Religious instinct will outlive evangelical secularists
Populist rants of Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins insult intelligence as well as the faithful
The writer Clive James defined blasphemy as mocking the sincerely-held religious views of people. It’s a fair definition.
And even though many would believe that blasphemy as an offence shouldn’t be in the Constitution, it doesn’t give anyone the right to be so gratuitously offensive as Stephen Fry was about a God whom he professes not to believe in, especially on a public broadcasting service. Though we shouldn’t be too surprised.
We’re getting used to it – from the casual insults by commentators anxious to advertise what they imagine is some form of sophistication to the anti-Catholic groupthink so obvious in some publications to the venom of individuals whose derision of Catholicism and by extension Christianity must surely emanate from some bitter personal experience.
Understandable, yes. Predictable too. In an article he completed for the Guardian shortly before he died, John McGahern wrote: “When a long abuse of power is corrected, it is generally replaced by an opposite violence. In the new dispensation all that was good in what went before is tarred indiscriminately with the bad.”
Avalanche of abuse
McGahern’s words explain to some degree the avalanche of abuse that rained down on the Sisters of Charity over the National Maternity Hospital controversy and why a record of selfless service of the vast majority of religious men and women is so easily expunged from public consciousness.
His words explain both the growing religious intolerance of our society and the parallel effort, unviable and probably impossible, to build a secular society.
The difficult truth for evangelical secularists such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry is that the religious instinct is so ingrained in human nature it is never likely to disappear, even when it’s derided and suppressed.
And particularly so in societies such as Ireland, steeped for centuries in religious vocabulary, emblems and iconography, what McGahern memorably described as “part of the very weather of our lives”.
Seamus Heaney wrote about the fresh, instinctual energy his words achieved when they hovered around his home ground in Co Derry and he attributed that to the sense of the transcendental that fired his sense of place.
A one-size-fits-all notion of Catholic or Christian pays little respect to the complexity of the individual faith journey
For him, the local landscape was sacramental, a system of signs that drew on deep reservoirs of religious feeling and thinking. John O’Donohue, writer and poet, drew on the same language when he described his beloved Burren as “a tabernacle of God’s presence”.
Heaney’s green rushes were a link into St Brigid and the crosses that decked rooms and houses; while buttercups on windowsills became a midsummer rite when memory of a pagan goddess morphed into the Virgin Mary.
For the Virgin Mary – intercessor, Star of the Sea, Mother of Mercy – occupied in common psychology the place of the muse in poetic psychology. (Little wonder that Heaney regarded the “Catholic” poet as lucky in that he saw the Virgin Mary as preserving the feminine in the structure of Catholicism.)
McGahern, Heaney and O’Donohue went into areas at odds with the constraints of institutional Christianity and ended with a very individual view of the world. The truth is we all do that in our own way.
We refine our religious sensibility, with some beliefs moving into the background and others into the foreground, as knowledge and experience produce a workable and authentic faith.
While this process is often unfairly caricatured as an “a-la-carte” approach to Christianity, the truth is that we are complex beings with individual and varied experiences, instincts and personalities and selection is the way we function as human beings. A one-size-fits-all notion of Catholic or Christian pays little respect to the complexity of the individual faith journey.
In simple terms, achieving an adult faith is an individual quest.
Against the poetic sensibilities of McGahern, Heaney and O’Donohue, the populist rantings of those who have no sense of God, such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, are not just simplistic and patronising but insulting to those who treasure their religious faith and indeed to our intelligence.
But rather than seeking to quell their voices by appealing to a definition of blasphemy in our Constitution, we need to take our arguments into the public square, despite the opposition of those who imagine that anyone criticising the Catholic Church in Ireland today is always right.