”

The MHA wishes to stress also that the President manifestly overstepped his Constitutional remit by confusing the disparate roles of Church and State. Even before his televised address on Saturday, the sheer extent of his involvement in preparations for the Pope’s visit – going so far as to appear on national TV, and call on the Maltese to attend High Mass at the Granaries – served only to erode any distinction between secular and ecclesiastic authorities.

“Dr Abela would be well advised to bear in mind that he is the President of all the Maltese, including a substantial minority who are not Catholics,” Vassallo added. “He himself may not be aware of this, but his choice of words last Saturday was deeply offensive to thousands of Maltese citizens, and could conceivably also be dangerous. It is after all not the President’s job to foster a climate of intolerance directed towards adherents of faiths other than his own, or for that matter those who espouse no religion at all.”

On another level, the MHA notes with concern that the President may have unwittingly also insulted other EU member states, especially those with a long and proud history of secularism, in the presence of their diplomatic missions in Malta.

“By referring to secular Europe as ‘profane’, and by disparaging European secularism in no uncertain terms in front of EU ambassadors, we feel that Dr Abela may have undone decades of good work by Maltese diplomats – including his own predecessor, President Emeritus Guido Demarco – in establishing Malta’s credentials as a modern European democracy. Moreover, one would have expected Dr Abela to buttress such controversial statements with serious and well-researched references. Disappointingly, however, the President chose to limit himself to quoting a single article in an Italian daily newspaper...”

The newly formed humanist organisation will shortly be writing to request a formal audience with Dr Abela, in the hope of clarifying a few important issues before any future misunderstandings arise.

“Clearly, the President has not understood the core values and principles of secular humanism,” Vassallo said. “We trust this is a genuine oversight on Dr Abela’s part, and not part of a strategy to misrepresent secular humanists, and force them, along with other minorities, into a position of social and cultural exclusion.”

Further information about humanism in general and the MHA in particular can be found on

Even the Sunday Times has a go at the President

In an editiorial on 25th April, the Sunday Times states "The only controversy, locally at least, caused by the visit came not from the Pope, but rather unexpectedly from President George Abela, who in his lengthy welcoming speech on the airport tarmac declared that "today we face the wave of secularism which has as its starting point the strict separation of Church and State"."

In its concluding remarks the editorial goes on to say "...given that these words, though carefully chosen, have upset some people - and that the President should be the President of all those who live in modern Malta as a fully fledged EU member - perhaps Dr Abela should seek to clarify and explain some of the terms he used.

What does he mean by "strict separation of Church and State"? Is he saying that "secularisation" in itself breeds anti-Christian sentiment? And should his other comments be taken to exclude certain members of society? It is hoped that his responses will not throw up any surprises."

The Identity Question

In a letter to The Times, Ray Azzopardi argues that "Our true identity as Maltese has to be linked to our Christian roots". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whenever one refers to "roots", one is implying a beginning, and it's obvious even from the Bible's account of Paul's arrival here that Malta and the Maltese had their own distinct identity well before the Christian faith even reached our shores. Throughout our history, we have retained our identity even during times when this faith practically disappeared from these islands.

If I had to choose a characteristic that identifies us as Maltese, I'd have to choose the Maltese language. Nothing distinguishes us more from any other nation. Even expatriates maintain the language alive in their adopted countries because of this very reason. In centuries of foreign rule by the Knights, the French and the British, we retained our language - often using it to distinguish ourselves from "the outsiders". Within Malta, people who can't speak Maltese are considered to be foreign residents, irrespective of what their passport or ID card says.

Throughout our history there have always been people who are not Catholics, or even Christian, yet are entirely Maltese. There is evidence of a Jewish community in Malta since before Paul's arrival, making it probably the oldest surviving religion in Malta, though it has not done so continuously. Today there are many Maltese who are Muslim, Hindu, or have no religion at all.

The national anthem is quite irrelevant in determining our identity. It was written by a priest, so it's hardly surprising that it contains references to God. It also refers to "min jaħkimha" - a reference to the British governor of the time. Hardly meaningful today.

I'm surprised that Mr. Azzopardi attributes "our generous and altruistic nature" to Paul's Christianity when the Bible points out that Paul himself was surprised by the natives' "uncommon kindness". It seems that our friendly nature is part of our pre-Christian identity, and has survived 2000 years later. Nor were they "our Christian values" that kept us struggling for independence, since most of our foreign rulers shared that faith.

Mr. Azzopardi asks a loaded question when he asks why we are passing on "a secular and narrow vision of our society" to the next generation. Actually, we are passing on a secular and more open vision of our society. A secular society is one in which each individual has the right to his own faith - or none at all, but the govern remains separate, thus not discriminating against - or in favour of - anyone based on their religion. A nation when one can apply for a teaching post in a government school without being asked to confirm whether they are Catholic first. A nation where the church and the state are separate.

What would our life be like if we did not have this separation between church and state? You can look at Iran or Saudi Arabia as an example of what happens when religion and government are in the same bed. Condoms - and indeed any other form of contraception - would be illegal. Going to mass on Sunday would be compulsory. Unwed mothers would be in prison. Marriage between Catholic and non-Catholic would be prohibited by law, and unmarried couples living together would be harshly punished. Do not make the mistake of thinking that these things only happen in Muslim countries. Not only does our history show otherwise, but even now, fundamentalists in the USA and other nations constantly seek to use the laws to make such impositions on the whole population.

Thankfully, we are already partly secular, but more needs to be done. Religion should be a personal matter even if 99.9% of the country adhered to one faith. Certainly it should not be something for the government to be involved in, nor for our laws to control. A secular society is the foundation for a better future.

Who the President represents

Francis Saliba in the Times of Malta congratulates the President on his speech and argues that "we have in our midst a small but noisy unrepresentative secularist
section that misinterprets the "strict Church-State separation" as a
muzzling of our bishops' right to explain the teaching of the Church in
such matters as abortion, divorce and euthanasia even when addressing
their congregation inside the church."
Times of Malta link

President on Pope’s vision

The Times of Malta reports on what President Abela considers to be the Pope's most important messages to the Maltese in his recent visit. The Times also reports that the newly formed Malta Humanist Association criticised the President for rejecting the secular principles upon which many modern European democracies were founded and for confusing the disparate roles between Church and State by getting too involved in the papal visit preparations and even calling on the Maltese to attend High Mass at the Granaries.

It said it was requesting a meeting with the President to clarify these issues.

Link to Times article


The Malta Humanist Association was set up in a meeting attended by founding members on the 7th April 2011. The aims of the Association and a Statute were approved. A committee was also elected.

The aims of the association as summarised in the organisation's statute are -

  1. to promote Humanism in Malta by encouraging a greater knowledge of Humanism among its members and the wider community;
  2. to elaborate, and express publicly, humanist positions on issues of concern;
  3. To provide a forum for the intelligent exchange of ideas for those seeking fulfilment in an ethical secular life;
  4. to propose such legislation as is likely to facilitate the achievement of the Association's aims;
  5. to help develop, through open discussion, the moral basis of a secular Humanist society and encourage ethical practices within our own membership and the wider community;
  6. to engage with national and international Humanist organisations, thereby providing its members with information and access to a wider world of Humanist interest and cooperation.
  7. to help develop educational programs and Internet content focusing on secular ethics, science, history and critical thinking for members, their children, and the public at large as alternatives to supernatural interpretations of the human condition;
  8. to collaborate with other voluntary organisations in Malta, in Europe and elsewhere which have an interest in developing and achieving similar objectives;
  9. to take action within Malta, and within the world at large, to improve the conditions of humanity and denounce bigotry, intolerance, and the persecution of ideas
  10. to organise talks and other events for Humanists and the wider community;
  11. to engage in any other activities which are consistent with the principles of Humanism.

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