Archives for posts with tag: religion

AngelI was involved in a Cork 96FM radio programme a few days ago, talking about angel belief. Prior to my bit on the programme, a number of women were interviewed. They were deeply invested in their beliefs, many claiming to have seen visions or having received the assistance of angels at important moments in their lives. The women were clearly very religious, many of them describing themselves as “spiritual”, as opposed to paid-up Catholic Mass-goers.

They talked about their encounters with angel healers. According to them, the healers were able to tell them things they couldn’t possibly have known in advance. It was clear that the healers were using cold-reading and warm-reading techniques. Psychologists and mentalists have long discovered that these methods are not at all magical; instead they prey on mental flaws and blind-spots that we all possess. These manipulative and deceptive practices still catch the unwary, hook, line and sinker.

Angel belief has been given a shot in the arm because of a recent pronouncement by the Pope, who recently declared that they exist, whether we choose to believe in them or not. The Pope may well be saying this from a position of belief, however part of me suspects that he is addressing a wider problem within his Church. There has been a notable decline in church involvement by women, who have become disillusioned by the behaviour, attitudes and scandals within the world’s biggest boys’ club.

What strikes me about angel belief is the power of the imagery. I doubt if there are many things more potent than the idea that an authority figure is caring for us and nurturing us. It’s inculcated in us from childhood. When things get bad, we can rely on this image to make us feel better. Mary and Jesus are portrayed as nurturing, parental figures for this very reason. While this kind of belief can seem harmless enough, I have some concerns. Should things continue to get worse, then instead of focusing on the problem, people could be wracked by guilt for having disappointed their “angel”; that, in some way they are being punished for a transgression. This could pile additional stress on what is already a difficult situation. Additionally, such feelings of comfort are temporary and unlikely to solve chronic issues and problems fixable with outside help. Far from being a solution, angel belief could morph into a permanent avoidance strategy. I don’t think that’s healthy.

I am not going to condemn people who believe in angels. What people choose to believe is up to them, so long as they are not trying to foist these beliefs onto us, or put other people’s health and mental health at risk. Angel healing is big business, as anyone who has recently visited a book shop will testify. It saddens me that so many people are locked in a parent-child relationship with an imaginary entity. It allows the angels’ real life proxies – the authors and healers profiting from these beliefs – to be viewed very uncritically by their adherents. Given the subject matter they claim to be experts on and the fact that their only “evidence” is personal anecdote, these people are not quite as knowledgable as they make themselves out to be.

Let’s say you were watching a TV debate, and one of the debaters claimed that it might be better for the children if black people and white people could not get married. Let’s say they couched it in claims that some of their best friends were black and that they saw nothing wrong with black people themselves, and by the way, that they felt that black people were of course entitled to all the same privileges as white people, except in this one small matter of marriage.

Would you call that person a racist?

Let’s say you were listening to a radio show, where one of the panelists asserted that French people and Irish people were better off not marrying. Now, she had nothing bad to say about the French, and had vacationed in France a few times, but, alas, marriage between French and Irish people was not such a good idea, thinking about how the children might be affected.

Would you call that person a xenophobe?

Maybe they thought small people were excellent, but marrying tall people was unconscionable.

Would you be entitled to call such people heightist?

So what do you call people who think that gay people are great, life and soul of the party and all, but there’s just this small thing about marriage that they wish they could refrain from?

I wonder. What words could you apply to such people? Any ideas?

If you were a prophet or a future religious figure, the most evil thing you could recommend would be for your followers to write down your words, then expect those words to be obeyed, rigidly, forever more.

It is arguments over written words that have inspired some of the greatest acts of evil the world has ever seen, that have created unending divisiveness and conflict and have perpetuated inequality and discrimination over the centuries. It is arguments over written words that have had allowed good people to do very bad things, all the time believing they were doing good.

So, if you were a prophet or a future religious figure and you really wanted to do good, then it’s enough to ask people to be nice to each other.

And then to say nothing more.

Here’s a heartwarming story from celebrity psychic Joe Power:

An atheist was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned
to her and said, “Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike
up a conversation with your fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total
stranger, “What would you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the atheist. “How about why there is no God,
or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?” as he smiled smugly.

“Okay,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask
you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same
stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns
out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?”

The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence,
thinks about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.” To which
the little girl replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss
God, Heaven and Hell, or life after death, when you don’t know shit?”

And then she went back to reading her book.

Heartwarming, wonderful, except it’s complete bollocks, and falls into the trap of what some people would like to believe atheists think, as opposed to what is actually the case. At the time of writing, it has 357,000 likes and 239,000 shares on Facebook.

So, leaving out the smarminess of the putative girl in the story, the creepiness of any adult stranger trying to chat up a girl on a flight, and the fact that this conversation never took place and is a metaphor for the Atheism / Theism debate, this story still bugs me.

Atheists *don’t* claim to have special knowledge about God’s non-existence.

The implication in this piece is that most atheists somehow assume to know for certain that he doesn’t exist, enabling critics to accuse us of smugness, arrogance and a gross error of logic, in that we are trying to prove a negative. The child can then disabuse us of this arrogance by asking a simple question. Atheists can’t know for certain whether God exists, but if he does exist, we can legitimately ask what he actually does. Does he control the planets, the moon and the weather? Our current knowledge of astronomy implies something completely different, and altogether more compelling. Did he create the Universe? Then why did he make it so awesomely big, if our species has some role in his plan? Does he heal the sick? Then what about all the people he doesn’t heal, despite all their earnest pleas? Does he bring peace to the world? 2,000 years of brutal post-Jesus violence and genocide would suggest not. Does he comfort people in their suffering? Then why are Hindus comforted by their gods in the same way Christians find comfort in God? So what does God do, if he is said by so many people to exist? That’s really all atheists are asking. If he doesn’t do all that much (and there are often better explanations) then why invest so much effort and self-sacrifice in believing in him?

The girl’s question is a non-sequitor.

The response the girl gives is completely immaterial to the subject under discussion, and could be used for any situation, and even the other way around. Her intent is to imply that since you don’t know some things, then you can’t presume to know other things. Had the atheist decided to talk about paint, she could have used the same approach. Had her fellow passenger been a Christian, she could have asked the same question with precisely the same response. And, since atheists don’t presume to know in the first place, it’s a completely bogus argument.

Who is more likely to strike up a conversation about God with a total stranger?

Somehow, I don’t think many atheists are really that into foisting their views on others. The obligation to proselytise is more a Christian thing. We atheists don’t really care what you believe, so long as your intent is not to foist your views on others, or to re-organise society based solely on a presumed set of diktats from your god.

So who is the arrogant one?

By setting up this straw man argument, Power is implying that the God question should be out of bounds. To me, this is extraordinarily arrogant. How dare we ask questions. It appears that some things, no matter how illogical, unrealistic or wrong-headed, are supposedly immune from honest inquiry.

One thing I agree: atheists don’t know shit. In this respect we’re pretty much like everyone else, Christians included. We know some things well and other things not well at all. The difference seems to be, however, that we desire to know things, even if that means upsetting a few sacred cows on the way. How good it would be if this thirst for knowledge was appreciated by the very many people who liked Joe Power’s snide and dismissive Facebook post.


Ireland has been victim to a succession of increasingly violent gang related thuggery in the past 20 years. The crimes committed by these characters, from Martin Cahill, to the Westies, to Marlo Hyland, have been abominable in the extreme. What comes across is a kind of fecklessness: people who simply don’t care about anyone, so long as they can they can load themselves up on drugs and money. This pattern of nihilism is not exclusive to Ireland. The blood baths currently taking place in Mexico put Ireland into the minor leagues.

Religious leaders commonly portray such excesses as being caused by godlessness. These people, they say, have rejected God. They imply that widespread rejection of God will make such anarchy commonplace. It’s a frighteningly effective message, perhaps serving to bolster religious faith despite all the past and ongoing revelations of religious indiscretion.

Let’s put to bed the most glaring and idiotic canard straight away: that godlessness equals immorality, and even criminality. Millions of people around the world live good, honest, normal lives without requiring the services of any god whatsoever. Atheists and agnostics have contributed to the betterment of life, campaigned for the poor and sick, railed against injustice and have pushed forwards the frontiers of knowledge – just like many religious people, in fact. The children of non-religious parents grow up in similar environments to kids in religious families and go on to lead lives with just as much promise. There is no evidence that relatively godless and secular societies, such as Norway, the Netherlands or the UK, are on the brink of collapse or have any interest in throwing out common decency or the rule of law.

A second generalisation is that religious people are more ethical than atheists. The facts suggest that this is far from the case. You only need to look at the work of priests, pastors and bishops in the numerous child-abuse scandals around the world to realise that many religious people, whose theological credentials are impeccable, have a lot to answer for. Religious differences have sparked many a war, and many prominent, god-fearing religious people have been found wanting when the details of their lives are uncovered.

Neither does religion provide people with a “get out of jail free” card. The religion of prison occupants tends to match the wider society where they come from (US – predominantly Christian, Middle East – predominantly Muslim), so if religion is stopping people from committing crimes, it does not appear to be working very well.

Now, some more difficult questions. Are gangs predominantly atheistic, and does this contribute to their criminality? Without knowing the true stats, it is unlikely that many notorious criminals are regular mass-goers, or that they care much for any of the trappings of religion. There may well be a correlation between gang criminality and godlessness. But that is not what is being asserted by many pastors and priests. What they are saying is that their godlessness causes their criminality, a very different question. Is the motivation for criminal acts a defiance against God? Or could it be due to more worldly factors, such as their upbringing, education, access to opportunities, peer pressure and personality? It seems that the right people to answer this questions are trained sociologists, not those who are willing to provide pat answers that simply reinforce their prejudices.

Another question is whether criminals who have found God are better people. There are many cases of violent criminals repenting while in prison. One could readily accept that “finding God” in such circumstances has made a positive improvement in these people’s lives. So too, however, does believing in Allah help Muslim prisoners, while Chinese prisoners become better people by studying the words of Confucius. The circumstances of redemption seem to strongly associated with the culture and location of the redeemed person. Maybe, it’s not so much the nature of the god-figure that’s important at all. What may be far more significant is finding a focus, educating oneself, having a chance to reflect on one’s life, becoming part of a community and the assistance of an authority figure or friend who is willing to go the distance with you. The reasons people turn their lives around may be far more attributable to common human approaches than to a deity whom we wish to attribute the turnaround to.

Religious preachers frighten their congregations into believing that godlessness equates to nihilism and the corruption of society, when the reality is totally different. Religious people and non-religious people alike share the same concerns and worries about criminality. The solutions to crime are grounded in common sense, not divine intervention. It’s time this “godlessness” excuse was thrown out, once and for all.


I’m currently going through the painful process of finding a place for my eldest son in secondary school next year. Competition for places is high, so it’s not unusual to find that many schools have an enrolment policy, which helps them decide who gets an offer and who doesn’t. One consideration is whether you live near the school. Another consideration is whether you have a sibling already in the school. Performance in entrance tests and interviews may be considered. In one school we visited, a key criterion appeared to be the extent to which parents wanted their child in the school, i.e., how much they were willing to pester the school management to get their kid a place.

All well and good, but many schools have another card up their sleeve. When you have ticked the suitability boxes on almost everything, your child might still be rejected. He might simply be part of the wrong religion.

Let’s cut to the chase. Children are getting accepted into schools, not on merit, not on ability, but on the overriding need to have the right formulation of strange ideas in their head. Hell, it’s not even their head – it’s expected to be in the heads of their parents. You couldn’t think of a worse reason for a kid to be rejected if you tried.

As far as I know, there is no such thing as Catholic maths, or Protestant geography, or Buddhist science. Schooling is schooling, and, apart from religion classes themselves, your religion should bear no relationship to what is taught in the classroom.

Religion offers people an opportunity to discriminate. Imagine you had to bring your family abroad, to Pakistan, say, and the only school for your daughter was an Islamic school. Part of each day involved learning parts of the Koran off by heart. If you were not Muslim, you would probably be unhappy having her learn it, no matter how well disposed to the school you were. Yet, we don’t see anything wrong with the children of non-affiliated parents being expected to conform to a similar system right here in our own country. Even if the child is exempted from these classes, a line is being drawn quite explicitly between her and other students.

I also wonder whether the “ethos” and “values” cards are overplayed. Religion does not play a part in most workplaces and yet most people seem to be able to show respect for each other. Common humanity: courtesy, manners and compassion, is not the preserve of any one religion or philosophy, as we soon find when we meet people with vastly different upbringings.

The fact that religion can be used as grounds for selection, in such a crucial area of life as education, is a monstrous failure by the Irish State. Religion has no role in the definition of who can be an Irish citizen. Article 44 of the Irish Constitution specifically states that the State shall not discriminate on religious lines. Surely this extends to schools, paid as they are out of taxpayer money?

Here’s my suggestion. It should be made illegal for schools in receipt of public money, to discriminate against children and parents on religious grounds. Ireland urgently needs a level playing field.

"La Rogativa" (Trevor Huxham)

Two church leaders, Archbishop Michael Neary and Bishop Patrick Rooke, strongly attacked secularism in Tuesday’s Mayo News. They called secularism a cult, and defined it as a philosophy defined by selfishness and greed. It was seen as the “common enemy” – the implication being that secularism was responsible, among other things, for the Celtic Tiger debacle.

These comments completely miss what secularism is about. The basis behind secularism is an acknowledgement that in a free society, people believe all kinds of things and are entitled to believe all kinds of things. It notes, therefore, that it is not the job of government to dictate beliefs to anyone, or to promote a particular set of beliefs above others. Public society should operate on a neutral setting with regard to belief systems, in order to provide a flat playing pitch to everyone. We expect that our schools, our hospitals, our local and national governments, and all offices underwritten by the tax payer, do not discriminate or unduly benefit people, simply on the basis of a particular belief system.

What is self-serving, greedy or cultish about that?

Core to secularism is freedom of speech, and however the churches might object, this includes the freedom to criticise religious beliefs – to expose them to public scrutiny and debate. Despite what it may seem to clerics unused to such questioning, this is the complete opposite of how a cult works – there is no control, no censure, no subjects that are out of bounds. There is no central authority figure. Secularism is called a cult by the clerical establishment because their beliefs are challenged, criticised and occasionally ridiculed.

What happened to Ireland’s economy during the 2000’s was lamentable, but I cannot see how it can be linked to secularism. It’s a safe bet that many of the property developers, regulators, speculators and bankers involved in the boom were practicing Catholics, coming, by and large, from a generation that had much a stronger Catholic influence than we do today. Implying that “they were really closet secularists” is simply a feeble attempt to redefine, for the sake of convenience, what “secularism” and “Catholicism” actually mean.

So I say to these men, grow up. You are living in a society where many different beliefs, and none, coexist. You live in a society where the entitlement and power given to you and your followers is eroding; where people are free to challenge you and to criticise your views, no matter how sacred you think they are; and where greed crosses all mindsets, all cultural boundaries, including your own, yet you see fit to conveniently blame it all on secularism, with no basis whatsoever.

Photo: “La Rogativa”, Trevor Huxham, 2007, (CC Licenced).

Photo via Marino González (Flickr : Merlin1487) CC Licensed

Over the weekend, Carol Hunt wrote a thought provoking piece about the prospect of the Irish Catholic Church going its own way, free from Vatican influence. Plenty of food for thought. In an article covering 1500 years of Irish history, she explains how the “Romanisation” of Irish Catholicism, with its contorted theology, unquestioned paternalism and petty proscriptions, is a relatively recent phenomenon; emerging primarily from the aftermath of the 1847 potato famine. Irish Catholicism had ploughed its own furrow for centuries, she argues. Maybe, it’s time for it to return to its roots.

Fascinating though a wholly Irish Catholic Church might be, I can’t see it happening soon. Even if the Vatican insult the lot of us when they respond to Enda Kenny’s Dáil speech, I don’t see the bulk of practicing Catholics here doing anything about it. Ultimately, it comes down to inertia. Many of those most likely to have had the energy to change the church from within have long since left the church in disgust and frustration, with no intention of ever going back. The remainder are split unequally along two lines: a core of deeply committed Catholics who prefer to believe that the whole scandal is a secular assault on their religion and a larger, more moderate group who, while affronted by the behaviour of the clergy in the past two decades, are unwilling to do anything about it.

There are likely to be a multitude of drivers motivating the second group to do nothing. For many, obedience to the Church is the respectable thing to do. Public dissent and argument have always been strongly discouraged within the Church, so why raise your head above the parapet? Some are keenly mindful of their “Catholic” identity, as opposed to a “Protestant” identity, in an island where too much blood has been spilled over these minor theological differences. In the background is the lingering fear of damnation, both in the putative next life and this one too. In the end, no matter what anachronistic pronouncements are uttered from on high; no matter what will emerge from the scandals of the future, most moderate Catholics will put up with it all for the sake of an easy life.

It’s not as if home-grown Catholicism, as opposed to Roman Catholicism, isn’t attractive to many within this second group. Most Irish Catholics would do away with the failed ban on contraception in the morning. They would welcome married clergy and women priests. They certainly wouldn’t mourn the passing of Vatican countenanced clericalism and secrecy, particularly when we have all seen its devastating effects in Ireland and around the world. It’s just that, for Irish practicing Catholics, desiring something and doing something about it are two very different things.

Protests and dissenting voices have been limited and sporadic.  Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, has been highly critical of the Catholic hierarchy’s behaviour and is an uncompromising advocate of reform. He has been a lone voice, however, increasingly marginalised even if he is saying what many Catholics are privately thinking.

When a few trogloditic priests around the country revealed their true colours over the past few weeks – comparing Enda Kenny to Hitler and referring to the Cloyne aftermath as being part of a secular Jewish agenda – a few brave souls walked out of Mass and there were a small number of letters to the newspapers. The vast bulk of people remained silent. It seems that the spirit is willing, but the motivation to do anything about it is about as strong as a wet straw.

So, no. I don’t expect any real changes any time soon. Irish Catholicism will continue to ally itself with Rome, despite what outrages might emerge involving the Vatican in the coming years. The prognosis for this church is a slow and steady decline into irrelevance and backwardness while old age and disillusionment steadily swabs up the remaining bulk of congregants.

* Photo “Broken Cross” by Merlin1487 (Marino González) on Flickr (CC Licensed)

A minor shitstorm has occurred here in Cork with the public display of a picture in UCC. The picture purports to be the Virgin Mary, wrapped in a garland of flowers and held aloft by a naked angel. The picture (shown below) is colourful, edgy, yet contains nothing particularly out of the ordinary – butterflies, roses, bare breasts – that sort of thing.


Nevertheless, because it involves a depiction of the Virgin Mary, some people have reacted angrily. Cork TD, Jerry Buttimer (FG) has called it “blasphemous and blatantly disrespectful“, while Bishop John Buckley and various Catholic groups in the US have also weighed in on the controversy.

Buttimer’s reasons for opposing the exhibit are interesting. He says that, in a pluralist society, we must ensure there is respect for all religions and none. He says that it is not acceptable for anyone to denigrate other people’s beliefs. Religious iconography has always had a respect for the sensitivities of believers. He attacks UCC because he says that universities must accept and tolerate all beliefs and opinions.

Jerry Buttimer

I’m sorry, but what planet is Jerry Buttimer living on? What strange reality does he inhabit where beliefs – and opinions – are meant to be prized like precious glass caged animals, immune from criticism and ridicule? I’ll bet the academics in UCC are rolling on the floor laughing at his depiction of their institution. He seems to think, bless him, that universities are dusty places where all ideas are accepted and treasured, like great dusty museums full of cadavers and old cloth. Does he not realise that universities, in the main, are vicious battlegrounds? Places where beliefs and opinions are subjected to the most ruthless examination, criticism, ridicule and demolition? If you have a precious belief or opinion, Jerry, best not visit a university.

As for Buttimer’s point that religious iconography has always had a respect for the sentitivities of believers, perhaps he should read up on the Council of Trent of 1563, where artists such as Michelangelo and Veronese were condemned by zealous churchmen for depictions of profanity and lasciviousness. When reviewing the history of western religious art, the central concern of artists was possibly not so much respecting the sensitivities of believers, as it was of ensuring that their patrons did not have them beheaded.

Are we seriously meant to accept that religious viewpoints be respected at all times, no matter what the basis for those viewpoints are? Mr. Buttimer may be dimly aware that many different religious viewpoints exist: some of which are highly discriminatory towards women and certain minority groups, some of which condone barbaric treatment of others with which they disagree and others which impose on their members highly restrictive rules that often lead to misery and despair. Perhaps Mr. Buttimer would prefer we keep quiet about these things. After all, we might upset the poor sensitive egos of those who promulgate and tolerate these abuses.

I applaud Alma Lopez for setting this particular cat amongst the pigeons. I hope the controversy prompts many people to visit her exhibition. It places our insane blasphemy law back in the public consciousness and allows us to proclaim the merits of freedom of expression to those who would prefer a return to the old times, where deference to religion and religious authority permitted the most abhorrent abuses to take place right under our noses.

Ryan Tubridy outdid himself on the Late Late Show last Friday with an interview with a so-called “visionary” from Medjugorje, Vicka Ivanković-Mijatović, who claims to be in daily contact with the Virgin Mary. Mijatović is in Ireland all this week. Earlier on Friday, she spoke to a capacity crowd in the RDS Concert Hall.

The interview was mostly a monologue. Tubridy allowed her to speak freely (and was gently chastised for interrupting her flow at one stage) while she whittled on about how Mary’s dress sense and the occasional cameos of Jesus during her regular encounters. It was mad, delusional, contradictory stuff. If not for the prevalence of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, would Tubridy have been so patient and understanding? Say a woman came on the show to talk about her frequent meetings with polka dotted llamas dressed in bowler hats beseeching people to jump on one leg for a few hours each day, would the reception have been the same? Don’t answer that.

Within her ecstatic rantings, she talked about suffering being a gift. It was here that I lost my composure. The idea that suffering is a “gift” must be one of the most pernicious and cruel canards ever invented by mankind. Suffering is bad enough without someone suggesting that there is some sort of supernatural reason for it.  It implies that somehow, you deserve it. You have done something in your past, or you have thought things that call you out for special treatment at the hands of the Gods. Or perhaps God has some special mission in mind for you, so that you will continually torment yourself to understand what exactly it is you should be doing in your life at a time when you can least afford such vexations. Perhaps if you consider suffering to be a gift, you will therefore be reluctant to lose this gift by seeking medical help or other forms of assistance. Perhaps you will see suffering in loved ones as a “gift”, thereby prolonging their agonies too?

As anyone who has been around suffering long enough will attest, there is nothing at all glorious about it. Far from enriching lives, it wrecks it. It sucks the colour out of existence, leaving people in a perpetually vulnerable, negative, fearful and disordered state. In far too many cases it is capricious. It hits one person, leaving others unaffected. It’s roots may be genetic, age related, accidental or based on factors totally outside your control. It is plain to see that the most deserving of suffering in this life often never get their just desserts while the least deserving may sometimes receive it in spades. Even when suffering is deserved, the resulting effect may be out of all proportion to the severity of the cause. Suffering is not a gift. It’s a crap shoot.

Those who suffer do not need our prayers. They don’t need us to tell us that it happened for a reason. They don’t need to believe that somebody, somewhere singled them out for special treatment. They don’t need the mental torture that comes along with the statement that suffering is a gift. Any god who loved us would not send us such gifts, period. Any reasonable definition of love would never, repeat, NEVER, include torture, but some strains of religious thought have no problem accepting this.

There is no easy solution to suffering in the world. People get sick and die every day. Shit happens to us all, and for some it would fill a Boeing 747 with knobs on. There are reliefs in some situations and in those cases they should be embraced wholeheartedly. People can help and medicine can help and treatments can help and time can help, but there will always be unfortunate exceptions.

What sufferers do not need are the trite, malign rationalisations telling them how lucky they are.

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