Islam against our post-religious beliefs
Islam seems strange to us, as we channel our 'religious' energies into pursuits such as football
The story of the first-year student in Limerick who was allowed to opt out of religion class but who still had to stay in the room, was seen by some as a sign that religion is still a powerful force in this land.
But it didn't really feel like that. If felt more like the dead hand of an institution which still has a certain power but one that is merely legalistic in nature, hanging on to whatever bureaucratic devices are available to it.
And there is a kind of a broad assumption that these things will pass, that soon we will be looking back on this as just another of the absurdities which were permitted in the gradual unravelling of what was once a theocratic state.
We just don't have religion at the centre of things any more.
We are heading in a direction whereby religion of any kind is viewed as something akin to a hobby, its practitioners no more entitled to dictate the laws of the country than the members of a golf club or a Pilates group.
Which brings us, as so many things do these days, to Islam. And to the unease which the mere mention of the word can cause in our post-religious western hearts.
Certainly we accept that if you put the word "fundamentalist" in front of any belief-system, Islamic or otherwise, you are looking at very ugly scenes. And at the other end of things we also acknowledge, at a certain level, that there are many "Muslims" who were brought up in that culture but who are no more religious than those who call themselves "Catholic" on the census form, who in truth have moved on to the golf or the Pilates.
And yet, perhaps, we fail to understand that our unease in the presence of Islam is down to something more, shall we say, fundamental. That the problem is not with certain aspects of this great world religion, but with the very fact that it is a great world religion, that it is a religion of any kind. And that large numbers of people seem to take it quite seriously.
We just can't relate to that any more, and in Ireland we would claim a special knowledge of what happens when people take their religion seriously - essentially it does not end well.
We no longer have access to those impulses which cause men to pray five times a day, for reasons best known to themselves. We think we have come through all that stuff , that there's not much left of it now but the odd outbreak of obscurantist absurdity of the kind that happened in Limerick last week.
So yes, it disturbs us that there are so many people in the world who still seem to have all those impulses, which in our culture have been diverted from religion, as such, into all sorts of other pursuits and recreations and obsessions. Football, for example, is a belief-system which inspires the sort of devotion that we used to associate with organised religion.
There is no doubt about this, it is not some humorous analogy, it is a perfectly obvious truth.
When Marian Finucane was interviewing Martin O'Neill last Saturday week, we got an inkling of this in her question about the different kinds of atmosphere you get at a rugby match and a football match. When Ireland plays France at rugby, she suggested, an Irishman can be standing beside a Frenchman and it's all friendly. To which O'Neill gave the traditional answer that football is perhaps more "tribal", whereas some of us have made the stronger case that football just matters a lot more. That it is probably more accurate to describe it as religious in nature, rather than tribal.
And which means that in the run-up to the Euros, various panellists on various Marian Finucane shows will find it harder to ride the football bandwagon than the rugby one - with football there is just too much at stake, it matters too much to people that they know nothing about, that they do not understand. So when I am listening to the voices of Official Ireland talking to Marian about football, I am deeply offended. I am offended by their shallowness and by their ignorance and by the emptiness of their souls. I am even offended by the idea that they don't know that they are offending me. It is my Satanic Verses.
And I guess it's only those of us who adhere to such a belief-system who can connect with the difficulties of people who take their "actual" religion seriously - yes, at such moments we can empathise with the man stoically observing the daily rituals of his Islamic faith while all around him there are vulgar people who are loud in their self-regard, yet who do not seem to have any meaningful sense of what is important in this life, and what is not important.
But outside of those situations in which we are engaging in our own simple forms of worship, we have no way of connecting with religion in the conventional sense - and thus our understanding of Islam and matters relating to it, is probably on a par with that of a Marian Finucane panel talking about what they're now calling "the beautiful game".
Which doesn't stop us in the slightest, nor should it.