Worshipping at the church with no god
Demand is booming among former Catholics to find non-religious ways to celebrate life's milestones, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
On a Friday evening in Dublin, a tall, bearded Sanderson Jones is waving his hands in front of some 100 congregants, rousing his audience with the enthusiasm of a hipster Jesus who's eaten too many dolly mixtures.
But Jones is not preaching any doctrine, nor does he have a flock. He is a British stand-up comic with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair who is hosting the Sunday Assembly, dubbed the atheist church. Or, as Jones tells the first gathering of the Irish chapter, the assembly is "a godless congregation that celebrates being alive -- who here's stoked about it?"
Jones asks the congregation to stand and sing along to 'I Get by With a Little Help From My Friends'. Even though the words are on a white screen in front of them, the audience sings the second number more hesitantly -- it's 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' by U2.
Jones high-fives someone in the audience during the order of the God-free service, which includes a poem by Colm Keegan, a minute's silence, and a talk on the wonders of science by Shane Bergin, a physics lecturer who demonstrates the Doppler effect to the audience.
Jones set up the secular 'church' with fellow comedian Pippa Evans in London earlier this year, and Dublin is one stop on the pair's "40 days and nights" tour, designed to launch the franchise around Europe and the US. The assembly will be a monthly event in Dublin hosted by Irish atheist comedian Abie Philbin Bowman.
The first Sunday Assembly, whose motto is "live better, help often and wonder more", attracted many lapsed Catholics to the Little Museum of Dublin. They were keen to discover whether the gatherings could replace the benefits scientists associate with belonging to a spiritual community.
"I think it's a nice idea," says Aoife McLysaght, a genetics professor at Trinity College. "I was raised a Catholic, though we were never the most diligent about going to Mass. I'm an atheist now and I feel we don't have the community gatherings that you have in the church."
Rebecca Byrne and Aoife Dolan, 35-year-old atheists who attended the Sunday Assembly, began questioning their Catholic faith while they were teenagers at the same convent school in Dundalk.
Rebecca's experience of religious education turned her against the religion of her childhood. "I was brought up going to Mass and Catholicism played an important role in my life," she says. "I'm not just a non-practising Catholic -- I'm very much a former Catholic. But it is still important to make a connection with a community."
Aoife became disenfranchised with Catholicism as one scandal after another began to unfold. "Scandals were so widespread that it is too difficult to choose one as the final straw," she says.
"But look at how slow the religious orders are to pay compensation to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries. I feel there is something rotten to the core."
Ireland is losing its religion faster than any of the 57 countries surveyed by the Gallup International Association last year -- apart from Vietnam. The number of people who classified themselves as non-religious in the last census jumped by 45pc to almost 270,000 in the 2011 census.
However, secularism has posed a conundrum for many former Catholics, who were raised to mark all of life's milestones in the faith -- including Christmas. Abie Philbin Bowman hopes to address the latter at the next Sunday Assembly on December 15. "It will be aimed at taking the Christ out of Christmas," he says. "Just because we've lost the religious aspect doesn't mean we have to get lost in consumerism either."
As this month's Irish Independent/Today FM Behaviour and Attitudes survey revealed, 30pc of men and women in their thirties never attend a religious ceremony or service. Booming demand for secular ceremonies, such as civil weddings and naming days, suggests, though, that non-theists are carving out their own way of marking major events.
The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) expects to conduct 390 weddings by the end of this year and 500 in 2014, compared to 200 last year, according to Brian Whiteside, the HAI's director of ceremonies.
The association now has 14 celebrants on the country's official list of marriage solemnisers, up from just one in April.
The HAI describes humanists as people who choose to live an ethical life without religion -- "being good without god" -- and are guided by science and reason. Unlike their Catholic counterparts, humanist ceremonies are tailor-made -- betrothed couples, for instance, can pick their own music, choose any prose they like for readings, and write their own vows.
Humanist celebrants will also carry out an estimated 100 funerals this year, up from 78 in 2012, says Brian, who conducted funeral ceremonies for the late Mick Lally and journalist Mary Rafferty.
"I'm getting more and more calls from people wanting to meet me or get information over the phone about putting together their own eventual arrangements.
"They start off by saying, 'if anything happens to me, I don't want to be brought to the church'. If you put that in a will, it could be too late, so they must make sure their next of kin know their wishes."
Yet, there are plenty of non-believers who still observe religious ceremonies to placate their families or for what they view as practical reasons, such as baptising their child in the Catholic faith to boost their chances of getting their offspring into a local primary school.
Brian interprets this as a sign that Ireland is in the midst of a transition. "We've become increasingly secular but a lot of people want to hang on to religious ceremonies for traditional reasons," he says.
"I've conducted two funerals this year in Catholic churches in Dublin with permission from the local parish priest, which is extraordinary. The deceased might have not have been a believer but their family is still very much in the parish and all their friends and neighbours would have expectations of a church funeral. Or someone will want a Mass and a humanist funeral."
After he retired as a marriage registrar, Donegal-based Brian Barr created a company called Irish Ceremonies to cater for growing demand for secular ceremonies. He has officiated at civil ceremonies at locations as diverse as a Buncrana beach to the Grianan of Aileach, a Celtic ringfort. There are obstacles, however.
"The Irish Catholic mammy typically wants their daughter or son to get married in a chapel -- they wouldn't mind if they married a Protestant as long as it was in a chapel," Brian says.
"I try to involve the parents from the very start by asking for their blessing. When there are family difficulties, I try to work through them, even if it means going to their house and talking them round."
Anthony Byrne from Dublin says his mother "raised an eyebrow" when he and his wife Deborah opted for a small civil ceremony instead of a church wedding four years ago and then decided not to baptise their daughter Lily, now almost three.
"When I was an altar boy, the conversations in the vestry were always about the collection takings and it opened my eyes to how the church was an organisation," Anthony says.
"I employ and like people with faith, as they tend to have a strong moral compass. But when it came to our wedding, the idea of a pre-marriage course and taking advice from a priest on how to conduct family life seemed ridiculous to us.
"My own mother was saying my daughter is probably the first in our family not to get christened, so it was a big deal. But a baptism involves the absolution of original sin and we didn't feel Lily needed to be absolved of any sin. We decided to go with our own values on that. We have no regrets."
THE NEXT SUNDAY ASSEMBLY TAKES PLACE ON DECEMBER 15. SEE SUNDAYASSEMBLY.COM