Thursday, 22 August 2013

Equal Opportunities? Not Specified

“Not specified” was the drop-down option I reluctantly selected under the “religion” section as I completed the online registration page for the National University of Ireland, Galway. It’s rather a personal piece of information to ask, so the possibility of non-disclosure is a welcome one. What’s not so welcome is the lack of a “no religion” option: I want to specify, I’d like my personal details to fully reflect who I am—an atheist, among other things—rather than suggesting faith is a topic on which my lips are sealed. It’s not some militant mindset that leads me to complain: I’ve lived happily and quietly without religion for maybe a decade now, and never felt the urge to run about trying to convert the faithful. Few subjects interest me as little as religion, so why not simply not specify with a shrug of the shoulders?

Because of the underlying implications the lack of selection suggests. The results of the 2011 Census state 256,830 people selecting “no religion”, less than 6% of the nation’s population, perhaps, but still more than twice the number of “Church of Ireland” answers, the  next most popular religious selection after the ever-dominant “Catholic”. Atheism, then, constitutes the country’s second largest belief—or lack of, as it were—and one over ten times the size of the “Presbyterian” contingent, yet that almost infinitesimally small fraction of the populace is facilitated by NUIG over their faithless fellow citizens.

I lack the sharpness of memory to recall whether or not the same system was in place the last three years I registered for the university online; given the non-asterisked “unimportance” of the field, I think it likely I simply skimmed it over, like the stereotypical student I am. Yet so seemingly simple an oversight now gives me cause to shudder: have I been, these last three years, unwittingly embracing the same don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on which NUIG’s restricted religious selection would seem to be based? Withholding the opportunity to name oneself an atheist where others have free reign to proclaim their own religious proclivities is tantamount to a secret shaming, as though Godlessness were goodlessness.

It’s a particularly pertinent problem in a country like Ireland, where church and state were once all but one and the same. I said before that I have little interest in religion; perhaps that’s why I have so much interest in distancing myself from it. It was the existential angst of adolescence that saw me part ways with my last shred of belief, but with age comes knowledge, and an appreciation for the sort of shockingly unjust things that have come of Ireland’s unbroken ties to its religious past give way to the frightful reality of its present. Even if I were still church-going, I dare say I’d want to be seen to stand aside from The Church.

There remains, at a time when ever more conservative parts of the world reconsider their approach to same-sex marriage, no significant movement toward LGBT equality in Ireland despite the recommendations of a Constitutional Convention. Abortion has only just entered law, and then only in the most extenuating circumstances of threat to the mother’s life; it took the senseless death of a young woman for even that small step forward to be made. These distressing issues and more are the direct consequence of Catholicism’s stranglehold on Irish society: a stranglehold that, though its grip may be loosening, continues to keep from us the cold air of rational thought.

Maybe it’s exaggerating the issue to take it to the level of LGBT rights and the abortion debate, but the fact that NUIG—a state-owned organisation, lest we forget—appears to lend more favour to the faithful than the faithless stands as a troubling artefact of the “special position” of the Catholic Church once upheld in the Irish Constitution. To not include a “no religion” option is as to tell the atheist students that they should feel ashamed and keep quietly to themselves. I don’t, and I won’t. These are things that need to be specified.

Update: 26/08/2013

Props, as the kids say, to NUIG.

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