Many humanists remember the tragic death of Ramon Casha, the very active President of the Malta Humanist Association in early 2017 after a motorbike accident.
Two years later, the association still draws power from his memory and is engaged in a number of battles: from lifting the taboo on abortion to providing a listening ear to people leaving their religion or contributing to a public consultation on cremation services.
We interviewed Roger Tirazona, the current President of the MHA about his organisation’s current endeavors and plans for the future.
Article 2 of the Maltese Constitution not only establishes Catholicism as a state religion; it also confers onto the Church “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.
EHF: How strong is the influence of the Catholic Church in Malta?
Roger Tirazona: The Constitution of Malta establishes the “Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion” as the religion of Malta, making Catholicism a state religion and the Catholic Church a state church. The Concordat signed with the Vatican further strengthens the ties between the state and the church.
However, when we look closely, Maltese society is changing and becoming more diverse and secular. People increasingly question their beliefs and develop their own understanding of their faith and religious practice. Another important sign is that church attendance is dropping. So even though many may identify as Catholic, or culturally Christian, they do not necessarily follow to the letter the doctrines of Catholicism.
Deciding to leave religion however can be a long and sometimes difficult process, especially when one is surrounded by a society where religion is very present. This is why we want to be there to help people on this path, if they so need. Since there is still a lot of social stigma against people who leave religion, publicly claiming one’s atheism can sometimes be difficult and for some people this is similar to the “coming out” of LGBTI people.
Furthermore, as they question their own faith, people also question public policies that are rooted in the dogmatic views of the Church. One clear example was the 2011 referendum on the legalization of divorce. The Catholic Church campaigned against it but in the end 53% of the population voted for the legalization. For us, the message was clear: the Church can hold its views but the Maltese society is moving on from this conservative or confessional vision of society. Other examples include the repealing of Malta’s blasphemy laws in 2016, making available Emergency contraception (Morning-After Pill) also in 2016, and legalising same-sex marriage in 2017 effectively amending the marriage law of Malta beyond the use of civil unions that were legalised in 2014.
All these elements invigorate and motivate us to pursue our work and present people our worldview based on reason, evidence, compassion and respect for human dignity and human rights.
To date there exists no multi-purpose room where non-religious funerals could be held, meaning that humanists have to find other solutions such as renting locations in hotels for instance, without the body of the deceased. This will now change.
Is religion’s role predominant in the education system?
Article 2 of the Maltese Constitution not only establishes Catholicism as a state religion; it also confers onto the Church “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong” and proclaims that “the religious teaching of Catholic faith shall be provided in all State schools as part of compulsory education.”
This not only automatically creates religion classes in all schools, it also commits the state to financing them. Up to recently, Maltese pupils had no other choice but to attend religion classes. In this way, their exposure to other worldviews was limited. Later in life, many people can feel betrayed that the education system never presented them with a more diverse picture that would have helped them make a more conscious choice.
However, in 2014, after a number of consultations in which the MHA also took part, an ethics course was introduced as an alternative for those pupils who chose not to attend the Catholic religious class. That course also discusses the Catholic religion but it approaches it from a secular point of view and considers other systems of beliefs and values as well.
Between 2014 and 2018, the number of pupils enrolled in the ethics course grew by 145%! The next step of course would be to generalize this pluralistic ethics course to all pupils. However, this first step is already an improvement.
In other sectors as well, we advocate for humanist alternatives to activities and services that are traditionally offered by religious organizations. This is the case of humanist chaplaincy. In April, we organized the event ‘Resilience during hardships: Is religion a necessity?’ During this event, we hosted a multi-faith panel where we discussed the fact that while certain people turn to religion in times of hardship, many others may not find any meaning in that. For those cases, the alternative is humanist chaplaincy, a domain in which we have also recently became active. We advocate for the development of humanist moral support in hospitals, prisons and other public institutions. We have recently launched our first humanist chaplaincy services with accredited chaplains trained in the UK.
You also provide celebrants for humanist ceremonies. We heard you have recently achieved new milestones with regard to humanist funerals.
Indeed, we operate a network of trained celebrants to mark important milestones in our lives in a very meaningful way. This includes weddings, funerals, baby naming ceremonies, and any other meaningful day that anyone wants to mark, including inaugurations of buildings or offices for example.
We have recently taken part in a government consultation on the issue of cremation. Up to now, people in Malta could only be buried. Cremations were only performed abroad to prohibitive expenses. To date there exists no multi-purpose room where non-religious body-present funerals could be held, meaning that humanists have to find other solutions such as renting locations in hotels for instance, without the body of the deceased. The reason for this is a public health concern. Till now we have only had Humanist memorials without the deceased’s body.
Therefore, the consultation on cremation services was a perfect opportunity to raise this issue.
The fundamental issue with abortion in Malta is the fact that those who oppose any depenalization or legalization also refuse the mere idea of discussing the issue. The result in the public opinion is that abortion is a taboo and people therefore do not even grasp the nuances of the debate.
We first and foremost called on the government to leave people the choice how to be memorialized based on their own beliefs. We proposed the creation of large enough multi-purpose rooms at a designated location, maybe adjacent to the crematorium, which would be neutral enough and where decorations from various denominations and worldviews could be displayed easily.
We also recommended having additional areas where celebrants and chaplains can provide their services and discuss the conducting of the funeral with the family as well as rooms for people to grieve together with the defunct body present before the cremation. We also emphasized the need to make sure that funerals with cremation do not cost more than traditional ones, so as to avoid indirect discrimination.
As Humanists we also suggested considerations for the cremation service to be as eco-friendly as possible, as our concern for the environment is an important part of our worldview.
We were very pleased in April when the MP in charge of the bill confirmed that most of our proposals would be taken on board of the new bill. She even included in her parliamentary speech a reference to our former President Ramon Casha who died 2 years ago and mentioned the cooperation with our association.
Among the many issues important for humanists, one is of particular relevance in Malta: abortion. Is the MHA active in this field as well?
Yes, we are! We have actually recently joined a coalition of NGO’s called Voice4Choice; a campaign aiming at developing sexual and reproductive health and rights in Malta, including access to safe and legal abortion.
In Malta, abortion is still fully banned, a situation that denies women their very basic right to bodily autonomy. And while a big part of the Maltese establishment makes tremendous efforts to keep this so, women who want to terminate their pregnancies are facing difficult choices that involve either travelling abroad in secrecy, undergoing illegal abortions or have recourse to self-medication. In any case, if there are complications, they cannot even go to see a doctor because they would accused of crime and risk years in jail.
The fundamental issue with abortion in Malta is the fact that those who oppose any depenalization or legalization also refuse the mere idea of discussing the issue. The result in the public opinion is that abortion is a taboo and people therefore do not even grasp the nuances of the debate, let alone understand the suffering of women, talk about practices in other countries, policy options or the wider topic of sexual and reproductive health.
This is why one of the first actions of Voice4Choice has been to launch a myth-busting campaign about abortion. We spread on social media a number of visuals that debunked the 30 most frequent myths about abortion. We have also teamed up with the Break The Taboo Malta Facebook page that gathers the stories of Maltese women who tell their experience with abortion. The page’s objective is to help everyone to gain insight into the various circumstances and situations surrounding abortion decisions. Recently we have welcomed as well the start of the Maltese ‘Doctors for Choice’ group who are also involved in a social media information campaign, which Malta so very much thirsts for.
We hope that soon, increased awareness will break the taboo, that we will be able to have a real debate and that we can initiate steps towards reforming this inhumane ban.