Something that has struck me in the many years I’ve been wearily following the sceptical movement, like a slightly disappointed fan who’s caught Madonna lip-syncing, is the marked difference between the American and British sections of the sceptical Anglosphere. There’s definitely a much more ferocious and uncompromising attitude in the US, probably due to the truly inspired nuttiness of American Christianity and its dominance of the political sphere. In the UK, on the other hand, we tend to have a little more nuanced approach: two of our three main political leaders are atheists, unimaginable in the US, and we have nowhere near the same level of clerical meddling in governance (though the established Church is an ongoing stumbling block) as our American brethren.
However, there is a section of the United Kingdom that still is governed with the churches as the eminence grise. It’s typically forgotten or glossed over by many but it still exists. It’s called Northern Ireland, home to about 1.75 million people – not so much a country as a compromise, emerging daily from the red mist of a three-decade-long civil conflict. Neuroses about faith and the sectarian hate that so tarred these six counties characterise every discussion ever held in the political and philosophical arenas here. It’s a topic rather close to my heart, and it’s a topic that people need to be more aware of. There’s a reason why: Northern Ireland is as close as Britain has come since the end of the nineteenth century to a functional Christian theocracy, and serves as a unique cautionary tale for the poisonous effects that well-deployed religion can have on civil society.
Prominent atheists (including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens) have been guilty of simplifying what we laughably call “The Troubles” into a fight over what kind of Christian you were, while believers like Tony Blair have tried to paper over the religious chasms so as not to offend the two “communities”. Whatever – either way the divisions are easy to see. But the conflict has had a far more insidious and far-reaching effect on Northern Ireland: it, and the decades of tension since the foundation of the state in 1921, has dramatically increased the store which people set in their faith.
For instance, abortion is illegal here. The only exception is if the mother is in mortal danger, as is the case in the Republic of Ireland. Again and again, politicians of both nationalist (primarily Catholic) and unionist (primarily Protestant) have banded together to bar women from their reproductive rights. It was illegal to be gay until 1982, fifteen years after the rest of the UK, thanks to the efforts of Rev Dr Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party’s “Save Ulster From Sodomy” campaign. We have a single openly LGBT* elected official – one gay councillor out of 582. There is only one (publicly declared) non-Christian in our regional assembly of 108: Anna Lo, a Hong Kong-born Taoist.
Faith isn’t just something that a lot of people have. It’s an assumption: are you Protestant or Catholic? We’re such a polarised country that the idea of someone being atheist or Muslim or Buddhist rarely enters the equation. The churches run large sections of the education sector: Catholic schools are maintained by the Church of Rome, while many state schools (such as mine) have a large Protestant clergy presence on their Boards and are under the British legal obligation to have an act of collective worship every day. This entrenches the division between Protestants and Catholics while simultaneously freezing out those in neither camp.
But since sectarian hate become socially unacceptable, it seems Northern Ireland’s knuckle-dragging scum are switching to other forms of prejudice. That’s why we’re the most bigoted country in the western world. That’s why creationism and climate change denialism are official policy of the largest political party, the DUP. That’s why the Coleraine branch of the National Front, a mere five miles from me, is one of the most powerful in the whole of the UK, despite Coleraine and the surrounding areas being predominantly and overwhelmingly white.
You can see the quandary. It’s not like they’re rounding up the godless and shooting them, and there’s nothing as ludicrously extreme as the personhood laws that the man who would be VPOTUS, Paul Ryan (R-WI), is pushing in the States. But Northern Ireland is a curious anomaly, a relic of a bygone era, when you were defined by your religion and stepping out of it was almost unthinkable, where being gay is a disease or comparable to bestiality. It is this way because since 1921 it’s been the golden mean fallacy in the guise of a nation, splitting one country into two, to stop people killing each other for ethno-religio-politico-social reasons. It isn’t simple or easy to diagnose the problem. But a major contributing factor is religion.
I’m still angry at it. I’ve lost friends over my stance on faith. As a gay man, living here is rather dangerous for me, not even taking account of the fact that the mad First Minister and his madder wife see me as an “abomination”. So this is my problem. I live in a time warp, but I’m on my way out, and hopefully my little corner of the world will continue painstakingly along the road to normality while I’m gone. But it will take a long time, and I worry for the queer people, the atheists, the secularists, who have difficulty talking about themselves, their personal lives, their beliefs, because of how repressive an atmosphere we have here.
So forgive me. But people from mainland UK who talk about religious interference in politics really have no idea how bad it can be, unless they’ve lived here or in America. This is my attempt to demonstrate that the most distressful country remains so. The furore over the Causeway Coast Visitors’ Centre, a miserably awful episode in itself, comes from decades of political hate and theocratic authority. These things do not take place in a vacuum.
And the people of Northern Ireland don’t really seem to mind.
EDIT: The words “publicly declared” have been placed before the assertion of MLAs’ faith – if anyone has any links to on-the-record avowals of non-Christianity by Stormont MLAs other than Anna Lo, I’d be happy to place them here. I’d be particularly interested in Alliance and Green MLAs.