In a consecutive move following the emotional depths of “What’s in my gym bag”, this post is of a similarly heavy and sweat-inducing nature: Religion. It’s gonna be a long one. So I might split this up into two parts, not the Old Testament and New before anybody suggests it, although that would be a fairly apt way of putting it. This half will be my recollections before the age of 17.
Consider this post an act of laying my cards on the table without reluctance. I am for all intents and purposes, an atheist – definitively I cannot prove that there is no god actively governing our universe, therefore technically I have agnostic tendencies…but I live my life as if there is no SPECIFIC and detailed god that we can claim ultimate knowledge of, and have a relationship with. These are my views at this point in my life, in this very moment I consider it very unlikely that these views will change, but if I am presented with sufficient evidence to prove me otherwise, I will of course adapt my mindset to this new information and accept a new reality. That’s all we can do isn’t it? Adapt to what we learn. I don’t expect my experience to change anybody’s views, all I want to convey is that we all have an entirely unique perspective on the universe depending on our experiences, and it is totally fine and natural to have different beliefs to one another.
1: On the Side of the Angels
My earliest memories of religion are of Advent, specifically the Christingle procession that took place every Christmas. Traditionally it involved a cute little crafty afternoon in primary school, with an orange to represent the world, a candle representing Jesus as the light of the world, a red ribbon to represent blood (graphic), raisins skewered on cocktail sticks to represent the four seasons, and finally foil, to represent the metal nails brutally impaling Jesus’ hands and feet. Merry Christmas! Being part of it felt like such an important duty, mainly in ensuring that you did not set fire to the hair of the person in front of you, and maintained an orderly, Christian single-file. What I recall feeling when I assembled my orange of violence and death was that, Jesus had a bloody hard time and therefore we MUST be grateful, at least once a year, because it’s only fair. Incidentally, I still have the candle from my Year 6 Christingle in my little memory box. I kept it at the time because I loved Christmas and it was a little memento, but now I look back on it, I feel in some self-righteous way that it represents my innocence at the time. You tell a child that somebody died so that they can be happy, if you’re impressionable enough it’s going to strike a guilty chord somewhere. The more interactive side of religion at the time was in my school nativities, in which I was a tinsel-winged angel, who collected spare change in an empty ice cream tub with my fellow angels as parents were heading home. It felt glamorous (maybe except for the tub) and again, a sense of duty. I wanted to be a good person, and a good person meant someone who obeyed and worshipped God. In morning hymns, I would clasp my hands on my knees and sing at full pelt about climbing Jesus’ ladder, and all that jazz. I remember one particularly melancholy hit that talked about sacrifice: “I’m special because God has loved me, for he gave the best thing that he had, to save me.” That really resonated with me. God doesn’t even know me, I mean I’ve never met him, and he sacrificed his own son! For me. How could anybody not be grateful for that? Despite this terrifying story, I sought comfort and familiarity from Christianity. We plaited bread rolls and watered cress in our local church hall, and when I was little my mam always wore this gold crucifix necklace. It was just part of everyday life, and I thought that it always would be, and that the dark times were behind us.
I won’t dwell on this chapter too long, as it’s pretty sensitive. When I was between 5-7, three of my grandparents died within a few years of each other. It was my first experience of death, and my first real experience of seeing my parents go through a terrible time. It was heartbreaking, and confusing, and I told myself if I could help it at all, I would never let my parents be that upset again. My memories are hazy, but the overarching feeling was that I just did not understand why this was happening, and why we wouldn’t be seeing them again. I always wondered if religion helped them through that time, if prayer was really effective.
3: Invitation to Prayer
Then came secondary school. Or rather, three, due to us moving house quite frequently. The third one was a Christian school, and I have some great memories there. But the obvious bias towards Christian-only thinking, was probably what sparked my doubts. We had bibles in every classroom, in these zip-up protective covers. Assembly would culminate in an invitation to prayer, no matter what the topic. You didn’t have to participate, you could just leave your head unbowed, and exposed. I mixed it up, sometimes I committed to prayer if I felt there was a genuine message from the gathering, but most of my prayers were uncertain bedtime ones – I stated what I was grateful for, and what I didn’t want to lose – but I never felt any connection. I thought the more I did it, and the more I believed, the more tangible it would feel. The assembly topic was often football, depending on who delivered it. There was miraculously always a tie-in to Christianity, which in hindsight reminds me of a sketch from Eddie Izzard’s “Dress to Kill”. It went something like this:
“Today’s sermon is taken from a magazine that I found in a hedge. This season’s lipstick colours will be in the frosted pink area, and nails to match. And this…reminds me rather of our Lord Jesus. Because surely, when Jesus rode into town on a donkey…he must’ve gotten tarted up a bit.”
Now, don’t think I’m including this for pure mockery. That’s not my angle, but the message struck me. We are supposed to apply these archaic lessons to our life, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate modern life to these kinds of stories. Desperately trying to drag this violent story forwards. We can appreciate and learn vaguely moral lessons from Greek fables, but there comes a point when these lessons have been taken on board and we have to look forward. Does that make sense? It is so engrained in me to find a relatable character in literature or film, that the Bible began to feel so distant from my actual life. We can study it, I mean I enjoyed studying Beowulf, but that is not going to govern everything. Or is it? *potential medieval revolution*. There was also an undeniably heavy bias towards Christianity in our Religious Studies class. Sermons on mounts and such, that’s all you need to know folks. We had talks from “reformed” characters, drug addicts and such who found solace in God. That was the side of things I appreciated, so okay this has clearly worked for someone, and look how much their life has changed. Good for them, this is how religion should be. But this was still tinged with questioning. I recall in our PTE class (Philosophy, Theology and Ethics), our teacher was discussing agnosticism, and basically saying that it was a cop-out decision. You can’t be on the fence, you either believe in this specific God or you don’t. Which is fine, but tell that to 16 year olds who are so uncertain about many things in their lives, and it adds a whole new dimension of responsibility. I have to decide. God will be mad if I don’t choose him, but if he doesn’t exist, how can he be mad? Infinite conflict. I remember I was asked if I believed in Heaven at one point, and my response was “I like the idea of it, but I don’t think so.”
So I’ll leave it there for now. I hope this didn’t come across too convoluted, it’s just something that is very important to me and writing about it only offers me more clarity. Stay tuned for the next few chapters…but there’ll probably be a review of Strictly costumes or something in between, just to lighten the mood a tad.