People who are not religious, or who no longer practise a faith, should be sure to put “no religion” on the Irish census form next month – urges the Humanist Association of Ireland. It’s important, says Jillian Brennan of the HAI, that the “no religion” category should emerge emphatically from the census statistics, so as to ensure “a more inclusive future for all Irish citizens”.
Firm atheists, like my colleague here on these pages, Ian O’Doherty, will have no problem about ticking the box for “no religion”. Full-on atheists are very sure of their convictions, so it’s all straightforward. People of faith will append whatever is their specific adherence, whether Christian – Catholic, Anglican or Nonconformist – Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist. But there are probably many folk who just don’t find it a black-and-white question.
Individuals may not be believers in the orthodox sense of the word, but they may have their own form of spirituality. Many an agnostic has had the humility to say: “I don’t know”. A thread of agnosticism runs through the work of one of our greatest writers, John McGahern, and yet, he had a reverence for “the sacred”, which often touched him in his home place, in Co Leitrim, and he chose to have a Catholic funeral, feeling, at the end, close to his mother’s faith.
Lapsed Christians and a la carte Catholics there surely are. Fuzziness and uncertainty about whether we stand between faith, doubt and even atheism often hovers over the great philosophers. Schopenhauer called himself a “mystical atheist” – the material world just wasn’t enough. Spinoza was, according to the philosopher John Gray, an “atheist who acknowledged God.”
The writer Nuala O’Faolain seemed to be in similar territory. When she knew her cancer diagnosis was fatal she did an unforgettable interview with Marian Finucane on RTÉ radio. Nuala was stunned at the thought she was moving towards death – as we all would be – and told Marian she didn’t believe in the afterlife. Then Marian asked if she believed in God. Ah, now, said Nuala: that’s a different question, which she left hanging in the air.
I’ve encountered many who, similarly, can’t bring themselves to accept the tenets of faith, and yet, have a sense of the spiritual dimension of life. Many thoughtful people have a deep sense of respect for the inspiring religious thinkers throughout history, from St Augustine to John Henry Newman, from Mother Julian of Norwich to Soren Kierkegaard.
Religion, says John Gray in Seven Types of Atheism, is natural to man and woman: atheism itself draws on religious thinking and is “a continuity of monotheism”. Humanism arose out of the Italian Renaissance in the 13th century, rediscovering the virtues of the classical world within the context of a Christian society. That classical world, too, had its sense of the divine, and the greatest secular thinker Marcus Aurelius believed in the soul.
It would be unkind to claim that humanism is parasitic on religious ideas, but it certainly owes a debt to the culture that Christianity produced. Within the Irish context, it’s impossible to frame any sense of cultural development without the perspective of faith: as the scholar Kevin Whelan has pointed out, the entire landscape of Ireland holds the deposit of 1,500 years of faith.
Certainly, secularism has expanded in Ireland in the last 25 years – as it has all over Europe. The census results have already reflected that trend, with numbers of non-believers doubling between 2011 and 2016 – 10pc of the Irish were in the “no religion” category at the last census. This may well increase again in the 2022 census – that is up to every individual who fills in the census form.
But the Humanist Association of Ireland seems to want to bump up the numbers in the “no religion” category mainly for reasons of social policy – so that secularism may be better reflected in “state provision for health, children’s education and social care” and the “allocation of resources and funding”. But isn’t this a little manipulative?
Surely, addressing the “religion” section in the census should be an honest response from each person rather than having an eye on political aspects of social policy and the funding that follows.
There is a helpful religious practice which everyone can employ when contemplating how to fill the census form: “examine your conscience”. Give the matter some reflective thought and then proceed to address the question truthfully. If “no religion” is the honest answer, then write that. If you are a person of faith, answer that accurately too. But if you are non-binary in this field and find yourself on a spectrum somewhere between faith, doubt and searching, answer as truthfully as you can, too. Indeed, write “Jedi” if you like!
People complain enough about having been bossed about by the Catholic Church: so don’t be bossed about, either, by secularists whose discourses sometimes sound suspiciously like preaching!