It's been a bad couple of weeks for the Catholic Church. Defending itself from accusations of cover ups of child abuse – involving in some cases some of its highest dignitaries – the Church has taken some powerful knocks and not for the first time it has been called upon to explain itself.
Some in the atheist camp would have probably followed this news with more than a tinge of schadenfraude. But I imagine that most would have also shared my discomfort and sadness at each new development in the knowledge that each new crisis will almost inevitably mean another set of lives that will have been changed forever.
This had led me to ponder about religion and its place in society. Should we be pushing our society to a state of complete secularism where religion is simply a personal interest and its institutions regulated as any other public institution? Or would curtailing religious freedom perhaps lead us to miss out on the benefits generally associated with religion?
It’s a tricky argument and I’ve found myself at times getting angry and ready to take up some metaphorical weapons and fight against religion and what I perceive as all its evils; whilst at other times I find myself thinking about the good things religion has to offer and how sad a place the world would be for so many – some very close to me– without religion. It’s at this juncture where you join me and will hopefully be able and willing to help me ponder a bit more about this.
It is undeniable that religion can be, and by large is, a positive influence in people’s lives. Although it would be impossible to analyse religion as a whole in just a few lines, the significance of its role in helping people to deal with a variety of situations, from grief to imprisonment, is clear.
However, we only need to look to the scandals mentioned above, or the influence of the profitable right-wing Christian communities in America, or the extremist elements in Islam to see that it is also clear that religion brings into the social forum a large amount of negative baggage. And this is where my ponder lies. How can we find a balance between the religious and the social spheres?
So, should we be pushing our societies to a stage of overt and complete secularism? Where religion is reserved for the privacy of our own homes? In this scenario, religious institutions would be accountable to secular society and religious rites and customs would be informed by the accompanying secular values, rather than the other way around.
Alternatively, should we feel that the secularisation of our society is undermining some of the religious values that many have come to identify with Western civilisation?
It’s a tricky argument indeed but one that I feel can only be beneficial if everyone thought about it at some point in their lives. After all, whether it is faith schools or extremism, religion has been a regular feature in the arguments that have shaped the news over the last decade.
So, I open the floor and ask you, where should the balance lie between religion and society? Should we be pushing for an official inquiry into paedophilia in the Catholic priesthood in Ireland for instance, and expecting priests to be judged and held accountable just as any other person in a position of trust like a doctor or a lawyer would be judged? Or should we be giving the Church certain concessions and trust that there are enough internal systems of accountability to act as safeguards for everyone?
I invite you to think about this whilst we celebrate St Patrick’s Day and hopefully you’ll let me know what you think in the comments below.