Monday, 19 May 2008

Losing my religion

That's me in the corner... that's me in the spotlight

Consider this:
Patrick spent Sunday morning reading Philip Pullman's new short story "Once upon a time in the North" and fannying about on Facebook. Enitrely suitable Sunday morning fare for an atheist you would think. And you'd be right. But he was only up so absurdly early because I had woken him up to buy a new parking ticket for his car before some officious warden slapped a £60 on his ass, and then sodded off to church. Me that is, not the traffic warden.

I had invited him, if he wished to go, the main attraction, other than God, being the chance to see me looking like a meringue in a royal blue cassock and white surplice in my weekend persona, a chorister of St Laurence's Church, Ludlow. I joined the choir for selfish motives: I was lonely and wanted to meet people, for personal and professional reasons. I also like singing and I have a background in (for simplicity's sake) "classical" music. And the part of me that was a practicing Christian for the first 19 or so years of my life idly wondered if getting back into regular contact with religious types might help me resolve my inner turmoil as far as religion is concerned.

I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing, I think I thought I saw you try...

I've not attended as religiously (hah) as I'd like. Weekends represent golden opportunities to get out of Ludlow (lovely people, very beautiful town, no one between the ages of 20 and 27 in evidence) and I often book them up miles in advance. But recently, I've been trying to be around more. I made a commitment to the choir and they need me to turn up, at most there's only ever four or five people on the alto part, including me. We're the second largest group, but often there's only two or three of us. And very often, as I trip over the hem of my cassock while trying to sight-read the alto line in the processional hymn while we walk between the pews and up into the choir stalls, I wonder what I'm doing there.

My childhood Christianity was not something I had a choice in, but I loved it completely. I was baptised when I was 4 months old. I was admitted to communion when I was 7 (a strange rite only my church seemed to do which let young children have a piece of bread but not drink wine. But yay! Inclusion and a sense of maturity!) and confirmed when I was 14. We were Anglo-Catholic. I think, technically, high church CofE. We believed in seven sacraments (baptism, ordination, marriage, confirmation, communion, extreme unction, reconciliation) not two (baptism and ordination) but we only used incense about three times a year and we sang music from all over the world and from throughout time. When Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, we learnt the South African National Anthem, in South African. When we got a new vicar from Zambia, we learnt the Agnus Dei in Zambian. It goes like this... Kambelele ka mlungu, muvimyapo viipa, vya vyalo vyonse, tipe tendere wanu, kambelele ka mlungu muvimyapo viipa, vya vyalo vyonse, tichitile lusungu. Though I might have got the verses the wrong way round.

The congregation was a good mix, people of every ethnic background you find in Sarf Eeest Lunnon. Africans, Asians, Europeans. I knew everyone, and a lot of people knew me. All the old ladies cooed over me at my christening. By the time I was 10 I had no idea who they were, but they would comment on every stage of my life as if they were relatives. My mum was very involved in our church and got ordained when I was 12 or 13. I was very proud of her. No one else's mum was a priest. Though I grew tired of fending off questions about whether she was a "priestess" ("Yes, she sacrifices bulls in temples"), was my dad a priest? Do priests have to marry priests? ("Er no, and no."), and "I thought priests couldn't marry/have children?" ("That's Catholics").

I loved God and God loved me. I never knew where I got this image from, but when I was 5, I thought God was a denim-wearing, ginger-haired man with a low-grade buzz cut who drove around the universe on a giant motorbike. A sort of benevolent biker dad if you will. I had a kids' bible that showed God sitting on his throne as a white figure, featureless, shining. A silhouette in reverse. My ginger-haired, extra biker dad fitted right into that outline as a far as I was concerned.

When I reached 16, I stopped going to church. Everyone my age left and GCSEs took up more and more time. Choir practice on a Friday evening and first thing on Sunday got in the way. But I still called myself a Christian, would still have said I believed, and I went to Southwark Cathedral on feast days to hear my sister sing in only the third all girls cathedral choir in the country. She can get married in that cathedral (Lucky cow. I want to get married in a cathedral dammit).

And then, in my first year of university, I went out with The Scientific Atheist. He was supremely confident in his worldview, had read a lot more books than me, debated a lot more than I did and thought Richard Dawkins was lord. After one conversation where he had pretty much destroyed everything I had ever believed in, ("Alright you can say there is room for a god in the creation model as impetus for a big bang but it makes no sense that he'd be a personal god, even if he did exist as a starting force..." The argument was a lot longer than that, but we're coming up for six years ago and I'm hazy on details..) I asked if there was anything else he wanted to add. He said: "I'm a little disappointed you're not taking on board what I've said and have decided to live your life accordingly."

I told him he was just as bad as a religious fundamentalist. And he, who had said discussing these things was all about rationalism, not emotion, was hurt and offended. But I pointed out destroying everything I'd lived my life by up until that point was hardly going to cause me to turn round and embrace him, tears of thanks streaming down my face. "Oh. I didn't think of it like that." Evidently not.

Every whisper of every waking hour I'm choosing my confessions, trying to keep an eye on you...

And in later years, when I actually started reading the work of Richard Dawkins and seeing him on television, in much the same way that moderate Christians cringe when they hear evangelicals advocating the burning of homosexuals, I decided I was never going to call myself an atheist while Dawkins was guiding that particular bandwagon. He doesn't seem to understand that telling people they are stupid, that they are automatons whose emotions are controlled by chemical reactions, is not going to convince them. He may be correct, but he's never going to convert anyone by insulting them.

The Scientific Atheist expected me to pathetically grateful that he had removed the blinkers from my vision. But too often, I just find myself lost. I'm working out my own morality, piece by piece. It's not self-consistent yet, and it may never be, but I hope one day it will be. And so, we come back to me, in church, on a Sunday. Wondering what's it all about, when you get right down to it. I usually ignore the service, for the most part, unless the preacher grabs my interest immediately. This is not a reflection on the quality of the worship, but I'm having my own communion with God. If He's not there, the Christian framework that I was brought up with, that our country's legal system is based on, at least gives me a good basis for working out my personal dos and don'ts. And if He is there, I know He'll understand why I think what I think and do what I'm doing.


grungedandy said...

Hey babe that’s why it’s called faith! Being brought up by an ex Catholic turned C of E “splitter” and a confirmed Atheist (who dose more for the local church than those who go to it) living “in sin” with a man who thinks organised religion is evil not sure what I really believe apart from maybe do no harm! I have friends among most of the major regions as well as some of the more obscure ones and we don’t seem to be at war but through out history & even now there seems to be a lot of unrest because of the misunderstandings of religion even people within they’re own religion don’t always know all the answers the various religious texted are very open to interpretation and therefore misinterpretation which is were all the divisions have come from! So it’s perfectly normal to question it all, it’s nice to have all the answers & be comfortable in the knowledge that you’re right but are they really? They can’t prove God exists but they equally can’t prove God doesn’t, I see God not as a he or she but as a light a warmth more of feeling and a colour than a person but that’s just it everyone sees God differently if they see at all. Anyhoo nice article telling people they’re stupid only wins with people who then want to go & tell other people they are stupid! Think the fable of the sun & the wind with the man & the coat! Seeya hugya *G*

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

S'funny, I often wonder whether or not my faith is mine or my parents, that if they had raised me as an atheist would I be an atheist, yet it hasn't stopped me being a Christian and believing in God and all that loveliness and if I ever get to a point where I'm asking "do I really believe in God", I always come up with the answer "yes!" even if I don't quite know why I do.

Anyway that's just my musing.

I can't say I've read any of Dicky Dorkins' books, but his general persona of arrogant atheist who is clever than that Christian lot of idiots has hardly made me like him, or even spell his name correctly. Without sounding too much like a puffed up Christian I shall say the following. Firstly If you've devoted your whole life to trying to disprove something like Christianity maybe you're just in denial (lame Christian logic I know) also We'll see who's right eventually and I'm not worried.

I really enjoyed reading this, despite it confusing me a little (probably mostly to do with the well formed sentences and advanced use of the English language).

Oh and I too find that services tend to wash over me at times, I much prefer a good discussion with another Christian at 1am in a car outside my house or in a quite pub where I KNOW God's there, listening and smiling.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

I maked sum spelding mustaykz

Elizabeth-Anne said...

I have a confirmed athiest friend who is always trying to point out how stupid I am by not being an agnostic. The thing is, he cannot accept that his way of looking at the world is not mine. I say 'I don't need things to be scientifically provable to believe them, and logically, if there were a higher power, would he/she/it not be something beyond what we are capable of proving?' and he says 'everything must be scientifically provable.' Never the twain shall meet, and he continues to think I am a nice person with a deep ser mental problem that I refuse to address.

Elizabeth-Anne said...

That should have been 'by being an agnostic;.

TheTelf said...

I remember one of my school friends once asked me whether I'd believe in God if Jesus appeared in front of me and told me it was true. I said it would depend on the situation, but I guess so, if it was convincing enough. He then said that this meant I wasn't a real atheist.

Since apparently being a real atheist means being so sure that you deliberately will never allow anything to convince you. Yeah, that's a totally reasonable position to hold...

And yes, Dawkins acts like a cock quite a lot of the time, but he's a good scientific writer, and at least in his earlier books (I can't speak for The God Delusion, having not read it) focuses more on the scientific aspects of his arguments than the 'telling-people-they're-idiots' aspects.

immedia reaction said...

@G: (hey hon :)) I know the uncertainty can be an important part of faith, I wasn't really trying to come to any firm conclusion. Just happen to know that several of the people who write on this blog are Christians and don't really know much about me, so thought I'd set at my stall, as it were, with regard to religion.

@Andy: urm, what confused you? Can I clear anything up? If I'm using English properly the idea is that is shouldn't be confusing. Wibble.

I know we'll see who's right eventually on the is-there-isn't-there front... I just don't know how I'll feel whatever the answer is. At least if Dawkins is right, my soul will no longer be a conscious entity that will have to observe the satisfaction etched on his smug face.

@Elizabeth-Anne: (hey to you too! :)) Do you feel offended by his assertion that you're refusing to combat your "issues"? What's your response to him? I feel like I'll never decide one way or another. Essentially, I'm stuck in agnosticism, but I don't mind...

@Patrick: I wouldn't say that made you a rubbish atheist. As for Dawkins, I even found when I started reading The Selfish Gene that his attitude to religion annoyed me. In some footnote, he was explaining why he was championing a particular theory as to how intelligent life evolved and said it was just one of many, but the evidence seemed the best for it. He said, don't bother giving me a religious argument, I've dismissed it countless times elsewhere. And although the balance of probabilities was in his favour, he admitted he didn't know if what he was saying was true. But he said we should accept it as such. Which to me, seemed hypocritical. And I gave up reading The God Delusion because it got rather repetitive and I got tired of translating it into more understandable English as I read.

TheTelf said...

@Hannah: "I wouldn't say that made you a rubbish atheist" - well no, nor would I, he was clearly talking bollocks. I'm an awesome atheist :D

And I enjoyed the Selfish Gene, and must have read around (or inadvertently absorbed) all the anti-religious ranting.

joebloggs said...

Interesting points one and all! It never ceases to amaze me how much conversation is generated by a little talk of Christianity!
I think that as long as Christianity vs Atheism (probably more accurately and irritatingly the Church vs Atheism) remains a relatively abstract debate on blogging forums and wherever else there is no solution. As Elizabeth-Anne said, "Never the twain shall meet." It takes something terribly convincing for anyone to change they're adopted point of view (as Telf was saying). And for me, the time when Christianity really shows itself for what it is is when it stops being the product of a now obsolete culture, stops being nice buildings and faceless charity donations, and becomes a real, viral, active expression of Gods love on earth - that's what Christians are called to be, and when they get that right, there are plenty of atheists agnostics and even nominal Christians who catch that bug and get involved. It's how Christianity began, and strangely everything only really got off track when a certain Roman Emperor institutionalised the whole thing and decided every single subject was a Christian. In an instant the powerful viral spread of the new Christian way of life was watered down for centuries into doctrines and rules.