Posts Tagged ‘atheist’

Denis Green, Marist priest, RIP

Friday, October 9th, 2015

DenisGlendalough A man whom I loved, Denis Green, Marist priest, died on Wednesday night 6 October 2015. He will be buried today. He was the priest whose distinctive, lovely voice forms the backbone of my RTE Radio One Documentary, From Belief to Unbelief. He was with me when my father died in 1981. He helped me break the psychological umbilical cord with my mother. Aged 94, he was, to the end, the youngest man I have ever known. He was open. He was himself. He was engaging. He was genuinely interested in people and ideas and books. He was devout. He was, every inch of him, an actor. From the first moment he lectured us in novitiate back in 1980 he stood before us as one who might have leaped from a Shakespearean stage. He loved life. He loved people.

He was one of the worst singers known to human history, but that never stopped him singing! A memory: some 40 seminarians doubled over with uncontrollable laughter in the chapel at Mount St  Mary’s, Milltown, as Denis attempted with abject ineptitude to sing the Eucharistic Prayer.

His infamy as a singer was very closely matched by his reputation as a driver. On one occasion after I was astonished still to be alive I felt something needed to be said.

‘Did anyone ever tell you you’re a good driver, Denis?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I don’t believe anyone ever did.’

‘Think about it.’

And he was the kind of guy you could say something like that to – i.e., be entirely honest with – and nothing would harm the relationship.

He told me years ago that he wanted ‘How Great Thou Art’ sung at his funeral. Yesterday, before his coffin was brought from the chapel at Mount St Mary’s – the same chapel in which his gorgeous voice reverberates in my documentary – I told the congregation gathered there that Denis had told me that he wanted it sung at his funeral. And I, atheist and Humanist celebrant, appealed to those present to sing it with gusto and I led the singing and everyone joined in and we did him proud. The place came alive again, Denis’s final farewell to Mount St Mary’s.

Born on 11 June, 1921, in Clontarf, Dublin, he was a pupil at Catholic University School (CUS), Leeson Street, and he worked there as a chaplain until very recently. CUS is closed today as a mark of respect to him. He entered the Marist novitiate in 1940 and was ordained on 23 March 1947. In 1952 he was offered a place at the Sorbonne but he accepted a place in Cambridge! He worked in England from 1955 to 1975, as a teacher, headmaster and as Provincial of the then English Province of the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers). He came back to Ireland in 1975 and he was one of four priests in charge of us in my novitiate 1980-1981. He also taught at Chanel College, Coolock;  was associated with the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow; with St Killian’s German School, Dublin; and he was for a while Secretary General of the Marist Fathers in Rome.

Denis, I loved you. You were a human being! You lived a good life! You were open and thoughtful, creative and caring, affectionate and loving. Goodbye my friend.


Atheist Priests/’Oh Me of Little Faith’

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Atheist Priests

Here is the essence of my article about atheist priests and clergy that was published 3 March 2013 in The Sunday Times: ‘Oh Me of Little Faith’  (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/article1223820.ece)

Joe Armstrong talks to the priests who feel trapped in their ministries – because they dare not tell their flocks they have become atheists

While 115 cardinals deliberate upon who will be the next pope, all around the world many priests have a far greater crisis: their unbelief in God.

Atheist clergy – Catholic and Protestant – who have outgrown their religious faith often feel trapped financially, personally and professionally.

Typical is Adam, an atheist clergyman interviewed for an American television documentary using a pseudonym, a disguised voice and being shown on film in heavy shadow lest he be identified. These measures emphasised the huge risks atheist clergy take in going public: job, livelihood, security, home, community, friends and even marriage can be at stake.

A long-time cleric untrained for any secular job, Adam doesn’t want to risk his family’s financial security. “I wear a mask every day,” he said. “I am trapped. My greatest fear is doing nothing and pretending to be someone I am not for the rest of my life.”

He is one of the founders of the Clergy Project, an online community of more than 400 atheist clergy, Catholic and Protestant, a quarter of whom remain in active ministry. Several of its members live in Ireland.

In his bestselling 1980s book Help my Unbelief, Michael Paul Gallagher, a Jesuit priest, included a chapter entitled Saying Mass an Atheist.

“Perhaps I would choose a different term now, because ‘atheism’ usually implies a steady stance of denial and I was talking about a temporary mood of doubt, an eclipse that did not last,” Gallagher said. “I have never become an atheist but I have run into times where God seems painfully unreal. I don’t think this is surprising.”

As proof, Gallagher even cites the former Pope Benedict, who once admitted to having been threatened by the “oppressive strength of unbelief”. Too often, priests give the impression that faith is a fortress of security, Gallagher believes. “That’s not the usual personal experience,” he said.

“There are many big reasons for unbelief: the suffering of the world; the painful silence of God – God’s strange shyness, one might say. A priest runs into all these.”

Kevin Hegarty, sacked as editor of church magazine Intercom in 1994 after publishing an article about clerical child abuse, also admits to doubt: ‘‘I’ve had an experience of saying mass when my faith was very fragile. It can be very fragile,” he said. “Faith ebbs and flows. At times I preach something and wonder, is it really true? I don’t expect exactitude. I’m prepared to work through doubt, bit by bit. There are times when I have my doubts about the doctrinal teachings of the church – but they’ve never been overwhelming.’

For Tom Rastrelli, a US-based member of the Clergy Project who was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 2002, the doubts were overwhelming. “As the abuse scandal worsened and more bishops denied the crimes they’d committed, my belief in church as a divine institution faded,” he said. “In the confessional, I saw the damage that abusive priests and bullying bishops had done to people. There was nothing of divine inspiration in that. In the trenches of ministry, I saw how harmful particular teachings and actions of the church were to people.”

During the final months of his ministry, Rastrelli said, he no longer believed in the authority of the Catholic Church, the Pope, or the bishops. “I didn’t believe in the Marian teachings – the virgin birth, the preservation of Mary’s hymen during childbirth, the immaculate conception, and the assumption.”

He stopped believing in the “real presence” of the eucharist and could no longer say the creed in good conscience. He questioned everything he’d been taught. “Your life and sexuality are a gift, but since you’re gay, if you act on that gift you’re sinning,” he said. “The god in which I’d been taught to believe was vindictive not loving, a human construct to justify atrocious human behaviour, prejudices, and fears.

“No longer believing in the inspiration of the scriptures, I became a fully-fledged agnostic. Within another few months, I was comfortable saying that I didn’t believe in a god. I was no longer afraid of what people thought of me, of the negative stigma surrounding the word ‘atheist’. I felt free to be a fully realised human being. Thousands of years of canonized fear, loathing, shame, and distrust vanished. I owned being an atheist.”

Rastrelli would say he didn’t “lose” his faith. “I evolved beyond it,” he said. “Having witnessed first-hand the damage that people do in the names of their gods, I’m thankful that I did evolve beyond it. Now I’m free to be who I am. I’ve seen how disgustingly judgmental people can be when armed with their gods. I wouldn’t give my integrity in exchange for the coddled security of priestly life.”

Unlike most atheist clergy, John Shuck, a Presbyterian clergyman in good standing in America, is openly atheistic. He doesn’t believe in the existence of God, the divinity of Christ or the resurrection of Jesus – all of which he regards as useful metaphors created by the human imagination.

Asked how fellow ministers regard him, Shuck said: “Many appreciate what I am doing, as they have many of the same convictions. Others think I represent everything that is wrong with my denomination.”

Shuck rejects the charge of hypocrisy. “I am about the most open person I know with regard to what I believe and don’t believe. I have publicly blogged about this for seven years and preached openly for 20.

“The real charge of hypocrisy should be levelled at those who confuse truth with power; self-appointed gate-keepers of traditional belief who say they are about affirming the truth on one hand, then put up fences of dogma around their cherished beliefs on the other. They are unwilling to look at truth and then threaten with excommunication and loss of employment those who do. That is hypocrisy.”

Shuck does not believe in an afterlife. “The core belief has been, in the words of the catechism, ‘to love God and to enjoy God forever’. If you take the supernaturalism out of that and substitute ‘life’ for ‘God’ and ‘my whole life long’ for ‘forever’ you get the real point of religion.

“It is about how to live a good life. The supernatural elements are excess baggage of an age that is fading away.”

Iain and Kyle – not their real names – are two members of the Clergy Project, both atheist ministers within a mainstream Protestant denomination in Ireland. They envy John Shuck’s “coming out” as an atheist and his congregation’s acceptance. Iain and Kyle say their whole worlds would fall apart if their atheism became known.

“I knew I was an atheist from the early 1990s,” said Iain. “My wife knows. She finds it hard to accept. I don’t look at her while I’m preaching.”

His dilemma is that if he told people, his income would stop immediately. “I don’t think I’d be eligible for a pension. I’d have no job. I’d lose my home,’ he said. He has worked in the church all his life, but finds it increasingly difficult to keep up the pretence. “I don’t see how I can keep going to retirement.”

Iain feels worst about deluding children because he agrees with Richard Dawkins, the biologist and atheist campaigner, that inculcating religious faith in minors is a form of child abuse. “I’d love to stand up and tell my congregation the truth,” he said. “But I don’t have the courage, even though many of them know there is no God. My call is just like anyone else’s, [it’s] total and absolute nonsense – a delusion.’

Kyle says he is torn over his unbelief. He tries to carry out all his religious duties without the supernatural background. Funerals can be especially difficult, however, since he is expected to preach about an afterlife.

Although a Protestant minister, Kyle’s atheism was triggered by Catholic clerical child abuse. “I couldn’t believe a god could permit child abuse. It’s impossible,” he said. “The systematic concealing of it doesn’t get God off the hook. Prayers for the sick are never answered. So for me there’s no way I could believe in God anymore.”

Iain feels trapped and would like to leave the ministry. “I feel guilty. I’m taking their money. I’m living in their house,” he said. But Kyle doesn’t want to leave. “I can influence people for the good as a minister. [The church] is a place where the community gathers and has a sing. We support each other and children are safeguarded against drugs. We don’t take religion too seriously. It’s like inventing our own surreal world.”

Mathew – not his real name – is a Roman Catholic priest affiliated to a diocese in America. He became troubled by the theology that a newborn child carried the stain of original sin and needed baptism.

When he realised he didn’t believe, saying mass became a chore he dreaded.

“I felt like a fraud and wondered how long before someone found me out. I worried that I might slip and reveal my lack of belief,” he said. “I felt sorry for the people who came to mass, which I considered empty and meaningless. I wondered, couldn’t their time be better spent?”

He became disgusted by the theological undertones of the eucharist. “The notion of a god demanding a blood sacrifice – from his own son no less – repelled me. I could not believe in a god who would demand a violent death as reparation for the supposed wrongs of humans.

“The sanctuary’s large crucifix with its bloodied and bruised Jesus became a horrible and disgusting sight. Each morning, as I put on my clerical band collar, it felt like I was putting a heavy metal shackle around my neck. I realised that my doubts about every line in the Creed, including the very existence of God, were not going away, no matter how much I tried. Once I accepted my unbelief, I was not nearly as bothered by it as I had imagined. Unbelief felt natural in a way that religion never had.’

For Patrick Semple, a former Church of Ireland rector and atheist, being an atheist is simply a way of trying to make sense of the mystery around us. “People are genuinely atheist. It’s not a badness or a perversity,” he said.

As a priest Semple accepted doctrines rather than believed them, and was never convinced about life after death. He sees a lot of religious security as a regression to childhood. “I abhor the expression ‘lost the faith’ – it sounds like culpable negligence,” he said. “It was a positive decision that I no longer believed. I realised I was not a Christian agnostic – I was atheist.”

Upon realizing his atheism, Semple talked to his bishop, who was not shocked and simply told him to get back to work. When Semple told another Church of Ireland clergyman of his atheism, his fellow cleric replied: “Join the gang!”

* Joe Armstrong’s documentary ‘From Belief to Unbelief’ can be heard at www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/radio-documentary-from-belief-to-unbelief-joe-armstrong-catholic-priesthood.html

Post-theism when the crowd still applauds the Emperor

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Since ‘coming out’ as a non-believer, a post-theist, a person who has outgrown religious faith, I have had to stop writing two columns I used to write in Reality, published by the Redemptorist Publications.  I have been writing for the magazine for I think about 14 years. I particularly loved writing the Soul Food Restaurant column. I have found it a real challenge. The very fine editor, Father Gerry Maloney, a great guy, had asked me to write it. I found it a privilege and a challenge. Could I write something that was true to me and which also struck a chord and made sense or was even inspiring to people with religious faith? It seems I succeeded as that column ran for quite a while and I presume it would have continued to do so had I not, having completed my book, realised that I really had gotten off the fence and had come down very much on the side of post-religious-belief or unbelief or post-theism or whatever you want to call it. As I came towards the end of the second complete draft of the book I have been writing, I became uncomfortable writing for Reality or any magazine that seeks to perpetuate or propagate religious faith.

I identify with the boy who recognised that the Emperor had no clothes and yet, unlike the fable, when the boy shouts aloud that the Emperor is naked, so many people persist in seeing him as clothed. I, too, of course, was part of that crowd. Like them, I had often heard boys in the crowd shout that the Emperor was naked. Why, I ask myself, did I then go on believing? While I was a seminarian, my livelihood depended on it. If your mortgage and livelihood is tied up in a product and someone tells you it doesn’t work, it’s fake, there’s a better product, a better, truer, way of living, the person dependant on that product for their livelihood is unlikely to agree. Then there’s the herd instinct, the lemmings effect. Sure, a boy in the crowd is shouting ‘He’s starkers!’ But so many other people go on seeming to believe that we disregard the voice of reason. But why? It could also be the seeming comfort of religion. We don’t want to acknowledge that this is all we have. That we won’t survive our own death. That there is no life for us after our death. That death really is the end. And yet matter does not cease to exist. We will feed a tree or the crawly things of the earth. And our work may live on after us, be it in architecture, music, art, literature or the electronic ether. And if we have loved and been a good enough parent, our loved ones will, for a time, remember us and be, hopefully, the happier for having been loved by us. And then there are those whose moralities are so bound up in their religions that they fear there would be no point in being good and no reward system were their religious faith to be superseded by a humanist viewpoint, an adult viewpoint. They fear they might have no reason to be good. Yet goodness is its own reward. Choosing well ennobles us. Ethical living makes life sweet for us as for others.

I do not believe in god. I see the indoctrination of children into religious faith as intellectual abuse. I was so abused. It damages thinking and it warps one emotionally.