Monday, February 15, 2010

The Sodom of Secularism

[I wrote this article first for the Malaysian online magazine The Nut Graph. It was published there in October 2009 and is reproduced here with permission.]

PICTURE a former British colony where the majority of people practise a religion that has become closely tied up both with national identity and with bitter anti-British sentiment.

After a violent war for independence, the new state's earliest leaders align themselves with the religion by censoring anything that upsets its hierarchy. A group of religious fanatics, led by an extreme anti-Semitic cleric, try to make their religion acknowledged as being divinely ordained. They fail, but manage to win it a "special position" in the new constitution. Divorce, abortion, contraception and homosexuality are all strictly forbidden, and religious minority populations gradually dwindle away.

To judge by today's global debate on Islamic fundamentalism, the country must be some troubled land like Palestine or Iraq. But this is in fact Ireland, in the very heart of the Western world.

Catholic clout
After centuries of religious persecution from Protestant British rulers, Catholicism had become deeply connected with Irish national identity. After independence in 1922, Ireland emerged as a barely secular state, with the Catholic Church holding vast cultural and even political clout.

The new Irish state immediately started censoring foreign films on religious moral grounds, banning 2,500 and cutting 11,000 over the first few decades. The first Official Film Censor, James Montgomery, announced that the Ten Commandments were his code, and complained against kissing — an "unsanitary salute", as he called it — on screen. Divorce, birth control, dancing, bad language (including any mention of the scandalous word "virgin") and images of Christ were hastily suppressed to keep the meek and godly people of Ireland meek and godly.

As I write this, the Malaysian Film Censorship Board has just banned the Anglo-American comedy Bruno for its graphic homosexual humour, explaining that it is "contrary to our culture". Some 50 years ago the Irish Official Film Censors were banning thousands of American movies for the same reason; Hollywood seemed a terrifying Sodom of sin and sensuality.

Even poetry faced the censor. Patrick Kavanagh, one of Ireland's greatest poets, taunted this Catholic prudery in his 1942 epic The Great Hunger, about a sexually repressed Catholic farmer who ages in bachelorhood without having the courage or wit to look for a wife. Most alarming to a 1940s censor was the single reference to masturbation — "he sinned over the warm ashes again" — which today seems obscure and sad. In 1940s Ireland, it caused outrage; Kavanagh's flat was raided by police after sections of the poem were printed in a magazine, and the magazine issue was immediately banned.

Premarital sex during this period was absolutely taboo, and women who became pregnant outside marriage were sometimes forced into Magdalene laundries. There, they worked under Catholic nuns as drudges, in strictly enforced silence, to purify them of their "sins".

Ireland developed a self-image of being a godly, conservative country content with spiritual things, particularly compared with the apparent lustful energy of the US. Irish Prime Minister √Čamon de Valera claimed in a famous 1943 speech that "the Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul."

Decoupling religion and state
When I see countries like Malaysia struggling with issues of secularism and religion today, I'm tempted to see Ireland half a century ago. Ireland even developed a reputation for terrorism because of paramilitary groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA); and Irish migrants working in the UK sometimes faced discrimination because of this violent fringe. Sound familiar?

The radical cleric who tried to make Catholicism Ireland's state religion was Father Denis Fahey, who saw Rome-dominated Western Europe of the 13th century as an ideal golden age of Christianity before the emergence of European secularism. "Since then, there has been steady decay, and that decay has been accelerated since the French Revolution," he wrote. How eerily reminiscent this is of Islamist calls for a rejection of modernity and a return to a Utopian pan-Islamic caliphate.

Considering all this, it feels strange to me to read discussions among Muslims about "Western" liberalism, as though secular liberalism is an inevitable part of Western civilisation. Even when I was growing up in the 1980s, I had a vague sense that we Irish were the religious, conservative ones, compared with the godless American hedonists we saw on television.

The collapse of Catholic domination in Ireland was unpredicted and it happened incredibly quickly. The constitutional reference to the "special position" of Catholicism was removed in 1973, the sale of condoms without prescription was legalised in 1985, homosexuality was legalised in 1993 and divorce in 1995. Today, Ireland is about as liberal and secular as any other in Europe. The thing is, the same could happen to a country near you.

Ireland's cultural and political revolution coincided with a rise in violent crime, drug abuse, suicide and alcoholism. Cases of syphilis increased 15-fold between 1992 and 2002. So it looks like poets won't be writing about sexually repressed Catholic farmers anymore.

Yet when sex stopped being a taboo subject, people began to finally report widespread sexual and physical abuse happening in Catholic institutions. In the past, these sex abusers were protected by the veneer of respectability given to them by their membership in the Catholic hierarchy. They managed to destroy lives in private while publicly preaching about sexual morality to a gushing audience. Today, they no longer have that opportunity.

For all its flaws, I like this modern, open society. I like that decisions about what I read and watch aren't being made for me by a stranger in the name of a particular interpretation of religious belief. I also suspect that by removing the religious clergy from power, we have removed the motivation for corrupt people to join the clergy. If you become a Catholic priest in Ireland today, you must really believe in it. Both politics and religion seem less corrupted after this divorce.

We in Ireland have seen what the Sodom of secularism the old Catholic hierarchy warned us about looks like. And to be honest, it looks quite nice.


  1. Good article, Shane. I'm enjoying your blogs, you write well and choose diverse and interesting topics. I hope you'll get a weekly column in a major newspaper or magazine some day, so you'll get the larger audience you deserve. Cheers!

  2. Thanks very much Vidar! I might put something up about Orkut someday too ;)


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