Self-identification as a ‘sign’ of faith

I have written here before about those who mark No Religion or other similar designations in the Irish Census. I stated then that in the State as a whole, 5% of men and about 3.5% of women have no religion although this varies across county-aggregated regions. Paul Lichterman is back on the theme in a US context over on Immanent Frame although he takes less of a statistical over view than before. Drawing from Tocqueville’s study of American public culture and American religions, he concludes that “the act of telling a stranger that one has no religious preference is itself fascinating.” He recalls how people selectively represent themselves as Christian or religious to attain certain goals such as:

middle-class churchgoers [who] used religious language to talk about the public health nurse they wanted to fund for a low-income neighborhood where relatively few people could afford doctors. It was not that they wanted to proselytize their neighbors; rather, they wanted to signal with quietly religious language that they had decent motives, a sense of collective responsibility.

It raises some interesting questions in an Irish context as we see the Catholic bishops of Ireland hare off to Rome to report to the chief. There are many social services organised and operated by Church and faith-based organisations, perhaps the most well known being the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Not everyone who volunteers their services for SVP would proclaim that their motivations are based on the teachings of Christ. Similarly, counsellors who work with Ruhama (an agency that works with women involved in prostitution, under the trusteeship of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and the Good Shepherd Sisters) do not necessarily work with them out of a firm Christian conviction. So what do people who specify that they are Catholic on an Irish Census form mean when they tick that box?

Do they go to Mass and do they take Confession on a regular basis? The figures suggest not. Do they send their children to Catholic schools because they believe that a school with a Catholic patron is better than one without or is it just the nearest? Crudely, these orientations tend to be sociologically aggregated and said to represent a Catholic public ethic. We hear it a lot “Ireland has a long tradition of Catholicism” or “we draw from our Catholic faith tradition”. In public narratives of secularisation, not many people will admit to atheism but mention something about being lapsed or admit to being raised a Catholic. Some of these tick the Catholic box, others will state No Religion.

This does not seem to make a difference to organisations like SVP, Trocaire or Ruhama but yet the Catholic ‘ethos’ is invoked in particular circumstances where necessary. In the public consciousness, these are not Catholic or maybe even Christian organisations, they are present and carry out their work. What would an atheistic Ruhama look like? How would a development agency defined on an agnostic principle operate? What is an Irish public ethic anyway? Is it Bertie’s Beatitudes? In trying to understand more about what a map of the Irish public sphere would look like, they seem like relevant questions.

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