oily years after the social revolution that used the rallying cry of "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll", many children of the revolution have had second thoughts. The year 1968 might not have brought any terror or five-year plan, but the promises of happiness and personal freedom have proved empty, while the decline in religion has had some terrible effects.
The revolution came late to Ireland, although with greater force than elsewhere. A country once mocked for its pious Catholicism has become one of the most unbelieving in Europe.
Rock music journalist John Waters, now 52, was one of the generation who couldn't wait to break from the grey Catholic Ireland of his Roscommon childhood. In Lapsed Agnostic, the newly published memoir of his journey from faith to unbelief and back again, he recalls how lacking the religion of his childhood was and how inevitably it fell part.
"It wasn't as if Ireland was intensely spiritual and now ceases to be because it got rich," he says. The problem is that Ireland was never fundamentality connected to any sense of religiosity. We acted out of a piety and a sense of moral uprightness. We adopted the correct poses. We felt fearful and reverential, but we missed this fundamental thing."
Now an Irish Times columnist and national figure, Waters lives in the ultra-fashionable Dublin suburb of Dalkey (also home to U2, the subject of another of his books) and is a happy, if not entirely tranquil figure. It's been a long journey. Lapsed Agnostic is not so much a memoir his private life has been splattered all over the press too many times before but a reflection on the spiritual crisis that has afflicted the whole nation.
"I try to look into my own story and see how it resonates with society at large," he explains. "It struck me that where I was 20 years ago society in general is now. I believe in the idea of a collective intelligence and a collective psychosis."
The biggest symptom of that psychosis is drunkenness. "There was a time when the Irish had a reputation for being heavy drinkers but it was the Irish abroad, not at home," he says. Now Ireland clearly does have a problem with drink. and also with drugs, obesity and male suicide, which is why Waters talks about his own problems with alcohol. He finally quit at the age of 35. with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, a process that guided him towards the idea of faith. It helped him to understand his powerlessness, although it wasn't exactly a Damascene conversion.
A far bigger factor was his relationship with the talented but volatile singer Sinead O'Connor, out of which came daughter Roisin. now 12. John's attempts to win the right to bring up baby made him an outcast in his social circle.
"It made me fundamentally question what I had swallowed whole in ideological terms. This is particularly true in terms of the role of father and child, the legal nonrecognition of that. When I spoke about that, for my own sanity and soul, the reaction was very hostile. People ceased to come to my home. They wouldn't return my calls. I became a bit of an embarrassment. I became distant from the counter-culture and the bohemian artistic lifestyle.
"But the funny thing was I thought: 'Well. I've burned my bridges now, let's see what else is there.' In the context of religion, up to that point my view about raising a child would be: 'Let her grow up to be what she wants to be.' But if I had been brought up like that I would have done nothing to climb on. I thought I had to give her what I had been given. She now has a belief. a curious not pious one."
There was also to prove God moves in mysterious ways a chance meeting on a (secular) trip to Rome, where a priest introduced him to Communion and Liberation, the group founded by the late Mgr Luigi Giussani.
"He's very little known in Britain or Ireland, yet he's phenomenal. He's influenced both this Pope and the previous one. In the 1950s Mgr Giussani was on a train from Milan. and he was talking to some young people about religion and he found they had not been told the most fundamental elements of their faith. In his book The Religious Sense he talks about what religion is: the wonder in which we look out into the world."
Mgr Giussani's proclamation of what Christianity is lies in stark contrast to the rest of the Church, Waters believes. "They tell all the external rules, but they don't tell what the thing is itself. They think it's obvious, but it's not obvious. God is not obvious, and the story of Jesus is not obvious. Most people have lost the meaning of this. People really don't understand the most fundamental ideas of Christianity. To me. Jesus came here to announce the death of death. We would not die. That message is lost. I have never gone to a Mass in Ireland and witnessed a priest who communicated the wonder of that, who made me stand up and say: `You're saying what? That's an astonishing fact.'" Waters has become a fathers' rights campaigner and, perhaps less successfully. a musician, representing Ireland in last year's Eurovision songcontest. "I came last in the finals. At the time it was devastating but looking back it was one of the funniest things. So what if I came last in Eurovision? It's probably better than coming second last?'
Defending the faith. he has seen how bigoted "rational" atheists are. "I met Christopher Hitchens before we had a TV debate and he was gratuitously hostile. He never looked at me. He decided I was the enemy. Sometimes you meet atheists who are nicer, but they're just as bigoted. If you're so satisfied and content with your views, relax. Hitchens and Dawkins are meeting a market demand among the Peter Pan generation who in their 20s rejected God. and now they're 60 and facing the final furlong, the ridicule of religion will reassure them that they made the right choice 'Make us laugh again like you did in the summer of 68'."
Ultimately. he says, Catholicism must fight back or society has no future. "Secular society is sawing at the branches, stupidly and ignorantly denouncing the very thing that keeps it alive. Secular atheism is a destructive, hopeless force in society. They are parasites on the resource of hope.
"Look at the damage accrued from the collapse of belief, the drug
addiction and crime. Atheism isn't a permanent way of life for a society. A society is not just millions of people. it is a collective intelligence that requires hope, in a v,ay that individuals may not require hope. An atheist in society is protected in his hopelessness by the background radiation of hope created by believers. This is a point that Hitchens conceded in the debate. k will never go back, instead we need a new annunciation."
Yet for now it's hard, with Christians seen as social lepers. "It's very difficult to even discuss religion, people get shifty and awkward," he says. "I renember writing in the Irish Times that the two greatest embarrassments to modem Ireland were Go! and De Valera. Arid some smart dlec reader wrote in with May I addJohn Waters'. which I took to be quite a compliment."
Lapsed Agnostic is published by Continuum Books, priced Ell .99