I lost my Christian faith on 15 August, 1998, in the village of Omagh in County Tyrone around 3:00 pm.
It was one of those summer days where you could be glad to be a ten year old. Sunny and warm, a rarity in Ireland where we get clouds and rain nearly every morning. I was celebrating my recent progression to open champion in Irish dance, the highest level achievable. It was only three weeks till my eleventh birthday and my mate Johnny, also a competitive Irish dancer, invited me to his home for the weekend. My grandparents were nervous about it at first. It wasn’t as though I was camping out with one of my cousins across the county. Omagh was nearly an hour away. In addition it was in Northern Ireland, and my grandparents had lived three decades in the shadow of the Troubles. But after much begging and cajoling, and with my grandfather’s reminder that Omagh had been virtually untouched by the violence, my grandmother finally relented.
That Saturday, Johnny and I insisted on being allowed to go to the town centre unaccompanied. Market Street was a popular tourist destination and we wanted to see the sights and play with the lads. Naturally, Johnny’s parents refused our perfectly reasonable request. But after much begging and cajoling (a skill we had perfected down to an art form) they agreed and let us go, provided that Johnny’s fourteen year old sister Maeve accompanied us.
It was every lad’s dream. We played tag and pop-around-the-barrel with a group of local lads, as Maeve stood with her girlfriends and sniffed over our desperate immaturity. Johnny and I kept a close eye on her, and when her back was turned for a moment, we scampered off, headed down toward the courthouse to have our own adventure, congratulating ourselves on our daring and bravado.
We hadn’t gotten fifty yards down the side way when we heard the car bomb go off behind us.
We stared at each other for long moments, the shock turning our faces ashy white. Johnny sprinted off first, headed into the carnage, screaming for his sister. I was immediately behind him, but we lost sight of each other the moment we entered the boiling mass of people. The smoke stung my eyes as I pushed my way through, the fires that had broken out sending people into a panic. I stepped over falling, crying people, bloodied shrapnel, bits of masonry, bits of bodies. I fought the crowds, screaming for Maeve, for Johnny, for anyone, my voice lost amongst the hundreds raised, all crying for Jack, for Aodhan, Alan, Mary, Osla, Aoife, Michael, Padraig, Brigit. A swell of people pushed me to the cobblestones, and I lay there stunned for a moment, unsure if it was from the impact or from the bloody, charred arm that lay a metre from me.
“Oh god,” I whispered. “Oh god, oh god, oh god.”
But no god heard my prayer, nor did he hear the prayers of hundreds of other people around me screaming for their loved ones. I picked myself up and brushed the dirt from my jacket and trousers, and fought my way back into the crowd. I never prayed again.
I didn’t leave the town centre for another hour. When I did, Johnny was at my side, dusty and red-eyed from the smoke and from the sobbing. I looked down at the road as we stumbled away towards his home where his parents were waiting, oblivious to what had happened until Maeve came home moments before us, hysterical but unharmed. As I pulled my trainers from my feet, I noticed for the first time that the white leather strip above the soles had been stained a dirty, blackened red.
Twenty nine people died in the town centre of Omagh. Twelve of them were children and teenagers.
No one ever ‘officially’ claimed credit for the bombing of Omagh. But the acknowledgement came soon after nonetheless. They called themselves RIRA, the Real Irish Republican Army. They were Christian militants, angry about the recent Good Friday Agreement that had been signed back in April that had called for an unequivocal ceasefire between the opposing Catholic and Protestant forces. They had given the village of Omagh a warning earlier that day. They told them an inaccurate location for bomb, one that would push the evacuating crowds into the actual target zone.
My childlike faith was shattered that day, like a stone thrown through a cathedral window. The truths that I grew up with, that God loved me, that he loved all people, that we were his children and that he was watching over us, seemed more than silly as I was lying in the dust of Omagh surrounded by the dead and dying. Was God there? Perhaps. Did he love me? Of course not. No loving father willingly allows his children to be killed or maimed without action. I have heard every explanation that the Christians have thrown at me since then. That God was testing my faith. That he never promises to protect us. That our world is sinful and we must live with the consequences. And to each I say, show me a human father that would allow his toddler to stroll into a construction zone. And when that toddler gets an arm sliced off, he wraps his arms around it and says ‘I never promised to protect you. I knew what was going to happen, but I felt the need to remind you that my arms are safer than the world out there and now you know better than to walk away from me.’
That may be your god, but he is not my father.
Even though the illusion of a loving, compassionate deity had fallen away for good, it took some time for the same thing to happen with organised religion. I still attended Mass, took the Eucharist, listened to the homily. But now every time I heard a passage about Christ’s love, my mind swept me back to the streets of Omagh. And without that comfort, I began hearing those things that the warmness of God’s love had hidden from me. I heard the prayers for defeat of the Protestant militants. I heard the warnings about the ungodly, the apostates, the homosexuals, the single mothers, the divorcees. I went to the wake of a man who died from complications of AIDS and heard the minister proclaim ‘If any man here denies that this man is burning in all eternity in hell, I encourage him to examine his life and seek repentance with his god!’ The family had no idea what was going to be said and the brother of the deceased nearly attacked the minister. I found out later that the family never stepped foot in a church again.
And through this, I watched my fellow church-goers, listening intently, nodding. Praying. And the knowledge slowly took root in me, deeper and deeper, like the weed that grows between a crack in the walkway. That the men who had bombed Omagh had gone to a church just like this one. That they had heard the same homilies about the superiority of the Faith and the Protestant menace. That they had prayed, knelt, sang, just like I was. And that it had been there to lead them to take twenty-nine lives in a village an hour away. And the cold truth dawned on me. That every time I stepped in a church, dropped a few coins into the collection plate, took the body of Christ into my mouth, I was rubbing shoulders with the butchers of my people. With those who supported them. With those who had funded them.
And so began the transition from non-practising Christian to atheist. There was a four year venture among the Midwestern Lutherans stuck in there. I’ll touch on that later.
I’ve seen quite a few blog posts recently on why people, especially young people, are leaving the Christian church in droves. They range from everything from too many cliques to pastors wearing skinny jeans to the liberal education of the universities. But each one has totally missed what I feel is the biggest reason. Its’ the reason I left, why so many of my peers have abandoned their childhood dogma for good, and why churches are left half empty, desperately trying to lure us back in with promises of acceptance and meaning and healing for the hurts they themselves inflicted.
I left the Church because I could no longer associate with the sort of people who fill the churches on a weekly basis and still look at myself with any amount of respect. I left the Church because the tacit approval of remaining would have stained my hands with as much blood as once stained my shoes. I left the church because I have seen what hatred does, and I will not hate. I have seen what condemnation does and I will not condemn. I have seen what fighting the good fight has become and I will have no part of it. I have seen what it means to love the sinner and hate the sin, and I prefer to love the Christian and set myself in opposition to Christianity. It has a lower death toll.
Onward Christian soldiers march indeed.