It seems as if religion is the last taboo


Religious practice has many positive effects, and we should try and harness those benefits

MUSING ABOUT whether the economic downturn will signal a return to religion has been a recurring theme during this recession. The thinking seems to be that even though we embraced godless materialism during the boom years, we will be so shaken by the rapid demise of the Celtic Tiger that there will be a mass outbreak of “tiptoeing back to church”.

Frankly, I find that picture quite depressing. It represents a vision of religion and of Christianity in particular, as a kind of “emergency use only” comfort blanket. What is supposed to happen if the economy returns to a healthier state? Will the comfort blankets get dumped again?

Perhaps the ability to live life so that religious practice on Sunday had no impact on business practice on Monday was one reason why the Celtic Tiger expired. Perhaps religion is more needed in the boom times, as a valuable check on greed and corruption.

(By the way, I am not suggesting humanist moral codes cannot be an equally important check. Far from being a swipe at non-religious outlooks, it is more a comment on the failure of many Christians to behave ethically even when it may decrease the prospect of personal profit.)

Voices suggesting religion had an important role to play in prosperous times were difficult to find during the Celtic Tiger era. Perhaps that is because the credibility of the Catholic Church in particular took an unmerciful hammering due to revelations of clerical sexual abuse of children, and the failure of the church to deal with them either in a timely or transparent fashion.

However, it does not explain completely the inability of many church people to present religion as an attractive option in good times and bad. It is particularly surprising given that there has been an explosion of research into the effects of religion, and the findings have been overwhelmingly positive.

The Iona Institute, of which I am a patron, held a conference this week on the benefits of religious faith. Among the speakers was Dr Brad Wilcox, a sociologist, who looked at the important role that religion plays in making men more responsible and more likely to be good fathers.

Andrew Sims, professor of psychiatry at Leeds University, also presented a paper based on his book, Is Faith Delusion? Why Religion is Good for your Health.

Professor of psychiatry Patricia Casey, who is the author of a paper for the Iona Institute, The Psychosocial Benefits of Religion, gave the keynote address. According to the paper, religious practice decreases the risk of suicide and of depression, helps people to cope with bereavement, reduces involvement in premature sexual activity and drink and drug-taking among teenagers, adds to life expectancy and increases the chances of being happily married.

Presenting such research is a valuable counter balance to voices such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who believe religion is a malign force. It also has important implications for health and psychiatry. For example, if a patient is religious, this could be harnessed by a doctor or a psychiatrist as a potentially positive force with a role to play in the healing process. Instead, at the moment, it seems as if religion is the last taboo.

Although I had no direct involvement in the conference, I doubt if the institute is trying to market religion as a panacea for all ills. As Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former master of the Dominicans says: “A religion that tries to market itself as useful for some other purpose – because it helps you to live a stable life, because it gets rid of stress or makes you wealthy, is shooting itself in the foot.”

However, he goes on to say that “if the fact of one’s faith did, just as an example, make one more relaxed, or happy, or courageous, or whatever, it might suggest that the truth claims of Christianity are not trivial, and are worth investigating”. In other words, one would not look again at Christianity because it confers benefits, but because those benefits point to the possibility that the claims made by Christianity are substantial and real. Of course, religion is wider than Christianity, but Christianity in Ireland remains by far the largest religion. The majority of immigrants are Christians of some kind, and often far more devout than the natives.

Religious practice among the “old Irish” is still far higher than most of Europe, but the trend seems inexorably downward. In Ireland, we are at an odd stage of our religious evolution. All too recently, religion was too dominant a force, and as a result, there is a certain jaded belief that we have nothing new to learn about faith. Sometimes we need something to make us see the familiar with fresh eyes. The institute conference is one such attempt to present us with a different angle.