Inclusive pluralism is the way forward for Irish society


RITE AND REASON:There is need for real and civil debate on how believers and unbelievers can live in post-Christendom Ireland, writes PATRICK MITCHEL

The recent Sex, Sin and Societysurvey (Sept 15th) in this newspaper clearly demonstrated that “Christendom Ireland” is dead.

Similar polls have shown that people holding to traditional Christian ethics are in a decreasing minority.

By Christendom I mean a time when the church exercised freely given and virtually unlimited, religious, social and political power.

We are well into the uncharted waters of “post-Christendom” which is shaped by a very different set of beliefs, such as:

Pluralism; where the reality of the plurality of cultures, religions, and beliefs within modern societies makes it a necessity for the State to accommodate all and privilege none.

Tolerance and equality; where all beliefs and behaviours (within the law) should be tolerated and where all citizens must be treated equally regardless of their beliefs or lifestyles.

Individual choice and human rights; where human freedom of choice is an ultimate right.

Increasing separation of church and State; in the sense of the continuing dismantling of the legal legacy of Catholic Ireland.

If it’s obvious that we are leaving the past behind, what is much less clear is what sort of future Irish society we want to live in.

How can agnostics, secularists, Christians, atheists and people of other religions all live together in a post-Christendom Ireland?

It seems to me that there is a real need for a thoughtful and civil debate on how we can shape a truly inclusive plural society if the future is not to be marked by a continuous and acrimonious “culture war” between opposing groups.

Too often the loudest voices are those which want to exclude and defeat their opponents.

Some religious people appear to be fighting to hold onto control of the steering wheel to turn the ship around back into Christendom waters.

For example, some opposition to the Civil Partnership Bill passed in the Dáil last July argued, in effect, that it was the State’s duty to legislate for Christian morality.

That was how it used to be, but such hopes are increasingly unsustainable and unrealistic.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for one recognises this:

“The problem is that many in Ireland and in the church in Ireland have not yet understood the full extent of the cultural change taking place and continue to act as if we were still simply living in a culture with a Catholic majority.”

For understandable reasons, some secular people want to navigate a course away from Christendom’s shores as fast and as far as possible.

More extreme voices seem to want to throw religious people off the ship altogether or at least keep them confined to their quarters where they can talk to themselves but not bother anyone else with their views.

The problem with such attitudes is that they are simultaneously inconsistent and patronising.

They are inconsistent because they directly conflict with the values of tolerance, pluralism and equality described above.

It is a feeble form of pluralism that only respects views it agrees with.

They are patronising because they assume that secularism has some sort of innate superiority over religion.

This leads political theorists like John Rawls to assert that those holding to “comprehensive doctrines” (such as religious beliefs) have no legitimate place in public debate.

Others argue that religious people have “no right” to seek to convert others to their faith.

But these are just intolerant power plays and should be recognised as such.

No, what we need in Ireland is a civil debate about how to construct a society which is marked by a truly inclusive pluralism where difference is genuinely tolerated out of respect for a person’s humanity and freely chosen ethics.

Such tolerance is a civic virtue which can benefit all citizens

and not just the “winners” who happen to be in the majority at the time.

One example of this is the Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s support of the Civil Partnership Bill.

It took the view that the legislation was a reasonable attempt to deal fairly with the reality of co-habiting and same-sex relationships.

This stance did not abandon Christian ethical beliefs about sex and marriage.

But it did recognise the plural nature of contemporary Irish society.

It also recognised that the law is a minimum, not an ideal, for ordering our lives together.

Dr Patrick Mitchel is director of studies and lecturer in theology at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin