Posts Tagged ‘From Belief to Unbelief’

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.


I feel like the luckiest man alive

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

When I was in my teens and an ardent believer and I wanted to be a priest, one of my good reasons for wanting to be a priest was to be with people at key moments in their lives – like birth, weddings and bereavement. I wanted to engage with the real needs of people.
After my nine years in religious life, when I walked away from not only my priestly path but, in time, from all religious beliefs, I assumed that gone was my dream of being with people at core turning points in their lives.
I spent five years as a teacher. And I was privileged to work at St Bonaventure’s comprehensive boys’ school at the heart of the East End of London, under the leadership of the now knighted Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was subsequently made head of the English schools’ inspectorate, OFSTED.
But I knew that remaining a teacher for the rest of my life wasn’t what I wanted to do, and so I left teaching after five years.
For the guts of the next 20 years I worked as a journalist, columnist and author, in a self-employed capacity, enjoying being my own boss and working from home. I spent the guts of three years during that time as a publisher too. And then I took time out to delve into my own story, how I shifted from belief to unbelief and I celebrated that story, or part of it, in my RTE Radio 1 documentary, From Belief to Unbeleif, and in an as yet unpublished manuscript of a memoir.
And then, earlier this year, I thought about becoming a Humanist celebrant. And that is why I feel like the luckiest man on earth. If, as a teenager, I wanted to be with people at key turning points in their lives, helping them to express sorrow and joy, laughter and tears, I have discovered that I can do that as a Humanist celebrant. And I could do so without having to pretend I believed in religious fantasies that lost any claim on my allegiance, acceptance or intelligence.
As a humanist celebrant there is no nonsense about ‘ontological change’ happening at ordination. I’m a regular human being just like everyone else. And I don’t have to pretend to have the ear of a deity! Or to know his will! Or to interpret his ‘revealed word’ accurately. I’ve outgrown all that nonsense. All that superstition. I know that we have only one life and that it can be a wonderful life, and that the birth of each child warrants celebration. And that the marriage of two people is usually a happy time, and that it’s OK for people to be sad at weddings too. And I have been privileged to facilitate funerals – celebrations of a life ended, at which I have witnessed laughter and tears, joy and sadness, classical music and hard rock!
Now in my fifties, I realize that being a Humanist celebrant uses the skills and talents I’ve been lucky enough to have: my original desire to be with people at key moments of their lives; my writing skills in drafting ceremonies that are meaningful and personal for the people concerned; my teaching skills of speaking and engaging with a group of people; my empathy and compassion and listening skills; and my gratitude for being able to do this work which I love.

Highs & lows of interviews

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

We learn by our mistakes. I have been privileged to tell my story of my journey from religious faith to unbelief in the media in recent months. First, there was my RTE Radio 1 documentary, From Belief to Unbelief, which was shortlisted for a prize at the New York Festivals world radio awards. There was a great profile done of me by John Meagher in the Irish Independent on the day last October when the documentary was first broadcast. And my appearance on TV3 on 30 Oct. 2012 was contented, calm and balanced.

I was very happy with my Newstalk interview on the Tom Dunne Show on 26 June 2013 (my bit starts 26mins and 50 mins into Part 1 of show). I was also delighted with my interview on Gerry Kelly’s Late Lunch show on LMFM on 2 August 2013. He said I seemed very happy in my skin. And I am, (generally!).

I think it’s fair to say that in all of the above I was balanced and respectful of all views, even those I disagree with.

However, I wasn’t happy with my performance on yesterday’s The Last Word show on Today FM. I am entirely responsible for this, and nobody else. I hadn’t slept the previous night. I have been overwhelmed by the number of inquiries I have received to conduct Humanist ceremonies – more than twenty-five requests within my first two weeks as a celebrant. And I was asked, quite understandably, before the interview, if I would comment on the Bishop of Meath’s recent directive that there was to be no secular music and no eulogies at Catholic funerals in his diocese, and that these represented a ‘dumbing down’.

Unable to sleep, I checked out the actual words he had used on the diocesan website. Reading it, I felt very angry. It is a long time since I’ve read diktats from a bishop and it instantly brought me back to a very negative space in my mind. I saw ‘control, control, control’ all over it. I was offended by his suggestion that secular music is a dumbing down of the faith and I reflected, honestly, that faith itself involves the greatest dumbing down of the intellect imaginable – since there is not a shred of evidence to support the presumed authority of any bishop nor the dogmas of any church. Religious faith, by definition, involves believing in supernatural deities and powers that somebody else tells you exist (even though there is no evidence for the existence of these imaginary powers, angels, spirits and deities) which, in my understanding, is the last thing that any responsible adult is meant to do. I was annoyed with myself that I had submitted my mind and my will for so many years of my life to religious nonsense. And, having liberated my mind from that, and analyzed what the bishop had said, it pulled me back into a very negative place in my head, the likes of which I have not revisited for a very long time.

And so, rather than present the positive things about humanism in general and humanist ceremonies in particular I kept reacting to the bishop’s words which I’d read in the middle of a sleepless night.

The church is a dysfunctional organization. It prohibits free speech, censoring its priests and theologians and silencing those who don’t toe the party line (even though much of the current party line is at odds with previous teachings of the church). It indoctrinates young, innocent minds and that continues to trigger justifiable anger in me and others, not least because it does not teach children to think for themselves and to make their own meaning in life. It (and other religions) marks infants out as Catholic or Protestant or Muslim from birth rather than teaching children their common humanity. It insists on segregating children through the education system that it still largely runs. This is the organization that used to burn ‘heretics’ and that still silences those who disagree with the party line, depriving the church of the voices of the loyal opposition within the church. As you see, the anger has not gone away. And why should it? This is the church that teaches that gays must be celibate for life. It is the church which forbids its tens of thousands of married priests to serve the church, even though they remain priests for life. In this, the church places its man-made rule of compulsory celibacy (it admits that it is man-made) above what it pretends to be the god-given vocation to the priesthood. It forbids even discussion about women priests. It threatens priests that don’t agree with the current status quo that they will be stripped of their right to exercise their ministry. And I haven’t even mentioned its criminal protection of pedophile priests which were left freehand to rape and abuse young children.

I cannot deny the anger I feel about all the foregoing. And yet I regret my focus during yesterday’s interview on that negative aspect of things. As I have stated in pretty much all my previous interviews, it’s all about love and nothing else. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, whether one is a believer or an unbeliever, so long as one treats one’s fellow human beings as you would like them to treat you: the golden rule, which, of course, predates christianity by centuries, although the chances are students won’t have been told that in what passes for religious eduction in our schools.

The Beatles did indeed get it right: all you need is love.

While I regret my negative tone yesterday, I don’t think that it has at all really come on to the public agenda the extent to which individual lives have been damaged or in some cases ruined by their indoctrination into Catholic or other religious beliefs from infancy. People who are not born into a belief system never have to clamber out of one. I had to rethink everything. Nor is the issue only about intellectual abuse of children. There is also the emotional abuse of teaching children to fear god, to fear hell. Catholic guilt is not just a cliche: it is real. Men and women have lived their whole lives believing in nonsense and many have died without ever really having lived. Or thought! This is a human rights issue.

In times past, sexual abuse of children took place and children were not believed. Priests got away with it. And now everyone knows the price of that in the lives of adults who were sexually abused as children. But spare a thought, if you would, for those of us, myself included, who were intellectually and emotionally abused by the church. We have every right to be angry about it. Just as I was taught that 2+2=4, I was indoctrinated as a child to believe that everything the pope said was true. I was taught to obey and not to question. I was taught to repeat and not to think. I was taught that to leave the Church would result in the loss of my ‘eternal soul’, or if I left the seminary I would not be happy. I was taught all kinds of manipulative and untrue things. I absorbed them and believed them, things that I now know to be false or silly or crazy.

While the sexual and physical abuse of children was an abomination, the emotional and intellectual abuse of children was, and remains, a crime against human rights. It is a violation of the rights of the child.

Saying these things aloud in public places is a bit like it once was reporting sexual abuse. People weren’t believed. Or the crimes – of rape or molestation – were hushed up. Well where are all you good people out there whose minds and emotions were raped by priests and religious and nuns and ardent lay people? And can we stand idly by while young children continue to be taught crazy beliefs as if they were scientific truths in schools paid for by the taxpayer? I cannot stop being angry about this no less than I’d be enraged if children went on being knowingly beaten or raped in our schools.

20 seminarians joined in 1980. 17 have since left religious life

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

I don’t think I ever mentioned here, or provided a link to, the excellent article written by John Meagher of the Irish Independent when he interviewed me last October about my journey from belief to unbelief. It was published the date that the RTE documentary From Belief to Unbelief was first broadcast. You can read John’s article for free by clicking here. And you can listen to the documentary for free by clicking here.

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

Richard Dawkins Foundation promotes Joe Armstrong’s documentary

Monday, November 12th, 2012

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has promoted my documentary on its website, and provides a direct link to the RTE Radio 1 website where you can listen to the 40-minute audio story of how three guys who joined the Marist Fathers’ seminary in Dublin in 1980 transitioned through insight, personal crisis, realization and personal decision from devout belief to happy and contented unbelief.

TV3 interview

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

If you liked my documentary on my journey from belief to unbelief you might also be interested in the  TV3 interview which was broadcast today in which myself (Joe Armstrong) and my pal (John O’Sullivan) were interviewed on Irish television.

My documentary ‘From Belief to Unbelief’ now live online

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Click here to listen to my documentary ‘From Belief to Unbelief’ which charts the story of the journey of three men – Declan Wynne, John O’Sullivan and myself, each of us former members of a Roman Catholic religious congregation – from religious belief to outgrowing those beliefs.

‘From Belief to Unbelief’ documentary on RTE Radio 1, Sat. 13 October, 2012.

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

I’ve spent more than six months working, with Nicoline Greer from the Documentary on One team at RTE Radio 1, on making a 40-minute documentary called ‘From Belief to Unbelief’.

It charts the story of my journey from belief to unbelief, and also that of two fellow novices, John O’Sullivan and Declan Wynne, who entered the Marist Fathers’ seminary at Mount St Mary’s, Milltown, Dublin, in September 1980.

Of the twenty who entered that year, only three remain in religious life.  I left after nine years. Declan after ordination, having spent thirteen years in the order. John is the most recent to leave: he was a member of the order for some thirty years.

We each speak of the insights, realisations and key events in our personal paths starting with our sense of a call to the priesthood and religious life; entering the seminary; our challenges, questions and crises; our deeply personal and painful decisions to leave religious life; and our contented lives today as unbelievers.

The documentary is not only the personal story of three men: our lives may be seen as a microcosm for the transformation taking place in Irish society in the last 20, 30 or even 50 years. In the early 1980s there were some 40 seminarians in the Marist Fathers’ seminary in Ireland alone. Nowadays, there are no Irish seminarians in the order and Mount Saint Mary’s is no longer a seminary. The chapel which once reverberated to the sound of many young vibrant seminarians now lies silent and is rarely used. As recently as the early 1980s, the houses of the Marist Fathers in Ireland boasted full communities of priests, compared to the small and aging communities remaining today.

Thirty-two years after entering the order, I revisit the former seminary in the company of Father Denis Green SM, now in his nineties, who used to be my spiritual director.

Documentary maker: Joe Armstrong.

Production supervision by Nicoline Greer.

‘From Belief to Unbelief’ is scheduled for broadcast in the Documentary on One slot on RTE Radio One, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, 13 October. It will be repeated the following evening at 7 p.m. From broadcast date it can also be listened to online or downloaded from www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone as an mp3 or Podcast. If it isn’t on the front page of that link, simply search for ‘From Belief to Unbelief’ in the RTE Radio One, Documentary on One search bar, or find it under the ‘Life’ category.