Only a few dozen years ago Ireland was one of the poorest nations in Europe, dominated by a Church that seemed in some perverse way to welcome the people's impoverishment. Today Ireland has one of the highest standards of living in Europe, and the influence of the Church has receded -- in this outsider's view -- to near invisibility.
Ireland's prosperity is based to a large extent on a superbly educated population. The exams the kids take here in their last year of high school -- the leaving certs -- constantly astonish me for the depth and rigor of required knowledge in maths, science, economics, geography, and so on.
In their new prosperity and secular ways the Irish look with something of bemused bewilderment on contemporary America. A big article in the Irish Times the other day took note of the evangelical Americans who await the Second Coming. The article quoted polls showing that 40 percent of Americans believe that a sequence of events presaging the "end times" is under way. Here is the scenario as described in the Times: "Jews return to Israel after 2,000 years; the Holy Temple is rebuilt; billions perish during seven years of natural disasters and plagues; the Antichrist arises and rules the world; the battle of Armageddon erupts in the vicinity of Israel; Jesus returns to defeat Satan's armies and preside over Judgment Day."
What puzzles the Irish is how a nation unequaled in its scientific and technical prowess can at the same time be so in thrall to what they see as rank superstition. To their mind, there is little difference between the Christian end-times fervor of evangelical Americans and the almost identical Islamic scenario propounded by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What frightens the Irish -- as it frightens other Europeans -- is what they perceive as an unholy alliance in America between apocalyptic religion and neo-conservative politics.