PRESENT TENSE:OCCASIONALLY, SHOULD the topic arise, I will describe myself as a card-carrying atheist. It’s rubbish, of course. Not the atheist bit – I have no more belief in God than you believe you’ll wake up tomorrow on Mars – but I have no card to prove it. The only evidence I have are regular bouts of self-righteousness and the groans that form deep in my throat every time I see a picture of someone in Rathkeale praying to a tree stump, writes SHANE HEGARTY
I’m down as an atheist in the census, on some document hidden away in a filing cabinet in the Central Statistics Office. Or, at least, I’m down as having “no religion”, which is true in one sense, but untrue in another. Because in a filing cabinet in an office of the Dublin diocese, I’m down as being one of theirs. If I carry a card of any sort, then, it’s as a member of the Catholic Church. However, if I somehow turn out to be wrong in my sincerely held disbeliefs and I do end up, upon death, being greeted by a personal God with a guest list that does not include my name, I doubt it’ll act as a get-out-of-hell-free card.
So, I’ve watched with interest the attention paid to CountMeOut.ie – the website set up to help anyone who wants to revoke their membership of the Catholic Church. It’s a simple site, and the idea equally so. “For many who no longer practise,” it says, “remaining ‘lapsed’ is not sufficient; a clean break is needed.” That it’s run by three people who variously described themselves as an agnostic, an athiest and a lapsed Catholic (although surely no longer) has helped soften its militancy a touch. It is not, it pointed out during the week, associated with Atheist Ireland, yet it is almost as if it is saying: “Atheism: now with less Dawkins.” As of yesterday, it claimed that over 1,300 people have used the site to complete a Declaration of Defection form. You can’t, obviously, be unbaptised, but you can be formally recognised as having defected. It’s nice wording, that. Two letters away from being a commentary on the individual’s personality. And it has “who’ll win the most souls” overtones for those who like their religion in old-style battlefield terms.
Once the initial flurry of interest calms, though, it will be sure to slow down a bit, because one of the very things the site identifies – that people remain members of a church they never asked to join – is the very reason that church will continue to have many members for years to come.
Ireland remains a Catholic nation, by and large, but how many of those are not so much lapsed Catholics, but socialised Catholics? They are people who don’t feel part of the church, yet are not only members but occasional participants because that is what offers the path of least resistance through our society.
Obviously, most religious affiliation comes through socialisation. No one is born Catholic or Protestant or Muslim or Jewish. You just happen to be born into a family whose roots are in a community that at some point in the past affiliated themselves to one of those religions. After that, it becomes far more difficult, and far too much hassle, to opt out than to stay in.
In Ireland, many of us live our lives to the long beat of a religious drum. Baptism, first communion, confirmation, marriage, baptism of our children, their various religious landmarks and finally, a church funeral. A few break away from this routine and go their own way. Most do not. Many of those who stay in step do so for reasons that have little to do with belief: family expectations; doing it because their spouse wants to; getting their kids into a school. Or because this is simply what they are used to, that’s what happens here.
In Ireland now, socialisation is the firm basis for much of the soft religious affiliation that allows the Catholic Church to justifiably claim to represent a vast proportion of the population. If those early rituals were to be removed – if, most obviously, the majority of schools were no longer infused with a religious ethos – that impetrative would be diluted significantly, and the steps would gradually fall away.
Fewer people would be co-opted on to that ladder from birth and the strange charade that so many Irish believers and non-believers currently feel compelled to engage in wouldn’t be necessary. And fewer would ultimately need to turn to a website that points them to the small print of how to revoke their membership.