“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee.

Since the rumours of Gove’s most recent nail in the educational coffin began to surface on Twitter yesterday, I’ve been trying to translate my utter despair into written word, but my mind has continued to return to the above quote from the great novel at the centre of this story.

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Why do the haters hate?

Hatred: The EDL rally in response to the Woolwich attack. (taken from ITV.com, credit Neil Lancefield/PA Wire)

Amid the aftermath of the Woolwich attack this week, as the shock and horror of the whole thing subsided, and questions were raised, there was one in particular that stuck with me.

This attack was an act of terror, extremism, hate.

We call it senseless, unjustifiable and unforgivable.

But those responsible didn’t think so. They called for an audience, displayed their bloodied hands to the world, they had a message to convey, to them it made perfect sense, it was an act of justice, a necessary evil.

What is it that makes people, human beings, hate so much, to such extremes that they could take another human life so violently in the name of some higher purpose?

They are born, kicking and screaming into the world just like the rest of us. They must learn to crawl, talk, walk like everyone else. They must make mistakes, learn what hurt, heartache and forgiveness feel like. They are taught what is good and what is bad. Is that where their path in life diverges from ours? Is there a moment in their lives where the decision they must make will cut a fork in the road, one good, one evil? Or is it something that happens gradually over time, is it a series of decisions, like wrong turns in a maze that brings them somewhere dark and angry?

Why do the haters hate?

 

We throw the word around a lot, freely, unthinking.

We hate our jobs, our boss, our parents, siblings, best friends, our hometown, our hair, thighs, knobbly knees. We hate our exes, we hate the old guy who creeps on schoolgirls at the bus stop, we hate Michael Ball, George Osborne, the Go Compare adverts. We hate brussel sprouts, PPI cold callers, cyclists, motorists, people who don’t understand the concept of personal space. We hate people who are self-obsessed, attention seeking, fake, people who lie, cheat, bully. We hate animal cruelty, child abuse, wife beaters, husband beaters, traffic wardens.

But we don’t always mean hate. It’s not always something as extreme as hate. Mostly, we’re just annoyed or irritated by these things temporarily, sometimes irrationally, in our otherwise blissful little lives.

 

To hate, is “to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; detest”.

We’ve seen a lot of hate in our modern, civilised era. We’ve seen planes crashing into buildings, school children fleeing indiscriminate gunfire, bombs explode on crowded high streets, buses, tubes.

To most of us, it is all senseless. The kind of hatred that pulls the trigger of a gun or pushes the button to detonate a bomb, that kind of hatred is difficult to understand for those of us whose greatest grievance in life is discovering that a chocolate chip cookie is actually raisin.

As infuriating as that can be, to my knowledge, there has never been bloodshed over the chocolate chip – raisin hoodwink.

So where does hate come from? If not from confectionary.

Religion always seems to be at the centre of these things.

I don’t understand this, how something that teaches of the importance of love can as a consequence, be the source of such evil. I’ve never understood it.

I’ve grown up in the middle of it in Northern Ireland, hating the kids on the bus who wore a different uniform, without really understanding it.

I was dropped into hatred at the age of eight when I moved to the North and found myself on one side of a divide I didn’t understand. But in hindsight, I don’t think any of us really understood what it meant at that age.

I remember tracing the letters ‘IRA’ onto the steamed kitchen window one evening, I was so big and clever. My mum just looked at me, “Do you know what that means?”

I didn’t. And when she told me, like the good history teacher that she is, I never wrote those letters or any like them anywhere again.

Perhaps that was one of my moments, had I drawn a different conclusion from the lesson on the political history of Northern Ireland which my mother fed me that evening, perhaps I would have gone on writing those letters on windows and walls, and who knows where it would have led? Had I been taught the same lesson by my father, who as a Dubliner, is in general much more fantastical and nationalistic in his take of the North’s political divide, perhaps I would have taken a different point of view. Had I been brought up and taught the same lesson in a different house, a different townland, where the curbs and gable walls were painted and flags and bunting flew from the streetlamps, who knows where I would be, what I would believe, or who I would hate.

Pretty much every biblical lesson I can recall from my misspent Catholic youth taught that anger and hatred and violence were generally frowned upon by the big man upstairs. In all shapes and forms, hate and evil were a no-no.

That is the long and the short of it. That is the enduring sentiment that I took from the years of religious education spent doodling in my jotter and endless Sunday mornings staring into space and anticipating the fresh scone bread cooling on a rack in my Granny’s kitchen.

It is the lesson that my parents, grandparents, godparents and teachers all instilled in my pliable young mind.

Be good.

Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

Forgive those who trespass against you.

I don’t remember any footnotes by those teachings, any asterisk following the commandments.

 

“The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no commandment greater than these” * [Mark 12:31]

(*except the gays, hate the gays loads.)**

 

Religion doesn’t teach you to distinguish between who you should hate and who you should love, it teaches you to love all, regardless of colour, creed or sexual orientation. Granted my knowledge of Islam is pretty sketchy, but from what I gather, the same basic principles apply as they do in Christianity and in Bill & Ted: “Be excellent to each other”.

So why do people who hate homosexuals or Muslims or Women use religion to justify their own prejudices?

Why do idiotic groups such as the EDL, BNP and UKIP tell us that Islam is to blame, Muslims are behind the death of a British soldier? How is their hate and disposition to violence any different from the hate of the two extremists who spilled blood on a London street earlier this week? These political groups have launched a campaign of hate and incited violence against a religious community who have absolutely nothing to do with the extremists responsible for the Woolwich attack. Mosques have been attacked up and down the country, innocent Muslims have been threatened, spat at in the street, attacked.

Yet the EDL, BNP, UKIP do not distinguish between the murderers with blood on their hands, and innocent people going about their day to day lives. And all the while Islamic religious groups have cried out the same words that the people of Northern Ireland have cried out in the face of political violence: Not in our name.

Senseless, unjustifiable, unforgivable.

But those responsible don’t think so. They call for an audience, don balaclavas in the face of the police and the world’s media, they have a message to convey, to them it makes perfect sense, it is an act of justice, a necessary evil.

Funny how two beliefs at opposite ends of a spectrum can meet in the middle.

 
(** Incidentally, I believe gays should absolutely have the right to marry. However, in an entirely selfish sense, I hope that they choose not to, because in the ever more likely inevitability that I will end up rocking spinsterhood I’d like someone fabulous to go dancing with on a Saturday night).

Bad Catholic

Yesterday afternoon, while lounging in front of the telly enjoying a double bill of religiously satirical films, and digesting a late breakfast, my mother interrupted the blissful first day of my little sister’s school break by asking whether we would prefer to have dinner before or after mass that evening.

“We have to go to mass today?” my little sister asked, frowning as all plans of a day in her pyjamas disappeared before her eyes.

“I love being a heathen” I said, smiling.

I am a self-professed bad catholic.

After being dragged through the rigmarole of the catholic school system, learning by heart their prayers and responses, singing at their masses and playing a shepherd in their nativities, I had confessed my sins, taken communion and been confirmed, but I never considered myself particularly religious. I received a very good education, felt part of a very loving community, and became romantically fond of all their storytelling and hymn singing, but in truth, I found more divine inspiration watching Father Ted than I ever did at any mass. I am a catholic in that typically Irish way – I don’t practise my religion – I stopped going to mass around the same time that I started being hungover on Sunday mornings, but it forms a very great part of my emotional education, it is stitched through all my childhood memories, I treasure the rosary beads and mass cards I’ve been given over the years because the people I love believe in them, whether I do or not.

By the time I entered secondary school, another institute drenched in catholic rhetoric, the dark secrets of the catholic church and the sectarian hatred which had divided my homeland had tainted any romantic attachment I felt for the church as an institution. Having to study the Gospel for six months of GCSE Religion also had something to do with it.

But I still thought the buildings and the hymns they sang in them were very beautiful, and the stories they told were pleasant little fables not to be taken too seriously, I had the utmost respect for the devout good Catholics who surrounded me, but I wasn’t one of them.

I was a catholic in the sense that I had been raised by Catholics  my grandparents and at least half of my parents are good Catholics  they taught me to be good, honest, kind, not to lie or cheat or speak with your mouth full. Isn’t that enough?

Because, honestly, I do believe that everyone should have some kind of faith, its good for the soul. But I don’t understand why that faith ever needs to interfere with what I eat and when.

I made a good effort at Lent, fasting from takeaways and chips almost entirely throughout the six weeks, only caving in circumstances of extreme hangover, however I only managed to go off crisps for approximately 36 hours.

My faith is built on the foundations of Christianity  I believe there is a higher power, I believe that force has some divine purpose for us all, but it is much more Mother Nature than Father Almighty.

I won’t try and compete with two million years of Christian faith, and I don’t expect them to argue with my beliefs, faith is far too personal a thing to be questioned by anyone else. Except Creationalists – those guys are nuts.

So while my mother and sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and the rest of the community in which I have grown up are attending the Good Friday service, I’m going to walk the dog and take in some of Mother Nature’s beauty. I might not be in a designated church building, listening to a designated leader of church, praying designated words of the church, but I’m going to go enjoy my own personal kind of divine inspiration.

“And deliver us from evil”

It may not come as a surprise to most of us, but an international report published earlier this month has provided the cold hard facts to confirm it – religion has lost its stronghold in Ireland, registering the steepest decline in faith worldwide according to the WIN-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index.

In 2005, the study found 69% of Irish people considered themselves religious, but that number has dropped to less than half of the national population, just 49%.

We don’t need the experts to try and explain these results. There is a steady decline in faith worldwide, but with the Republic’s brief flirtation with the Celtic Tiger, a deep-seeded history of sectarian violence north of the border, and the apparently ceaseless revelations of sexual abuse and corrupt cover-ups in the Catholic Church, it’s not surprising that we are leading the pack in this demise.

For me, the church-going stopped when the hangovers started, around the mid-teens, when it became less embarrassing for my family to have one less body in their regular pew on a Sunday morning, than suffering the humiliation of a mid-liturgy regurgitation.

But even before then, when I was a good Catholic child, I don’t know if I was ever particularly religious. I knew the stories, understood the general ideas, sang all the lovely songs, but it was always just a story, an idea or a song, much like the teachings of Walt Disney, it never manifested as anything real for me.

With an atheist father and a mother who I still suspect enjoys the peace and quiet of Sunday morning mass more than the spiritual enlightenment, I was never embedded with the Catholic mantra that previous generations were instilled with. I didn’t even receive the typical religious guidance offered by the education system until I was eight years old when the move to a small, rural primary school left me very suddenly in the Catholic stronghold. I recall being vaguely embarrassed that everyone else my age had already made their First Holy Communion, and like a baptism of fire, I was thrown into preparations to receive the sacrament with the class below (…all five of them). Slowly but surely my primary school teachers and the local parish priest integrated me into the flock, mindlessly rattling off the morning prayers, singing in the school choir, making collages of the Ascension for the Easter display and donning a tea-towel headdress for the annual nativity play.

I don’t know if I ever really believed in the words that passed my lips, or if I ever felt passionately about them, one way or the other. Growing up in Northern Ireland a question of your religion is such a loaded one that many people throw off all affiliations and declare themselves atheist. I’ve never gone so far as that, but the term Catholic is something that sits on my birth cert rather than in my soul. I would never be so obnoxious as to call others’ faith into question, but similarly, I’d happily confiscate the microphones of those God-fearing Jesus freaks who infest Church Street of a weekend and stick it where even the Lord’s light don’t shine.

But was I ever really religious?

Can you even consider yourself religious at the age of eleven?

I remember being distinctly unreligious in my protests to sleep in on Sundays, condemning our need to learn off the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in their entirety for GCSE Religion, and opting to revise for my final A-Level exam in the Sixth Form rather than attending my Form Class’s Leaving Mass. But then, I also sang solo at our Primary School’s Christmas celebrations, and in the folk choir at our GCSE leavers mass, I packed my St Bridget’s Cross and rosary beads when I left for university and they still hold precedent in my bedroom now. I carry a religious card in my purse.

Perhaps my past involvement in all those many school masses had something more to do with getting out of class, but the religious symbols I still cart around with every house move mean something different.

For my generation in Ireland, being a Catholic means much less than that of our parents’ and certainly our grandparents’, but it still holds a degree of identity for us.

How many of us have endured the monotony of a Sunday mass just to scope the talent going up for Communion? On the day of a big exam or an interview, how many of us have carried some reassurances in the knowledge that Granny has the candle lit at home, or you’re wearing your Immaculate Medal under that crisp white shirt? (Just last month my mother made a series of emergency phone calls around the family when she realised I had an interview half an hour earlier than she’d told everyone to start praying/candle-lighting.)  And the religious symbols that still don my bedroom wall – the St Bridget’s Cross, handmade by my granddad, the rosary beads – blessed in Knock by my granny, and in my purse, the card holding a piece of cloth touched to the relics of Saint Therese – a present from my aunt when I first left home.

For us, religion is, for the most part, a sentimental piece of our childhoods, something that brings our entirely family together for one day of the week to drink tea by the bucketful, eat fresh scones and examine the fashion faux pas and social disgraces aired at morning mass. The religious tokens and medals we treasure offer an irrational reassurance not that God or Mary or the Holy Spirit are providing some higher guidance or enlightenment, but that there are people at home who love and care for us, and will hope and pray for our health, good fortune and safe return.

For the most part, this is the case. But occasionally, as it is for bad Catholics worldwide and across the generations, there comes a point when you really need to believe a decade of the rosary or a heartfelt plea to some higher power will make a difference.

Recently, I’ve found myself increasingly at this point. Witness the suffering of a loved one, even the strictest atheist will fall to their knees and recite “deliver us from evil” until the apocalypse, even when you know in your heart of hearts that there is nothing to be done.

The sexual abuse scandals which have plagued the Catholic Church in Ireland have a lot to answer for in the country’s religious decline, and it’s a topic that brings the most unholy words to my tongue on most occasions. But as in every profession, there are bad people, people who make mistakes, bosses who will cover up their misdemeanours and buy the silence of victims wherever possible, and yes something must be done about it. The truth must come out, the guilty must be punished by law, and the victims should be granted the justice and retribution they deserve.

There are still good men who wear the collar, who spoke up when others tried to bury the scandals, who advise the desperate and give charity to the poor. The men who call in on our grandparents who are too ill or weak to make it to mass, and visit the hospital rooms of the ill to give some comfort or relief to the suffering and their families, who bring communities together in celebration and mourning.

Yes the Catholic Church has been responsible for the sexual and cultural repression of Ireland for decades, it’s most wicked members have caused heartache and destruction for individuals and families for just as long, but we cannot disregard the good of individual people in the church just as we cannot ignore the evil and wrongdoing of others.  Should an entire institute of individuals be condemned and tarred with the same brush?

For future generations, religion will continue to mean much less than has done for us, but I will certainly mourn its loss entirely. How many of us want to see Ireland give up the home comforts of its traditional faith entirely? The milestones of our lives marked only by legal certificates and civil ceremonies? Should we sacrifice the irrational reassurances s and sentiments of our childhood? Give up the hopeless comfort of prayer at the deathbed of a loved one?

I hope we will continue, as we have in recent years, to alter the prominence and importance that faith has in our daily lives? Catholic on our birth certificates if not in our hearts, faithful by nature if not by name. Yes we may give up the doctrine but hopefully not the sentiment.

For me, the Catholic faith was defined best by writer Sean O’Faolain: “Nothing more than a child’s fear of the dark”.

And after all, what’s the harm in a nightlight?