Losing our religion
As I sit here, writing this column, there are three different forms on my kitchen table waiting to be filled out. They’ve been there a while, left out in the open so I won’t forget them. And I haven’t forgotten them, I think about them all the time. I think about how long it will take me to fill them out, and how, if I don’t get a move on, it’ll be too late. I think about what might happen if I do leave it too late, the penalties I’ll incur, the trouble I’ll get into. And I think about grabbing all three forms, ripping them to shreds, and pretending I never got them.
Because I hate forms. I hate their mind-numbing repetition, their endless poking and probing, their insatiable desire for facts and figures. I hate how they delve into the deepest, most private, parts of your life, rummaging in your past, expecting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Mostly though, I hate how something as benign as a piece of paper can hold such power over me, how a few simple questions and carefully-worded requests can make me feel like a criminal begging to be pardoned.
That’s just me though, I’m naturally distrustful; convinced that the people responsible for these forms are waiting for me to slip up, praying I’ll make a mistake so they can swoop down the side of my building and chuck me, blindfolded, into the back of a helicopter, never to be seen again. In the case of the Census form though, my paranoia was justified. They were on our backs with that one for months. It reached the point where, in a haze of Government-induced pressure, I drafted my will and a tearful goodbye letter to my loved ones, just in case.
Somehow, I survived to tell the tale, handing the form to the man when he called and becoming one of Ireland’s 4.7million inhabitants in the process – a rise of 3.8 per cent since 2011. However, judging by the rest of the results, my fear of slipping up and incurring the wrath of the state is not something shared by a large chunk of the population.
When it came to filling out the section entitled ‘Religion’ I did what I always do: I hesitated, thought about putting Jedi, had a little chuckle and then plumped for good old-fashioned Roman Catholic. I never go to Mass and I don’t believe in God, but what difference does that make? Just because I don’t follow its doctrines or partake in its rituals doesn’t mean I’m not a Catholic. Or does it?
Because this was the most revealing element of the first batch of findings from Census 2016: Almost 600,000 Irish residents, when asked to identify their religion, opted to either categorically state that they had no religion or leave the section blank entirely. That’s one out of every eight people living in the country and a rise of over 70 per cent since the last Census in 2011. You could try and argue that most of those people weren’t Irish, that a diverse populace, and its many faiths, has led to a skewing of the figures. But no, more than 75 per cent of those ‘opting out’ were Irish nationals.
Furthermore, the number of people identifying as Roman Catholic has dropped by some 132,000 in the past five years, a remarkable figure whichever way you look at it. And yet, by the Catholic Church’s standards, the period between 2011 and 2016 wasn’t particularly seismic. Yes, there were further scandals, more child abuse cases, more priests made to pay for their depravity, but, although we might not care to admit, we have become inured to these stories, desensitised due to their sheer volume and scale.
So why the sudden denouncement? Why is it only now that Irish people are separating themselves from the flock? One look at the age demographic of those without faith provides the answer. Almost half of them are aged between 20 and 39. These people grew up in a world where Catholicism was a by-word for scandal and controversy, they have known nothing else. They don’t remember the Pope’s triumphant visit in 1979, the excitement of May Processions or Corpus Christi, all they recall are sickening, deadening accounts of innocent children having their lives stolen by unrepentant monsters.
I fall into that age demographic, grew up in that world and read those accounts, yet there I was, dutifully filling in that section, never seriously considering doing anything other than ticking the box listed Roman Catholic. As appalled as I am by the clerical abuse – and recent reports emerging from the mother and baby homes – I’m still not ready to let it go. This is not through any sense of loyalty or a belief that the Church can somehow claw its way back into our good books though. It’s because it makes my life easier.
With summer on the horizon I’ve got my usual list of family occasions to look forward to: There are birthdays, graduations and retirements, sessions, soirees and knees-ups, opportunities aplenty to get drunk and tell your cousins what you really think of them. But in addition to those secular gatherings, shindigs where faith, origins and ideologies matter not, there will also be a slew of religious dos. There’s a communion, a christening, a confirmation, a wedding – maybe a funeral or two depending on how the other parties go – and all will require a visit to the local church.
Naturally I want to attend each of these events, family is important to me. That I must enter the halls of God to do so is neither here nor there. I won’t pay any attention to the sermon, barely even notice the choir, the holiness of the day will be completely lost on me. I’ll spend each ceremony surveying the scene, gazing at the central characters, scanning the pews to see who else came, fidgeting and wondering how long these things usually last.
To those with genuine faith, people like me are probably even more loathsome than the heathens who stay away. At least they’re staying true to themselves. I, on the other hand, am a hypocrite. But most of us are at this stage. Of the 3.7million people who selected Roman Catholic as their faith of choice, how many truly believe in the Almighty, how many pray to our Lord and attest that on the third day he rose again? And how many picked that option out of habit, like I did?
Unfortunately, the Census doesn’t provide those kind of figures, it doesn’t measure emotion, or commitment to the cause. If it did it might tell us that, as a nation, we have long since given up on God, that we now view Catholicism as a primitive heirloom from a bygone era. It might also tell us that, despite this mistrust, we will continue to tick that box, because doing so grants us access to this place of prayer. It enables us to christen, commune and confirm our children and to wed, bury and honour our loved ones. And it gives us an excuse, when all the gospels and responsorial psalms have been completed, to go for a right good session afterwards.
I don’t mind, you decide
The results of a slightly less comprehensive survey were also released this week. Carried out by that well-known research company, The Carphone Warehouse, this study revealed that Irish men are more decisive than women. 42 per cent of the women polled admitted they find it hard to make a decision and stick to it. They then changed their mind, declared they were ever so decisive and said that yes, that was definitely their final decision.
Further findings revealed that, when it comes to choosing a partner, women (38 per cent) are pickier than men (32 per cent). In this instance, it’s clear that some of our previous indecisive women were polled. There is no way on earth that women are only slightly more choosey than men. Whereas the Irish male seeks a mate with reckless abandon, slavering and slobbering over anyone unfortunate enough to catch his eye, his female counterpart keeps her distance, only emerging from her cocoon of coyness on the third Saturday of every second month during odd numbered leap years.
The final nugget of information gleaned by the mobile phone retailer revealed that, when it comes to first dates, 79 per cent of women are content to let the man choose where they should go. What it doesn’t reveal is that 100 per cent of the man’s suggestions are then rejected by the woman and that they end up in that fancy restaurant she’d picked out days in advance.