Religion’s sectarian influence pervades the minds of children and can persist into adulthood and on into politics, and on across generations.
Heather Hastie’s More Delusions About Religion looks at a news article that tries to distance religion from violence, by trying to convince us that the the Northern Irish Troubles were not about religion. That’s nonsense, and here’s why.
I’m a secular humanist atheist from the North West of England. About three generations back my family was Irish on both sides – I had Protestant father and Catholic mother. But I don’t know anyone in my family that considers themselves as anything other than English.
My mother used to tell me of her school days when children of her Catholic school would enjoy a rivalry with the C. of E. schools, where they would call each other Catlicks and Prodidogs. My mother married my Protestant father, and as is often the case decided to convert to Protestantism. A Catholic priest thought this such a sin that her children would be condemned to burn in hell. A few years later my mother, with my sister and I, visited my Catholic grandmother, to find she already had a visitor, her local Catholic priest. He asked who we where, and why we were not seen attending Mass. He wasn’t pleased with the answer, so much so that he too assured my mother that the souls of my sister and I would be condemned to burn in hell. My grandmother threw the priest out and never went back to church again. There never was a problem between the different beliefs of the various members of our larger family; though it was, it seems, with the leaders of our religions.
My senior school was a state school and we had a Catholic school nearby. There was rivalry, and even the occasional punch up, but nothing to stop friendships. But there was always a suspicion in some minds. When I first dated my future wife her mother’s first concern on learning my surname was, “Is he Catholic?”
The Protestant/Catholic divide has been significant in Britain since Henry VIII decided he fancied a woman other than his Catholic wife. As a visitor to many of Britain’s big old houses I often find ones that have a priest hole – a place for a Catholic family to hide a visiting priest come to provide the family with a Catholic service.
In Northern Ireland it is inconceivable that religion is not a factor in The Troubles. The sectarian divide across the city was as clear at times as the demarkation between East and West Berlin, if not as complete a barrier. The Troubles were very much about religion, in as much as the politics of the island were dictated by the religious divide going back to William of Orange and the persecution of the Catholic Irish.
I don’t know of a Protestant member of the IRA; or a Catholic member of the Protestant paramilitaries – the clue is there in the name. The Reverend Ian Paisley is another clue. The marches of the Orangemen were on routes intended to incite Catholic ire (non-Protestants that wanted to join the Orange Order had to convert to Protestantism).
If you go to the border areas of Northern Ireland today and your curiosity about The Troubles gets the better of you, and you ask about religion, you’ll often be given a look, at least, that lets you know that such a subject isn’t up for discussion. That’s how much religion defines The Troubles.
Of course there can be Protestants that want Irish unity, and Catholics that don’t. And atheists, Muslims and anyone else might have an opinion one way or the other. But these are incidental to the root of The Troubles.
There is no direct theological input, which would be the case if the opposing sides were fighting over something like the nature of The Trinity. What theological differences exist are ones of religious authority – England or Rome – and in that sense is somewhat like the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam, even if the details are different. And it is that difference that has led to the political differences, and the opponents are split along religious lines, and survives the integration of people of different sects in Britain – it isn’t quite the Sunni/Shia divide.
And, when we come to Islam there is less chance of distancing religion from politics when Islam is a political-religion, and when Islamists use the political aspects of Islam to attack their enemies, with rhetoric or violence.