To paraphrase one of my favourite writers,Graham Greene.
When I was a little girl my mother told me to avoid certain topics in polite company when outside the family.
Sex, money, politics and religion.
Well, I think we know how that advice went down!
These are some of the best topics of chat and I would definitely struggle to miss out all four at any one time. Certainly, passionate conversation and heated debate is something that I was brought up to enjoy and could not imagine a fulfilling romantic relationship without it as a key element. Having lively discussions with friends and aquaintances can of course be fun too when one knows the limits, and even I will admit that each situation requires a slightly different approach.
There are some matters which I have hesitated over discussing on this blog for some time concerning two of these fields and it is simply because they are sensitive subjects, often personal and sometimes maybe even murky or difficult. But perhaps it is best to stop being coy. Let’s tackle religion for now with a little light consideration. It is Easter after all.
At a recent dinner I was reluctantly drawn in to a discussion about evolution. I say reluctantly because of two things.
One being I knew I was vastly outnumbered by creationist types and did not feel I had the energy, knowledge or inclination to uphold and represent the entire evolutionist side of things but also out of respect to my companions. I knew that as probably one of the few people there who felt that way it would be insulting to start pronouncing my views.
Of course I miss the banter with my family and boyfriend because with them I could be as candid as I wished.
It is hard not being wholly yourself. Compartmentalising is exhausting.
Passion and enthusiasm often gets in the way of clear debate when people talk and discussion will of course get heated. Unavoidable really. So maybe Mama was right to a certain extent. But I would like to think I am old enough and sufficiently tactful to avoid being rude amongst people I do not know as intimately.
Religion, like many of the above topics is a very personal and sensitive subject for me and while I love to discuss it at length with those closest to me or those who relish a theological slanging match I tend not to broadcast my views to all and sundry and therefore will only skim over and edit the basics here to set the scene as it were.
Very few know my true feelings or practices. Maybe as I do not possess unwavering faith as it is. Some things are meant for your heart and mind and no one else. Bit of an alien concept I know in this day of sharing every titbit and inflicting your every waking thought on the world. I also know I do not fit into a convenient religious box.
As Kierkegaard said, ‘Once you label me, you negate me’.
Papa and I had very interesting chats when I was a child. He was a science man I suppose, and would offer plausible and rational answers to many biblical and spiritual ‘stories’. I would never label him as an atheist though. I don’t think he would ever suggest he was such a thing either.
Insisting we watch the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on television taught me a lot and introduced me to Richard Dawkins. A man to this day I vehemently disagree with on many matters but have the utmost interest in and respect for.
I attended a typical fence sitting Church of England school, pretty wishy washy, though going to Chapel every morning was something I loved and think that faith schools do have a stronger sense of community in many respects.
RE was a compulsory subject and we had the most engaging teacher who while an expert on most religions certainly had a Humanist bent and allowed us to debate everything. I got an A in my RE GSCE because frankly it was just the most enjoyable subject. Intelligent discussion touching on subjects as diverse as abortion, euthanasia, Hinduism, Abraham, and Jesus, maybe a little philosophy thrown in for good measure if we veered off topic. What was not to enjoy? Unless of course you are the type not to discuss heated subject matter and taboo topics!
I also learnt the art of tact after naming my project about euthanasia, ‘To be or not to be’, and it not being received too well!
As a teenager I had that whole weird obsessional thing going on, in my case it was Catholicism and when I threatened to convert and asked to move to a convent school, my mother would just roll her eyes and sigh , ‘I’d really rather you didn’t, where do you get all this from?’ Probably much like any parent’s response to any weird ‘phase’ their teenage child becomes fixated with.
I never did convert. And I probably never will, though every time I pick up some Graham Greene I flirt with the idea. Some would say I have a mixed bag of religious beliefs and thoughts.
But when in a secular age many report that they are ‘spiritual’ this is not so unusual. What spiritual really means is a bit vague, but I can see the appeal of not ticking a particular box of organised religion if it doesn’t really fit with you.
At university I wrote my dissertation on secularism in the late Victorian era with special reference to Nietzsche and Carlyle. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed researching or writing anything so much since! It opened my mind to so much. Before reading A N Wilson’s ‘God’s Funeral’, I was all set to write about my favourite, and done to death history topic of the Nazis and I never imagined before reading that book that I could work Darwin, Marx, Tennyson, Hegel, Freud and Huxley and many others in to one essay! It all inspires me to this day.
My 90 year old friend who I visit with the Puppy in the nursing home is as he describes Anglo-Catholic but I would say this was down to his upbringing more than his own mind. I gave him a copy of ‘The God Delusion‘ by Richard Dawkins. I was introduced to this book by my very sceptical boyfriend and have since recommended it to everyone both religious and those who have no interest at all.
My friend loved the book as he and I both share a love of philosophy and Dawkins references many philosophical concepts.
The thing I like best about my elderly friend is that he doesn’t think that believing in evolution is mutually exclusive from believing in God.
After all why should they be?
I dislike fanatical creationists as much as I dislike fanatical evolutionists.
There are answers to the universe on both sides just as there are unanswered questions on both sides.
So when the subject came up at dinner I was cautious and concentrated on stuffing more bread in my mouth so I could be quiet. But when you hear a seemingly intelligent , well respected man with a good and important job come out with the question,’ How can we be from monkeys if there are still monkeys?’ I closed my eyes and inhaled slowly lest I lost my composure.
How in this day and age is it possible to be so obtuse and ill informed? As I have often said- the more we learn as humans, the more stupid we have become.
I began to offer an explanation from down the dinner table that evolution is not a linear matter; that we are not descended from apes at all and no one said that we were, but merely share a common ancestor with chimps. It is true, such a beautiful concept and so undeniably obvious – anyone who can deny it just seems like a bit of a madman really. But as my words fell on deaf ears and I knew the person asking the question was not really asking but pontificating, I sat back and realised I didn’t need to argue. I know what I believe and that brings calm.
Getting stressed about things you can’t change, including others’ opinions, is the road to complete madness and soaring stress levels.
So Mr Dawkins, on a recent television documentary followed people grieving to see how religion helped them, and came to the conclusion it helped the vulnerable and offered no answers about death at all. Hardly a revelation.
Certainly grief can cause religion to branch in to two very distinct paths. On the one hand someone nursing a broken heart over loss of a loved one can become totally atheistic and lose their faith if they had one at all.
On the other hand it could bolster one’s faith or ignite a faith that was not there before.
Some argue without death religion would not even exist as it clearly represents an answer to the greatest question of them all.
Why are we here? and the obvious follow on, What happens after we die?
I had a lengthy chat with the vicar who took my boyfriend’s funeral and he soothed me in a calm non-dogmatic way only sincere religious figures can do. He did not try to offer answers and seemed perplexed as I did but he consoled me in a way that non believers seldom can. It is that comfort that people really want. Answers will never be found and it is pointless and painful looking for them.
I have a deep fascination and respect for those with staunch faith in whatever religion. That belief, that total surrendering to something is an alien concept to me and I genuinely find it awe inspiring. I don’t mock or pity them as Dawkins and fundamental atheists do. Why would I? How do I know for sure they aren’t right? I also am slightly jealous of the calm and serenity that religion seems to bring them.
I believe in things , not just of religious matters which some people may find bizarre, distasteful, odd, maybe even immoral…..but it doesn’t matter. Thy are my thoughts, in my head and I never ever seek to impose them on others. I can if I so wish share them. But that is the extent.
The day my boyfriend died I felt like God had vanished. As Nietzsche might say God was dead. Or to be honest, and worse still, he never existed at all. Strangely, that notion made me feel ten times worse.
Maybe because my family were dead too and I felt so alone, the thought that God was not there either was too painful.
One of the first things I did in the aftermath was talk to a Rabbi who before that day I hardly knew. He was shocked when I appeared on his doorstep distraught and a wreck, but like most religious leaders I have found, only too happy to help.
In my moment of madness, grief, hysteria, I said to him,’ Why is God punishing me?’
And the answer will be something I remember forever. It is something I am reminded of every single day in every single way when confronted with anything not so great.
‘Who are you? You are not that special or wicked that God would single you out to punish by taking someone away.
This is not about you‘.
When I told someone this afterwards they looked perplexed and said it seemed a bit mean! It is not mean, it is true.
We all have such an overinflated idea of our own importance and standing. As any psychologist will tell you, it is fear of our own failure and constant vanity and self interest which stands in the way of understanding and empathising with others.
Perching on a pedestal will always alienate you and restrict your potential.
My boyfriend’s family constantly mentioned the same line over and over, ‘Why are we being punished so much?’
It was all about them. I was not aware it had been a competition on who had the most tragic life. I would assume I’d be a frontrunner in that though!
To be honest, after my initial panic and doubts, I was more concerned about the dogs than myself or how his friends were feeling. If I was being singled out and punished then surely we all were. That didn’t make any sense at all.
He did not die to deliberately hurt me. It was all about him and his life. No one else.
Perhaps having experienced mortuaries, organising wakes, attending inquests, funerals and losing loved ones from such an early age I do tend to see death in a very different way from those with, shall we say, more sheltered lives.
Could I not feel the same? To have lost my parents and partner in such a short time, looking round and seeing others with no such traumas, I could feel very targeted and punished.
But in a funny way his words resonated with me and reminded me of how Mama when someone complimented me or gave me something, would joke and say, ‘What’s so special about her’? Other people thought this was terrible for a mother to say but I thought it very amusing and actually the over indulgence and pandering that many parents bestow upon their children is what sets them up for terrible shocks later in life when they realise they are not actually super important or special and thereby lack any understanding of others.
Despite Papa verging on atheistic thought, he often used to say in a mocking way to me when I was being naughty or lazy, ‘God helps those who help themselves’. This is good advice I think. It is the weakness in those religious folk who leave everything up to a supreme and questionable being who perplex me. Perhaps that is the control freak in me.
Knowing God exists is not an idea or a concept, it is a fact. In whatever way you wish to imagine that power.
Knowing that we as humans have evolved from an ape like primate is also a fact.
Someone said once that would make me a theistic evolutionist but I disagree. I am just me, and as I may have mentioned before, labels are a hinderance.
Science and religion are not separate entities but merely two sides of the same coin.
Sometimes I wish I felt more on one side than the other, but religion offers comfort in a way science cannot and science offers answers in a way religion is unable to.
I am a person of contradictions and while I am pragmatic and logical I can also be spiritual, emotional, sometimes quixotic and I like to think I have an open mind. Therefore why on earth why would I block out things which offer help on all these levels?
It is not for me to argue with people who believe one thing or the other. I am not perfect enough or correct in everything to impose my views. I can enjoy the banter, agree to disagree and learn and teach new things.
Death forces you to look at religion either for or against.
But similarly looking at a tree or the star filled night sky, if in the right mood can also make you ponder what it is all about.
A well known vicar decided to become an atheist. Which in itself is a bit odd, why not just become irreligious and agnostic? Why become so fanatical in the other direction? After all, no one knows there is definitely no God.
In any case, he said the day he realised this he felt a huge weight lifted and he felt for the first time completely in charge of his own life and destiny as there was no one looking out for him.
Well, I have to report that I feel that most days. But I never saw God in that role. I expect no one to bail me out or offer me goodies. My family and partner would look out for me and be the motive behind many of my actions or decisions. When they were gone I felt very alone and often still do. God was always omnipresent. Yet I was ultimately in charge. Perhaps that is why I lack the faith needed to be religious, as surrendering yourself to God is ultimately how faith and religion works.
Personally, I think the ex vicar sounds lonely.
Losing people is miserable. It makes you really lonely. Why spurn the idea of God? Surely we can all do with an extra friend. Or at least feeling there is a force somewhere that is better than humans.
God does not speak to me, hang out with me , play games with me, he is not my guiding hand. I make my choices, good and bad, I shape my own destiny. Perhaps it was the putting himself in someone else’s hands that was the issue.
Can one not be in charge of oneself and believe in a supreme being? Is that mutually exclusive?
Am I not just asking more questions than I can answer?
Perhaps all this sounds remarkably contradictory and maybe it is, after all it is all arbitrary. Unprovable, intangible.
But ultimately all our thoughts are just thoughts anyway and it is okay to have those as long as they aren’t completely opposed to obvious facts.
I cannot have a reasonable discussion with a man who ignores scientific fact. Telling him that humans share over 90% of the same DNA with chimps, or that we share the same bone and muscle structures is all irrelevant to him. He believes that God created the world in seven days and so on and so forth. For me I am wasting my breath having that discussion. If he wants to discuss the missing links, the gaps, the questions not answered and where religion fits in there and what other possible concepts there are then I would love to. Talking about these subjects is what makes the world go round, how else we can try and comprehend our strangeness of life.
Religion for me is a patchwork of glorified fairy stories, myths, legends all mixed up with history. I am not insulting it by saying this, I like fairy stories and history very much and they teach us everything, therefore I see no harm in chatting about it.
As adults, stories and legends stick in our minds and they are part of the fabric of our culture and upbringing.
Studying theology is no less or more of an academic endeavour than studying English literature or Greek mythology, they are all equally works based on fiction, thoughts and extensions of historical fact. In this sense I agree with Mr. Dawkins when he says teaching young impressionable minds with religious stories is dangerous, and in a way I do agree children should not be indoctrinated by religion at an impressionable age. But then on the other side of that theory is that children love stories. They learn from them. As adults we love stories. I see no reason for a child not to enjoy gospels or parables as much as Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Enid Blyton. All stories spark the imagination and get one thinking so no story is a bad story.
People underestimate the capability of a child to be able to form his or her own opinions.
When I was a child I could not work out why we weren’t all pagans as nature was real and clearly evident, therefore worshiping nature made the most sense.
But then when I learnt Classics and Latin it seemed that the Roman and Greek religions made more sense in their polytheistic approach. After all, a god for each thing made for order and efficiency.
Judaism seemed to pose more questions than it answered and offered up absurd stories as indisputable fact.
Catholicism offered a strictness and spirituality which appealed to my personal nature, and certain saints and their tales mirrored my own feelings on some matters. Yet also offers theories and stories as facts which is a bit absurd really.
For me, religion has never been about finding the one answer or indeed myself, but finding something that offers comfort and serenity. It needs to make sense to me, not necessarily sense in the bigger picture. When I realised none of the questions would ever be answered I saw that all organised religion was irrlevant to me, and it was simply a belief in a greater and supreme being which bought me the most serenity.
It constantly amuses and irritates me how many people profess to be religious and while culturally following a doctrine or traditions have absolutely no faith, and are probably more agnostic than most agnostics.
‘Hatched, matched and dispatched’ as my elderly pal always says. People just use religion for the being born, getting married and dying stages of our lives for the pomp and everything in between gets lost.
I suppose I am the opposite but occasionally find comfort in certain religious rituals though I know deep down they are as foolish as any other superstitious action or habit.
Genuflecting, praying or fasting are all as silly really as carrying a four leaf clover or referring to Macbeth in theatre circles as the Scottish play. But they make people feel better and in control amidst the chaos.
What is dangerous is to ever assume you are wholly right and know the answers. None of us do.
Speculating however, is the fun part. Hypothesising and wondering- we are all capable of, but living is ultimately the only answer to any of the bigger questions. Seeing and being part of everything is the only way we can ever truly learn about the world.
So Easter is a good a time as any to ponder. Is it really about Pascha and Jesus? Or is it about Pesach and the Passover? Or is it all just about Pagan or Zoroastrian rituals of the Spring Equinox? After all Spring is the only real tangible thing we have here as the others are just stories.
Isn’t Easter just named after Eostre the Anglo Saxon lunar goddess? The hijacking of dates makes the whole idea of organised religion and their festivities almost laughable. The possibilities are endless, and therefore with the clocks about to move forward and the Spring apparently upon us, surely the only thing we can really know is the real and tangible world around us.
Having a bit of a Kierkegaard moment so here is a quote to demonstrate the futility of it all. Knowing we will never fully have the answers to anything is frustrating and sometimes sad, but also exquisitely liberating.
Where am I? Who am I?
How did I come to be here?
What is this thing called the world?
How did I come into the world?
Why was I not consulted?
And If I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director?
I want to see him.