The conflict between theists and atheists has become a godawful bore

For large sections of the population, Christianity is of no more interest than astrology, flat-Earthism or water dousing. It is no longer even worth rejecting.

Shusaku Endo's translators chose a good English-language title for the Japanese writer's most famous novel. The protagonist of Silence, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary, is much concerned with God's reluctance to communicate with man. The pestilence, earthquakes and famines were bad enough. But Fr Rodrigues seems more worried about being ignored.

The missionary’s successors often express similar feelings about contemporary nonbelievers. If you rage against the Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians and snake handlers then you admit their consequence. A sincere expression of unconcern is, for them, more worrying. Better to be a threat than an irrelevance. Would it kill the atheists just to pick up the phone?

Such thoughts are kicked up by two recent pieces in The Irish Times. Gerry O'Hanlon S J wrote a polite rejoinder to my unconvinced review of Martin Scorsese's current adaptation of Silence. Fr O'Hanlon argues that I am blinded to "the dramatic human dilemma involved in an historical instance of the rights of conscience and the contested issue of religious belief in the public square".

This seems a strange reading of the film (which I assume he has seen). Silence is set at a time when the Catholic Church, still at home to the Inquisition, had little tolerance for "rights of conscience" that in any way challenged its own doctrine.


Meaningless quandary

The dilemma at the heart of Scorsese’s picture, which sends Rodrigues to an unforgiving Japan, is more theological than sociological. Should a person denounce God if that denunciation saves innocent citizens from torture and death? Of course they should. The supposed quandary is meaningless to any responsible human not swayed by superstition.

Fr O’Hanlon seems more concerned about “religious belief in the public square”. He suggests that my attitude is characteristic of a “dialogue of the deaf” that continues between “secularists and religious believers in Ireland”. I can hear perfectly well. I’m just not interested.

Loose application of the word "secular" was also much in evidence throughout Father Brian McKevitt's less friendly essay a day earlier. The editor of the hugely conservative Alive! newspaper is concerned that modern society is dominated by "aimless secularist view of human life and the ideology of choice". Apparently, secularism is now "Ireland's State religion".

This is so absurd it is hardly worth rebutting. The cliche states correctly that atheism is a religion in the same way that baldness is a hair colour. But we are not even talking about atheism here. Secularists argue that religion should play no part in government institutions or in public life. Such people may well be atheists. Then again, they may prefer their religion to be untainted by political compromise.

“Secularism rejects all hope of happiness or salvation beyond the earthly,” Fr McKevitt argues. No, it doesn’t. Secularism rejects the notion that any religion should have control over schooling or should determine health policy. It rejects state acknowledgment of an established religion. Considerations of what goes on “beyond the earthly” are left to the citizen and his or her advisers. Secularism is neither a belief system nor a moral code. This is not a failing. We do not ask for moral lessons from dentistry or plate tectonics either.

Terminal lack of interest

The language used in such debates has shifted. The self-defeating evangelicalism of the so-called new atheists – Richard Dawkins and that mob – has made a straight fight between belief and disbelief exhausting. More significantly, religious apologists have begun to realise that the greater danger is now terminal lack of interest. Any intelligent proselytising vicar would have enjoyed squaring up to the late, militantly antitheist Christopher Hitchens.

His articulate anger could be read as a class of involuntary respect. It is more disheartening to be greeted with an uninterested shrug. As argued above, “secularism” is not quite the right word for their current enemy, but that very imprecision allows the religious apologist to allow in a larger body of dissenters. They are now not just addressing those who actively resist. They are addressing those who couldn’t care less.

Fr McKevitt argues that we should all approach “the church” with an open mind. Fr O’Hanlon generously invites me to join the move towards a “constructive synergy”. These are reasonable enough requests. But there remains a stubborn assumption that the Christian belief system is hard-wired into any conversation about the nature of existence. For large sections of the population, Christianity is of no more interest than astrology, flat-Earthism or the tenets of water dousing. It is no longer even worth rejecting.

Mind you, the faith has triggered much beautiful music, elegant poetry and the odd fine film. By all means, give Silence a go. But it does not bear comparison with Pier Paolo Pasolini's sublime The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Pasolini was a communist, you know.