26 March 2007

Big Day in Northern Ireland

It's been slow, but the process continues to move forward for Northern Ireland. (CLICK HERE for the NY Times article and HERE for the BBC.) Today, Ian Paisley (the hard-nosed British loyalist) and Gerry Adams (formerly tied to a terrorist organization) sat down at a table for the first time to discuss power sharing between the two parties. Beginning on May 8th, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein will begin governing the UK province together, with Sinn Fein continuing to press for a united Ireland and the DUP insisting on staying tied to the UK.

In our Irish history class, the wife and I have been learning about how, for hundreds of years, successive kings of England tried to subjugate the Irish through colonization, as well as both legal and religious legislation. (In fact, in 1366 Britain even outlawed Irish people from entering cathedrals in Ireland.) From the mid-12th century on into the early 20th century, this was Ireland's relationship with Britain. It was in 1609 that the Ulster Plantation began in northeastern Ireland under James I. Lands were taken from Catholic Irish landowners and given to Protestant English colonialists.

Given the history of the conflict from an outside objective view, it's fairly easy to see how the UK's occupation of N. Ireland wasn't fair or just to begin with. However, given the situation today in a democratic society, with a small majority of N. Ireland's population preferring to stay connected to the UK, there doesn't seem to be any other realistic option but to allow democracy to run it's course. Obviously, I've simplified things down quite a bit here, but for the readers in the United States, this is the best summary I can offer (minus the bloodshed and the atrocities from both sides).

17 March 2007

11 March 2007

The Right to Live Out Your Spiritual Code

Early this last week, there was an editorial article from the Irish Times in which some remarkable statements made by Ireland's current Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, were applauded. The statements were made at the end of February when Ahern spoke to a group of inter-faith representatives at Dublin Castle and expressed his concern to keep faith and religion in the public square. The Taoiseach was quoted as saying that people who were promoting “a form of aggressive secularism . . . would deny a crucial dimension of the dignity of every person and their rights to live out their spiritual code within a framework of lawful practice which is respectful of the dignity and rights of all citizens. It would be a betrayal of the best traditions of Irish republicanism to create such an environment.”

Previous to this quote, the journalist speaks of the word “tolerance” with a different kind of contempt than what we're typically used to seeing in the media. “. . . [Whereas] those who engage in such superstitions are to be 'tolerated', they are also to be regarded as engaging in a near-obsolescent and unmodern activity. Our society seems merely to put up with people who believe in God because such 'tolerance' is part of our liberal ideology.” (Surely he's speaking of European society and not Irish society!)

In one sense, this is ironic in a country where an inseparable mixture of religion, politics, and national identity has brought violence, division and deep resentment. As a result, one might be tempted to think people would be leaving their religious roots in droves here in Ireland. However, for various reasons, this is largely not the case. Irish people may be increasingly disillusioned with the institutionalized version of their national religion, but it appears that they are not ready to throw out belief in God altogether. Recently I came across some statistics from 2002 which said that of the 3.9 million people in Ireland, 500 claimed “atheism” (that's .01%!) and about 138 thousand claimed “no religion” (3.5%). Figures from the latest census in 2006 are due to be released later this year.

It might also be tempting to think that the Irish are a rather gullible, superstitious lot, caught in the grip of their antiquated embrace of religion, due in part to their tireless reaction to their British oppressors. However, a closer look reveals a much more thoughtful, well-educated understanding of humanity's spiritual impulse. The “spiritual code” that Mr. Ahern spoke of in his speech was informed by “considerable evidence that [religion] is, in fact, a natural and essential element of the human psyche,” to quote our Irish Times journalist.

Whereas many in today's world will point to the wars and other damage that religion has brought to humanity (eg., Richard Dawkins), a growing number of people recognize that religion and evil done in the name of religion are not the same thing. Apparently, that includes the Irish.