I can still be a sunbeam

Foreword: I wrote this post this afternoon and although I hadn’t finished it, I was very pleased with what I’d written. However, when I went to ‘save draft’ WordPress asked me to log back in again and, once I had, all my writing – 1,500 words! – was gone. I was pretty upset by this. I love writing and the act of creation and I don’t want to try and re-write what I lost today. Consequently, this is the same blog – same ideas, same message – but now formatted very differently, to keep it fresh. I’m still mourning a bit for the original but here’s the redux version.

In the beginning…
When I was little, so little that I can’t even remember it, my mum started taking me to church. To be honest, she probably took me as soon as she was fit to, if not slightly before. It was the Congregational Church in New Malden and it was here I would go every Sunday until the age of eight. My early vivid memories are from a handful of locations and the church was one of them. I remember, for example, standing alone in a corridor on the first of January 1970 pondering the significance of a new decade. And I remember sitting in church, unable to read the hymns, bored and waiting for the collection to be taken.

But I have one particularly powerful memory from this time. We were sat in the infant class of Sunday School, in ranks with the youngest at the front. I was about halfway back, probably about four years old. Next door, through a thin partition wall, we could hear the crèche, sounding rather godless. Someone was talking to us – I can’t remember who or what about – but behind them on the partition wall was a picture of Jesus. I loved that picture. Or, rather, the man in it. He was curiously Caucasian looking, which would have been lost on me at the time, with long, flowing, wavy blond locks, a nicely maintained beard and beautiful, if slightly melancholy, eyes. He was dressed in a heavy robe of deep blues and crimsons, which would probably have been a bit much in the middle eastern heat but, again, this didn’t really occur to me then.

The complications of church – the rather moody God, the inherently unnerving Holy Spirit, the baffling Trinity – didn’t matter. We cared about Jesus; he was the main man. It was his birthday we celebrated and his resurrection that that church was based on. Although, to this day, I don’t understand why no one recognised him once he was raised from the dead.

The dubious years.
I continued going to church, of course. Every Sunday morning, a familiar ritual, extending over a year, as we learnt the same lessons in slightly more sophisticated detail each time around, although there came a point where it seemed my questions were a little too incisive. The theological instruction I was hoping for didn’t materialise and debate didn’t appear to be on the cards.

I started attending a youth group on Sunday evenings. At the age of fifteen, I must admit, this was largely driven by the presence of Jane Duncan, who would have needed to be a mind reader to understand that my sarcasm and snubs were actually a complex method of communicating the depths of my affection for her. The ‘debates’ at the youth group were largely staged however; the cynics amongst us (me) would be encouraged to adopt a position for which there was a pre-arranged trouncing. Suffice to say, when we staged our Easter play, I was given the role of Doubting Thomas.

And yet despite all this – and the crushing failure of Jane Duncan’s telepathy – I continued to declare myself a Christian throughout my teens and my ironically godforsaken university years. In all this time, I pretty much kept my fairly fundamental doubts to myself. It was during my years at college that I met my friend Ric. He has a similar upbringing to me and also declared himself a Christian. I admired Ric enormously and his faith gave me solace and whilst not strengthening mine, at least made me think there might be something to it.

The Fall

Years passed. I married and embarked on producing a large volume of children. In those far off days there was no Internet and no network of mobile ‘phones, but one day I received a letter out of the blue and Ric was back in touch. A couple of years later we were up late one night when Ric announced he no longer believed in God. For me, it was like being punched in the stomach. I found myself trotting out the arguments I’d heard at youth group in my teens but Ric was quite certain. I went to bed, upset; I’d never really comprehended what a central, yet secular, plank he’d been in my threadbare faith.

Over the next few days I tried hard to come to terms with what I was feeling. I argued with myself but, despite my intellectual resolution, within a week I had honestly declared to myself that I was an atheist, too. Funnily enough, this resulted in a lifting of my spirits; my fear of my own mortality diminished as I accepted that we all just get the one life and I got on with enjoying it. I read Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ and admired his intellect and courage. In some ways, it was like the final step in becoming me.

The Age of Reason

Having established myself as an atheist, there didn’t seem that there was anywhere else to go. However, over the following fifteen years, some things have happened that have altered my position. Firstly, I think, the rise to prominence of Richard Dawkins. Much as I loved his first book, I found myself increasingly irritated by his aggressive atheism.  I have over the years found myself taking an increasingly dim view of organised religion. Its hierarchies and privileges have been exploited not by those with faith but those with a hunger for power. One only need compare the frugal Jesus with the trappings of the Catholic church to see the gulf between the institution and the inspiration. But I think it is cruel to mock those who have grown up believing what they have been taught. I’m not talking about those who use religion to bully others into living their lives in a certain way but rather those people who try to lead an honest and decent life, even if they can’t always succeed.

And that leads me onto my next point. I know quite a few people who *believe*. And the more I’ve talked to them, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that their faith is nothing to do with weighing up arguments or picking a side; they simply believe. I think that even if one could mathematically proved there was no God, they wouldn’t be fazed because the belief is deep inside them. All the horror in the world hasn’t dented their faith. Equally, I don’t think they will ever convince me to “simply let go and believe” because I just can’t believe. I’ve no time for those people who say they believe just so they can maintain a moral high ground (or be pope) but I don’t for a moment want to criticise those people who simply feel God is in their hearts.

Finally, I guess, there is this question of proof. For a while, I think the strongly atheist contingent were hoping that physicists would be able to prove conclusively that there is no God. Whilst I don’t think it has turned around in any way – I mean I don’t believe science will ever prove there is a God – certainly modern physics leaves room for a creator. Why then are these evangelical atheists just *so* determined to knock the believers? Why are they so needy? If one were truly atheist, why would one bother?

Sometimes I think about my cats (don’t worry, this is relevant). I take care of them and sometimes that means catching them, putting them in a box, taking them to the vets and them being pulled around and inspected and, perhaps, injected. They are never going to understand this or why I put them through it.

And, ultimately, this is my point. If there were a God, sat above space-time, master of the multiverses, how on earth could we begin to understand their motives, their desires, their aspirations? To me the existence of God is an irrelevance; we could not understand or communicate with a God if there was one. But what I still find relevant after all these years is Jesus. He may not have been the son of God, indeed he may have been nothing like what the bible tells us, but I still have a place in my heart for the man and his morality and, for me, that is still symbolised by the painting on that partition wall.

About fennerpearson

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12 Responses to I can still be a sunbeam

  1. also lots of people are brought up atheists so they are not being that clever by sticking to their ascribed dogma.

  2. when I was young I was very cocky (imagine!) and I thought I knew it all – there was no god, Maggie Thatcher was a bitch, feminism was correct. But I was just spouting the views I grew up with, those of my parents. It took me a *long* time to think for myself. Some people never do, whatever their faith/lack of it.

    • HI Elly, I agree with what you say – it is difficult to challenge those ideas that are presented to you as a given as a child – but it must be especially hard when you’re brought up being told you’ll burn in Hell if you stop believing. I was lucky that my church was quite liberal but I know lapsed Catholics who talk about The Guilt.

      Thanks for commenting.

      F x

  3. Goodness, that resonates. Thanks.

    • Hi Erica. I’m glad to know it’s not just me! It sometimes seems like everyone’s a believer or an atheist. I’m not sure what gets me down more, the believers telling everyone to believe or the atheists being so smug.

      Thanks for reading.


  4. nigelridpath says:

    I am getting a little spooked now about the similiarity of the paths that our lives have taken! My religious ‘journey’ also involved the influence of girls, Richard Dawkins and an interest in Jesus as a historical figure.

    My ‘fall’ was a slightly more profound affair, which involved what I refer to as an ‘anti-conversion’ in a church. I was about 21 and while everyone was on their knees in prayer, I looked up and was instantly convinced that everyone in the room had got it wrong. I have been a confirmed atheist ever since.

    One extra dimension for me has bizarrely been Depeche Mode. I can remember vividly at a DM concert at Hammersmith Odeon on the Some Great Reward tour, sitting down like some conscientious objector when they played Blasphemous Rumours (I was 16). But Martin Gore’s views on religion, as expressed in his songs (one of two driving themes in his lyrics, the other being sex (also an influence, but that’s a whole other story!!)), have actually ended up having something of an effect over the years.

    On the subject of parental influence on religion choice (a matter my ultra-liberal father regards as child abuse), I think there are too few parents who encourage childhood investigation into different possibilities. If you are a fervent follower of a particular religion, you are obliged to take your children down the same path. And my experience of most atheists is that they end up doing pretty much the same thing. I am fascinated by religion and its effect on people – good and bad. And although I don’t believe in a deity or conform to an organised religion’s philosophies, I think this fascination will remain with me forever.

    • Yes, it’s quite sinister when you look at how much the church has built its self-perpetuation into the management of its followers. “You must bring your children up in this faith.” If the church was good and made the parents happy, why wouldn’t the children follow quite naturally? In a nutshell, this bullying is was makes organised religion so abhorrent to me.

      I too felt very uncomfortable with ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ although now I just think it’s not a great song! Martin Gore’s naive period (lyrically) didn’t do much for me except, funnily enough, for the naivest of all, ‘People Are People’. Have you ever heard the Adrian Sherwood remix, incidentally. Fantastic: http://spoti.fi/xBiVFb

      Thanks for commenting, hope to see you soon.


  5. likeminded says:

    Thank you so much for your honesty. I was brought up in a christian home and have been a Christian all my life (i am now 50) and I too have major doubts that what I have been taught all this time is true. The church is so far removed from what Jesus actually taught I doubt if he would even recognise it. My problem is that I cannot express my lack of faith, especially in church, because there are so many good people who believe totally. I don’t want to be the source of doubt to them. I feel such a fraud but I do think that maybe god was thought up to explain the mysteries of the world when science didn’t exist. I too love the biblical Jesus – the all inclusive, caring, forgiving man who rejected no-one, even when he was dying. I will continue to try to follow his teachings and will probably keep my doubts hidden within.

    • Hiya. One thing I omitted from my blog was that during my twenties my mum was ordained as a church minister in the URC. If someone in her congregation had approached her with doubts like yours, I think she would have been very sympathetic. (Not that all church ministers are the same.)
      Whilst it is important to believe and do what works for you, I know that I would want to discuss my thoughts with other people in your situation, that it would really help me understand my own thoughts. I hope you can find someone.

      Thanks for reading my blog.


  6. Hi Fenner,
    I enjoyed this blog post – it’s one of my favourite subjects.
    I was brought up an Anglican, a regular church goer as a child, I was confirmed and went to Anglican schools. During this period I described myself as a Christian.
    However, in hindsight, I would have to describe my “faith” as cultural rather than anything spiritual because I didn’t know anything different.
    To explain a little, I remember sitting cross-legged in the school assembly hall, I must have been eight or nine years old, listening to the Rev. Hargreaves (a very nice man as I remember) giving his regular Friday address to the school trying to make some Bible story relevant to us. I looked at him, the teachers and the other kids and thought to myself, “You can’t really believe this?”
    (As an aside, when I expressed my views to my teacher … let’s just say I’m strongly against corporal punishment)
    When I left school to start making my own way in life all vestiges of “faith” quickly fell away and I started describing myself as an atheist.
    These days, with the growth of evangelical movements – especially in America – I’m a pretty hard line atheist.
    While I obviously think organised religion is harmful, I’m also of the view that religious belief in and of itself is harmful to society and individuals. Put simply, the belief in a creator god and a revealed truth denies people the freedom to explore the world around them, to question and progress human knowledge and understanding. It restricts human endeavour.
    As for Jesus, I think he’s as much a myth as god. Some nice stories attributed to him, but we really should be mature enough now that we don’t have to rely on such things to lead a good life.
    Anyway, that’s a simplified account of my position.
    I look forward to future blog posts from you.

  7. I was brought up RC educated at a Boys Grammar Schhol run by Marist Priests. Mum & dad still go to Mass every week, grandparents did likewise. I stopped more or less when old enough to get away with not going!
    I am 52 & have no real interest in my religion although if asked for documentation purposes or whatever will always give RC as my faith
    I seldom consider the possibility there could be a God & see/hear much that nudges me towards being almost convinced there probably isn’t
    But here’s my dilemma. My 7-year old daughter lives going to her Happy Clappy church with friends on a Sunday
    It really is an all-singing dancing set up taking over a local Comprehensive school, big screens, full electric band etc
    I took her once, the kids go in a kind of play group/club thing then into the service for the last few minutes
    I hung around a corridor most of the morning reading but went into the hall with her
    It was mildly disconcerting almost Louis Theroux territory with people reacting to the songs like I might have acclaimed a Bowie or Springsteen classic at a gig in my youth
    A friend tells me her mum got hooked & that “quite sinister” developments eventually put her off, requests for financial commitments etc
    But I learned a lot about right/ wrong & how to behave towards fellow human beings among much other stuff I didn’t necessarily concur with through my Catholic upbringing
    Do I impose my cynicism on Olivia or enjoy the fact that she is making choices herself , expressing opinions, presumably learning lessons which may be little-accentuated in many families?
    She was quite sad when I told her her church “wasn’t really my kind of thing” but I am loathe to tell her I’m probably a non- believer
    To complicate matters further we send her to the C of E School as iit’s 50 yards away & was heavily recommended
    Hard to know whether you’re a good bad or indifferent parent!

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