The development of Humanism in Europe is a splendid legacy and a magnificent dream. But where does Ireland stand amidst the splendour? After all, both parts of the island belong to the European Union, and the Irish are certainly European in origin. The first settlers came from Europe, as did the Celts and the later Gaelic tribe from Gaul. Yet when we begin to search for the influence of freethought and Humanism on Irish history and culture, we discover some serious gaps.
There was no Greek influence on Ireland. Its saints and scholars questioned nothing. Nor did Ireland experience a Renaissance. It produced no Leonardos and no Bacons. Nor did it have an equivalent of an Erasmus, a More or a Luther. The Reformation passed Ireland by, without so much as a whiff of critical inquiry. The pastoral, warlike, slave culture of the Gaels did produce literature and art, but it rarely challenged the society. And the Protestant settlers who arrived in the 17th century brought with them less a smattering of individual thought and more a pious and bigoted anti-Catholicism.
To be sure, there have been freethinkers. But the wave of revolutionary ideas that struck Irish shores briefly in the 1790s under the influence of Theobald Wolfe Tone and William Drennan was quickly smothered in the sectarian massacres at Scullabogue and Wexford Bridge. The United Irishmen proved to be a mere flicker of flight in a deep, drab, steepled bog of bigotry. Since the 19th century a narrow nationalism has triumphed over Tone's and Davis's republican vision of uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter'. It was a sacral nationalism which believed that God had naturally assigned to each nation its definite task on earth. It was a conception fully imbibed by Patrick Pearse who said that nationality was a 'spiritual thing' and that in a nation we see 'the image and likeness of God'.
Among Protestants, a puritanism achieved hegemony in the 19th century, especially after the 1859 Revival. It stamped its authority on Northern society through the Orange Order, an antiquated mixture of reactionary Christianity and militarism. with an endemic hatred of Catholicism. Orange jibes at the cultural repression of the Irish Republic were deeply tainted with irony. For the Orange State between 1922 and 1972 would have censored literature if it had had the power to do so; in the theatre and the cinema where it did have local control it showed itself every bit as circumscribed in its freedom as the Republic. Each tradition was, therefore, in may respects a mirror image of the other.
Why has Ireland so tragically ignored the critical, challenging legacy of Europe's greatest culture and instead adopted only its darker nationalist spirit? Why have we had no Renaissance or Reformation or ethos of internationalism? Why are we still so stuck in a primitive mystical bog? Why does no vision of a better society stir us? Why are we so content to wallow in our simple certainties?
There is one overriding answer to these questions. We have simply permitted the dead weight of tradition and authority to poison and devour us. Here, of course, there is not one but two traditions. Yet they are mirror images of each other: two hate inspiring, bigoted and crushing creeds which cannibalistically feed off each other. And most of us are happy to allow them to hold sway. True, we have had our dissenting writers and artists and thinkers. But whether it is James Joyce or Oscar Wilde, John Hewitt or Gerry Fitt, we have treated them with either philistine indifference or downright hostility. Most of our greatest minds have found no alternative to escape.
Behind all this neglect of Europe's questioning legacy lies the one power which has never been seriously challenged throughout our history. That is the power of organised religion. The Greeks challenged it the Renaissance minds challenged it, the Enlightenment thinkers challenged it, and Europe's modern secular age has largely made it an irrelevance.
But the power of the churches in Ireland remains, despite the recent scandals. And until and unless we stand up and openly challenge them and their role in Ireland, north and south, our whole society will stay in its stupor, the carbuncle on the nose of Europe, and our few dissenting voices will continue to cry in the wilderness; or leave us with our simple, traditional certainties the nice, friendly people with the nasty, bigoted minds.
The imperative, therefore, is NOT parity of esteem for both traditions because that is frankly a road to nowhere - each tradition is founded upon hatred of the other - but rather parity of disesteem in which we begin to subject our own traditions to severe critical scrutiny and seek a Third Way which is neither Orange nor Green. And that Third Way is Humanism. Today there are growing Humanist movements north and south of the border. Both the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland have memberships in three figures and their impact is beginning to be felt in both societies.
Teach evolution, not creationism Date Posted: 2011-09-22 Thirty leading scientists and five national organisations have issued a statement calling for the extension of evolution lessons in school science and firmer statutory guidance against creationism.