How an Atheist acts at a Communion

As the communion season gets going, it’s as good a time as any to take stock of the role played by the Catholic church in Irish society. Gone are the days when they dressed in black and went around telling people what to do, hoarded land to maintain control of our health and education systems, refused to acknowledge the fact that some of their members raped children (and to take any action to stop it), enslaved women, and neglected babies to death before throwing their corpses in septic tanks.

This is Ireland in 2017. The state has attempted to gift a maternity hospital to a religious order who failed to pay the compensation they owed abuse victims. The church still owns the vast majority of our schools. The stalling assembly has recommended a referendum to repeal the 8th – a recommendation which will, of course, be acted upon asap by our modern, progressive government. The Dail has voted not only to keep praying at the beginning of each session, but to add a standing order forcing all members to stand for the prayer. The Gardai are investigating Stephen Fry for blasphemy.
Meanwhile in parishes around Ireland, children prepare to affirm their membership of the Catholic church, regardless of their own beliefs and those of their parents. As others have noted, we must stop paying lip-service to the organisation that has committed so many atrocities in this country, especially now that so few of us have any real faith in the teachings of that organisation. Perhaps if we stopped building our lives around the traditions of Catholicism our leaders would finally accept that its only rightful place is in churches – it has no business anywhere near our children, our sick, or our public discourse.

However, the fact remains that many non-religious people of my generation have godchildren who will soon make their Communions or Confirmations at ceremonies the godparents are at least expected to attend, and often expected to take part in. So how should we reconcile our desire to stay true to our own beliefs (and be honest with the children we care about), with our wish not to spoil their day or make it about anything other than them?This is of course a personal problem, the solution to which will depend on the godparent’s own views and temperament as well as those of the child. I simply want to share my own solutions in the hope they may help any godparent who is struggling to figure out how they should act. I base much of my behaviour on the assumption that all those who take an active part in proceedings do so out of honest belief. I understand that many probably don’t, but anyone who doesn’t really believe isn’t going to care much what I do or don’t do. At the ceremony itself, as at religious services of any kind, I find it best to just do whatever I feel comfortable with, and no more.

I stand when everyone stands. This is a simple mark of respect for the people of faith present – I’ll stand for God Save the Queen, even though the title alone is enough to make my blood boil.

I no longer kneel in churches because the intention of kneeling is to submit before the lord, and since I don’t believe such a thing exists, kneeling seems a bit silly (it’s also very uncomfortable). And even if it does exist, Stephen Fry has eloquently explained why we shouldn’t kneel before it.

I don’t say anything, except “peace be with you”. My silence isn’t about refusing to take an active part on ideological grounds though; in a room full of people who believe they are “talking to god” – an act which for them carries emotional significance – if I speak the words aloud, without believing or feeling them, I almost feel like I’m mocking them. The reason I do say “peace be with you” and shake hands with the people around me is probably obvious. Making a gesture of good will to the strangers who happen to be near you seems like a nice thing to do, so why not?

If the ceremony requires me to walk up to the altar, hold a candle, or anything else that doesn’t require faith or the pretence of faith, I’ll do it. As someone once put it to me: “If you don’t believe then all you’re doing is walking around a church, and it will keep your nana happy”.

As it happened, my godson didn’t notice me not taking part in some aspects of the ceremony, and therefore didn’t ask me about my non-existent faith. My girlfriend’s did though, so I have some understanding of this potential problem. If the child asks you something about your faith during the ceremony itself, treat this as you would anything else they might say to you during the ceremony – tell them they should be quiet in mass, and talk to them about it later.

It’s difficult to talk to anyone about religion without trying to convince them to believe what you do, but you should try to avoid this – children are easily swayed, and you may end up indoctrinating them unintentionally. Explain that many people believe the things their teachers and priests have taught them, but that they can and should think for themselves and form their own views. If you have opinions, and can put them in a way the child will understand, you should share them. You did agree to guide their spiritual development, and simply refusing to discuss spiritual matters with them seems like reneging on the promise you made to them and their parents.

If you’re a parent, please consider presenting Catholic ceremonies not as rites of passage which your children must take part in, but as ceremonies meant to affirm their belief in the teachings of Catholicism, ones in which they should participate only if their beliefs are in line with those of the church.