Peter Flanagan: 'Confession was for sinners - why should I admit to something I didn't do?'

I WAS ON a second date in Shoreditch and the girl couldn’t tell me which religion she belonged to. Internet dating is awkward enough without insisting on declarations of faith, but I pressed her anyway.

She texted her mother, who confirmed that she’d been baptised a Calvinist. “I don’t really know what that is, to be honest”. I explained that Calvinists believe in pre-destination, which means she would be going to heaven no matter what she did on Earth. She seemed pleased with this.

In England, it’s not uncommon to meet someone who is not just irreligious but has no lived experience of organised religion. The separation of church and state means that a person can enjoy civic life without ever having to think about God at all.

How liberating it must be to be unencumbered by inherited spiritual neuroses. Catholicism is not something you opt in or out of. It feels seared into my skin, whether I believe in its cabalistic rituals or not. Like la Cosa Nostra, you don’t get to just walk away.

My first confession was a bitter experience. I was seven and I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong. Confession was for sinners – why should I go down for a crime I didn’t commit? My parents told me to just “make something up”. So I did.

I wish I’d told the priest – a harmless boob in an ill-fitting dress – that I’d been coveting my neighbour’s ox.

They knew it was a cod, but my Mum and Dad handed me over to the costumed holy man anyway. This was Ireland in the 1990s and before.

peter flanagan: 'confession was for sinners - why should i admit to something i didn't do?'

The social stigma of pulling me out would have been too much – scripture had nothing to do with it. That I was encouraged to invent a story and hope for the best seems now like an appropriate introduction to Christianity.

When the census came to our house in 2016, my mother had filled in my bits. “Mam, I’m not Catholic anymore!” I was genuinely annoyed that she’d put the whole family down as papists when none of us had been to mass in years. She just shrugged. “Ah, of course you are”, she said. No more was said about it.

Maybe she had a point. I still find myself having a cheeky pray a couple of times a year, following the priest’s cues at a funeral or firing off a rogue plea to St. Anthony when I lose my phone. It feels a bit dirty, like drunk texting an ex. Remember me, Lord? You up?

The English have no time for such hocus pocus. When their new King was coronated recently in Westminster Abbey, many were taken aback by the supernatural aspect of the ceremony.

peter flanagan: 'confession was for sinners - why should i admit to something i didn't do?'

Britain’s Prince Charles was crowned King of England recently by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

They would prefer, perhaps, to believe that their enduring class system is based on brute feudalism rather than something underwritten by Jesus Christ. Charles himself was surely relieved to escape the archbishop and his grisly hangers-on as soon as the liturgy concluded.


Since Henry the 8th, there’s been an understanding in Britain that religion is very much a lifestyle choice, like a fad diet or hot yoga. This philosophical flexibility has had its advantages – the country has long been a more tolerant, liberal place than Ireland. But the absence of a folk deity is probably to blame for the often-nasty libertarian streak in the British psyche, too.

Immigrants tend to be more spirituality-credulous than the natives. Perhaps it’s because we believe that it maintains a link to our homelands, giving us a sense of identity in a country where “Britishness” is increasingly exclusive. Or maybe it’s because we’re lonely.

In a city where you don’t know a soul, who wouldn’t want a place to go at the weekend to drink tea and have a chat with ostensibly friendly, conscientious people?

I definitely fell into that category when I first arrived. Every Saturday afternoon for a year I’d pop down to the local Buddhist temple for a group meditation and a sniff of the incense, overlooked by a shimmering, golden Buddha. I couldn’t believe that such a peaceful place could exist amidst the city’s fluorescent dish of noise, light and pollution.

I loved how meditation took the reflective quality of prayer and mostly stripped away the overbearing, judgemental bits. Truthfully, Irish people are probably too begrudging to take on Buddhism en masse. If we believed in reincarnation, we’d probably look at newborn babies and think “Is that Oliver Cromwell? Oh, we’ve been waiting for you.”

But as a tourist of Eastern mysticism, it scratched an itch. It gave me a place to go at the weekend where I could feel part of a group, practice mindfulness and have a biscuit at the end. How different from mass was it, really? Behind the burning candles, gold effigies and cathedrals made of glass and stone, humans and their needs are simpler than we pretend.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter @peterflanagan and Instagram @peterflanagancomedy.

peter flanagan: 'confession was for sinners - why should i admit to something i didn't do?'

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