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Why secularism? Learning from Ireland

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.

Abstract map of Ireland (Source:

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”.

Éamon de Valera (Public domain)

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 Éamon 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.

Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland (Pic by Les Hutchins @ Flickr)

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.

Shane Leavy is a freelance journalist for hire. Born and raised in Ireland, he has lived on three continents, made an award-winning radio documentary on the banned Chinese religious movement Falun Gong, and written about science, religion, travel, culture, politics, environment and business.

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13 Responses to “Why secularism? Learning from Ireland”

  1. MarinaM says:

    Not to mention that Ireland has had a female president (starting with the globally respected Mary Robinson) for so long now that, as Ms Robinson put it, “little boys go crying to their mothers to ask why can’t they too become president of Ireland”.

  2. TLP says:

    1SecularMalaysia’s the only way to go.

  3. Secularism has an extremely bad name in Malaysia, and elicits a gut reaction comparable to Nazism or atheism from many Malaysians. IMHO the challenge will be to start the discussion without a violent “gag reflex” resulting.

  4. uncle husim says:

    I remember watching a movie titled “The Magdalene Sisters” a few years back. It’s exactly about what the writer said above.

  5. Farouq Omaro says:

    Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was the only Muslim in the world who successfully transformed an Islamic country into a secular nation. He was very brave and farsighted. Shah Reza Pahlavi tried it and failed. Today, countries like Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are struggling to keep themselves secular! Will there ever be another Ataturk?

  6. D Lim says:

    Religion has its place, but when religion takes precedence over the rule of law, that is where it becomes dangerous. I don’t care what religions my friends [follow], so long as they possess the common traits admired around the world, like kindness and a sense of justice.

    What irks me most is when the so-called moral and religious champions lack the very qualities they champion. I once told a friend, I would respect the man who acknowledges his weaknesses, rather than the man who claims his purity but [is] the opposite in deed and heart.

  7. Mister Potato says:

    Nice article Shane, but do we human beings ever learn from other people’s experiences or mistakes? Malaysia may have to place its hand in the fire of fundamentalism before it realises that it burns.

  8. Imad says:

    Farouq Omaro wrote:
    “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was the only Muslim in the world who successfully transformed an Islamic country into a secular nation. He was very brave and farsighted. Shah Reza Pahlavi tried it and failed. Today, countries like Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are struggling to keep themselves secular! Will there ever be another Ataturk?”

    Well, i’d like a argue a few points. One, Ataturk was not a Muslim, at least when he came to power. In an interview, when he was asked about his religion, he replied something along the lines of: “I have none, I would rather all the religions end up at the bottom of the sea.” Nonetheless, he still did a good job in helping Turkey retain its sovereignty and lead it to modernisation. But [today], when democracy is the discourse in worldwide politics, no one would appreciate Ataturk’s autocratic rule.

    If you look at Turkey today, secularism seems to be in limbo between success and failure. There are many issues concerning secularism. From my observation, secularism in Turkey means the minimisation of religion in the public sphere (confined only to the privacy of one’s home), which is not the same as separation of church and state.

    Personally, I am all for the latter and not for the former, because of the exact same reason that Mr Leavy has stated in this very insightful article. But we don’t need an equivalent of an Ataturk to make it happen.

  9. Shane Leavy says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Here in Ireland we experienced two seperate, but related, movements. One was a cultural shift away from conservative interpretations of religion and towards sexual liberty, personal fulfillment and materialism. Many people who still describe themselves as Catholics only see the insides of churches for special events like Christmas, weddings or funerals. Many others have abandoned religion completely.

    The other movement is the political shift towards secularism. Abortion is still illegal here, but that may change in the near future. Censorship has decreased dramatically, divorce and contraception legalised.

    We didn’t need an Ataturk in Ireland because the cultural shift happened naturally, and the political shift followed. Could this happen in Muslim-majority countries too? Well you guys know better than I. But a new report from the US estimates that 300 million Muslims live in non-Muslim majority countries:

    So it seems hundreds of millions of Muslims already live without any kind of Islamic state whatsoever. This suggests to me that secularism is quite practical for Muslims too. Any thoughts?

  10. Karcy says:

    To Shane:

    From your recent comment, it seems to me that the “natural shift” had a very simple source: people simply stopped believing. As long as people believe in something, then they will permit the oppressive parts of the belief system to rule over their lives. If, for an example, I really believed that the mortification of the flesh is the closest to martyrdom [one can get], and a way of sanctifying the soul in order to attain sainthood in heaven, then I wouldn’t really see anything wrong with something like the Magdalene laundries. I would think that such penance [was] good for the soul. Not to mention, reality looks different for the believer and the non-believer; I’ve certainly heard at least one devout Catholic outside of Ireland speak of the very Ireland you mention as oppressive as though it were something rather beautiful.

    This is the same situation with the model, Kartika — even if it appears oppressive, violent, and ridiculous to everyone else, Kartika consented to the punishment because she believes. Her remorse and willingness to take the punishment was taken by much of the Malay-language media as a good and beautiful thing.

    Ataturk imposed secularism by force because the majority of Turkey still believes in Islam. Sure, there are many Muslims living in non-Muslim countries: but firstly, how many of them are only cultural Muslims, and how many of them devout? And of those devout, are they living in communal ghettoes complaining about the secularism and establishing even more conservative modes of behaviour among themselves?

  11. @Shane

    Do secular laws benefit Muslims. Of course they do!

    See here for an exposition of the idea:

    I am also reminded of a Muslim New Zealander I met who remarked that even though her Prime Minister Helen Clark was an atheist, secular New Zealander was an “Islamic state” because Clark’s administration ensured that corruption was a big no-no. It’s the substance that matters at the end of the day, isn’t it rather than a fixation on labels and forms.

    But try telling that to some of the Muslims politicians in Malaysia who can only envision one way to rule us all!

  12. harimau malaya says:

    After the cow-head protest in Selangor and the Kartika caning case, Malaysia, in the eye of the world is turning [into a zealous] Muslim country from being [a tolerant] Muslim country.

  13. Shane Leavy says:

    Good point, Jacqueline.

    I meant to add that individuals may follow their own religions freely under secular governments. So this modern Ireland doesn’t FORCE devout Catholics to divorce or use contraceptives, but now they can if they want!

    Karcy, a lot of people feel nostalgia for the old days when violent crime was a much smaller problem, there was less drug abuse and alcoholism. Some things really have gotten worse. It’s hard to know religion’s place in all this, but I understand conservatives who miss the old days.

    Nonetheless, I believe greater separation of church and state has benefited both. Relations between Catholic and Protestant clerics has also improved a lot and our present president, Mary McAleese, attended an Anglican service and took communion there a few years ago – something that would have been impossible in the past.

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