I am an Atheist, but you wouldn’t know it to look at me. If you observed you may notice that although I live in a small rural village I don’t attend mass in the local church, or events in the parish hall. I don’t wear ashes on my forehead or give up chocolate for Lent. I’m not married and Little P is not baptised.
It’s tricky to recognise fellow non believers. It seems a bit of a personal a question to ask outright and, contrary to popular belief, we don’t have horns (even though that would make it a lot easier for me!). If I were Catholic I could go to mass or to toddler groups in the parish hall. If I were Protestant I’d go to service, Muslim the mosque etc. But where does one meet other Atheists?
I often meet other Mums, get to know them and then they start talking about holy communion plans or asking if Little P is enrolled in the local Catholic school. I can’t help it but my heart does sink a bit. I’m not saying that I can’t be friends with religious people – that would be madness – loads of my existing family and friends are practising Catholics and it doesn’t affect our relationship. It’s just that when you feel completely outnumbered it can get a little lonely.
As an Atheist I have always felt isolated in my (non) belief but I definitely feel more alone since we moved to Kerry. The sense of community, neighbourliness and family values in rural Ireland is wonderful and much stronger than in the Dublin suburbs. But, the only difficulty for a family like us is that those values are almost always still connected to the church.
Religion has had the benefit of centuries of tradition in building strong and faithful communities. Christianity and then catholicism have become the majority religion of choice in Ireland. I can understand why people are reluctant to move away from these religious communities even if they don’t fully believe in what they represent. They are ready made, strong, warm and welcoming communities. Sometimes I miss the comfort of them. Although I was baptised and raised in a typical Irish Catholic household I now consider myself both an Atheist and a Humanist. An Atheist because I don’t believe in any god(s) and a Humanist because I place all things human above all things spiritual. It was while I was at university studying philosophy that I began to question religion and by the time I left I was an Atheist.
But I didn’t find many like minded individuals. My family and friends range from the committed mass goers to those who believe in god but ignore the religious trappings of Catholicism. While working I was often surprised when apparently agnostic colleagues would announce the baptism of their baby or send out invitations to their church wedding. On many occasions they would confess that it was to secure a school place or placate their religious families. It seems that religion is so closely woven into Irish life that it’s almost impossible to unpick the threads.
Even now in the 21st century the government is taking such tiny steps at separating Church and State that it feels like it will never happen. It’s an ominous thought for me that Little P could yet become an adult in a country where schools, hospitals and even government are still so closely bound to the Church.
It does appear that the next generation are moving away from organised religion (in the 2016 Irish census 45% of those with no religion fell into the 20-39 age group). What will hold communities together in the absence of the religious ‘glue’? Atheists and Humanists like me will have to make a lot more effort to build secular communities. So, it’s time to stop complaining and start doing. As a natural introvert I’m not great at joining groups but for my sake and Little P’s sake I have to get over that.
I’ve recently discovered that there is an Atheist Ireland (www.atheistireland.ie) group in Kerry so my mission is to go along to their next meeting and connect with some other non believers. Humanist Ireland are also making great strides in growing regional groups and hosting secular events and celebrations (www.humanistireland.ie).
Communities built around human values like family, friendship, environmental care, nature and culture have the potential to be diverse, rich and inclusive. They have the potential to be even more enduring than religious ones because they are based around human values. Values that we will always have in common. They can become places where people of all religions and none can feel welcome and, most importantly, where no one will feel isolated. Atheists and Humanists have to be more active in creating these communities. We don’t have the benefit of generations of religious worship behind us. But the extra effort could make secular communities all the more worthwhile.
So, if you feel the same, and you recognise someone like me in your community make a connection. The more connections we make the more we can strive to build these secular communities and create more genuine diversity. For as Jeanette Winterson once wrote ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’.