Apparently it’s a bad idea to discuss politics and religion with people you don’t know well, and an even worse idea to discuss them with people you do know well. I’ve already stepped well over that mark on the politics front in this blog, so I might as well burn my bridges completely. As it happens, What I Reckon about religion is much less forthright.
I was brought up as a Christian, attended a Church of England Primary School, occasionally went to Church with my parents – mostly at Christmas, Easter, Harvest Festivals. So far, so very English and middle class. From 11 I was at a boarding school, where church was compulsary every Sunday morning. We dutifully turned out in our suits and ties (unlike the tieless everyday uniform). When you’re young, suits inevitably have ‘scratchy’ trousers that are distinctly uncomfortable, while buttoned-up collars feel tight to the point of being constricting. Combined with the early morning starts – we often had to attend an 8am service before breakfast – this wasn’t exactly something I enjoyed.
Nevertheless, I did acquire a kind of respect for both the ritual and routines of the service. I also absorbed a respect for many basic Christian ethics and messages: love your neighbour, look out for and care for those who are weaker or vulnerable. My parents had instilled in me an understanding that actions have consequences, and that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to behave. I’m not sure if I truly believed, but I felt a common ground with the teaching and messages, and I was confirmed when I was 14. This for me was less a declaration of deep-seated religious faith than a rite of passage to maturity; a chance for me to do something that not everyone else did. I’m not sure why I was doing it though.
During my A-level history course I started learning more about (organised) religion (as opposed to faith): the abuses of the 15th century Catholic Church, Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, the Calvinists, the French Wars of Religion (or were they?), and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Since then I’ve learned to distinguish between personal faith & belief and religion.
My wife Rachel is a practising Catholic and has been all her life. She goes to Mass virtually every week, served for several years on our local Pastoral Council, leads the singing and helps select the hymns, plays in a music group, reads and is on the flower, cleaning and coffee rota. We were married in a Roman Catholic church, and as such I have promised to raise my daughters as Catholics. I go to church about every 4-6 weeks on average.
I’m not a believer. I do not believe that the wafers and wine actually transform into the Body and Blood of Christ. I do not believe that there is a place called Heaven, or (for that matter) Hell. But I do respect the rituals, and I admire those people who quietly practise their own faith, who gain strength, solace, calm or joy from it. I do not want to diminish their beliefs in the same way other non-believers sometimes seem to. Militant atheists are as bad as religious fundamentalists. Let people have their beliefs if those beliefs sustain them and don’t damage anyone else.
I abhor those who commit crimes under the guise of or ‘in the name of’ religion, selecting specific passages or interpretations of long-established ethics to serve their purpose. But I also dislike those who attack the whole religion for those individual crimes, for they often attack all who believe rather than the criminals. The vast majority of muslims are not terrorists. The vast majority of Roman Catholic priests do not abuse children.
I dislike those who confuse organised religion with personal faith. A recent sermon at ‘our’ Church called on the congregation to live more closely to Jesus’ teachings and words as described in the Gospels, to act more closely with those principles. love thy neighbour, care for the poor and sick, look after your community. What on earth could be wrong with that? The messages that are preached to my wife and children at Church bear no resemblance to (for instance) the hatred between the ‘fans’ who support either Celtic or Rangers in Glasgow, or the atrocities in Nigeria, or any other the sectarian divides that are cited as reasons to count religion among the evils of the world.
All of this leads me further to respect the good people who practise the behaviours recommended and urged by their faith, and reject those who corrupt those teachings for their own ends. Does organised religion and its leaders let their followers down? Or is it even worse, that it actually betrays them?
I recently read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, which seemed to me to isolate in fairly brutal terms the gulf between personal spirituality and the faith of Jesus from the political/social doctrines and interpretation of those teachings by the organised Church. It’s a challenging read, and I’ll discuss it further shortly…