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.
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.