As someone who stopped practising my Catholic religion aged fourteen at a time when Mass attendance in Ireland was, er, mass and virtually unquestioned, I have a particular interest in the subject of religious indoctrination. It is a subject which is now a hot topic, partly because there is a backlash against the Church going on among people of my generation who feel both taken in and let down by an institution that has lost a great deal of its moral authority due to the child abuse scandals. There is also the undoubted fact that as a result of joining the EU, Ireland has changed with startling rapidity from being what amounted to the last theocracy in the Western world into a typically modern, liberal state that is now preoccupied with throwing off the remaining shackles of its religiously authoritarian past. Indeed the current backlash against the Church is, in many ways, as knee jerk as the former obedience was blind.
My own rejection of religion was partly due to a conviction that religious belief is irrational, on a par with belief in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and Easter bunny; it should, I felt, be grown out of in similar fashion. When I announced my decision to stop attending Mass, my mother was appalled. My father however, who had given up his own practice in young adulthood, simply told me to make my case. He accepted my arguments and gave me his backing, which helped me withstand my mother’s disapproval. It wasn’t until years later, for reasons I will shortly explain, that I realised my Irish Catholic education had not succeeded in conveying to me the true flavour of Christianity and that my reasons for rejecting it were flawed.
Despite my youthful atheism however, the career I chose meant that religion would be an inescapable element of my work life. As a primary school teacher in the 80s and 90s I had no choice but to accept the religion lesson as part of the school day. I was not particularly happy about that, but the task proved to be more interesting and pleasant than I had expected. Post Vatican 2 Religious Education had undergone radical change from the rote learning of abstract dogmatic statements of faith which had constituted my own experience of R.E., to a new emphasis on the bible. The focus of The Children of God programme was on the person and doings of Jesus of Nazareth and on his love ethic. I found that my young pupils loved the character and the beautifully illustrated stories that depicted him. This was my first meaningful encounter with Christianity as I have come to understand it, and unbeknownst to me at the time would propel me into a career change that my younger atheistic self would have baulked at.
After about a decade of teaching, I decided that the time was right for further study; it had always been my intention to do a master’s in education at some stage, but having been out of academia for several years I decided it might be a good thing to take a preliminary part time course to ease myself back into study mode. I found an evening course in UCD in Religious Education which, among other things, would explain the rationale for the radical change in R.E. curricula that had occurred post Vatican 2.
On that first evening in UCD, mandatory bible in hand, I braced myself for boredom but found myself totally and unexpectedly hooked by the very first lecture which happened to be in moral theology, a subject I had never heard of. The course opened up for me a new world of whose existence, despite years of compulsory R.E. both as pupil and teacher, I was ignorant: the rich world of theology, and its various categories. Theology literally means talk about God or, more formally, faith seeking understanding. I had been under the mistaken impression that theology was nothing more than dogmatic formulations of faith and had never heard of speculative theology. All doctrinal formulations are the result of centuries of speculation and, contrary to common perceptions, are often open to interpretation and seldom set in stone. Systematic theology analyses and critiques the development of foundational and important doctrines such as creation, the origin of evil, the divinity of Jesus and the triunity of the one God. Moral theology focuses on the Church’s moral teachings that are derived from theological reflection on the Bible and Church tradition.
It was biblical theology however that was the real eye opener for me. Reading the Gospels in particular acquainted me for the first time with the character of Jesus of Nazareth, a person I thought I knew but with whom I now realised I had no more than a superficial acquaintance. The Jesus who emerges from the Gospels has a far more powerful impact than the one doled out in highly ritualised liturgical portions during the Mass. Reading the Gospels was, for me, an epiphany and I understood for the first time the meaning of the phrase ‘born again Christian’. The Jesus I encountered there is, to my mind, undoubtedly the greatest and most attractive character in history. His love of humanity was lavished particularly on those who were considered the outcasts of the time; these included prostitutes, tax collectors and people with physical and mental health problems; in that era the former were often considered to be either sinners or the descendants of sinners, while the latter were thought to be possessed by demons. Jesus was non-judgemental, and saw individuals, not their labels. Unsurprisingly he attracted a strong following among women, many of whom travelled around with him; they were an eclectic group who ranged from those he had cured of physical or mental illness such as Mary Magdalene (often confused with the prostitute who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair) to well off and high status women who supported him financially: “Soon afterwards, he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza and many others who provided for him out of their resources.” (Luke 8: 1-3). To say that Mary Magdalene was cured of seven demons is to say that she was completely cured of severe mental illness. Where women were concerned, Jesus did not apply any double standard; this, together with the fact that, as Irish theologian Gina Menzies has put it “Women were all over the ministry of Jesus” was yet another shock in the context of the all-male hierarchical Church to which I was accustomed.
Jesus was also a wonderful storyteller who used parables to convey the kinder, warmer, more just world he termed the Kingdom of God. It was his mission to inaugurate this Kingdom, which Christians believe is evolving over time. If the words and behaviour of Jesus are anything to go by, the Kingdom is/will also be a place devoid of hypocrisy and fake piety, characteristics he despised and called out wherever he found them, particularly in the religious establishment of the day. Most shocking of all, perhaps, for someone brought up in the authoritarian form of Catholic Christianity that predominated in Ireland until the recent past, was Jesus’s sheer unconventionality. He took enormous social risks in ignoring the more burdensome and petty requirements of Jewish Law and by consorting publicly with people deemed the outcasts and ‘sinners’ of the time. This behaviour, combined with his great popularity, brought him to the attention of the authorities and was instrumental in his downfall.
Ultimately my theological studies led me to jettison the idea of postgraduate study in education, and instead I chose to study first for a master’s and then a PhD in theology. Within eight years I had given up my career as a primary school teacher and moved to third level teaching in theology and R.E. I had also learned that whatever I had been indoctrinated in as a child, it was not Christianity.
If you strongly associate Christianity with a phalanx of men in clerical garb that represents various degrees of hierarchy, and/or a legalistic straitjacket of negative moral absolutes (thou shalt not..) whether you are atheistic, agnostic, or a believer, you have been religiously indoctrinated. So what is religious indoctrination, and more specifically what is Irish religious indoctrination? Well here’s a hint: whenever my atheistic and somewhat anti-clerical father encountered a priest or a nun, all he was short of doing was bending the knee and kissing his/ her hand, such was his attitude of obeisance.
If you want to know more about religious indoctrination and its causes, read my next post.