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Has Ireland elected an agnostic president?

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William Crawley | 10:37 UK time, Saturday, 29 October 2011

During the election campaign, Michael D Higgins, Ireland's new president, described himself as "spiritual", rather than religious. I suspect that means he is not a member of any institutional church, but that his mind and heart are open to a sense of transcendence.


The term "spiritual" is a strange one, since even some agnostics are happy to apply it to their sense of wonder at the world. By some definitions, Richard Dawkins might even be described as "spiritual", just as the agnostic Albert Einstein was. Seamus Heaney is one of the most "spiritual" poets one could find, but he, too, tells us he is agnostic on the existence of God.

This is worth noting because it would appear that the people of Ireland have just elected the least institutionally-religious of the available candidates for president. That may tell us something about the current cultural mood in Ireland. Or it may simply tell us that they made a last-minute dash away from Sean Gallagher.

In any case, Michael D Higgins will have to use some explicitly religious language when he takes the oath of office. A constitutional convention is due to review the wording of the oath next year (along with other proposed reforms), and the new president has already signalled his support for a change to more inclusive terms. But when he steps up to take the oath, Michael D will be asked to invite the help of a Being whose existence he may privately question.

The oath reads (Article 12.8):

"In the presence of Almighty God, I ... do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, that I will fulfil my duties faithfully and conscientiously in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I see no conflict between being "spiritual" & being able to take the Oath of Office.
    Most spiritualist, including myself, belief in a transcendent one or oneness that unites the universe; most of the time, spiritualists are eclectic, accepting what they can (in good conscience), from all religions.
    If I were taking this oath, I would have no problem with "In the presence of Almighty God" because like William Blake (Auguries of Innocence), I can see God everywhere & appreciate God in all things. Not would I have a problem with: "May God direct and sustain me." In fact, as a spiritualist the Oath would remind me that I act for the one, or the oneness.
    I wish more leaders were eclectic and not chained by religious tenets, but by the love & compassion os the heart.

  • Comment number 2.

    In the 21st century I would prefer that the President of my country was not sustained and certainly not directed by an imaginary sky daddy.

  • Comment number 3.

    BTW good to see you back William.

  • Comment number 4.

    paul james (@ 2) -

    In the 21st century I would prefer that the President of my country was not sustained and certainly not directed by an imaginary sky daddy.


    I am sure virtually everyone on the planet would agree with that, especially considering that, as far as I am aware, there is not one country on earth in which the head of state (or government) is sustained and directed by an "imaginary sky daddy" (unless these people have a secret arrangement with such a strange being).

    Please name one constitution that mentions or appeals to an "imaginary sky daddy". I certainly can't think of one.

    (In fact... if you don't mind my asking, Paul, but what exactly is an "imaginary sky daddy"??!)

  • Comment number 5.

    Well I don't know Lsv, America came pretty close with Bush jnr :P

  • Comment number 6.

    Hooray for Michael D. He’s someone the Irish can look up to, perhaps not physically but morally and intellectually and spiritually.

    'Spiritual' means 'of, or relating to, the human spirit'. Most of us have a spiritual dimension, even if we do not believe in the supernatural. Call it artistic creativity; love, compassion, tolerance etc; mental well-being; our highest ideals, a sense of awe at the mystery of the universe, or whatever. The ancients referred to the ‘music of the spheres’, while Freud called spiritual experience ‘oceanic feelings of self-transcendence’.

    It is another one of those terms which the religious have tried to hijack, like 'moral'. Indeed, we could go further and say that traditional monotheistic religious belief is a perversion of spirituality, in the same way that pornography is a perversion of sexuality.

    Religion is something we can do without, and indeed we would be better without it. Spirituality is something we cannot do without because it relates to those qualities that make us human and make us strive to reach our fullest potential.

    I agree, Paul. We do not want our Presidents to be sustained and directed by an imaginary sky daddy (aka 'God')

  • Comment number 7.

    (In fact... if you don't mind my asking, Paul, but what exactly is an "imaginary sky daddy"??!)

    I admit I did assume that the oath referred to the christian god, although I do apologise if Mr Higgins is in fact a Pastafarian.

  • Comment number 8.

    Does God get an invitation to the inauguration service?

    where do they send such an invitation?

    Will this mean a huge boost to tourism in Ireland when fanatics from all over the globe, who go to places of moving statues and alleged visitation, who want to see God, flock to Ireland to see God who will be present when the president elect is sworn in?

    And which God is it? The free presbyterian one? or one of the others? Even the bible suggests that there are more than one "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." that is in the Authorized KJV so even the Free P's believe that, the word 'US' in "And God said, Let us" means there are more than one, and as the finished work was male and female one of the God's is female

  • Comment number 9.

    Oaths to God and how essential they are.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm-Mi1_lLo0

  • Comment number 10.

    Always good to hear George Carlin on religion RJB.
    However my I refer you to the esteemed Theologian St James of Cliff,
    "Let your yeah be yeah and your no be no, now"

  • Comment number 11.

    paul james (@ 7) -

    I admit I did assume that the oath referred to the christian god, although I do apologise if Mr Higgins is in fact a Pastafarian.


    Are you suggesting, Paul, that "an imaginary sky daddy" refers to the "christian god"? Hmmm. How very strange. This is all new to me, because...

    1. The "christian god" (or should I say "Christian God" - or, more accurately, simply "God") is not imaginary (except in the desperate wishful thinking of philosophically challenged naturalists).

    2. What has the "sky" got to do with the "Christian God" (as distinct from any other bit of nature - or should I say "creation")?

    3. The "daddy" bit (cringe cringe) is the only bit that could conceivably have any connection at all with the "Christian God".

    Still, I suppose if you want to exercise your imagination by making up the idea that there are countries of the world dedicated to "an imaginary sky daddy", then I guess that is your "artistic" prerogative.

    Have fun with that, my friend.

  • Comment number 12.

    brianmcclinton (@ 6) -

    Religion is something we can do without, and indeed we would be better without it.


    Please define what you mean by the word "religion".

  • Comment number 13.

    Paul

    I still think there is a place for braille, back to front, Bibles, in Chinese with some pages missing.

    There's a thing, if there were to be sections of the Bible missed out, which sections would you choose to lose?

  • Comment number 14.

    Can you imagine a fundamentalist Christian president of the US with his finger on the nuclear trigger being directed and sustained by "his" god?.....................oh wait...

  • Comment number 15.

    RJB
    The Jefferson Bible perhaps?

  • Comment number 16.

    lol rjb, gotta love George Carlin :D

  • Comment number 17.

    brianmcclinton (@ 6) -

    It is another one of those terms which the religious have tried to hijack, like 'moral'. Indeed, we could go further and say that traditional monotheistic religious belief is a perversion of spirituality, in the same way that pornography is a perversion of sexuality.

    Religion is something we can do without, and indeed we would be better without it.


    You say that we would be better without what you term "religion". I assume that you are talking about atheism as an improvement on theism. You also lament the fact that "morality" is a concept hijacked by the religious.

    Now I have to say that I would prefer to live in a theocratic society (for all its problems) than in a society, which runs according to the kind of thinking advocated by certain atheists, such as newlach. This is someone who believes it is justifiable to execute babies, whom he considers are "likely" to grow up to become a danger to society (see the recent Open Thread).

    Is this the kind of "atheist morality" that you think would be better for us than the morality of "religion"?

    And if you decide to disown newlach and his ideas, then on what basis can you do so? He is an atheist (as far as I am aware), and therefore his morality has as much validity as that of any other atheist. Are you going to dispute that? (And if you feel tempted to assert that there are "good atheists" and "bad atheists", then why not apply the same indulgence to so-called "religious" people?)

    Furthermore, for all his faults, I think I would much prefer to live in the America of George W. Bush (of whom I am certainly not a fan) than the Russia of Joseph Stalin. Any attempt to argue that Stalin was not an atheist and that the Soviet regime (both during and after Stalin) was not motivated by philosophical materialism and atheism, will not find any support in the historical record.

    So, in the light of this, in what way would an atheist society be "better" than one in which "religion" operated to some extent?

  • Comment number 18.

    this morning i walked a riverbank near my home and returned to my car to hear the end of the programme and the chat about the agnostic views of people like Michael D Higgins, Seamus Heaney and others and i felt in good company. I think its right to question the existence of a god. i have a spiritual appreciation of the world around us which is why i feel better worshiping it with a walk on a sunday morning than attending any religious event. i believe there is something spiritual about life and the world we live in but i cant explain it. Michael D Higgins will make a fine Irish President with his agnostic outlook on life.

  • Comment number 19.

    I think Christians are going to have to own up to the whole clouds and God in the sky thing.

    Here are some reasons that art historically depicted God as a male-father-creator, located in the firmament (including much Christian art depicting the ‘Heavenly’ Father). It’s not unreasonable that people still use ‘sky (whatever)’ either as reverence or sarcasm.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_father

    A camera named after God’s omniscience:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_in_the_sky_(camera)


    However (sigh of relief), this, from Louise L. Hay (a living saint to some):

    “I find it hard to believe that the vast, incredible Intelligence that created this entire Universe is only an old man sitting on a cloud above the Planet Earth…watching my genitals! Yet so many of us were taught this concept as a child.” (Hmm. Courtesy of who/what institution(s), I wonder….)

  • Comment number 20.

    LSV

    I would prefer to live in a theocratic society

    Lets see, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Oman and Iran or indeed the holy see. Plenty of choice there.

  • Comment number 21.

    Paul James

    Lol! I will be ordering that Bible tomorrow. Brilliant. And 'Bang!' fundamentalists disappear in a puff of logic.

  • Comment number 22.

    Ryan

    Had I discovered George Carlin 20 years ago, I think my sermons would have been very different. Legend!

  • Comment number 23.

    rjb, you'd have given a few aul grannies heartattacks in the pews ;p

  • Comment number 24.

    Frankly, the new Irish President can and should say whatever he wants at the oath-taking ceremony. Since MD Higgins stood out to be considered as the next President of Ireland, he was probably aware what he had to say at the start of the journey: the oath ceremony.
    If he took the unconventional route of a more personally satisfying self-concocted oath. Why then is he a President of Ireland? Is he, as Wiki says “does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion”.
    If, he sticks to convention. Is he on a redemptive path to a more spiritual journey than his current being?
    No wonder, we have a lot of problems with elected officials. We cannot even see what they stand for.

  • Comment number 25.

    LSV:

    I define religion as a set of beliefs which ascribe the cause, nature and purpose of the universe to a superhuman agency or agencies (imaginary sky daddies), and which also usually involves devotional worship of that agency.

    You demand definitions yet are annoyingly free and loose with your own terminology. An atheist to you is thus anyone who is not religious, uncertain about religion or who rejects religion. The word ‘agnostic’, which was used in relation to the Thread’s topic, is thus ignored. The alternative to a theocratic society is a Stalinist one, etc.

    The result is that, as Paul James aptly demonstrated, you dug a theocratic hole for yourself.

    A little more subtlety or nuanced thinking might be of benefit to yourself and others who are engaging with you, LSV.

    Why don't you address one of the questions posed by William. Do YOU think it is possible to be spiritual without being religious?

  • Comment number 26.

    He's wise, sensible, experienced- that's why he's a good choice for president. Best man won

  • Comment number 27.

    paul james (@ 20) -

    Lets see, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Oman and Iran or indeed the holy see. Plenty of choice there.


    I bet you had a little thrill writing that! I'm happy for you. I really am!

    It's such a pity that you vainly attempt to counter the comment of a Christian by listing Muslim theocratic nations. Well done!

    Still, I suppose it's "guilt by association": i.e. anyone who believes in "God" has to be held responsible for any conceivable understanding of the concept (even those ideas they adamantly reject!!), according to "village atheist playbook" thinking. Personally I think you need to avail yourself of a more up-to-date version of the playbook, 'cos that edition is getting a bit boring (I think people are getting a bit weary of all the pictures of little men made of straw).

    Oh, by the way... I guess the freezing Gulag is OK, is it? As well as killing babies who "oh so clever atheists" think will grow up to be criminals? Just asking. Feel free to disown your mates newlach and cuddly Uncle Joe...

  • Comment number 28.

    LSV

    I would prefer to live in a theocratic society

    Dude you must be more precise in your comments, after all so many gods so little time.

  • Comment number 29.

    LSV:

    You say: "It's such a pity that you vainly attempt to counter the comment of a Christian by listing Muslim theocratic nations. Well done!"

    Well, of course, that was your fault and you walked into it. You said you would prefer a theocratic state and did not specify any particular of theocracy. As I say, it's an example of your loose phraseology.

    In terms of the faith there may be basic differences, but what differences would there be for the likes of the rest of us?

  • Comment number 30.

    @21. romejellybeen:
    The Jefferson Bible's for sale through the gift shop at Monticello in Charlottesville.You can order one online I'm pretty sure.
    In America, Jefferson's admired for his intelligence & creative pursuits but he was a bit flakey.His architecture looks great but didn't have the structural integrity to hold up without major repairs. Something akin to his bible.

  • Comment number 31.

    LSV,

    Would you think that a christian theocracy would fully respect and include those of us who do not fit with it's ideals whether it be by belief (or lack of it), personal morality or sexual diversity?. Do you think a christian theocracy could be robust enough to ensure that it was not overtaken by fundamentalists who would actively oppress dissenting voices?

    You could start off with a CofE and end up with a Christian Voice theocracy. Could you give allegiance to a CV theocracy or would you become an oppressed minority (or majority)?

  • Comment number 32.

    An interesting article here - ideal reading for those who like to tar all theists with the same brush, especially concerning the Church's relationship to the State.

  • Comment number 33.

    brianmcclinton (@ 6) -

    Religion is something we can do without, and indeed we would be better without it.


    and then...

    brianmcclinton (@ 25) -

    I define religion as a set of beliefs which ascribe the cause, nature and purpose of the universe to a superhuman agency or agencies (imaginary sky daddies), and which also usually involves devotional worship of that agency.


    So you claim that the best option for the human race is to believe that we are all the result of mindless and unguided processes? And those who believe that there is ultimately a purpose to life and a reason for our existence, are detrimental to human well-being?

    I find your reasoning extraordinary. I completely fail to see the causal connection between mindlessness as the basis of reality and the highest possible level of human well-being. Perhaps if you could explain the causal connection to me, that would be really helpful.

    By the way... you find the style of my comments "annoying", and yet you are quite happy to slip into immaturity mode with the use of the following wording: "imaginary sky daddies". Double standards, perhaps?

    As for the idea of "spirituality": is it possible to be spiritual and not religious?

    My answer: it is impossible for a living human being NOT to be spiritual, because there is a real spiritual dimension to life. In fact, that is what life is, essentially. No one can deny the true basis of their own humanity, no matter how much they may try to deny it intellectually, and contrive to explain everything in terms of impossibly self-assembled material mechanics.

    We are not soulless and spirit-less machines (zombies, in other words), as the anthropologically challenged and anti-humanistic philosophy of materialism asserts (so graphically revealed through the deeply disturbing "moral" ideas of newlach, which I notice you have chosen to skate over).

  • Comment number 34.

    anthropologically challenged

    That would be "the scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans"
    as opposed to, once upon a time four thousand years ago Adam and Eve met this talking snake........

  • Comment number 35.

    Higgins should just take the oath of office as a tradition, rather than as some sort of affirmation.

    I can recite the Lord's Prayer at a funeral, etc for social reasons without actually believing I'm talking to some incorporeal being.

  • Comment number 36.

    33. logica_sine_vanitate wrote (replying to brianmcclinton (@ 6)

    "So you claim that the best option for the human race is to believe that we are all the result of mindless and unguided processes?"

    If you mean 'unguided' in the sense of 'not intelligently controlled' then yes. We should accept whatever the best evidence points toward.

    Have you got a problem with the truth?

  • Comment number 37.

    I urge President Higgins to be a voice for the Survivors, and for all the children, past, present and future, to bring empathy and clarity to bear on Irish Governance, to be fearless in this, to use his privileged position to help Irish Society to undergo changes that are healthy, that are geared towards the long term, that are nurturant of life and that make the abuse of Power a thing of the past.

    He used the term 'Historical Trauma' in one of his speeches. He must now bring this phrase and it's meaning to the fore, because it is this that has driven the dysfunctional behaviour of so many, inside of politics and outside for centuries.

    Greed is a learned behaviour. Abuse is a learned behaviour.

    The psychology of any given Society is both revealed and perpetuated in how that Society treats it's children. To change the Society, we MUST change how we relate to and treat all our children, for they are the future..

  • Comment number 38.

    newdwr@35
    The unthinking acceptance of tradition does no-one any favours. Would you swear an oath to a god in court rather than affirm in case you offend someone?

  • Comment number 39.

    LSV (33):

    You write: "So you claim that the best option for the human race is to believe that we are all the result of mindless and unguided processes? And those who believe that there is ultimately a purpose to life and a reason for our existence, are detrimental to human well-being?"

    My definition of religion did not imply the above at all. ‘The best option to believe’ is an unfortunate phrase because it suggests that we can choose what to believe whether it is true or not. I don’t like it.

    “We are the result of mindless and unguided processes”. Who are ‘we’ in this statement? Do you mean ‘we’ when we emerged from the slime or ‘we’ today? After all, there is a difference. Or do you believe that ‘we’ emerged in a garden of Eden with exactly the same intelligence and development as we are today?

    We evolved and our powers evolved and we put our mind to our evolution. Human morality has evolved as we have evolved.

    This leads me to the second part of your statement. We invent our purposes and reasons. For some people, it is collecting butterflies. For others, it is reading mythical tales and finding significance in them.

    Read Steven Pinker’s brilliant new book, reviewed here. It’s all in it (page 22 of Humanism Ireland, November-December issue):

    http://www.humanistni.org/filestore/file/hi%20november%202011.pdf

  • Comment number 40.

    newdwr54 (@ 36) -

    Have you got a problem with the truth?


    Gosh no!! What ever gave you that idea?

    The whole reason why I contribute on this blog is because I am passionate about the truth, and also about exposing lies. One of the biggest lies is, of course, the philosophy of naturalism, which is epistemologically impossible (being self-contradictory), and therefore, by definition, a lie.

    I am also very enthusiastic about accepting the explanation supported by the best evidence - hence my commitment to an intelligent creator. The evidence of complexity supports that explanation and cannot possibly support the alternative fantasy that you seem to have convinced yourself is "true" (although quite what the word "true" means within the rationally subjective naturalistic world view is difficult to imagine!).

  • Comment number 41.

    39 brianmcclinton

    Steven Pinker talks to Philip Dodd about his new book on tonight's edition of Night Waves on Radio 3.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016kdyt

  • Comment number 42.

    Newlach:

    Thanks for that. Pinker was on Newsnight last night and has an article in The Guardian today at:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/booksblog/2011/nov/01/violence-misery-wars-steven-pinker

    See also Madeleine Bunting at:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/01/steven-pinker-violence-in-decline

  • Comment number 43.

    Here's the link to John Gray's review of Pinker mentioned in Brian's:

    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/09/john-gray-steven-pinker-violence-review/

    And a post about Gray's review of Pinker over at the Practical Ethics blog at Oxford University:

    http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2011/10/has-violence-declined-john-gray-on-steven-pinker/

  • Comment number 44.

    I don't know what, if any, religious views Higgins holds. What I do know is that - although I'm sure he's convinced he's some kind of funky radical still manning the barricades just like in 1969 - he's actually just another liberal establishment grandee. The fact that my compatriots continuously buy into the shallowness of people like Higgins is indicative of an increasingly characterless population. I suspect that the British were right about us way back in the 19th century when they thought of us as savages with pigs in the parlours.

  • Comment number 45.

    38. paul james wrote:

    "The unthinking acceptance of tradition does no-one any favours. Would you swear an oath to a god in court rather than affirm in case you offend someone?"

    Normally I would affirm. But yes, if there were someone there that I knew to be vulnerable, or who really wanted me to take an oath, then I would do so. It doesn't hurt me to carry on with the pretence.

    Some people really *need* this belief in God that they have. Belief gives them comfort that unbelief would deny to them.

    It doesn't hurt you or I to play along. We don't always have to be martyrs.

  • Comment number 46.

    40. logica_sine_vanitate wrote:

    "One of the biggest lies is, of course, the philosophy of naturalism, which is epistemologically impossible (being self-contradictory), and therefore, by definition, a lie."

    You see, that's the problem. You simply dismiss naturalistic explanations of human origins as "lies". 'Lying' is a pejorative term. It implies that great thinkers like Darwin and Wallace simply sat around thinking up a pack of lies to explain the natural world they saw around them.

    I don't believe they did. I believe they were very honest in what they thought and wrote - painfully honest in fact, because in Darwin's case it caused him great angst and personal problems. He could easily have taken the point of view that it wasn't worth the trouble.

    But he persevered because he was, above all else, an honourable man. He saw a certain 'truth' in nature (perhaps not the ultimate 'truth') and, against considerable opposition from the church and from his own family members, he brought it into the public domain.

    To dismiss a man like that as a simple purveyor of lies argues against your case in my view, not for it.

  • Comment number 47.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 48.

    Higgins is testament to how far the Republic has come & how far the North has yet to go

  • Comment number 49.

    ok, since I've only had 3 hrs sleep and a difficult day, 47 wasn't the wisest comment.

  • Comment number 50.

    Newdwr@45

    Nope. Finished with playing along.

  • Comment number 51.

    Casur 1 (44):

    You jest, surely. Higgins was the LEAST shallow of the candidates: a university lecturer, recipient of a peace prize, author, poet, broadcaster.

    As for the remark about savages, Higgins was also the most CIVILISED of the candidates. He certainly didn’t murder anybody or order the murdering of anybody, or lie his way through the campaign about it all. He stood above the bickering and mud-slinging of some of the others in the campaign.

  • Comment number 52.

    Higgins was the LEAST shallow of the candidates: a university lecturer, recipient of a peace prize, author, poet...
    Well said. Can only hope .44's wee-casur (weak a**) comment was made in jest & not a cheap 'shot' to annoy

  • Comment number 53.

    50: paul,

    Fair enough. I understand the feeling.

  • Comment number 54.

    newdwr54 (@ 46) -

    You see, that's the problem. You simply dismiss naturalistic explanations of human origins as "lies". 'Lying' is a pejorative term. It implies that great thinkers like Darwin and Wallace simply sat around thinking up a pack of lies to explain the natural world they saw around them.

    ...

    To dismiss a man like that as a simple purveyor of lies argues against your case in my view, not for it.


    Are you really the same person who dismissed theology as "bunk" - i.e. you used a pejorative term?

    So you attribute honesty to someone like Charles Darwin, but deny that same indulgence to those who hold a worldview, with which you disagree?

    You have dismissed my view of reality as "bunk", but then you get upset that I dismiss your view of reality as "lies".

    In other words, there is one rule for the "poor suffering" naturalist, who is sacrificially going against the flow (ha ha!) to discover what he convinces himself is "the truth", but there is another rule for the theist, who is derided and, concerning his motives, is not given the benefit of any doubt whatsoever!

    I think your inconsistency tells me all I need to know about your view of reality, never mind your integrity.

  • Comment number 55.

    I have just been informed that Michael D Higgins has requested a reflection from a Humanist at his inauguration on Friday ( RTE from 11 am). It will be given by Suzi Kennedy of the Humanist Association of Ireland.

  • Comment number 56.

    Oaths are quite meaningless really since lying is required for the show.

    Anyone heading to court is well advised to find out if the judge is a believer and then fake the oath in a ritual of inanity.

    A few years ago the University of Toronto moved to change oaths from being religious to secular hence no need for anyone to lie.

  • Comment number 57.

    Has agnosticism presided over an Irish electorate?

 

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