Living as I now do in the UK, I have noticed that religious people here are very different from religious people from my homeland of Ireland. The various forms of Christians I meet here seem to have a very positive perspective on their chosen faiths, even the Catholics. This has puzzled me for a while, but I think it is down to two primary factors. But first, you may be wondering why I am puzzled. It rests in the fact that these people are around my age and are true believers, and I would normally expect people my age and younger to be more tepid in their faith, if not agnostic or atheist.
I grew up in Catholic Ireland. I grew up watching bishops and priests tell people how to think on TV and from the pulpit, not just in matters of faith but on issues of social mores and politics. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were cast as Catholic versus Protestant, as indeed was much of the history of Ireland we learned in school. One might think this would only serve to inculcate a distrust of non-Catholics, but I was always puzzled, baffled by how ‘their’ God was different to ‘our’ God, when it was all basically the same God. We were never really taught why we should believe or the benefits of belief, only that we should and the other side was wrong. I was fairly agnostic at a young age; I liked Jesus, he seemed like a decent sort, but the whole magic thing never really grabbed me.
By the time I arrived in university, I was an atheist, and then the scandals began to hit. The Catholic Church was revealed to be home to paedophiles and rapists, abusers and colluders. And, as I became more aware of such things, I discovered how the Church had oppressed and abused women for generations, stolen children, and generally impeded freedoms. The power of the men of God was shaken and the number of non-believers in Ireland has been rising ever since. And many of my friends think that my atheism stems from this, but I was already a non-believer when the toxic nature of the Catholic Church in Ireland was finally revealed. The revelation of the depths of the corruption within the Catholic Church only reaffirmed my distaste of organised religion.
Religion appears to be a very different thing in the UK. You can imagine my surprise, given the above, when I discovered that young people here seem to willingly join, and participate in, organised religion, even Catholicism. Now, I do live in one of the more believer-filled corners of the British isle, so this may not apply everywhere, but it is weird to me how often I am invited to church or bible study groups. People chat with their priests, ministers are involved in public projects; I have spoken to clerics more often in my brief few years in England than ever in my life in Ireland. Part of the enthusiasm for faith may be that my friends are often converts, and no one is more faithful than a convert. But why convert?
It quickly dawned on me that market forces were at work. And deceit. Well, maybe not outright deceit, but definitely obfuscation. Organised religion in the UK comes in many brands and each one has to compete for attention. They each emphasise their unique selling points and actively nurture their communities. In Ireland, the Catholic Church basically had a monopoly; it could do whatever it wanted and still retain its dominant market position. It didn’t have to work in Ireland as it had already cornered the market, but in the UK it had to appeal to each new generation otherwise it would lose its market share to a competitor. Each religion appears to have adopted an open, friendly, welcoming attitude that is utterly alien to me, raised in the holier-than-thou, don’t speak until you are spoken to, do as we say not as we do approach of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Oh, and yes, they seem to gloss over all the abuse and inherent sexism. It really seems to me that English Catholics happily ignore this very real problem which cuts to the heart of Catholicism, how an organisation which claims to act on behalf of God on Earth could routinely abuse women and children for generations, avoid and confound any legal repercussions, and yet still claim to have paramount moral authority. The systemic corruption and abuse is dismissed as ‘a few bad eggs’, or, to put it in more modern terms, ‘hashtag: not all Catholics’. It’s disappointing. It’s disgusting. It’s delusional. But then again, it’s not too much of leap when your core religious text advocates child sacrifice, whoring out your daughters, incest, genocide, slavery, and all kinds of intolerance. Sure, organised religion does good things too, but I don’t think the scales are tipped the way they would like us to think, and I don’t think they have made due compensation for all their sins.
I think I get the appeal of faith: it is some kind of egotistical or egocentric comfort to people to believe in a guiding force, a divinity that places you at the centre of the universe. I can even see the logic behind religion: I believe in X and I want to hang out with other people who believe X, especially if we are persecuted. That’s fine. I like educators, I love talking to teachers and academics; I like comics and movies and books, I am part of a book club and go to the cinema with friends. I understand the appeal of sharing an experience or outlook. But, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no systemic collusion to hide paedophiles or subjugate women in the groups I attend.
Maybe I would have a more positive view of organised religion if had grown up in a more secular nation, but I suspect I would still have my suspicions. Whenever a religion is in charge, it leads inevitably to corruption, but theocracy has a peculiar kind of corruption that is absolute as it claims a mandate from heaven. It just becomes another form of absolutism, just another stick to beat people with. Competition is good; it drives a brand to refine its message, to create the best possible product for the market, whereas a monopoly leads to stagnation. So, secularism might be good for religion, it might even help it strive to be the best form of itself to win more converts. But, of course, so many competing brands only reveal the intrinsic flaw in any organised religion’s claim to be the indisputable font and arbiter of Truth: they aren’t. The plethora of competing claims may be contributing to the fact that atheism and non-belief are on the rise as these assertions of ownership of the ‘Truth’ are comically numerous and claim to be mutually exclusive.
In any event, I think I am just surprised that intelligent, worldly, and aware people would willingly give themselves over to religion. I am of the opinion that the more you learn and the more you see of the world, the more you ought to realise how chains of faith are forged, and that you can break free of them. I am also deeply concerned by friends who appear good and moral, but tacitly condemn vast swathes of humanity to Hell because they believe in a different version of a divine motive force (and they have a special corner for those who don’t believe in such things).
Some people grow up in certain cultural or familial contexts which reinforce their faiths and religion offers them a sense of place. My friends who have converted seem to have endured a difficult period in their lives and then ‘found God’, and here again the sense of community may be appealing. I can understand the desire to belong to a community, but I don’t understand the willingness to join organisations that believe that humans are inherently sinful, that we have little or limited agency in the universe, that human rights are not universal and paramount, that women should be subservient in reality while offering the empty platitude that they are equal in spirit, that a ‘good’ and ‘loving’ god purposefully makes your life arduous to prove to him that your faith in him is true (those last two really rather twisted when you think about it). And all of these issues arise before we even begin to talk about the non-existence of gods. Maybe that first sip of Kool-Aid helps you forget the structural misogyny, centuries of repression, focus on guilt and sin, condemnation of natural aspects of human biology and character, and flaws in logic and reason. I understand the appeal of religion, but the fact that so many adherents can so quickly gloss over the intrinsic flaws is deeply upsetting. My concerns have been dismissed by my faithful friends because I don’t understand that faith is the important thing, that I focus too much on the material world where it is the spiritual that matters. Well, forgive me for saying, but it’s in the real world that priests fucked children and got away with it for decades, nuns tore babies from their mothers and gave them away without consent, Christian clerics advocated the Atlantic slave trade, women are denied basic human rights on religious grounds, ministers condemn LGBT+ folk and give licence to violent intolerance, and so very much more.
I was never a good Catholic. I think I’d rather go to Hell for being a good person than to Heaven for being a bad one who happened to pick the right divinity. But, of course, there is no heaven, no hell, no gods. Just us. And it’s well past time we cast aside Iron Age beliefs employed to support absolutism, intolerance, and subjugation.