Why Ireland Needs Secular Religion

Despite the constant protests from various interest groups, it’s true to say that the Ireland of today is not a Catholic country. The religion is in decline all over Europe, along with all other Christian religions. This creates problems for society as a whole, because despite the problems we’ve had with the Catholic Church in Ireland, it did do a good job in maintaining social order. Since the Church began to decline in the 70s and 80s, our crime rate has shot through the roof. Although it is doubtful that we will ever get it back down to the levels it was at before then, without taking very creative measures, the very least we can do is try to keep it constant.

It is possible to be atheistic and moral, however there is always that small but very loud minority of atheists who become completely apathetic and engage in organised crime, vandalism and even rioting on the level that we saw in Britain last month. Despite the assurances of experts and Government officials, we could see riots on the scale of those seen in Britain on this side of the Irish Sea. We nearly have all the ingredients for it: a high immigrant population that is not properly integrated, religious pluralism, a wide gap between the richest and the poorest in society, and an economic depression. What is missing is Britain’s long imperial history, which has stretched to a point into its recent past. That has led to a natural animosity between immigrants from former colonies and the “real” British. Yet on that difference alone, I would not rule out rioting and looting from happening in Dublin, and other major cities. For us to survive through this economic depression, without any major breaches of public order, our society must become strong again.

The solution is a rather simple theory, which is unfortunately difficult in practice. It involves a nice contradictory phrase: secular religion. The state needs to fill in the gap that the Catholic Church left in its wake, and exert it’s authority over all citizens regardless of their prior religious affiliation. Respect for the republic needs to be instilled in children from a very young age. While this is somewhat accomplished through teaching the revolutionary history of our country, and the eventual establishment of the republic, it does not go far enough towards developing strong civic values, especially since a growing portion of our population are not ethnically Irish, or even European.

I have often heard people talking about “separation of Church and State” or just “Church and State”, and laughed very hard at it. It is, after all, a completely inaccurate way of describing the true situation at hand. There has never been one case in the history of the world where the Church and the State held equal moral authority among the masses. Again, I go back to the idea of “secular religion”. It appears to be a contradiction, but on the other hand it makes perfect sense. To take a psychoanalytic perspective on it, it comes down to faith in a Big Other. We have faith that the state will protect our rights, that it will take care of us when we are sick, or unemployed, and that it will take care of us in our old age. Now in many cases the state does manage to do all of those things, but there are plenty of times when it has failed and failed terribly.

That is why it is a matter of faith. Voting is very much like praying. We realise deep down that when a candidate comes knocking on our door, and promises to do this or that for us, that he is being “highly optimistic” or lying through his backside. Yet we still vote for him – we have faith. We believe that the system works, even when the evidence is right in front of our noses, that politicians make promises that they fail to keep at election time.

Religion and the State never can be reconciled because of that. They are like a pair of male tigers in a cage, constantly fighting, constantly trying to get the upper hand on one another. At the moment the State is on top, and the Church has been forced to recognise its legitimacy, but in the Europe of the Middle Ages it was a different story. During the 1940s and 1950s in Ireland, it was also dramatically different.

In Europe of the Middle Ages, this did not create any huge social problems for anyone except the Jewish population, because the vast majority of people were Christian. The problem we have now is religious pluralism. While we can integrate most immigrants from countries which are strong democracies, largely by being respectful to them and given them they chances they need (though sadly we’ve too often failed on that count), problems arise when the immigrants come from countries where religion is dominant. It gets exacerbated when these immigrants form their own communities and zealously maintain their own cultures. When their religious law contradict the law of the land, things become very nasty.

Consider a situation where murder is considered a legitimate solution among a particular religious group, where social norms have been violated. A person could be murdered, but the crime never reported, because it is considered morally right. Even when the body is found, nobody is willing to talk to An Garda Síochána, because they do not recognise their authority of the Irish Legal System to punish perpetrators. Such a situation could lead to the non-prosecution of a murderer.

Here the state must thread a fine line between equality and liberty. We must respect the rights of immigrants to form their own religious communities, so long as they are not transgressing the rights of others. Yet at the same time, we must make sure that the authority of the Irish State is always respected. Compulsory education, citizenship programs for non-EU immigrants (including refugees) are examples of strategies that can help prevent this problem.

What frustrates me greatly is the constant claims that multiculturalism has “failed” in the UK, and is destined to do so here. What they neglect to say, is that multiculturalism was designed to fail in the first place. Integrating immigrants into the local population must be a marriage of equals. “We” must respect “their” religious and cultural differences and accommodate them where possible, but so must “they” respect the authority of “our” state. One of the biggest problem non-Christian immigrants have, Christian Doctrine is taught in the majority of primary schools, as the only world-view. Christianity does not discourage participation in a republic, but neither does it openly encourage it. It is also, for obvious reasons, incompatible to non-Christians. It needs to be changed.

Yet religious differences aside, Ireland has never been accepting of outsiders, and this is our great failing. It is ironic in a sense that I have been advocating that we teach Irish values to children, instead of Catholic values, when we do not know what Irish values are. Every single time an American of Irish descent, who believes himself to be Irish arrives this country, we immediately brand him or her “American”. At best we openly welcome Irish-Americans, and titter behind their backs. At worst we mortally offend them. If we reject people of our own flesh and blood, then how could we accept people who may only have the remotest of genetic connections to this island?

Attitudes must change, because there is no real alternative. We must learn to tolerate the rose-tinted folk-memories of Irish-Americans, just as much as we must learn to tolerate Eastern Europeans, Asians, Arabs, Persians, Africans and South Americans. Integration must always be quid pro quo, but so far we have failed miserably to respect the cultural differences of immigrants. The best that can be said so far is that we don’t openly offend them openly – and that is no achievement.

It is unlikely that the adult generations of today will ever see this problem completely eradicated, as attitudes are slow to change when they are instilled at such a young age. While we can make a lot of headway to fix the problem, we must realise that it is in many ways too formidable a problem for us. At the same time, it would be a massive shame to pass on the remnants of it to future generations. The key to that, again, is using our education system to teach the civic moral values of a 21st century republic. The constitution and the rule of law must be respected by all, but so too must cultural differences.

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    • Kev
    • September 9th, 2011

    Hi Fiachra,

    Interesting blog but I’d like to point out a few things.

    Firstly: Usually, we use the term ‘Church’ to describe the organisation (Vatican, bishops, sometimes priests). These are the real problem of Catholicism, not the real ‘Church’ which is a term to describe the people. (Look at the Good priests in Mt. Merrion & Kilmacud).

    Secondly: The Vatican was seen as taking place of the Monarchy (which is still somewhat held in awe these days)e.g. Royal Wedding. It was only until a bit of secularisation that we realised how corrupt the organisation (not the church) really was.

    Thirdly: ‘Religion & State cannot be reconciled’. Bollocks! Religion & State have never been at odds (look at our constitution). Our state has been at odds with the Vatican & the Leaders of the Catholic Church & a few priests. The State has never been at odds with the Doctrine of the Catholic Church (which would be religion), at least not the bits that our practised within our fair country. (Same with Islam practice).

    Fourthly: Secular education is already used in the USA & yet we still get religious zealots (who are even more zealous then over here)e.g. Baptists/Mormans. Do you propose to outlaw religion.

    Fifthly: Faith in a politician is rarely absolute or even placed. Many people just vote with little thought to the consequences & the first people you hear to complain are the ones who voted in that politician. (e.g. Peter Matthews). I agree we should teach CSPE better & perhaps more thoroughly, explaining the values of a republic & democracy but it is dangerous to make it a source of faith. (These things should always be questioned or we won’t develop as a society).

    Finally: Attitudes towards immigrants have changed & are nowhere near as extreme in other countries. I’ve taught in many places with multicultural students & while it may have sometimes been a little difficult to communicate once or twice, they weren’t excluded. Immigrants are more likely to hang out together than mix but children who’ve grown up in Ireland will mix with Irish no bother no matter their heritage. Sure we’ll slag them, etc. but do we really mean it? It’s rare that we do. But it’s part of our culture to slag people & complain, especially about our neighbours, etc. who are as Irish as themselves. While in the USA you could end up segregated from other cultures & so alienated. Ireland is actually embracing multiculturalism quite well despite the slow passing of legislation to help with the progress.
    We’re not going to treat them much differently than our own.
    If you’re really worried about discrimination, I’d look at our treatment of the traveller community which we barely tolerate. (Immigrant travellers & also greeted this way. Think of those ‘Romanians’ who knock on doors, etc.)

    If you made it through this, congrats. You gave me a lot to think & write about (really enjoyed myself). If you’ve time, please point out anything that is pure shit.

    Yours,

    Kev.

    • Kev :

      Hi Fiachra,

      Interesting blog but I’d like to point out a few things.

      Firstly: Usually, we use the term ‘Church’ to describe the organisation (Vatican, bishops, sometimes priests). These are the real problem of Catholicism, not the real ‘Church’ which is a term to describe the people. (Look at the Good priests in Mt. Merrion & Kilmacud).

      There’s no direct responsibility, I agree, but if elites naturally foster corruption, then anyone propping up any sort of elite (in this case the Church) has to bear part of the responsibility, just as surely as the electorate has to bear responsibility for electing a bad government.

      Kev :

      Secondly: The Vatican was seen as taking place of the Monarchy (which is still somewhat held in awe these days)e.g. Royal Wedding. It was only until a bit of secularisation that we realised how corrupt the organisation (not the church) really was.

      And for that reason, even as a non-deist, I have to sympathise in part with anti-hierarchical Protestant Christian movements. I do find it hard to believe that every single parish priest was going around blindfolded though.

      Kev :

      Thirdly: ‘Religion & State cannot be reconciled’. Bollocks! Religion & State have never been at odds (look at our constitution). Our state has been at odds with the Vatican & the Leaders of the Catholic Church & a few priests. The State has never been at odds with the Doctrine of the Catholic Church (which would be religion), at least not the bits that our practised within our fair country. (Same with Islam practice).

      What Eamon de Valera did with the Irish constitution, was try to submit as much of the Catholic ethos into it. Essentially he recognised the power of the Church, and tried not to annoy it as much as possible. Note how de Valera had been excommunicated already for his opposition to the treaty. To mend his reputation, he had to recognise the Church's power in Ireland.

      It didn’t stop groups like Maria Duce from claiming the constitution was too “liberal” though.

      Kev :

      Fourthly: Secular education is already used in the USA & yet we still get religious zealots (who are even more zealous then over here)e.g. Baptists/Mormans. Do you propose to outlaw religion.

      Most of those zealots recognise the power of the state, and try to work within it. Of course you get exceptions, as you always will in a country with such a large population. It’s also worth noting that secular education is only part of the solution.

      Kev :

      Fifthly: Faith in a politician is rarely absolute or even placed. Many people just vote with little thought to the consequences & the first people you hear to complain are the ones who voted in that politician. (e.g. Peter Matthews). I agree we should teach CSPE better & perhaps more thoroughly, explaining the values of a republic & democracy but it is dangerous to make it a source of faith. (These things should always be questioned or we won’t develop as a society).

      It’s not faith in the traditional sense, and I don’t propose worshipping politicians. I’ve actually developed an idea that voting for a politician is like intercessory prayer to a saint, in Catholicism. You’re asking a politician to work as best he can on your behalf within the structures of the democratic republic, just like you are asking a saint to intercede on your behalf to God.

      Kev :

      Finally: Attitudes towards immigrants have changed & are nowhere near as extreme in other countries. I’ve taught in many places with multicultural students & while it may have sometimes been a little difficult to communicate once or twice, they weren’t excluded. Immigrants are more likely to hang out together than mix but children who’ve grown up in Ireland will mix with Irish no bother no matter their heritage. Sure we’ll slag them, etc. but do we really mean it? It’s rare that we do. But it’s part of our culture to slag people & complain, especially about our neighbours, etc. who are as Irish as themselves. While in the USA you could end up segregated from other cultures & so alienated. Ireland is actually embracing multiculturalism quite well despite the slow passing of legislation to help with the progress.

      I’m not really big on putting a stop to slagging, but I do think that unconscious racism is alive and well in Ireland. When you sit down on a bus, do you sit beside an Irish person or a Nigerian? You may stand out from the majority, but in most cases people choose the Irish. These sort of unconscious decisions can culminate to making life very lonely for immigrants.

      Kev :
      We’re not going to treat them much differently than our own.
      If you’re really worried about discrimination, I’d look at our treatment of the traveller community which we barely tolerate. (Immigrant travellers & also greeted this way. Think of those ‘Romanians’ who knock on doors, etc.)

      Oh of course, and that’s a problem that’s much more difficult to solve, because of how different their lifestyle is. And there’s the fact that they choose to live apart from us, so the distrust is mutual. That’s for another debate, however.

  1. My view remains the same as it ever was. The attempt to create a secular religion will either end up becoming a real religion, or it will never provide the same depth that a “real” religion (i.e Catholicism) has.

    Allow me to explain. The closest we have ever gotten to a secular religion is Marx-Leninism in Russia, and Maoism in China. Marx provided a philosophical framework for the culture and state, providing a whole system of thought for the culture to run on, an OS if you will. There was Marxist Art, Marxist teleology, Marxist Politics, Marxism even infected the language of the people. The culture became “baptized” in it. A secular religion MUST become like this to be effective, and given the track record of secular religions, it will likely be worse than the Inquisition ever was, considering that they killed only a few hundred heretics. Marxism was imposed from above. Just making people worship the Enlightenment and “The Republic” isn’t NEAR enough. You need to develop a whole system of meaning for the entire culture, incorporating it’s pre-existing culture, an abstract symbology, and a means to disseminate propaganda. Have fun with that.

    Religion and state CAN be reconciled. Someone just has to submit. Either the Church baptizes the State, or the State commands the church ex. The Church of England. If they become one organization, one group is going to get more say than the other. If this isn’t the case, one of the groups ceased to exist for all intents and purposes, and was absorbed into the belly of the other.

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