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Finding a new role for religion

Time to re-imagine the role that religion plays in Irish societyGerry O’Hanlon assesses the role which religion could assume in the Ireland of today, a country which has become, sadly, a place of ‘loads of money but no vision’.


It may be time to re-imagine the role that religion plays in society.

With all the good things that the Celtic Tiger and our Western world have given us, there is a growing sense of something important that is missing. The heading to a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole (Irish Times, Jan 10, 2006) put it succinctly: Loads of money but no vision.

At a time of great gain, not just materially, we in Ireland are conscious of a lack of vision, of soul. Faced with the scourges of drug and alcohol abuse, soaring gun crime, high suicide rates, a shockingly inefficient health service, an apparent inability to tackle road deaths, an almost invisible under-class, we look around for inspiration. What ideas are there in our public discourse that will enable us to find common purpose in enjoying our new-found wealth and confidence in a sustainable and inclusive way?

The Taoiseach is quoted recently as saying that his religious faith “is both a personal matter for me as well as being an important part of my life and of my perspective on public affairs…religious belief and practice is not a purely private matter, with no place in public discourse” (Irish Times, February 23, 2006). We all know by now what that this cannot mean a return to any kind of confessional State. This is not desired even by the Christian churches themselves, by the Catholic Church definitively in its Decree on Religious Freedom in Vatican II and once again in most recent times by Pope Benedict XVI in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est. And the severe erosion of the moral authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland due to the recent exposure of sexual scandal as well as authoritarian rule in the past makes even any remote threats of a confessional state risible.

But is Ireland and the Western world as a whole best served by an understanding of the separation of Church and State which relegates the role of religion to the private sphere? This until recently has been the dominant world-view in the West. It is a view which we in Ireland, for historical reasons, have come to rather late and therefore may be reluctant to change. For many it may well be a view which is only reinforced by certain exceptions which are often cited- the powerful voice of the Christian Religious Right in North American politics, and the most visible if not most typical face of Islam world-wide. Amir Taheri writes that “today the visible Islam, the loudest Islam, is a political movement masquerading as a religion” (Sunday Times, February 12, 2006). With examples like these and memories of the sometimes divisive effect of religion in our own N.Ireland conflict situation we may be reluctant to reconsider a more public role for religion.

And yet…if there are resources within our religious traditions which can help us in our present search for meaning should we not be seeking to mine them in the most positive way possible? There are two obvious ways of doing this which already in fact take place. One is by way of the Church talking to itself about issues of public concern and this having a positive knock-on effect in public life. A second useful approach is by way of an ethical secular analysis that is in line with Christian teaching-the Justice Desk of CORI has been doing this heroically for many years.

But is there any way for religious people to be even more upfront, to bring the great religious symbols like God, Trinity, Creation, Incarnation, Fall, Sin, Grace, and so on into public discourse? Could the religious story, of whatever hue, be helpful in providing vision, inspiration, meaning, without any sense of coercion? Might the symbolic power of the story of the Good Shepherd be the kind of energy we need to tackle the scandals of homelessness and disadvantage which continue to plague our society? Might the narrative of the extraordinarily ordinary God-man Jesus, nailed to a cross by a love that is vindicated in his resurrection, be a source of mystery and hope to us in a world that often seems lonely and meaningless?

It would seem that there may indeed be a space opening up for this kind of religious voice to be heard. Cultural analysts point to a growing dissatisfaction with an exclusively scientific and technological approach to life, and a corresponding increase in respect for the contribution of music, art, literature, love and even religion. Similarly the academic gurus of the Liberal political establishment now acknowledge that secularism, as much as religion, is a belief, and that there is scope for a constructive public dialogue between these two systems, a dialogue which may be able to provide much-need moral capital to shore up the project of Liberalism.

Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition which has most deeply marked our culture there are thousands of years of reflection and wisdom on the human condition which can inspire us in our present situation. We cannot afford to relegate to the private sphere what is often the most important motivating factor in people’s lives, including their public lives.

We need intelligent discourse and reflection about how George Bush understands the role of prayer in his decision to go into Iraq, about Tony Blair’s belief that he will judged by God for this same political act. But also why Marin Luther King was inspired by the Christian Gospel in his prophetic quest for civil rights, and why the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles Roger Mahony has this month “ordered his clergy to defy proposed legislation against illegal aliens, and used his annual Lenten message to call his flock to fast for the liberalization of immigration law” (The Tablet, March 11, 2006).

We need all this for Christians and secularists but also for Muslims who are trying to negotiate their own understanding of the connection between religion and society. They are not impressed by what they perceive as the West’s capitulation to secularism in the public sphere. They are trying in the space of decades to negotiate a journey which took Christians centuries, with many wars along the way. They will be helped if we can show them that it is possible to have Church-State separation without eliminating the voice of religion in society, a curiously illiberal if hopefully temporary outcome of our own cultural journey in the West.

We need wisdom and imagination to grasp this opportunity to allow religion to inspire our public discourse. Let’s hope that the structured dialogue between the Government and religious organizations due to start in the coming months will be a positive step in this direction.