Sunday, 13 July 2008

I don't really do god

Many years ago I went to church voluntarily. As a child it was compulsory, but as a young adult it was a matter of choice. My general opinion was inclined towards the concept of god and, as a chap who likes to seek out evidence to test his beliefs, it seemed sensible to take a closer look. The church I attended, for just a few weeks, was very popular among students and the vicar had a reputation as an excellent speaker. What struck me on my first visit was that his reputation was entirely justified. He spoke with clarity, humour, conviction and an unashamed evangelical purpose. It was advocacy not oratory. My friend who recommended that church told me the vicar had been invited to take a position higher up the church's hierarchy but had declined because he wanted to continue preaching at this particular church. I attended Sunday evening services and, on a couple of occasions, a midweek bible study course. Nothing could have done more to knock faith out of me than what I witnessed in those few weeks.

Looking back I cannot say whether I originally attended because I wanted my tentative belief to be affirmed or because I wanted an excuse to abandon it. What I can say, however, is that from my first Sunday evening there I felt uncomfortable.

The first disquieting thing was the makeup of the congregation. Looking around I identified several different categories of people.

There were the middle-aged, middle class people you used to see in the Church of England all the time. No one knew whether they had any belief and it really did not matter, attendance at church was something they felt was expected of them so they were there. It was a matter of social duty, like buying a pot of home-made jam at a village fete.

Then there were those whose belief was a result of rational choice. They had studied the biblical texts, done some research into the history and concluded that they believed what the texts said (or at least sufficient of what the texts said to justify hitching their wagon to the Church of England horse). No doubt some approached the exercise with a presumption in favour of believing and some with a presumption against, yet their conclusion was guided by the evidence as they interpreted it.

Thirdly and, for me, most worryingly, there was the Moonie-ist tendency. They got very excited and lifted their hands to the heavens as the vicar spoke. They were hearing what they wanted to hear from someone they seemed to view as their god's representative on earth. The impression I had was that their minds were completely closed and they would do anything he suggested. I wanted to find out more about them.

I could understand the first and second groups, their positions made absolute sense to me, but the third were a complete mystery - how could anyone just accept what he or she was being told without standing back and asking himself whether he really agreed with it? That question presupposes that they really were absolutists, a supposition proved correct at the bible study evenings where we were looking at the gospel according to (or is it "of"?) Saint Mark. During the second, and last, evening I went to the simplest linguistic examination showed that the words on the page could carry any one of several different meanings. Oh no, there was only one acceptable meaning. "Why" I suggested "can it not mean ..." and then gave one of the more obvious interpretations. All around me were people who had been insulted to the very core of their beings. A fresh steaming dog turd in my seat would have received a more cordial response. There was just no arguing with these people, they were not prepared to engage in rational debate, they had received the truth from the vicar and that was that.

That led me to ask why they had attended the bible study evenings. It cannot have been to learn something they did not already know because they did not hear anything from the leaders that they had not heard many times before. It cannot have been to develop their understanding because their minds were made up already and were closed to argument. It cannot have been to explain their interpretation to an ignoramus such as me because no explanation came forward, merely assertion that I was wrong. It cannot have been to gain confirmation that their views were correct because that would require them to have a doubt that needed to be allayed. The only explanation was that it was a social club, pure and simple. A social club into which they fitted.

This explanation corresponded with another observation I had made, which was that the members of the Moonie-ist tendency were, almost universally, the sort of people who did not fit in anywhere else. No ready wit, no charm, no ability to engage in discussion, no social graces. They were the children we all made fun of at school and called "Nobby Nomates" (or, usually, far worse). They would never join a cricket or rugby club, go to the pub for a pint and a chat after work, chew the cud with a neighbour over the garden fence or engage in any other activity which might be termed "clubbable". They would only ever be comfortable in one social club - a social club which requires no social skills and to which anyone would be welcomed with open arms of "fellowship" provided they believe. For the first time they were not Nobby Nomates they were among unquestioning allies for whom the act of belief was sufficient to make them bosom buddies.

The following Sunday I attended my last evening service. The vicar was talking about marriage. He decried sex before marriage and the misfits smiled smugly. So proud at their virtue. Unable to hide their pleasure in receiving praise for abstinence. And wholly unable to see that they wouldn't get any in a month of Sundays anyway. The sermon continued and the vicar asked a rhetorical question: "What is the most important thing to look for in a possible spouse?" I knew what his answer would be, and it was: "That they are Christian." More smug looks in the adoring audience. But did I see something else in their faces? Did I see them turn an exclusive proposition into an inclusive one because it held a promise of sex? Did I see them thinking "a Christian cannot marry a non-Christian, therefore if I am a Christian I will find a Christian spouse and finally get some action"? Maybe I did, maybe I didn't, maybe I just wanted to because of the view I had already formed that they were nothing but social inadequates in their own little club.

I walked out at that point and never returned, convinced of one thing if nothing else. When religious belief is used by its leaders to encourage the believers to treat others as a lower class, as lesser beings who are not worthy of marriage, it loses any claim it might have to being a force for good. One only needs to change one word in the vicar's answer to his rhetorical question to see what I mean. Substitute "white" for "Christian".

1 comment:

Polemeo said...

Let me start by agreeing 100% with your description of the moonies. As a Christian, I have been driven from many churches by the stiffling attitude of many of these people. Nothing infuriates me as much as moral arrogance. That said, I can't reject Chrisianity just because many professed Christians are scial misfits. Moreover, I can't reject any ideology because of its followers. For example, I am an American. I am proud as can be to be a member of my nation. By proclaiming my membership I identify myself with every American past and present. That crowd includes many people whom I despise. However, the ideal that my nation represents overcomes the frequent failures of my countrymen. Likewise, I am a Christian in spite of the many Christians I have met. Finally, your "Substitute 'white' for Christian" comment ignores an important instruction. If an atheist ( who is married to another atheist) becomes a Christian, the Bible exhorts them to remain with their spouse and be a loving representative of Christ to their atheist spouse. Christians are urged to marry other Christians because doing so will give them a partner who supports and understands their ideals, not because atheists, Buddhists, etc. are lesser beings. If Christianity truly supported the idea of non-believers as lesser beings,surely the Bible would instruct them to abandon their "lesser" spouse, not remain with them.