In Belfast on literary duties, I am struck again by the Irish gift for understatement. To call the past three decades of damage here "troubles" is akin to calling cancer "sad." What has happened in "the North of Ireland" or "Northern Ireland," depending on your politics, is trouble indeed, and sadness, and cancer, and damage.

And I am reminded of how, too often, religiosity puts us at odds with our humanity, our community, and our spirituality.

In the six counties in question. a standing joke goes:
"I'm an atheist."
"Sure, but are you a Catholic or a Protestant atheist?"

Here, there is no choice to opt out of the conflict. Everyone is something. And as the homepage of this website holds, "We all believe in something." We may be lapsed or devoted, militant or indifferent, orthodox or not; we may disbelieve or misbehave, or non-conform or protest, but we do so according to the ancient codes of tribe and blood and conflict.

Among the young writers, teachers, and professionals I meet in Belfast, there is always talk of the comfort of going south, into the Republic, or farther still, to the Continent or Canada or the United States, and the chance it gives them to "turn the radar off"--to disengage that terrible wariness of what they might say and whom it might offend or infuriate. These are well-meaning people, who are sensitive to their neighbors' sensibilities, who hunger for peace, who abhor the posturing of extremists but who are, nonetheless, to various degrees, Loyalists, Nationalists, Protestants, Catholics, damned if they do and if they don't say anything. Damned for their beliefs or lack of them, targeted for the faiths they profess or renounce. Among these border towns where flags and banners and graffiti proclaim the differences, the "other" is said to "dig with the wrong foot." The road signs are variously defaced. One side calls Londonderry Derry while the other simply thinks of it as London. What's in a name? we ask. The answer here is, what is not?

In less violent, less obvious, but all the same pervasive ways we have such troubles everywhere. Religion, like race and nationality, gender and age, both defines and divides us, ennobles and estranges us. These "conditions" are, unfashionably, not matters of choice. I am Catholic in the way I am white and American and male and middle-aged. However lapsed or lazy or lacking in faith I am on any given day, I am, at the same time, a lapsed, lazy, and faithless Catholic. I behave and misbehave according to the language I learned as a child--a dialect of shalts and shalt-nots, blessings and beatitudes, curses and prejudices. Surely it is no different for the children of observant Jews, Muslims, Methodists, and secular humanists. Religion is the double-edged sword that unites, protects, and secures while it divides and conquers and endangers, always and ever in the name of God.

The mixed message of all religions is that, while we are all God's children, God likes some of his children better than others and that heaven, wherever the hell it turns out to be, will be populated by those of one kind and not another.

Of course in Belfast, as in Bosnia or Jerusalem, the issue isn't doctrine or observance. There are fewer true believers than we like to think, and true believers honor true belief in others even when it is not one they share.

The issue is "otherness." How we separate ourselves from other human kinds.

Religion is just one of the several easy ways for the blessed and elect to remain just that. The have's and the have-nots around the world maintain their status--as victim and victimizer--on the narrowest grounds of difference. Race, religion, tribe, caste, class, club, color, gender, sexual preference, denomination, sect, geography, and politics--everything we are separates us from everyone else.

In the border counties of Ulster, where it is hard to tell Kenneth from Sean, or Alison from Mary, where everyone is fair and freckled, "he digs with the wrong foot" is both the sublime and ridiculous truth.

If race divides, can we abandon race? If sex divides, do we abandon sex? If religion leads to war, should we reject religion?

After all the adjectives and identifiers that name and affiliate and isolate us, what is the common denominator of humanity? What does a Northern Irish Nationalist, former Catholic, white, middle-aged, gay male member of the Rotary Club have in common with, say, anyone else of any other race or religion or ethnicity or gender or sexual preference or geography or affiliation?

We live. We die.

And whether we are random accidents of Creation or the much-loved children of a Creator, our mortality makes the modifiers irrelevant. Whatever heavens or hereafters are or aren't there, the keeper of the gate, if there turns out to be one, will speak all our languages or none of them.

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