Many atheists long for the disappearance of religion and spirituality from the public domain, as evidenced by the current, heated debate over school patronage. I, however, am not one of them. For all its faults, the Catholic Church is one of the only institutions in Irish society that talks about fundamental values, meaning and human purpose.
On top of that, it promotes an egalitarian ethic that is highly commendable in both ambition and scope. The command to “love your neighbour as yourself” sets a moral benchmark for Christians that, despite bordering on the unattainable, is nonetheless capable of inspiring benevolence in its adherents.
What’s not to like about Jesus’s anti-capitalism? Or Pope Francis’s social conscience? Secular humanists may baulk at the theological reasoning behind the claim that “everyone is equal in the eyes of God” but they must surely observe its sentiment.
The Catholic Church also serves a particular purpose in Ireland by providing the basic unit of community. For historical reasons, the parish remains a key identifier around which sports clubs, fundraising efforts, political campaigning and educational activities typically revolve. It is also the place towards which many people gravitate to commemorate important events like birth, marriage and death.
This poses a challenge for humanist reformers. Should one try to dismantle existing community bonds in order to build a better and fairer society? Or should one work with church bodies to try to achieve the same goal?
From a practical viewpoint, the latter seems much wiser. Communities are already under attack from an individualistic cultural shift in the West, something that has been well documented by political scientist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Strong communities are hard to build and it seems somewhat reckless to disregard the bonding powers of the Irish parish in the name of progress.
What's more, religious communities have, for the most part, been shown to exert a positive influence on societal values. Gathering the evidence in his recent book Does Altruism Exist?, the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson cites an emerging consensus in psychological and behavioural studies of the notion that "religions cause people to behave for the good of the group and to avoid self-serving behaviours at the expense of other members of the group".
This isn't a ringing endorsement of religion. It overlooks for example an international study published last November suggesting that children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households.
Moreover, there’s a crucial reference by Wilson in his analysis to “the group”. Religious believers can be very good to their own community but indifferent to the plight of those outside the fold.
Wilson highlights this two-faced aspect of community, referencing the altruism that can operate within corrupt financial networks – think of bankers giving mortgages to friends, or businessmen bailing out political associates.
The two-faced nature of community can be found in an Irish context. It is striking, for example, that Catholic parishes in south Co Dublin have pledged to host a number of refugee families from Syria when the very same neighbourhoods have vociferously opposed Traveller accommodation for decades.
Secular communities can similarly have their blind spots. In the debate over religious patronage, for instance, it is curious as to why reformers describe “the baptism rule” as an unfair barrier to education while ignoring the manner in which private schooling in Ireland skews the playing field.
Surely economic segregation is at least as bad as religious segregation?
Could it be that we're happy to knock the church but afraid to challenge the values of the free market? If so, it strengthens the case for a Christian voice – in the mould of Pope Francis – in Irish educational reform.
The importance of having strong communities that emphasise the inherent value of every human being should be obvious to anyone with a passing interest in the greatest problems of the 21st century. Whether you consider climate change, migration, or corporate tax avoidance, these problems are global.
To tackle them, we need to work together in a manner never envisaged before. We need to be able to put universal, humanitarian interests ahead of national, local or denominational ones. Progressive religions aren’t the only means of creating communities that transcend national borders but they are potentially a key part of a conscientious, global network.
Given the reality of religious difference, our only choice is to work together. That calls for a form of dialogue that is more respectful and realistic than the current slagging match between people with religious faith and those with none.