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Given up on Catholicism? Why you should tick 'no religion' on the census tomorrow

Religion is all of our business when over 90% of state-funded schools remain in church hands, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

CENSUS 2016 TAKES place tomorrow and will count all the people and households in the country on that night.

This is the 25th census since 1841. A quick scan down the front page of my own form reveals that under Sections 26 and 27 of the Statistics Act 1993, “you are obliged by law to complete and return this form. Any person who fails or refuses to provide this information or who knowingly provides false information may be subject to a fine of up to €44,400.”

My first thought? “Holy crap, we can (potentially) fine people €44,400 for declaring on the census form that their religion is ‘Jedi Knight’ and yet in this country a man can actually confess to rape and still – pending appeal – not go to jail?”

Still, though, filling out the census isn’t exactly a chore. The first eleven questions are straightforward and about your household. Then the personal stuff. Date of birth, marital status, place of birth, history of residency, nationality and ethnicity.

Then we get that much-debated question: “What is your religion?”

You have seven options: Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Islam, Presbyterian, Orthodox, other or no religion.

Diarmaid MacAonghusa, chair of Educate Together, suggests that a more logical question would be “Do you practice a religion?” and then proceed from there, rather than assume – as the census does – that practising a religion is the norm. MacAonghusa believes that less than 25% of us actually practice a religion.

I have friends who say religion is none of the state’s business and we should all tell the census where to go. Me, I believe the question about religion is very valid – or rather it would be if Irish people were capable of making up their minds about whether they are Catholic or they’re not.

Losing power

The last census saw 84.2% of us declare voluntarily that they are Catholic. From talking with priest friends about Mass attendance, they reckon they’d be very lucky indeed if even a third of that figure is dictionary-definition-of-Catholic truthful.

I think of them as Santa Claus Catholics. It’s like when you’re 10 or so and Christmas is coming and you’re about 95% certain you’ve figured out the Sacred Mystery but you’re not brave enough to ask your mam one last time in case she confirms that you’re right. (I may be revealing too much about my own childhood with this analogy.)

Santa Claus Catholics are culturally Catholic but they don’t – for the most part – practice or pray and they’re pretty sure the whole thing is complete and utter hokum.

But they think Jesus was sound out and he might even put in a word with his auld fella and sure, look, didn’t we baptise the kids to get them into the local school and it wouldn’t be Christmas without Midnight Mass and hasn’t the youngest the First Communion this year?

And that ties back to the real issue for Catholicism in Ireland: à la carte Catholicism. There aren’t too many of the faithful left who don’t in some way pick and choose the bits they like and don’t like. The institutional Catholic Church, being a greatly-weakened force, grins and bears this because it has no choice.

Losing power

In my lifetime, power has shifted completely from the clergy to the laity. In my childhood, it was the all-powerful church which got to decide who was a Catholic. Then came the cataclysm of child abuse and the realisation that not only were paedophile priests raping children as they pleased but their superiors knew and facilitated them.

Nowadays it’s the laity which gets to decide if they are Catholic and the church is glad to have them.

Some of us like the bells and smells and attending Mass for the odd family occasion but we don’t like to be told what to do or when to go.

And some of us – when it comes to ticking “no religion” – are locked in a particularly Irish version of Pascal’s Wager, whereby we know in our hearts there is no God but we’re afraid to admit that on the off-chance God might be offended.

All of which would be harmless if lying on the census that you are Catholic when you aren’t Catholic didn’t mean the church and its apologists can then point to that 84.2% as a justification of its influence.

Religion is all of our business when over 90% of state-funded schools remain in the control of the Catholic Church and kids have to get baptised Catholic just so they can get a school place.

“The census is there to reflect the truth and to affect state policy,” says Educate Together’s Diarmaid MacAonghusa.

If we keep claiming we’re Catholic when we’re not Catholic, then we’re not going to get the schools that surveys have repeatedly shown we want.

People who only go to Mass on special occasions and live their lives according to their own consciences, rather than by the direction of reputedly-celibate men, are not – by the lights of the Catholic Church itself – Catholic and should therefore tick “no religion”.

(And if you’re one of the most annoying people on the planet – those who say “I’m not religious but I am very spiritual” – I would direct you to GK Chesterton’s The Song of the Strange Ascetic, wherein he coined the useful phrase “them that do not have the faith, and will not have the fun”.)

Potential €44,400 fine or not, we all have a duty of honesty to observe when filling out the census. If you want to see education taken out of the hands of the Catholic Church, then stop inflating its influence on our secular state.

If you’re not religious, then for God’s sake tick “no religion”.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here.    

Read: ‘What is your religion?’ People are being urged to think hard about that come census night

Read: Teacher fired after anonymous letter said she was unmarried and pregnant settles case

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