RTÉ One, Wednesday, June 12th at 9.35pm
Ireland is at a religious crossroads. While some can’t wait to see it become a more secular country, others value the role of faith and fear its loss. Comedian Oliver Callan is on a personal mission to work out his own – and Ireland’s – changing relationship with religion and with God. He travels the country to find out if we would be better off without religion, or if we would be losing something valuable by Divorcing God.
From First Holy Communions to Father Ted, from our schools and hospitals to the Angelus, religion - and especially Catholicism - has long been part of the Irish DNA. In the last census, 88% of us voluntarily identified with a religious denomination, and many continue to value the Christian ethos of our schools, hospitals and charities.
And yet, Ireland is becoming visibly more diverse and secular. Successive referenda have challenged the moral influence of the Catholic Church on our constitution and some now want to remove religious influence altogether from our public institutions and laws. When Pope Francis visited Ireland last summer, TaoiseachLeo Varadkar told him, “I believe the time has come to build a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland.” But what will this “new covenant” look like, and will we be better or worse off?
In this hour-long documentary, political satirist and journalist Oliver Callan embarks on a journey across Ireland to find out if, in our rush to secularise and diversify, we’re in danger of throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water. He asks, “In the clamour to remove the Catholic Church from the public sphere, are we in danger of losing the positive stuff that organised religion can bring - the charity, the care and the place to go when tragedy strikes: a community?”
Oliver talks to some people who are deeply religious and to others who have walked away from the faith in which they were raised. For some, God and belief provide the pole to a moral compass, while others believe religion is a medieval mythology that has been destructive to human beings. As a former altar boy, whose relationship with the Church has been complicated by his own sexuality, Oliver wants to figure out his own relationship with religion and with God, as well as Ireland’s.
“I really, really want to believe in something, so, I suppose, I’m one of those impressionable people open to being swayed... But I’m very cynical.”
Oliver grew up in the small village of Inniskeen, Co Monaghanin the 1980s, when the Catholic Church was at the centre of everything. He goes back to Mass there for the first time in ten years and meets young Catholic parents, Gareth and Fiona Kelly. They value how the parish helped them to fit into the community and think it’s important to pass on their faith to their children – not because it will make them better than other children, but because it will enrich their lives. They don’t agree with all of the Catholic Churches’ social teaching and are well aware of its flaws and failures. And yet, they’d rather stay in it to change it from within.
The Kellys aren’t alone. Recent referenda have demonstrated that many Irish people who call themselves Catholic don’t agree with Catholic doctrine. We have seen seismic change in recent decades. In 1979, Ireland turned out en masseto greet the Pope, but in 2018, many chose instead to show solidarity with the Church’s victims, by protesting at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance or the burial site of the Tuam babies.
In the Garden of Remembrance, Oliver meets Andrew Madden, who, in 1995, was the first clerical sexual abuse victim in Ireland to go public with his story. He tells Oliver about the pain the Catholic Church caused him, when it put its public reputation and the protection of his abuser priest above his own well-being. That put paid to Andrew’s own vocation to the priesthood. And yet, he still has faith in a higher power, which has been a key ingredient in his recovery.
The human instinct to seek meaning and purpose seems universal, but the way religion is practised has changed constantly throughout history. Oliver Callan travels to the ancient pilgrim site of St Gobnait’s, Ballyvourney, Co Cork, where he meets Dr Jenny Butler from University College Cork’s Study of Religions Department, as well as local parishioner Noreen Collins. Noreen has “done the rounds” at St Gobnait’s shrine all her life and is there on this day, to pray for her sick friend at the ancient healing well. To some, these old traditions of folk religion seem out-dated and superstitious – they can’t get rid of them quickly enough. And yet, listening to Noreen, Oliver is in no rush to see the old ways banished.
By way of contrast, in Gorey, Co Wexford, Oliver meets Paula Byrne and her husband Billy Ralph. Both born into Catholic families, they decided that the “faith of our fathers” wouldn’t be the faith of their children. They brought up their own two daughters, Aoife and Roisin, without any faith, but with a strong sense of social responsibility and moral values.
Powerful religions can certainly cause damage and pain, but faith has undoubtedly done a lot of good, too. At a time when there are campaigns to erase the religious names and ethos of many of our schools, hospitals and charities, Oliver Callan visits a centre that has done almost the opposite. The Fr McGrath Family Resource Centre, in Kilkenny, has a totally secular ethos, with people of many faiths and none helping others, regardless of their beliefs of lack of them. And yet, everyone seems happy that the centre is named after a dynamic local priest, who ministered in the area in the 1950s and 60s. Oliver finds the place inspiring – perhaps a sign that community spirit – good, old-fashioned meitheal– can survive and thrive in a more diverse and secular environment.
Even though many Irish institutions are now secular, the census figures suggest that the vast majority of us still want some sort of faith in our lives. At its best, religion can instil a sense of purpose and belonging; it offers rites and rituals to mark key life stages and support us in moments of crisis. However, not everybody finds those things in traditional Churches. In Ennistymon, Co Clare, Oliver meets John McCarthy in the North Clare Community Church. Once an international surfer with a party lifestyle, John found that he needed God to give his life moral, meaning and purpose. He is still riding that wave of vibrant evangelical belief, but can he separate it from the judgmental narrow-mindedness that sometimes blights Born Again believers, especially when it comes to issues such as sex and sexuality? He believes so: his mission is to love God and his neighbour and leave the judging to God.
Science and religion are often portrayed as opposites, but Oliver wonders whether the former can tell us anything about the latter. Are we wired for faith? Is there an identifiable God-shaped hole that makes us more inclined to believe? He asks Professor Orla Muldoon from the Department of Psychology at University of Limerick if there is any scientific evidence to show whether religion is good or bad for us and he soon finds himself a guinea pig in her research, with surprising results.
More and more people, these days, say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual” – a sign that they have separated two key aspects of religion: believing and belonging. Even many committed believers are looking for new and more meaningful ways to express and practise their faith. In a bare-timbered room in Connemara, Oliver tries out the ancient Chinese spiritual practice of Qi Gong with Ann Keenaghan – just one of the many new ways that Irish people are now expressing and practising their spirituality away from churches.
Ann’s son is the charity founder and social campaigner Ruairi McKiernan, whom President Higgins appointed to the Council of State. On a spiritual walk with Oliver in Barna Woods, he explains how the years he has spent working in youth mental health services have taught him that spirituality has an important role to play in instilling in young people a sense of their value and purpose – particularly in a secular society. The main challenge to faith, he believes, comes not so much from secularism, as from what he sees as the false gods of commerce and capitalism, which assail us on all sides with false promises and insatiable yearning.
Ultimately, it will be our young people who decide the future role of religion in Ireland, and so Oliver ends his journey in the low-lying fields and classrooms of Presentation College, Athenry, where hetalks to Transition Year students and their teachers. The school has a Catholic ethos and the pupils are quick to identify themselves as Catholic... until Oliver presses them to say if they agree with all the Church’s teaching on issues such as sexual morality. Not one hand stays in the air.
Oliver Callan’s quest to discover if religion has a positive role to play in an increasingly diverse and secular Ireland is entertaining, eye-opening and revealing. Are Irish people really in the process of Divorcing God or simply finding new ways of believing and belonging? Wait and see.