Nobody should be rebuked or mocked for personal beliefs


OPINION:What can we have gained if we exchange one exclusionary orthodoxy for another?

AT THE age of 14, with no sense of fuss or crisis, I discovered that I was, perhaps had always been, an agnostic.

Simply put, there came a day when I asked myself, an inscribed Catholic, if I believed in God, and found the answer was that I did not. I don’t recall any sense of drama about this, but I do remember deciding to keep this moment very much to myself for reasons which I will presently discuss.

I did not argue myself to this position, I simply found that I did not believe – and I considered this nobody’s business but my own. I had by then begun to conceive a profound distrust of the institutional church, helped on I am sure by the inarguable fact that most of my Christian Brother teachers were neither Christian nor noticeably brotherly.

The gulf between the Sermon on The Mount, which I had read very carefully, and the marked absence of caritas in the world around me, more especially in the advocates of my inherited religion, certainly helped drive that process of alienation, but I do not mean to say that it was the ideological hollowness of Catholicism as I saw it that led to my lack of faith.

These were separate but linked phenomena. I could not, and therefore would not, say that I believed – and at the same time I saw that I could not subscribe to, did not wish to be counted a member of, a church that had become all too human an instrument for exercising brute power in the world.

My mother died when I was 21. She was a woman of simple direct faith, not pious in the sense of haunting the churches but a profound believer in the intercessionary goodness of God and his saints, most especially a believer in the power of Mary to alleviate grief and pain.

I am still profoundly glad that I kept my unbelief from her – she would have believed, absolutely believed, that I was damned to the pains of hell for all eternity and her pain would have been boundless. My father died eight years later. His belief was as absolute as my mother’s, though he was perhaps more conventionally observant of a masculine God.

By accident he discovered that I no longer considered myself a Catholic, and this caused him great pain. He feared for my immortal soul, was tortured by thoughts of my suffering eternal torment, and I will always be grateful to that worldly priest who advised him with great gentleness (knowing otherwise, I’m sure) that my unbelief was surely no more than a passing, fashionable phase of rebelliousness.

My parents lived hard lives, informed by their best understanding of kindness and charity as taught to them in their catechisms, and their only solace came from the hope of salvation, redemption from hardship and pain in the next life that their church had promised them. It seemed to me then a monstrous and cruel thing to inform them that I had, in their belief system, deliberately chosen to forgo all possibility of salvation.

And one thing more: I say I found that I was an agnostic, not an atheist. Even as a gawky and often simple-minded teenager I thought it extraordinarily presumptuous to claim that there could be no God because I did not believe in one. I mean, I allowed for the possibility that I might be proved wrong. I am still unpersuaded by the many ingenious “proofs” of the existence of God that thinkers down through the ages have offered, and I am equally unpersuaded by the hectoring tone and hysterical righteousness of “scientific” campaigning atheists.

As far as I’m concerned, Paul lately of Tarsus and Prof Richard Dawkins are dogmatists both, equally distasteful and indeed dangerous in their dogmatism.

Life, and the void on either side of it, is a mystery to me, and I can understand, even sympathise with, the urge felt by so many millions to find a refuge from the cold interstellar winds in the comforting embrace of God, however that God is understood or explained.

I seek no such refuge for myself, but I cannot see why a person should be rebuked, reviled, mocked or condescended to for their personal beliefs. We are each of us born alone into a world we can never hope to understand, and for many, perhaps for most should they take thought, this is a terrifying truth; what right has an unbeliever, I ask myself, to mock or despise the only shelter from pain and not-knowing that another person counts on?

Elements of all the key religious teachings contain, it seems to me, unexceptionable and in many ways laudable propositions on how one should live one’s life.

The trouble is, of course, that as a species we can never leave well enough alone. There is always someone who feels driven to build a church, a magisterium, a lawgiving institution on the base of these simple propositions, and before you know it you have the saved and the damned, the faithful and the heretics, the rulers and the ruled, laws, prohibitions, communions and excommunications, jihad and inquisition, elaborate and often self-contradictory theologies – the squalid and all too often lethal manifestations of the will to prescribe, the will to power.

In Ireland, today, the opinion-forming classes are by and large secularist, and secularism in the life of the State is, it seems to me, a step in the direction of the inclusive Republic we have yet to build.

I would be happier if I believed that secularism as we practise it here rested on broad and deep widely accepted philosophical foundations, but I do not believe this.

There are, of course, many whose rejection of organised religion is an honest and considered attempt to reach for a more humane society founded in personal independence, respect for the individual and for each other, tolerance and a lively sense both of mystery and the common good.

There are others, however, particularly in what has been called the commentariat, whose secularism is a form of unthinking cynicism, an unconscious alignment and subservience to the prevailing materialism of the world as the corporations have framed it for us.

I have in mind here, to take a topical example, those people who reacted with distaste and embarrassment when Katie Taylor gave credit to her God for her victories in the recent Olympics, more particularly those who feared, as I have seen it expressed, that she made us look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. Taking their values from the shallowest and most ephemeral ideas of modernity, these people bring to mind Auden’s lines in The Unknown Citizen: “ . . . he held the proper opinions for the time of year;/When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.”

I do not see that we have gained anything much if we exchange one exclusionary orthodoxy for another, still less will we have made any progress if that orthodoxy is no more than an unthinking fashionable reaction to the previously prevailing worldview.

If we are to build a true Republic, we need to do better than that. We need to give serious consideration to what inclusive tolerance of individual belief might truly mean, before we tackle the fraught question of what limits we should and must set against religious fundamentalism.

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