For the Love of God, Please Tick ‘No Religion’

On the 24th of April this year, the Central Statistics Office will carry out a census likely to reveal that an overwhelming amount of people in this country consider themselves to be Catholic. This comes almost eleven months after Ireland became the first country on earth to usher in same sex marriage, emphatically, through popular vote – in light of plummeting mass attendance and a native clergy that almost entirely consists of geriatrics.

I would never want to presume why so many people consider themselves to be Catholic, even if they don’t practice or follow the faith in any way, but if I was to offer one explanation it would be that Catholicism is seemingly embedded in Irish culture. Indeed, if I were to defend the line of thought that Ireland should preserve its reputation as a hotbed of Catholicism this is the argument that would hold the most sway.

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Catholicism and Irishness did indeed walk hand in hand, and for good reason. During the British occupation of this country, religion was something that acted as a refuge and a defence of Irish identity. In the face of foreign attempt to wipe out and destroy the very nature Irishness, Catholicism allowed Ireland to proudly stand as a separate entity. However, this argument that Roman Catholicism is integral to protecting the Irish identity lost its power about 100 years ago. During the recent commemorations for 1916 there was very little, if any, open discussion about the impact of fervent Catholicism on the Irish state – which is probably because it makes for very uncomfortable conversation.

Catholicism and Irishness did indeed walk hand in hand, and for good reason. During the British occupation of this country, religion was something that acted as a refuge and a defence of Irish identity.

Eamon De Valera’s 1937 constitution gave the Catholic Church special powers and was designed predominantly to keep women in the home and to transform Ireland into a rural, insular country. If somebody wanted to argue for the cultural legacy of Catholicism, then it is this which they must argue in favour of. The claim that a culture is enriched because of its close ties to Catholicism is quite frankly a laughable idea.

Samuel Beckett, one of the Nobel Prize winners produced by Ireland, famously stated that France in wartime was better than Ireland in peacetime – belaying the fact that James Joyce, Brian O’Nolan, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Brendan Behan and Frank O’Connor were some of the world renowned writers that found themselves denounced from the pulpit in Ireland. On a less abstract level, Catholicism created a culture where young men were trained to fear sex and young women were outright punished for it.

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Submission, shame and small mindedness all emerged from what was effectively the last theocracy in Western Europe, and it’s only in recent years that the full extent of the crimes the church inflicted and covered up – the Industrial Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, the families torn apart – have become fully apparent.

On a less abstract level, Catholicism created a culture where young men were trained to fear sex and young women were outright punished for it.

Regardless of faith, we still have to live with elements of church doctrine. Sometimes this can be pointless enough, such as not being able to buy alcohol on Good Friday. Sometimes it can be irritating; when a parent has to find a school that accommodates their child (97% of government funded primary schools have a Catholic ethos). At times, however, it can be a matter of life and death.

I can’t imagine how a person with any shred of decency wouldn’t be completely chilled to the bone when they recall that “This is a Catholic country” were the words uttered to Savita Halappanavar when she was denied a termination after suffering a miscarriage and septicaemia – a decision that ultimately condemned her to die. Endorsing Catholicism as a model for culture is to endorse a system that encourages repression, exclusion and silence.

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To switch sides momentarily and examine things from a religious perspective, I can only imagine how enraged the attitudes of some people in this country would make me were I religious. A friend of mine recently told me how disgusted they were at Christmas seeing nice, well-to-do types in the church who would otherwise ignore it every week of the year.

I can’t pick and choose what rules of the country I want to follow, only to turn to the state in times of stress or when I need comfort. It would be absurd and arrogant to treat faith in the same way.

Similarly, David McWilliams, in his excellent book The Popes Children (the best treatise on Celtic Tiger Ireland) claims that religious rituals, weddings, communions and confirmations have effectively become excuses to show off wealth and status – noting that the “business” of these rituals is still thriving in spite of falling mass numbers. I can only imagine how appalled I’d be that my faith was being re-appropriated as a display of wealth and status. I can’t pick and choose what rules of the country I want to follow, only to turn to the state in times of stress or when I need comfort. It would be absurd and arrogant to treat faith in the same way.

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A referendum on abortion is probably going to happen over the next eighteen months, and the results will possibly (hopefully?) show that Ireland is continuing to move away from Rome. The census at the end of April is also likely to reflect that Ireland is changing and becoming a more diverse and complex society. I would urge those who aren’t practitioners of faith to tick the No Religion box. It’s deeply insulting to those faithful to only pay lip service to the church when you want to show off at Christmas or at a wedding. To tick Catholic with only a tangible connection to the religion avoids reflecting the changes that have occurred in Ireland over the past five years.

(And please don’t tick Other because you consider yourself a Jedi. Surely Walt Disney doesn’t have that much control yet.)

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