Saturday, 19 April 2014

You don't have to be Religious to be 'Spiritual'

I was asked to contribute to a feature article in the Weekend Review magazine in today's 19/4/14) Irish Independent. Below is the full piece I wrote and the edited article. 

I was born in to a Catholic family so, by accident of birth, I was raised a Catholic. I think, in my teenage years, rebelling against Catholicism was a convenient way to ‘rage against the machine’. I remember arguments at home when my older sister and I refused to get out of bed on a Sunday to go to mass! I moved away from Catholicism in my late teens and early twenties but I think at that point, while I was done with the dogma and doctrine of organised religion, I still had a belief in a deity. My journey to Atheism was a gradual process, I would have been Agnostic when I returned to formal education in my late twenties and I was identifying as an Atheist by my early thirties.

I have heard people say they are proud to be an Atheist but I don’t quite understand that. For me that would be like saying I am proud to have brown eyes or to be left-handed, it is just what I am. Belonging to a religion takes effort, not just in the sense of turning up once a week at a place of worship, or obey arbitrary rules and regulations set out by your religion, but in the mental gymnastics you have to put yourself through to square the round circle. For example, we can all pretty much agree that stoning a man to death for gathering sticks on a Sunday is immoral, yet, somehow the religious will try to tell you that your morals come from the same book that commands the stoning. We are not getting our moral from that book, we are applying our morals to it. The cognitive dissonance must be exhausting. For me Atheism is freeing, with the dogma and contradictions stripped away what is left is a natural ethics and a morality based on goodness, truth, cooperation, reciprocity and empathy. Atheists are often faced with the charge that we lack ‘emotional depth’ or ‘spirituality’. Spiritual is an interesting word because it is loaded with religious connotations. I feel that spirituality is a natural and normal shared human experience which has been hijacked by the religious to become something that it is not. Spirituality is part of the journey to finding meaning in the things we do. It is about transcending the ordinary but not to connect with some supernatural divinity, but rather it is about connecting with each other. This can be through art, music, poetry or other shared experiences which include, but are not limited to, religious ritual. We find something in the way another has expressed their own experiences and that resonates with deeply with and inspires us. That, for me, is spirituality.

There are still social implications of being an Atheist in Ireland today. This is partly because we live in a culture which is permeated by religion. It is impossible to avoid religion in Ireland. We are constantly faced with a sort of religious white noise. It is there all the time and while none of it on its own is particularly noxious, from the Angelus on the television to the Taoiseach ending an interview on the BBC with ‘God bless you’, to photos in the national press of rows of Garda being sworn in holding bibles aloft, it all adds up. In terms of human rights I think Atheism at the moment is about where the LGBT movement was twenty years ago. There is, still, a social stigma attached to being an Atheist and many Atheists don’t ‘come out’ particularly if they are employed by a religious run organisation such as a school or hospital, as of course they can still be fired from their employment. Atheists are one of the last (if not the last) minority groups in Irish society that it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate against. Children of Atheists are regularly turned away from their local schools or, if they do manage to get a place, regularly have their right to opt out of religious instruction ignored. Can you imagine if the same principle was applied to accessing other services? Can you image an Atheist being told in a hospital “sorry, but we are going to deal with all the Catholic ailments first, then the ailments of all the other religions and then if we have space and resources we might get around to treating the Atheists?” Obviously this is ridiculous so why is this discrimination still considered acceptable in our schools?

I feel very lucky in that I have a family and close friends who are supportive of me. I am a member of the advocacy group Atheist Ireland and I regularly meet up with socially other Atheists. I’m not sure that without them I would be comfortable in speaking openly and publicly about being an Atheist. I would imagine that for those who don’t have that support and, in many cases, meet with actual resistance to coming out as an Atheist, the world would be a very different place. We are social animals and we have evolved to want to spend time with others who are similar to ourselves. Community is very important, we can support each other through the process of ‘coming out’, we can share experiences and stories and build friendships. This is the reason I started blogging and set up a Meetup group for Atheists, simply as ways of connecting people with each other. Where it may still be difficult for one person to stand alone and say “I’m an Atheist”, it becomes so much easier if they know that there are others standing with them. Freedom from religion is something that needs to be celebrated and enjoyed. I would encourage anyone who is questioning their religion not to do this alone, try to connect with other like-minded people.

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