Jennifer O’Connell rehearsed in The Irish Times last week the well-worn argument that religion shouldn’t be taught in schools because “fairy stories have no place in the classroom” and kids should be doing science instead.
It’s a good example of an increasingly common idea.
I’m thinking of the many young Catholics I know, even at third-level, who are afraid to talk about their faith. I’m thinking about the fact that because of this, atheists and agnostics are monopolising the “thinking person” label in classrooms. I’m thinking about the fact that I and others I know have been accused of being responsible for the abuse of children, just because I’m a Catholic.
I’m thinking that all this means that there are loads of smart, decent, curious people who are being denied the chance to fall in love with Catholicism – to do their part in carrying the fire that Jesus lit.
And I’m thinking that I’m sick of it.
I’ve written before about plain old anti-Catholicism – but the “fairy stories” thing is a particular shade. Catholicism isn’t just evil or Catholics bad – the Faith is also stupid and Catholics, at best, silly and naive, and at worst, patsies propping up a corrupt institution through their wilful ignorance.
Now, I’m taking it as more-or-less read that most readers of this newspaper will agree with me that Catholicism is not stupid. So where does the idea come from, and how come it’s so pervasive?
Well, a lot of this just comes from ‘thought-frames’. Thought-frames aren’t the thoughts we think: they’re more like the assumptions we take for granted, or the arena in which our thoughts happen.
And there’s a reason that the philosopher Charles Taylor calls them “social imaginaries”: because they’re shaped and sculpted by friends, peer groups, and the prevailing winds of the culture.
I think that even most Catholics have a thought-frame that goes something like this: “Matter, as in ‘stuff you can physically sense’ is the most real thing, or at least the most obviously realthing. Other stuff is a lot harder to prove.”
But actually, the first thing that we all experience is our own consciousness, which doesn’t seem to be that kind of ‘stuff’ at all. With a different thought-frame, this would be obvious to pretty much everyone, and would make the “stuff is all there is” worldview a much, much bigger ask.
So how do you go about changing thought-frames?
It probably starts with Catholics getting better informed. Our Church has done 2,000 years of thinking on most questions under the sun, and having the internet to come to our aid there’s not much excuse for not becoming familiar with it.
And then, if somebody’s going to be gratuitously rude about your faith, you can set about politely finding out if they have any idea what they’re talking about.
You want to start a real conversation, and a good way to start is by asking them a few questions about their own thought-frame.
You might see if they can describe what Catholics actually believe. If you can accurately describe their worldview, but they can’t do the same for yours, that should give them serious pause for thought.
To give just one example, you could try: “What do the inventor of the Big Bang theory, the inventor of the Montessori school, the inventor of the battery and myself have in common?”
The tired notion that religion and science are somehow enemies, as well as just making no sense, also completely ignores the fact that many of history’s greatest scientists were Christians. George Lemaitre, the person who came up with the Big Bang Theory, was a Catholic priest, and Maria Montessori and Alessandro Volta were both devout Catholics, who found support and fuel for their work in the riches of their faith.
While you’re at it you might agree with them that child abuse is a horror, and then ask them if they ever feel guilty for being Irish, considering the past and present actions of our State and the fact that one in four people in this country have been sexually abused, 98% by someone other than a priest.
You might point out to them that the teachers doing the two-and-a-half hours a week of religion have nothing to do with the great scandal of child abuse, and that never forgetting the damage done doesn’t mean smearing a whole religious community with guilt-by-association.
And maybe you might ask about Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce and Mother Teresa, and whether their time devoting their lives to living fairy stories might have been better spent doing a bit more science.
Catholics are obliged to turn the other cheek, but we are by no means required to take any nonsense from anyone.