To Be Perfectly Frank | No-Hopery Here?
It wasn’t until the early 1960s, when I was just about to embark on the third decade of my life, that I was confronted with first-hand evidence of serious social division within the UK. And where else would that be, but in Northern Ireland of course. My fellow botany students and I were on our way by car to County Clare on the west coast of Ireland, and we just happened to have chosen a route that passed through Belfast.
The difference between this part of the UK and the one we had left by ferry just a few hours before was glaringly obvious in the form of the now infamous end-of-terrace gable paintings vehemently declaring allegiance to one side or the other. It was a frightening and, as the subsequent ‘troubles’ so clearly demonstrated, deadly consequence of the politico-religious split that began in the province as long ago as 1690. And the slogan that has always stuck in my mind was a Protestant one: ‘No Popery Here’.
My parents were token Church of England, so that’s what I became. It’s a system that has puzzled me all my life, not because it’s difficult to see the purpose in it, but because it is passively condoned by those who find themselves subjected to it. I grew up holding various worthy views, one of which was that people are individuals and cannot possibly be told by others what they should believe. Religious belief, if one chooses to have any, should stem from a conviction that the belief in question is right for the person concerned. Anything else is manipulation for the sake of creating or maintaining power over one’s fellow human beings, which manifests itself as organised religion. And as we know, organised religion has been and still is, directly or indirectly, one of the greatest forces for evil in this world.
So why am I choosing to say these things now? Well guess! What has the media bombarded us with over the last few weeks? Gasp, the pope is going to abdicate! What will this mean for the institution of the Roman Catholic Church? Today is Pope Benedict’s last address to the crowds in St Peter’s Square … his last mass … his last Sunday … his last day. Yawn … Gasp, the cardinals are arriving in Rome to be locked in the Sistine Chapel until they agree on a new pope (thinks … I do hope there are enough toilets in the Sistine Chapel). What colour is the smoke? They’ve elected a new pope! Yippee! His name will be Francis – wow, how radical is that! It’s the new pope’s first day … his first Sunday … his first mass … his first address to the crowds. Good grief!! There’s more! The two popes meet at Castel Gandolfo, the first time this has been possible in over 600 years. Wow! Wow!
But amusement aside, what are we to make of all this? I’m sure there are Roman Catholics who believe whole-heartedly that theirs is the one true faith. But of course that applies as much to the other Christian churches and, for that matter, to other religions. On the other hand, I’m totally convinced that a large proportion of those who adhere to an organised religion are either ignorant of the issues, too powerless to do without the crutch that the church provides, or simply cynically using the institution for social advantage. A certain Tony Blair, I’m absolutely sure, didn’t experience any kind of epiphany when he converted to Catholicism; his wife and children are Catholics and it was socially inconvenient not to be one also.
If we want a clear example of the cynical use of religion as a social tool, we need go no further than our own doorsteps. Folkekirken (a significant proportion of whose priests don’t even believe in God) is financed by the state and assiduously tempts all young people to become members through the social rituals that Danes so enjoy. Confirmation is the Danish equivalent of Bar Mitzva or Bat Mitzva, a celebration not so much of religious belief but of membership of the Danish clan. By such means are the age-old divisions into ‘us’ and ‘them’ sustained. God help us!