Can secular beliefs sustain us in our hour of need?

Carmel Heaney: Older generations uneasy because secularism does not offer same guidance as religion

Good behaviour is a concept that has come back into the public discourse since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. It is no longer a quaint relic of another age but a matter of life and death when it involves hand-washing and keeping one’s distance from others physically.

Psychologist Paul D’Alton, writing in The Irish Times last month, described the behavioural changes required in this time of challenge as the shift of perceptions from “me” to “we”. Such an attitude is embedded in most world religions.

The formulation value of Christianity is “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, powerfully expressed in parables such as the Good Samaritan. Habits of unselfishness and of kindness are part of traditional religious formation.

The millennial generation are often criticised for not going to church but in their values they are generous and non-judgmental

In Ireland, as in the Western world generally, we live in a post -religious society where only a minority of the population are church-goers, even if a sizable number still maintain their nominal affiliation to a Catholic or Protestant denomination.


So can we hope to live through this pandemic in a moral environment as safe as the clinically regulated regime for physical health? Can we trust a secularist society to deliver the “we” attitude of which Prof D’Alton speaks?

The auspices are good, from the surge of volunteers flocking to the HSE to the neighbourly help offered to the elderly. They are the most vulnerable and will be dependent on the support of the young.

The millennial generation are often criticised for not going to church but in their values they are generous and non-judgmental, putting into practice the fundamentals of religion.

The older generations are uneasy because secularism does not offer the same kind of everyday guidance as does religion .It lacks a vocabulary, a toolbox to facilitate practice, to bridge the gap between the theoretical and the experiential.

Charter for compassion

A recent movement to fill the gap is the charter for compassion, based on the principle of the universal golden rule: Do as you would be done by.

The charter is distinctive in that it recognises the need for practical training for the implementation of good intentions. Couched in secular terms, in fact it offers religion for a secular age and in a global context, that is to say in its root meaning of binding people together.

It embraces ancient religious practices such as meditation and mindfulness, now validated in neuroscience since the neuroscientist Jon Kapat-Zinn introduced them into clinical practice in 1979.

At the same time as secularism adopts religious tropes, the distinction in classical Christian theology between the sacred and the profane is no longer cast in stone. “Everything belongs” sums up the prophetic message of the scientist/priest Teilhard de Chardin.

Nowadays there is a trend in church teaching “from the bottom up” rather than the classical “top down” approach .The real life experience of ordinary people is more likely to be taken into account in pastoral direction than of old.

In our present crisis, while those actually infected with Covid-19 and their families bear the brunt of the calamity, all are affected by the changes required in daily life.

One is alone with oneself

Apart from practical difficulties like shopping and exercising there comes a time when, in the absence of the job, the school or the golf course to provide a reason for getting up in the morning, feelings of anxiety and depression develop. One is alone with oneself.

An obiter dictum much quoted in recent weeks has been that of the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone". In the third century AD the desert fathers had advised: "Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all."

In the modern world of scientific and technological marvels we have developed a mindset which expects solutions to problems. The aphorism “no problem” has entered everyday speech. There is a fix for everything.

No doubt a vaccine or medicine will be developed which will counteract Covid-19, just as happened in the case of the Aids and smallpox epidemics.

It is hard to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there is no such quick fix for existential anxiety. There is, however, help at hand in great art of all genres and in the wisdom of inspiring religious teachers.

One such teacher was Julian of Norwich, a Christian hermit who, in the 14th century, spent her life in a cell, communicating with the outside world through a window. Her words have resonated through the ages: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Carmel Heaney is retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and is a freelance writer