Them Protestants

A while back my ten year old daughter asked to look over the census form that my wife had been filling in. There was no reason not to let her. The first thing she noticed was that no box had been ticked in relation to religion. Pointing out that ‘no religion’ was an option she inquired why that hadn’t been expressed as our preference. After explaining to her that her mother hadn’t yet completed the form, I facetiously told her we could put ‘Catholic’ down. She dismissed this immediately on the grounds that ‘we’re not Catholics.’

I then ventured the mock suggestion to her that we should put down ‘Protestant.’ Her response was ‘what’s that?’ I asked her did she not know what a Protestant was and she seemed genuinely flummoxed. It was an attitude that repeated itself at today’s Global Atheist Convention when she again asked what Protestants were, her curiosity prompted by a contribution from someone in the audience.

I confess to harbouring surprise as she is not ignorant of religions. She knows what a Muslim is. Islam is a subject she was taught about in school. She wasn’t taught that it was right, just that it existed. Yet her response brought home in a flash more than any amount of political theorising could ever have managed, how far we have travelled from the sectarian mindset that is so entrenched in the North.

When she was around five and living in West Belfast, she came in one day to announce to me her latest discovery - Protestants were bad. I asked her to explain the thinking behind that ponderous judgement and she simply told me that Protestants shoot you. The identity of ‘you’ was not made clear but already in her young mind an ‘us and them’ divide was being forged. The Protestants were ‘them’ and the ones being shot were ‘us.’ They of course were bad for shooting us, whoever made up the ‘us’ camp. I didn’t go as far as to explain to her that her father was no innocent when it came to shooting Protestants. Work for another day.

Being only her father and not her god I had no desire for her to be made in my image. So, a few days later we set out on a journey to the home of a unionist friend. He and I sat and chewed the fat while his mother in law entertained the child for three hours. On our way home I explained to my daughter that the woman she had such a good time with was a Protestant and that she had not shot us. The moral of the story: Protestants were not bad and they do not shoot us.

There was no understanding on her part of any of the politics around her. But already she was being moulded by the discourses she encountered in her daily life. She never disclosed where she picked it up, probably having forgotten. It could have been the schoolyard or in the street at play. Although the parents of the kids she played with never seemed to vent sectarian comments. She may even have heard older kids being loud. While sectarianism is not something in the air that we breathe it might as well have been. Live in that type of culture and we are certain to inhale the particles that make up the atmosphere.

So the census form helped illustrate a strange kind of awakening on my part. I became alive to the fact that in the act of forgetting, my daughter had unlearned the bad and learned the good about people. It left me wondering what Milan Kundera would have thought of the idea that memory over forgetting isn’t always a victory.


  1. Mackers,
    It's nice that children can detach themselves from the world of old hostilities.
    Religion has caused more friction that it has ever cured.
    I have never had an issue with anyones religion, however, we remain in a statlet rife with sectarianism which means detachment is not always an option.

  2. Nuala,

    it is nice that they can. But the real success would have been detaching her from it while she still lived there. So you are right - detachment is not always an option.

  3. AM-

    One noticeable thing about the way i think of different religions-
    when a catholic or x catholic makes
    remarks against the faith i will argue back with humour- mostly- but if a protestant made the same remarks all i would be thinking is-

    If religion is good-then why do so many bad evil people support it-
    if my religion is right- then other religions are wrong- who made that rule up-

    I am catholic- i am christian- i am human- if i am those 3 things then there should be no hate-

  4. Sectarianism is a cancer and like a cancer it is not always possible to cure it. I would hope that my children will grow up without animosity for others based on religious difference.

    Our children begin life like as a blank canvass with no concept of bigotry or hate. The process of socialisation and indoctrination are the brush strokes that form the complex layers of the personality. Children born into a society where there is virulent sectarianism are at risk of developing sectarian attitudes themselves.

    As Fionnuala points out; "detachment is not always an option."

  5. michaelhenry,

    'if my religion is right- then other religions are wrong- who made that rule up-'


    Or what about the 'principle of contradiction'?

    If your religion is right and another religion contradicts it, then the latter must be wrong.

    If we don't accept that, then human reasoning means nothing. Black can mean white, wet can mean dry, good can mean evil and Sinn Féin can mean Republican.

  6. A Swedish guy once said to me that religion should be treated like your genitals. I initially thought he meant bollix and agreed instantly. He went on to explain that it is something for your own amusement in private but not to be waved in public. I still agreed! For me it makes no sense whatsoever and I don't need it for anything in life.

  7. Michaelhenry,

    I find many Christians filled with hate rather than love. Christians like Helder Camara are in my experience few and far between.

  8. John McGirr-

    Did God say that the catholic faith was right and that the priest's should not marry or even get a bit- if we are all made in God's image then he knows that this is a big sacrifice-


    " For me it makes no sense whatsoever and i dont need it for anything in life " - you on about religion or genitals-

  9. michaelhenry,

    'Did God say that the catholic faith was right'

    Yes. Do you not agree it is right? Your religious conviction is just a sham if you do not, much like your Republican convictions.

    'and that the priest's should not marry or even get a bit-'

    Yes. Matthew 19: 11-12- '[Jesus] said to them: All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it.'

    'if we are all made in God's image then he knows that this is a big sacrifice-'

    That is the very essence of the priesthood, sacrifice.

  10. AM,

    ‘I find many Christians filled with hate rather than love.’

    Following Aristotle, St Thomas classifies the passions as concupiscible, (love-hatred; desire-abhorrence; joy-sadness) and irascible (hope-despair; courage-fear; anger). These are all good in themselves and are all rooted in love which is the pre-dominant passion. All the others are defined in their relationship to love.

    For example; Love is the inclination towards what is seen to be good; hatred is the tending away from what is seen to be evil.

    None of the passions are evil in themselves, and are all easily expressed in terms of love (and its counterpart hatred). All of the passions are rooted in love and only lead to evil when they are disordered or used for the wrong object.

    ‘Christians like Helder Camara are in my experience few and far between.’

    Insofar as Helder Camera forgot God and concentrated on an earthly Utopia, he was still motivated by love, but with a disordered object. I would see him more as a Communist than a Christian.

  11. Michaelhenry,

    nice one!


    Nothing in Aquinas that would lead me to change my opinion. When people would rather see gays burn forever in hell rather than accept their life style that is hate no matter what way they dress it up.

    Helder Camara was motivated by god but saw him in real people not in some lofty heaven out of human reach. Nor was he a communist but an advocate of social justice. Although the right wing Christian establishment and their military allies labeled him a communist. In his own words 'When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.'Nelmo Roque Ten Kathen, his biographer, said 'Helder Camara read much in his life, and knew Marxist theory very well but there is nothing in his writings that would allow one to categorize him as a man of the left.'

  12. Good way of dealing with it. Resist the temptation to give a confusing answer. Let human contact do the work much more convincingly.

  13. Good way to teach a lasting lesson to your daughter, AM. I note in passing as I opened Tommy McKearney's new book (and noted the back cover quote from yourself!) that he notes how he uses Catholic even for agnostics or atheists such as himself as more of a community distinction (akin to the Jewish sense of a people apart from/parallel to religious belief) in his analysis of the North and how distinctions work. One of his critiques, of course, is how the sectarian state post-GFA perpetuates some divisions even as others are claimed to have been overcome....

  14. Fionnchú,

    Tommy McKearney would be right in that regard. Thee s a resonance in my own writing where I refer to SF as a Catholic party