God's Dead (I said Baby, that's alright with me)
Fiónn McFadden
Fiónn McFadden • Aug 05

God's Dead (I said Baby, that's alright with me)

by Fiónn McFadden

As the largest and most important ecclesiastical festival in the Christian calendar, the weeks surrounding Easter are often a time of reflection, celebration, and joy for Christians across the world. However, as a queer atheist, the Easter period represents the time at which my conflict with religion is brought to the forefront of my mind. 

My other peers raised in Catholic households, and even some family members, were not subjected to the stringent conditions in our household on Good Friday. No snacking, no screens until 3 pm, and a series of services dedicated to the Stations of the Cross. These often became the butt of light-hearted jokes as my sister and I would chuckle our way through our opposition to them, detailing to our other family members our extravagant plans to usurp them. My mother, who would be right beside us chuckling along, nevertheless remained steadfast. Such activities were integral to our family history and culture – not only as Catholic but crucially, as Irish. Mum’s support would then receive an affirmative nod from my Nanny: our matriarch, who held the deepest faith of us all.

Yet, for as long as I can remember I have been vehemently opposed to religion. As a child with a passion for science, the supposed existence of a God in the first place was something that I always found flawed, never mind the construction of global, grandiose institutions to worship Them. As I entered my teenage years and gained a sudden and burning interest in politics, religion shifted in my eyes from a mere scientific illogicality to a historic, socially, politically and culturally pervasive force that frequently acted as the root of injustice that I despised so intensely. Ironically, attending Catholic school only fuelled my perception of religion as such. History GCSE provided a wealth of examples: the Crusades, the Roman Inquisition of Copernicus and Galileo, the Church’s sustained inhibition on the developments of medical science, the Reichskonkordat, the Yom Kippur War, the Mujahideen, and the Moral Majority. The list is endless. English Literature A-Level unearthed an established anti-clerical movement, which, from William Blake to Margaret Atwood, was fervent in its criticism of religious institutions.

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The most illuminating subject, however, was Religious Education (RE) GCSE, where most of the syllabus was dedicated to Catholic Christianity. It wasn’t much time until the anti-LGBTQ+ (Leviticus 20:13) and the anti-feminist (Book of Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 25:12-14) warts of Scripture were slid in front of my face on a trivial worksheet, which I then had to use in an attempt to justify why the Church prohibited gay marriage and women priests. To this day, I remember being baffled as I asked my female RE teacher why she subscribed to a religion in which gender discrimination was so apparent in both the text and the institution. She answered that she found it ‘interesting. Certainly, a choice of adjective to describe 2,000 years of systemic sexism.

However, the religion I was taught in school, and the faith I was brought up with could not have been more different. This could be attributed to the unique social circumstances of Northern Ireland that have rendered Catholicism in the province more progressive, and ultimately impacted my family’s faith: McFaddens are known to be tolerant, compassionate, open, and largely left-wing. Mum spent her twenties attending animal rights and pro-feminist protests, amassing a wealth of progressive perspectives on all social issues from Foucault to queer theory for her PhD, yet always making sure she had time to accompany my Nanny and her sisters to mass at Clonard Monastery on a Sunday. Now, in her fifties, her approach remains the same: like my aunties and Nanny, mum is vehemently opposed to the Vatican’s anti-abortion stances, as well as their prohibition of gay marriage and female priests. Yet simultaneously, as she told me in a conversation this past Easter Sunday, attending mass with my Nanny and her sisters was an activity sacred to them – an activity that she felt demonstrated female empowerment. This was evident from the comfort and guidance mum found in her faith after my Nanny and auntie passed away within five months of each other. Even as a stone-cold atheist, I couldn’t deny the positive role that Mum’s faith plays in her life, particularly at difficult times like that. Even though I am now eighteen and am not obligated to participate in those aforementioned traditions, this Good Friday I still rushed home after meeting a friend to attend 3 pm mass. The flicker of joy that faintly illuminated Mum’s face when I joined her, albeit disengaged in her faith, consolidated my reasons for doing so. 

Nevertheless, it is at these moments that the same thoughts return. Primarily, that the balance between mum’s progressive ideals and her faith is something I have never been able to achieve, no matter how hard I have tried. Indeed, faith and religion are two distinct things, comparable to the fact that having a certain political ideology does not mean one automatically supports the party which purports to best represent it. As a member of the Labour party, I am very familiar with this dichotomy. However, overlooking the obvious—that faith and religion are ultimately and inextricably connected—the phenomena of religion and faith occupy a distinct social space that is, in a sense, incomparable to those of political, legal or other cultural organisations and ideologies. Almost all Catholics subscribe to the belief that Pope Francis is Jesus’ representative on Earth, and is the ultimate and indisputable leader of their faith. A significant number of socialists, and indeed Labour Party members, would outright reject the notion that Keir Starmer is the unequivocal representative of the labour movement, or of the ‘left’ in Britain. 

From this, one can elicit a crucial fact that explains not only the structure of religious institutions themselves but also their social, cultural and political influence: they are built around control and order. At the basis of these institutions is the idea that faith, at its core, is the belief in one, or various representations of, an infallible, omnipotent, divine figure who sends prophets to convey their word. They appoint leaders, councils and organisations to enforce this word. Whatever God, Adonai, Allah or Buddha want is carried out. Their unquestionable authority is venerated and serves as the token of institutional legitimacy. Such an attitude is visible in a series of institutional doctrines, such as papal infallibility. 

Thus, religious institutions have been able to hold a tight grip over the historical and cultural fabric of almost all sovereign states, since their stringent promotion of obedience empowers them to do so. From the halls of power in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy to the bloodstained streets of post-Revolution Iran, institutional religious figures have stood side by side some of the most repressive, controversial and authoritarian regimes in history; an obedient society is the perfect breeding ground for religious influence to flourish. Prominent religious figures have, and continue to, set themselves firmly in opposition to social and cultural progress, precisely since such development is antithetical to the nature of religion itself. Pope Pius XI identified the ‘enemy’ of Catholicism as those who said that the Roman Pontiff “ought to come to terms with Progress, Liberalism and the New Civilisation”. Attempts in the 1960s to shift this attitude through the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) remain controversial – Irish essayist Desmond Fennell wrote that the “leading personalities” of the Irish church show little interest in such aggiornamento

Religion is opposed to reform and social progress, and any attempts to do so itself are ultimately a façade.

This leads me to the reason why I am unable to strike the same balance Mum does. Religion is opposed to reform and social progress, and any attempts to do so itself are ultimately a façade. There is no better example of this than Pope Francis’ recently celebrated attempts to modernise the social attitudes of the Church. For example, in January 2021, Pope Francis changed Canonical law to allow for women to perform tasks in mass. This, however, is the opposite of reform – in fact, it propagates the subjugation of women in Catholicism. ‘Perform tasks’ reflects the position of women in the Church as auxiliaries to the male priests, and to the larger patriarchal structure, the Church seeks to maintain. As mentioned earlier, papal infallibility means that Pope Francis could change the Church’s entire outlook on social issues overnight: yet he chooses not to. He chooses to patronise Catholic women with the bare minimum of recognition as equals to their male counterparts. Such a perception is too evident in the ongoing refusal of the Church to validate or perform same-sex marriage. The fact that even these vacuous ‘reforms’ have caused outrage amongst prominent Catholic figures, to the extent that some have called for Pope Francis to be labelled as a heretic, is even more revealing of the entrenched religious aversion to social progress. I cannot, like my mum, see where female empowerment is found in the archetypal arena of female subjugation. 

In difficult moments, ones where I need a guiding voice that could transcend the limitations of human existence, I feel myself being drawn back towards faith. Yet a stinging burst of reality snaps me back. Those who fought tirelessly through history for my rights to live proudly as a queer man; those who felt the wrath of religious persecution, who buried family, friends, and lovers; those who are still kicked out by intolerant parents waving a Bible in their face; or those who are executed by a perversely religious state for simply being who they are, did not and do not have this liberty. The injustices that faith and religion continue to uphold did not afford them that space. I cannot, morally, indulge in such an immense privilege and blind myself to the atrocities that religious institutions have committed merely because it may bring me temporary relief. I urge those who are able to do so to reconsider. 

Hence the title of this article: Lana Del Rey’s quirky play on Nietzsche’s famed 1882 declaration from her 2012 single “Gods & Monsters”. To finally progress as a society and begin to deliver justice to those who deserve it, we must embrace our increasingly secular world, and hold religious institutions to account for what they have done. It is time to face the facts, to stop allowing these institutions to get away with discrimination and oppression in the name of abstract ideals such as religious freedom. Until gay couples can get married on the steps of a Catholic altar, until female imams consistently and unequivocally lead prayer services, until gendered seating in orthodox synagogues is de-segregated, religion cannot occupy such astounding social influence in a modern civilised society. If these institutions refuse to change, we must refuse to give them the space to which they have become so accustomed. Anything less than an active resistance against this is supporting the exclusion and authoritarianism upon which they thrive.  

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Fiónn McFadden
Fiónn McFadden

Fiónn McFadden is a student and journalist at the University of Oxford.

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