…it has become apparent again that this proposed PhD degree I intend doing is timely and relevant. There’s a column in the Irish Times called Rite and Reason and it occasionally catches my interest. Yesterday’s article was by a guy called Kevin Williams who is a lecturer in DCU’s Mater Dei Institute. Kevin is presenting the idea that attempts by France to limit discussion on religion in public life is leading to a more generalised lack of knowledge about religious culture:
[t]he principle of laïcité (civic neutrality or non-confessionalism) excludes religion from any direct role in the civic sphere. …the prohibition on the wearing of Islamic headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols being the most well-known manifestation of the principle.
Due, however, to the cultural ignorance of many people regarding religion, since 2005 the provision of information about religion … has been mandatory. Yet the tradition of excluding religious issues from school runs very deep and it can be difficult for the religious dimension of culture to gain purchase in schools.
We are long overdue similar discussions in Ireland about this, and not in a Joe-Duffy-lets-not-explore-any-sense-of-what’s-relevant kind of way. Kevin states that the move in France from principle to dogma has been a swift one in an environment where there is little fertile ground for religion in people’s lives. Can we, in Ireland, find another means by which knowledge about religions (of one, or all?) can be transmitted outside of a school? Then I was reminded by Michael Nugent’s appearance at a UCC debate entitled “God is a fraud”. Michael’s the head of Atheist Ireland (tagline: secular education, rational government). Two hopes, Michael, and that’s just the latter one. In Monty-Python literalism (where transubstantiation is testily reduced to unverifiable self-cannibalism) and a deadly earnest face, Michael skewers the basis of Christian belief in under 10 minutes. Unfortunately, this is more reactionary than enlightening.
So where is the space for discussing faith and belief in a seemingly rational, modern society? Following on from Kevin and coming through Michael Nugent’s literalism, I’m asking how Ireland’s sacred canopy is coming along? Although very few are asking questions about NAMA/taxes/budgets and moral choices, I think that the issue of scale comes to the foreground here. In a 2006 Studies article Kevin Williams mentions it but twice but remains important to this discussion:
The general fear of secular [French] Republicans is that religion will come to dominate the public and private spheres and that the notion of the nation or its constituent local communities will become identified with the Catholic Church. [my emphasis]
The admiration of, and respect for, religious at local level [in Ireland] are a response to their extraordinary work that they do on behalf of their communities.
People who work locally and who follow their religious convictions working in communities do so because it makes sense in that context. When we argue that these same people constitute a coherent polity who influence the social and economic direction of all of the communities that make up this island (that means you David Quinn), that is an entirely different discussion. It is a question of scale.
When 2,000 people go to Lourdes, you can pretty much count on the fact that some will find peace and contentment there and others will think it was a little too ‘holy’. Is this news significant for Ireland as a place where people live and work, make and break decisions, a reflection of a peculiarly modernist ‘national character’? No, it’s not. But that’s not going to stop people going to Lourdes or Knock or Lough Derg.
Scale matters for faith, just like it does in politics, commercial trading systems and public debate. We may never get a laicised public sphere where we trade opinions like mental currency in an ‘ideas market’ *shivers*. We are nowhere near approaching it either.