Monday 26 September 2016

Why can't 'a la carte Catholics' be recognised on the census form?

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

'I know people who wouldn’t know a Bible if it bit them and yet they pin up pictures of angels and swear by the angelic forces' Photo: Depositphotos
'I know people who wouldn’t know a Bible if it bit them and yet they pin up pictures of angels and swear by the angelic forces' Photo: Depositphotos

The forthcoming census - on April 24 - will offer residents of the Republic a nice menu of 'religions' to choose from. You can identify yourself as Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Islamic, Presbyterian, Orthodox (Greek, Russian, etc), any 'Other' religion or 'No religion'.

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Although one of the most universally famous characters in world literature is an Irish Jew - Leopold Bloom of Joyce's 'Ulysses' - the Jewish community in Ireland is now such a minority that it does not rate a category of its own. It is significant that Islam is now the third most-important ranking among official Irish religious categories.

It will also be interesting to note how many Irish citizens now choose to tick the 'No religion' category. Some atheist and secular advocates are hoping that many more Irish people than previously will make this choice.

There have been various campaigns on social media, extolling the virtues of a 'No religion' choice. The more people who make this choice, the more likely it will be that the influence of the Catholic Church - historically, the most dominant denomination - will be loosened on schools and other state institutions. Or so secularists argue.

This is sometimes called 'tactical voting'; that is, making a choice (usually on a ballot paper) not because it reflects your sincere beliefs or commitment, but because it will serve to facilitate the desired outcome.

Yet for considerable numbers of people, these aforementioned categories don't quite match their genuine and sincere ideas and beliefs when it comes to spiritual matters.

I encounter a large number of individuals who say: "I'm not really religious, but I'm quite spiritual."

I know people who wouldn't know a Bible if it bit them and yet they pin up pictures of angels and swear by the angelic forces.

That champion hoofer Michael Flatley said recently that he never fails to light a holy candle for special requests and considers himself a vague kind of Catholic - only he never goes to Mass or, indeed, to church.

In times gone by, when the census had a fairly rigid definition of religious denomination, that would have been incomprehensible. If you were any kind of Christian believer, you would attend church services regularly, just as a dancer must regularly practise his dancing or a musician must take up his instrument daily.

But it's not like that any more. People tend to be more fluid in their attitudes to faith.

Analyses of recent British censi have shown that while the majority of Britons don't go to church, nevertheless they still call themselves believers. And in recent years, faith in the afterlife has actually increased.

Prime minister David Cameron probably spoke for many Englishmen when he said that he was an adherent of the Church of England, but that his Anglicanism "came and went - rather like mobile phone signals connections in the Cotswolds".

So definitions of faith and belief are often more fuzzy than they used to be. We are familiar with 'a la carte Catholicism' and there's a lot of that about. I don't see why an 'a la carte Catholic' shouldn't register as such in the census category.

What about all more esoteric categories? Kabbalah follower: Pagan: Buddhist Lite (they're the disciples of Buddha who only like the easy bits of Buddhism, not the parts which warn that "Life is suffering"). I have a friend who is a lapsed Methodist but believes quite firmly in reincarnation. Where would she bracket herself on the census?

One of my sons wrote "Jedi" in a British census a few years ago - and 300,000 people did likewise, partly as fans of 'Star Wars' and partly just to vex the powers that be.

"Where," I asked sardonically, "are the Verdi Requiems, the Mozart Masses, the Renaissance art of the Jedi? Who is the Kirkegaard of Jedi-ism?"

Yet I think it right that 'religious belief' on a census should be as widely - even fluidly - defined as possible. There should be space for the uncertainties and ambiguities of life, like the philosopher Wittgenstein who, when he was dying, told his sister: "I want a Christian funeral." "But Ludwig, you're not a believer!" "Yes," he said, "but sometimes you should just do what is traditional."

Had he been counted in an Irish census - he lived in Connemara in the 1940s - he would have had to put down "Jewish Lutheran agnostic".

Goethe believed in what he called "the Universe". If you made certain affirmations, "the Universe" would favour you. Yeats basically believed in fairies. Could he have put 'Fairy-follower' on the census form?

I know a significant number of individuals who believe in "the Higher Power". Indeed, millions throughout the world daily pledge themselves to their "Higher Power" at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The census should also make allowance for this belief.

Surely any sincere declaration, even vague or eccentric, is to be respected on a census form. And for those sociologists and historians who will use these records as an archive for research, fuzzy definitions and esoteric complexities make for a rich and imaginative resource.

'No religion' may be a truthful category for some, but it ignores the wider spectrum of faith, hope and doubt that is so much part of the human experience. Self-definitions such as 'Doubting Quaker', 'Bewildered Unitarian' or 'Adherent of The Higher Power' are bound to be more inviting of reflection.

And possibly more truthful too.

Irish Independent

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