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When you are admitted into hospital in Ireland, one of the first questions you are asked is your religion. The main reason, apparently, is because if you don’t manage to clock out when your stay is over, they want to be able to contact the right cleric to look after your affairs.
This bothers me. First of all, it is assumed that all residents of Ireland must have a religion. The mere idea of people walking around with no religious belief whatsoever seems to be anathema to our public services. It’s as if we ,who profess no religion, are somehow lying and that deep down we believe in a god, but that we are suppressing it. This is not a good assumption. We do not believe because there is no evidence, and plenty of contradictory evidence, despite what some people would have would have us believe. We liken belief in God with belief in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Nobody would ever be accused of living their lives in secret denial of the Tooth Fairy, would they?
Second of all, for many non-religious people in Ireland, religion is something that we have struggled for many years to free ourselves from. Some people have painful memories from the past, others wish to undo the indoctrination of our early youth, and many of us shake our heads at the great reverence and respect shown in our society to what we see as gross irrationality. Why then are we expected to give in to religion when the final paragraphs of our lives are being written? Surely hypocrisy has no part to play in the most serious and honest moment in a person’s life?
Finally, it presents an unfortunate challenge at an unfortunate time for many non-religious people. A purely secular sending off is not open to us, as it is with people who subscribe to a particular creed. If we want to express our dissent from the consensus, then we are obliged to organize these affairs ourselves. Given the fact that there are so many of us nowadays, this is a situation that needs changing.
Organisations such as the Humanist Association of Ireland exist to provide assistance to people during major life occasions. They officiate at births and weddings and other secular ceremonies. They counsel people in their last moments and work with families and friends prior to, during and after death. However, humanist counsellors and chaplains are few and far between, particularly in the city where I live. The only non-religious funeral I have ever attended was a lonely, amateurish and sad affair that cannot have been easy on the spouse of the man who had passed away. Surely singing and poetry and prose; the hug, the handshake and the kind word, is not the sole preserve of the priest and pastor?
Irish society is growing up, so there should be more humanist options available to us to help us celebrate the major stages of our lives. It should be possible to celebrate the big moments properly – the joys, the hopes and the sadness – without the mumbo-jumbo. The non religious – the agnostics, the atheists, the secularists and free-thinkers amongst us – are as entitled to our public moments of elation, contemplation and bitter grief as anyone else. These moments should be facilitated by trained men or women who can ease the pain, organise the occasion and add to the memories.
It is something I would like to explore further.