Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

The Right to Believe in Nothing

According to yesterday’s Irish Times some census enumerators are advising people to fill in their religion as the one they were raised in rather than the beliefs they currently hold.  On the Antiroom blog today author and journalist Anna Carey called for those with no formal religious beliefs to make their voices heard – it’s a call echoed by Atheist Ireland who, back in January, launched their Be Honest About Religion campaign asking for all those not practising a religion to tick the No Religion box on the census to give an accurate suggestion of how secular Irish society has become.

This is an issue I feel strongly about.  It would never occur to me to answer anything other than No Religion.  That’s been the case for as long as I can remember, apart from a brief flirtation with God when I was about ten.  I grew up in a very secular environment – it was my choice to start going to church and my decision to get baptised then confirmed.  I remember being shown a lovely silver goblet given to me for my christening when I was a baby, that had sat in it’s green leather box slowly tarnishing as the day never arrived.  It seemed as if this elegant, shiny thing was never really mine because I’d never signed on the dotted line.  I can’t say for certain whether this had any influence on my decision to start attending church but  it never was engraved even when I finally did get baptised – about twenty minutes before I was confirmed at the age of 11. 

For a few years I really got into it.  I loved the ritual, the flowers and the way the light shone down through the stained glass windows in our modern church.  I also liked the way it made me feel, virtuous and special.  But it was always play acting for me.  I loved the music of the hymns, the rhythm of the words of the prayers we recited each week, the cadence of the sung parts of the eucharist, but at no stage did I really have a concept of some superior being.  When I heard the words Our Father I vaguely associated it with My Father, dead when I was a baby but always, so I was told, looking down on me.

So the issue of religion has never been a big one for me.  I’ve tried, over the years, to believe in a variety of things but deep down I know that for me it would always be play acting.  In England it was never a big deal.  I didn’t know what religion most of my friends were and it never came up.  But when we moved to Ireland all that changed.  Religion runs through this country like veins of silica through rock and is just as impenetrable.  I know that for my Irish friends the decision to say they have no religion usually means turning their backs on a deeply held faith that would have been followed unquestioningly before the doubts began.

Since I’ve moved here I’ve come to see how important belief can be but also how vital it is to respect the views of others.  This is something that, on even on an official level, is not always done here. 

A few years ago, in a different life, I was working as a consultant’s PA in a Dublin hospital.  One day I was helping a patient with his hospital admission.  The man had just been told he had terminal cancer and would probably not be leaving the hospital alive.  I had got to know him over the months he had been coming to the hospital for tests.  He was a lovely man, always quick with a joke and would always stop by my desk for a chat when he was leaving.  This day he was quiet as we worked through the form and I filled in the necessary details.  Towards the end of the form was a question on religion.  Without missing a beat he answered None.  This wasn’t an option so I left the section blank and moved on.

Leaving him sitting beside my desk I walked down the corridor to the admissions office, wanting to make the process as simple and painless as possible.  The woman sitting at the admissions desk glanced at the form I handed her before handing it back.  “You didn’t fill in the religion”.  “He doesn’t have one” I answered, not thinking twice about it.  “Take it back and get him to put something down – it has to be filled in before we can admit him.”

So I went back down the corridor clutching the form feeling slightly sick.  I had to tell this terribly sick man that his beliefs, obviously strongly felt, weren’t good enough for the hospital administrators.  I sat down beside him and explained it as lightly as I could but knew immediately I should have stayed and argued the toss at the admissions desk.  The poor man was angry and upset.  He was crying as he began to justify his decision to me, something he should never have felt he  had to do.

I stopped him and said that I would sort it and eventually I did.  It took a stand up row before they would admit him without a religion but eventually I was able to go back and tell him he could go up to the ward.  The whole incident left me shaking with anger.  That this lovely man should have been questioned like that, that I had to be the one to question him.  For weeks after I argued that the option should be added to the admissions form, but I was only a temp and the hospital administration staff were on a work to rule over a benchmarking dispute.  The issue wasn’t high on the agenda.  Eventually I persuaded the IT guy to add an extra box to the form and started reading all the options to everyone coming to admission.  Nobody else ticked the No Religion box but I would hope that next time they did it was accepted as an option.

I left the hospital not long after, a little bit more militant on a number of issues.  But it was that day that has stuck with me ever since and the anger still rises when I think of it.  I know that religion is part of the fabric of the State here but that has to change.  Things might have improved since I was working in the hospital but as long as there is the assumption that everyone is the same, everyone has the same background, the same values if you scratch the civilised veneer with a sharp enough point, then that complacency will make some people feel like aliens in their own home.  When that complacency strikes when people are at their most vulnerable then it becomes a cruelty.

I know there is pressure to conform.  When I took the stand last week down in Dungarvan I felt embarrassed when I asked to affirm, even though any other oath would be a lie.  I went to church for long enough as a child to feel awkward when everyone gets up for communion and I stay seated at the family milestones we gather to celebrate, all of them taking place in a Church.

The No Religion box on the current census form didn’t need to be asked for.  But if those who don’t believe don’t tick it then it’s too easy to assume it’s not a problem.  That not believing is just an aberration, a blip in the religious hegemony.  It’s the times when we’re at our most vulnerable that feeling like  an individual can be most important. But in those same times you shouldn’t be made to feel like an outsider.

4 Comments

  1. I was raised heathen. By Connecticut Yankees transplanted to Dallas, Texas.

    Okay. Not quite heathen. “Mother is a deist” was the answer to my early questions.

    For six months I went to (Episcopalian) Sunday school classes. My neighbor-friend Becky went, and I copied everything she did.

    The classes confused and frightened me. The few services I attended scared me even more.

    Once my family had returned from one of our three-week vacation trips to Connecticut, I left off going to Sunday school. Since then I’ve not given a fretful thought to the almighty.

  2. Fabulous post, Abigail. I am so impressed that you were able to get the forms changed at the hospital. (I firmly believe that only angry people every achieve anything!). I am still shocked, though, when I come across ‘Christian name’ on forms in this country! (I always cross that bit out and write in ‘Personal name’ instead.)

    Hx

  3. Aww. Abigail. Well told and with feeling. May the torch keep burning.

  4. Aww. Abigail. Well told and with feeling. May the torch keep burning.

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