I think I might finally understand the appeal of religion. Perhaps I’m a recovering atheist?
I’m no expert. Even after a childhood of Sunday Masses and religion classes, I’d be hard-pressed to name every apostle or tell one Bible story from another. But I appreciate the simple allure of faith.
At the moment, I’m not well. I’m recovering from an injury, not healing as fast as I’d like, or had expected to, and dealing with the worry spirals that chronic pain can bring: “What if I never fully recover? What if life doesn’t return to the way it used to be?” And so, feeling sorry for myself and stuck at home on a recent Sunday afternoon, I turned on the television.
A church service was in progress, which is usually my cue to switch off. But they were mid-song, the music caught my attention and before long I was listening to Hannah, a woman minister around my age, smiling and delivering a sermon peppered with laughter and personal anecdotes, telling stories about her husband and baby.
She also spoke about poverty, human rights and the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women. It was a sermon full of insight, delivered by a woman whose life I could relate to. It was a world away from church visits I remembered from childhood.
Like many Irish people, I have a complicated relationship with religion – or, more accurately in my case, with the Catholic Church.
It’s not hard to see why so many have broken faith with faith. At least the organised kind.
Depending on your age profile, you’ve either experienced its horrors first hand or heard stories passed down from those affected. Brothers David and Mark Ryan were recently given a standing ovation by a Late Late Show audience after sharing their story of abuse at the hands of priests at Blackrock College in Dublin. They are in their late 50s and early 60s – this is not ancient history.
My parents, in the same age bracket, were fortunate enough to dodge that particular kind of suffering, but abuse at that time was not limited to the sexual kind. They have recounted childhood tales in which being mocked, belittled and physically assaulted by teachers – nuns and priests – was a standard way to deal with made-up grievances that were hurting no one. The crime of being left-handed. The mortal sin of forgetting your homework, or mispronouncing an Irish word.
My parents’ generation are just learning to speak openly about what was, for them, “normal”, and what is for millennials and beyond, a horror story. Maybe they only now feel it is okay to do so. That is a milestone most of their own parents never reached.
My grandmother never had a bad word to say about the Catholic Church. As a teenager I used to try to debate with her about it, but her support did not waver. She was a Mass-a-day kind of person. Even the most devout have a pain threshold, however, and my grandmother hit hers in the 2000s.
I watched the church break her heart, toward the end of her life, as scandal after scandal bubbled to the surface of a centuries-old slurry pit. The Murphy report, the Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes.
Ireland went through a religious reckoning, a crisis of conscience so deep it was practically epigenetic. Right on the cusp of the collapse of banks “too big to fail” came the reputational implosion of an organisation so embedded in the national identity it had been nearly synonymous with the word “Ireland”. And my nonagenarian, but still sharp as a blade, grandmother watched widespread faith in her beloved church nose-dive. Her own with it.
In one of my last conversations with my grandmother, in May, she said she didn’t think the church could rally, or even survive, all that had happened and had been revealed. She shared stories about her experiences with the church growing up in rural Ireland of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and beyond.
Some tales were almost comical and cartoonish, including elderly priests hiding and jumping out from behind bushes to beat unmarried couples with a knobbly stick if they were caught holding hands as they walked home from Mass.
Some stories were darker. Teenage girls “getting caught out” and disappearing from the community. Some coming home months later, gaunt and never the same. Some not coming home at all.
As Hannah’s sermon unfolded, I thought about the families facing who knows what this coming year, and the people struggling with how unbelievably awful the world can feel at times
Some families felt pressure in the middle of the last century to convince – perhaps force? – at least one of their children to become a priest or a nun. There was the pressure to marry “right” or be excommunicated. The supplication to clergymen, their veneration and near-deification. The church controlled many families’ fortune and future, their opinions, decisions and reputation. Its influence was inescapable; it touched education, politics and healthcare.
The effects of religious oppression are tangible even among people who do not consider themselves practising members of any organised faith. So why am I extolling the virtues of faith? Because it is not religion I’ve been angry at, it’s the specific toxicity of one institution, the damage done in the past and the shame instilled in our cultural core, which lingers. Thankfully, I didn’t have experiences like those of my parents or grandparents but I had, growing up, a scary, punishing God, who was always watching, always there, always engaged in an endless game of “I spy” for your sins.
This was the God I associated with the quaking rage of a teacher, screaming herself hoarse at me for saying that the image of Jesus on the cross looked, to my child’s mind, like he was wearing a nappy. This was the God I associated with my loud and terrifying public shaming by a nun at the county GAA grounds, incensed that I was selling match programmes on “the Lord’s sacred day of rest”.
[ Seán Moncrieff: It’s no wonder so many people choose to believe in a God, despite the lack of evidence ]
I have friends who play the game, trying to baptise their way into better school access, or placate parents and grandparents with church weddings. My parents know there will be none of that happening in our family. They don’t seem to mind, even though they raised us as practising Catholics – in Mass, en masse – every Sunday. But that was a conviction borne less of their piety and more of their principles. When your children are baptised Catholic, you agree to raise them within the faith. My parents made that commitment. And so we dutifully filed into our local cathedral each week until the day we turned 18. Other than weddings and funerals, I don’t think any of us have been to any sort of church service since.
Until I accidentally attended one, televisually, from my sickbed.
One TV service on a rainy Sunday does not a practising Christian make. But as Hannah’s sermon unfolded, touching on everything from drought in Ghana to the war in Ukraine, I thought about the families there, facing who knows what this coming year, the families worried about the rising cost of living and the people, religious or otherwise, struggling with how unbelievably awful the world can feel at times; and how, without something to believe in, it can seem overwhelming and utterly hopeless.
What I took from that TV service - which as it was led by a woman obviously wasn’t a Catholic service - was that it’s not necessarily about “God” telling you it’s going to be okay. It’s about people telling each other it’s going to be okay, and a shared desire to believe that and hope it’s true.
I used to think that was just anachronistic groupthink. For years, my own “ick” around Catholicism fuelled an anger that blinded me to the possibility that there could be any value available in something I so resented. I leaned into secularism as a badge of honour; that atheism meant you were smarter, or braver than people who “needed” religion to tuck them in at night.
But I think we all need something. Something that makes us feel like everything will be okay, even when it isn’t and might not be. If faith, a spirituality, provides that something, I finally see the value in the comfort it gives people – people like my grandmother, even if her own church let her down.
I may not agree with the support for an organisation with views on civil liberties and sexuality that will never be compatible with my own. But I see how, to paraphrase the closing line of Hannah’s sermon that Sunday, spirituality is like a car’s airbag – you might not rely on it day-to-day, the way you would a seat belt. But if you crash, it can help you in the darkest hour – and that is its purpose.
Yvonne Redmond is a freelance journalist and strategic media relations manager at Web Summit