Working With Religion: Lessons From Northern Ireland
June 28, 2010
Today’s guest post is a profound and powerful essay by Rory Fenton, a young man who grew up in Belfast and now studies undergraduate Physics at Imperial College London. Fenton, 20, cofounded ICAN (Interfaith Charity Action Network), a new movement across London. This essay is his submission to our Share Your Secular Story contest; it was honored by the panel of judges with the runner-up position in the interfaith category, and Fenton has agreed to share it here. Since I was not a judge for the contest I can be as biased as I’d like and say that this amazing essay was truly among my favorite entries — I’m so honored to run it on NonProphet Status. Without further ado, take it away Rory.
Growing up as a Catholic in Belfast gave me many experiences I wouldn’t have had elsewhere. I remember our car being searched by the British Army every time our family went shopping. I remember my little church being burnt down and my Catholic school petrol bombed — twice. I remember the fear when our school was closed early during riots and being in the back seat of the family car, aged 7, when a man was shot dead by the IRA outside our flat. Living in a city split in two by a 25 foot tall wall, I never really met a Protestant of my own age in my first 18 years of life and that only when studying in England.
These days I would associate my beliefs with those of Secular Humanism. It would be reasonable to assume that it was these experiences that turned me off religion, leaving me eager to ‘wash my hands’ of the whole thing; but it would be much too easy, far too tempting, to justify my disbelief by blaming the Northern Irish “Troubles” (as they are euphemistically known) on religion itself.
In truth there was neither a shot fired in the name of the Sacrament of Confession nor a petrol bomb thrown in defiance of papal authority; rather, violence was a product of people allowing religious difference to be all consuming. Here were people who believed in the same God, in the one Saviour. People who believed in common “do unto others as you would have done unto you” and “turn the other cheek.” But it was their differences, their tiny differences, that were allowed to cloud this wonderful fact of agreement, amplifying the political differences between the two sides and plunging my small country into a continuation the longest civil war in known history. But there was a time when there was no violence. Tension, yes, but the bombs and shootings had yet to come. It was here that political and religious leaders had the opportunity to quell these tensions and draw on what united the two communities but instead of reaching out to fellow Christians, to brothers in humanity, they chose to create straw men and saw only division.
Leaving home for university in London, I was eager to leave that situation behind. I was delighted to meet many more people who too were Atheist and who too shook their heads in disbelief at the dreadful conflicts caused by religion. However, I soon found that the grass wasn’t quite so much greener as I had first thought. I was encouraged by fellow non-believers to view religion and the religious as “the source of all evil” with the unanimous verdict being that unrelenting bible bashers would stop at nothing to spread unreasoning thinking and fear; people who, if they showed any real goodness, only did so in hope of reward in the hereafter. I was hearing caricatures of religion that reminded me of the most bombastic of Northern Irish political speeches. I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to the divisions and the inhuman and false caricatures of pre-Troubles Belfast.
Such a hard line approach, it seemed to me, failed to learn the lessons of the past; the lessons that I had learned firsthand. There can be clearly no reconciliation between the theological beliefs in conflict in Belfast but there is, equally clearly, more to a person than their answer to the question “What do you make of the Pope?” Likewise, it is patently obvious that Atheism and Theism are incompatible as definitions of the world, but there is infinitely more to a person than their response to the question, “Is there a God or not?” Humans are deeply more complex and varied than that — a fact that forms an essential part of my Humanism.
Today in Northern Ireland, thousands of deaths later, we find ourselves in a period of peace. Neither side has won; far from it. Neither side has been proven “right.” Perhaps the biggest and hardest lesson of the Northern Irish conflict was that no one had to be. Humanist philosopher John Gray offers an excellent definition of totalitarianism as a system in which “conflicting judgements about the human good are seen as symptoms of error.” There was no doubt in my mind that this summed up quite succinctly the worst of the religious bigotry that I had experienced firsthand — only to be conquered when people finally saw beyond their differences. If modern atheism is to play its role in securing a flourishing future for all, it is my belief that we too must reach out and see more than just the one issue. Let those of faith be seen by more than just their religions and so let us too be more than just Humanist; in this way, let us be human.