Sunday evening, the 2022 census will take place. Most of the questions cover factual topics such as our ages and occupations, but question 12 stands out as being different, as it asks us about our spiritual beliefs.
For the first time, the traditional formulation of ‘What is your religion?’ has been replaced by ‘What is your religion, if any?’.
For some, this question might be sobering, especially if we are filling out the form on behalf of our children or other family members. For example, should we say that we are religious simply because we have been baptized? Or, can we claim the religious beliefs of our children?
In 2016, I was one of the 10% who checked the “No religion” box. Six years earlier, I had “defected” from the Catholic Church, demonstrating to the bishop’s satisfaction my sincere desire to leave. Indeed, I was excommunicated at my request and could no longer participate in the sacraments.
However, the change in status had a much bigger meaning for me.
Two months earlier, we had received a terminal diagnosis for our beloved baby girl, then 10 weeks old. Our lives have been unexpectedly and irrevocably changed.
That first week after her diagnosis was characterized by a mixture of numb shock, fear and, given the short time frame (she had a maximum of 10 months to live), a decision-making frenzy.
For some, a religious upbringing would have brought real comfort, but for me, it was an additional source of stress.
Initially, I felt the need to have her baptized for two reasons (even though I hadn’t believed in God or the afterlife since I was 17).
First, from a practical point of view, I knew nothing about cemeteries. I thought they belonged to the Catholic Church and that we had to have her baptized “to get her in,” reflecting the “barrier of baptism” in some schools. It clearly wasn’t, as the social worker explained, but it was the first time I had recognized the depth of influence religious teaching had on my subconscious.
The second problem was more serious. Although I don’t believe in an afterlife, I couldn’t escape the fear that if I was wrong I might go to heaven and she wouldn’t. The concept of limbo had recently been “canceled” by Pope Benedict XVI, but the culture runs deep.
I couldn’t rest until we were in the same category, so if she didn’t “fit in” neither could I, and so I could take care of her. Again, these were the thoughts of someone who hadn’t believed in an afterlife for 16 years.
At that time, the CountMeOut.ie campaign helped people ‘defect’ from the Catholic Church. 12,000 people downloaded the form, ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to ban the practice. I was probably one of the last people allowed to defect.
: I had never heard the word limbo in school, just as I had never been given the impression that all cemeteries belonged to the church. All my education took place in schools run by nuns and brothers, for whom I had nothing but affection and respect. But I grew up in a culture that had been taught for hundreds of years that baptism was a prerequisite for salvation.
As the parent of a deceased child, I cannot imagine a more sinister form of emotional blackmail.
I don’t believe that many Catholics promote this logic in Ireland today, but the fear remains. Most of us know someone who is not religious but had their children baptized “just in case,” or perhaps because their own parents would be too grieved if they didn’t.
In the 2016 census, 78% of respondents identified as Roman Catholic. In a republic, we shouldn’t have to worry about these tendencies, because all belief systems should have equal esteem in our government and public services.
Unfortunately, this is not yet the case, and these figures are used to justify or ignore religious influence on our public schools and hospitals. The false argument is made that personal belief involves support for religiously controlled public services.
A recent survey by the Catholic Church clearly illustrated that the opposite is closer to the truth. The Genesis Report showed that an average of 39% of parents in elementary and middle school considered the Catholic ethos an important factor in school choice.
The conclusion of the report may be useful in interpreting the possible results of the 2022 census.
“There is a new interpretation of ‘Catholic’ for the Irish, which is about developing a moral compass, awareness of social justice, social inclusion and concern for self and others. It depends less on religious practice, sacraments and tradition.
Whatever their label in the 2022 census, these inclusive values sound like the bedrock of a progressive civil society.
When I answer question 12 I will tick ‘No religion’, but when I answer for my children I think I will tick ‘Other’ and write ‘Too early to tell’.
- Colm O’Connor is a secondary school principal, but he writes here in a personal capacity.
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