22 April 2008

Aggressive secularism in the salons of Dublin

(This was submitted to Village for publication on 11 August, 2007. It wasn't published.)

Ireland is still religious
It's funny how those conservative religious commentators are capable of pointing out the obvious and dressing it up as if it were some sort of revelation. So it was this week with David Quinn, who's back writing for the Irish Independent after a short break in other pastures.

Quinn reveals to us the information that something like 40% of Irish people still go to church of a Sunday and that therefore religion is still strong in Ireland. This pretty unsurprising message is in itself a harmless enough reminder of the fact of continuing religious belief in Ireland, and while one could argue with Quinn's assumption that this a good thing, he's unlikely to find anyone disagreeing with him on the statistics. Disconcertingly, this is precisely where he decides to pick a fight.

The "many commentators" fiction
He informs us that "many commentators" do not recognise the continued religious convictions of a much larger number of Irish people than, say, in Sweden or the former East Germany but fails to specify exactly which commentators he's talking about. Now yours truly hasn't been living in Ireland for a while, but for my sins I do try to keep up with what the Irish media have to say about religion, and have never ever come upon any commentator anywhere who thinks that Ireland has become anything like central or northern Europe in terms of levels of religious belief and practice. In fact I'd be surprised if anyone in the Irish media has ever said anything of the sort.

Now this indiscriminate use of the term "many commentators" is a central part of the armoury of Quinn and his allies. "Many [establishment] commentators" in the Irish media also have an destructive anti-religious bias, it seems. But if Quinn et al were forced to put together a list of names for this sinister group of opinion writers they'd come up with very few names: For my own part, the only two genuinely anti-religious opinion writers I can think of off-hand are Indo commentator, Ian O'Doherty and his courageous stable-mate, Emer O'Kelly (whose opinion pieces, incidentally, seem to be appearing far less frequently lately). Apart from them, there only a few mad bloggers and letter writers like myself (indeed, come to think of it, there's not too many of us either).

What Quinn and his pals are trying to do (with relative success unfortunately) is to equate criticism of the Catholic Church, whether or not it's accompanied by a benign disinterest in the "spiritual", with a general hostility to religion. In painting this picture, of course, the interests they are trying to serve are not those of religion in general, but the more sectional interests of the Catholic Church.

The real targets
Quinn's unnamed targets, i.e. Mary Raftery, Patsy McGarry, Fintan O'Toole, Vincent Browne and the rest of the notorious 'Irish Times establishment' are emphatically not anti-religious in their work. In fact, while they have all been witheringly critical of the Catholic Church in the past few years, they have all expressed admiration for religious attitudes and practices, and many of them participate in religiously-inspired initiatives and support religious charities by word and deed. Even Browne, who made his non-religious views clear in his recently-axed radio programs, could never be described as opposed to the spiritual side of life. Indeed he has always discussed religion with what I would call an exaggerated respect (though sometimes with understandable incredulity). Anyway, for all the accusations of anti-religious bias thrown at RTE explicitly, Browne was outnumbered there dozens to one by the Marian Finnucanes and Joe Duffys of this world.

As for the left-wing politicians that they accuse (again without giving names) of attacking religious views, such politicians simply don't exist. There is certainly no-one in Irish politics willing to criticise religious belief openly. Even emphatically non-left-winger Liz O'Donnell was careful to limit her notorious 2005 criticism of the Catholic Church to matters of abuse of power and excessive influence, and made no comment on the theology or philosophy of anyone (except perhaps on the any-way-the-wind-blows philosophy of the Taoiseach). And yet O'Donnell's statement was greeted with almost universal disapproval, and was described as everything from 'intemperate' to 'opportunistic'. The latter adjective has proved pretty ironic in the light of the last general election. (Incidentally, one RTE reporter even got away with saying that Bertie's response to O'Donnell was an attempt to "restore balance to the debate", notwithstanding any obligations to provide balance and fairness in broadcasting.)

In short, there is no anti-religious bias in the media. None at all. Quite the opposite. It's almost impossible to get non-religious views on the subject of religion published in the mainstream media, whether in print or on the airwaves (just check the Irish media for positive reviews any of the recent blockbuster books attacking religion). By way of contrast, it is almost laughably easy for hagiographies of obscure 19th century missionaries to be published (see the Irish Times, 7 August) and to report "verified" miracles as fact (see both Indo and Times coverage of the the canonisation of Charles of Mount Argus in late 2006, for example), while it is seemingly quite acceptable to clog up the science section of a national newspaper for weeks on end with slavish repetitions of roman catholic theology on the relationship between religion and biology (as Prof. William Reville astoundingly did last year in the Times, of all papers).

Writing disapprovingly of religion is as unacceptable in Ireland as writing scathingly about the behaviour of the Catholic Church is unavoidable. Real anti-religious writing rarely gets further than the letters pages. For the vast majority of journalists, to write hostilely about religion per se is quite simply a one-way ticket to a career outside journalism.

A fashion?
Which brings me to one of the other major weapons commonly used by the religious right: the claim that anti-religion is 'fashionable' in modern Ireland. In a previous blog I discussed John Cooney (a predecessor of Quinn's as religious correspondent for the Indo, and incidentally no ultraconservative) using this argument, but it's also been wheeled out regularly by Quinn and by his co-religionary Breda O'Brien (also in Irish Times!), as well as the newly elevated Senator Rónán Mullen (in his truly incredible -- though thankfully now defunct -- articles in the Examiner), amongst many others. They all somehow feel justified in arguing that it's somehow a clever career move to jump on some imagined anti-religious bandwagon (a bandwagon which a moment's thought will tell you doesn't exist).

This is an argument that I'm afraid I take personally.

Neither profitable nor popular
I hope I'm a modest enough person, but I have the idea that I can occasionally write sense (though with varying degrees of elegance). I've been writing as a non-religious person on religion to and, just occasionally, in the print media on and off for the past 20 years, and I can vouch for the fact that a clever career move it is not now nor ever was. While some of my writing has been published, and occasionally praised, I have never made a penny for any of it. However, this hobby of mine (and I wish it was more than that) has on more than one occasion got in the way of me making a few bob even in completely unrelated jobs, has caused a fair degree of strife in my family, led to me being lampooned in letters pages and caused unwelcome and unfair comment to be made about me to my loved ones behind my back.

Now I'm not looking for a new form of victim status - my main point in mentioning all this is to make clear (to adapt a Mylesian cliché) that it is neither profitable nor popular to be anti-religious in Irish journalism.

The salons
It may well be that, in certain circles despised by Quinn and his friends (it should be said that the collective status of these circles as the Irish cultural establishment is at the very best controversial), disapproval of much of the behaviour of the universal church is -- well -- universal; and it may even be that within such circles religious belief might even be under-represented in comparison to the general Irish population. But in my relatively limited experience these circles' most usual response to religion is at the very worst a sort of patronising tolerance. This goes nowhere near being hostile either to religion in general or to the religious convictions of any individual or community.

Discussion of the merits or demerits of religious faith is quite the opposite of fashionable. Most people in these circles and others are simply not interested in the subject. Now, to be uninterested in someone's pet subject (in this instance a pet subject that it seems Quinn and I are unfortunate enough to share) may give rise on occasion to resentment, but is not the same thing as being hostile to that person's opinions (whether they think like Quinn or like me). Nor is dishing out well-deserved criticism of the actions and attitudes of any religious organisation anything like attacking the religious views either of members of that organisation or of any other believers.

Still and all, there are a lot people (including Quinn) in the Irish media doing relatively well out of writing on the subject of religion. What all successful journalists specialising in religion seem to have in common is that they are generally in favour of it. For journalists outside this specialisation benign indifference is the rule. For religious journalists to say that those digging away in the opposite trenches are doing it out to be in with some imagined in crowd is either a self-serving fantasy or a paranoid illusion. There simply are no trenches opposite. And those few that do take potshots from whatever cover they can find are not the toast of the Dublin establishment. From personal experience, I can report that such guerrilla activity is relatively lonely and unprofitable.

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