Joe O’Toole: Where did it all go wrong for Irish atheists?

We swapped authoritarian Catholicism for totalitarian proselytising atheism

Wolfe Tone: in declaring that his republic should comprise Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, he relied heavily on religious denomination. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Wolfe Tone: in declaring that his republic should comprise Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, he relied heavily on religious denomination. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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It was a strange epiphany in the unlikely setting of the local refuse recycling centre in a small French town.

I was intending to drop off some stuff but was surprised to find the facility locked up even though it was mid-afternoon of a working day. The notice on the gate was unexpected and unapologetic. Fermé pour la fête de l’Ascension. Closed for the Feast of the Ascension! By order of the mayor. And that’s not the end of it. August 15th is a mighty summer festival day when official France will celebrate what, not to put too fine a point on it, is the Feast of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into Heaven.

There it is!

France, the proud leader of western European secularism self-confident enough and tolerant enough to take time out to celebrate a Christian feast day without threat to the principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

Contrast that with the precious intolerance of Irish atheists towards the centenary commemoration of the Easter Rising because of the religious connotations of “Easter” or the devious theists using the ethos lever to discriminate in schools and hospitals. Throw in hospital nativity cribs and the Angelus bells on television and prayers in Leinster House, etc, and it raises the question: where did it all go wrong for us?

In the matter of church and State relationships could we learn something from France?

Simpler times

That little notice at the recycling centre evoked reminiscences from simpler times. Back to those Thursdays in May when our town closed down for Ascension commemorations and Corpus Christi processions. When we were all press-ganged to march in step with the gloved Knights of St Columbanus as they reverently hoisted the canopy over the blessed sacrament while we sang out O Sacrament Most Holy and incense wafted through the air.

So were we infused with zealotry and piety?

Not at all! The religious processions were a cog in the cultural wheel of the year and took their places along with bonfire night, Dingle races and wrens’ day.

If the intention was to indoctrinate us, then it failed miserably. Most of us spent the following decades fencing against croziers in local matters and battling the church nationally through referendum campaigns.

In the course of a few decades in which our nation has swopped conservatism for liberalism we have segued from oppressive, authoritarian Catholicism to the totalitarianism of proselytising atheism. But whereas we have won important independence of actions and attitudes we are, nonetheless, more polarised than ever and deeply intolerant in matters of belief and religion.

Change was resisted and we are still scarred from the battles we joined to make gains in relation to abortion, religious schools, gay rights, divorce and more, but each those battles further splintered our nation.

Maybe Wolfe Tone got us off on the wrong foot. It is ironic that though separation of church and State is a defining characteristic of a modern republic nonetheless Tone, in declaring that his republic should comprise Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, relied heavily on religious denomination.

In fact, well-intentioned Tone’s simplistic formula, instead of delivering a tolerance-based solution, left us skewered on a trilemma. Instead of merging the three parts into a harmonious community we managed to splinter the nation politically, socially and culturally. Tone’s tolerant republicanism was scalpelled by narrow nationalism and self-interest.

Polarised

The public intellectuals of the day rejected Tone’s trinity. The Catholic Church was having none of it and screamed “One, holy Catholic and apostolic”, The Protestants spawned even more dissenters and our report card eventually referenced, inter alia, a polarised community, a partitioned country and an apartheid education service.

In recent times we struggled to inculcate the principles of parity of esteem, mutual understanding and tolerance among and between groups in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, but were further challenged by the reality that Tone’s formula was rooted in theism.

Theists considered all the available evidence and found God. Atheists looking at the same book of evidence came to the opposite conclusion. The rest of us, the agnostics, sat on the fence around the borders of logic. All would be tolerable were it not for the attempts by various groups to have their beliefs permeate the practices, laws and constitution of our democracy.

Let’s turn the page, terminate the current Republic and establish a new Second Irish Republic rebranding Tone’s narrow Catholic, Protestant and dissenter vision to comprise instead theist, atheist and agnostic citizens who respect and celebrate each others’ differences.

Let’s try the French way of celebrating the festivals with our believing citizens without allowing their religious beliefs to permeate and determine the rules of our society.

Joe O’Toole is a former senator and president of Ictu

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