A SECOND REFORMATION
It has been near three years now since I buried my father. We put him in the ground in a beautiful churchyard in the heart of Dartmoor after a simple and moving service by an Anglican vicar. It was a powerful reminder of the emotive utility that the sacraments provide to us.
I was married in church, Christened our daughters in church. And yet I have never been a Christian for I do not believe that Jesus Christ was anything other than a man and the idea of the God of the Bible has always struck me as ridiculous. Until very recently though I have resolutely kept separate my understanding of the world and my participation in religion. This was for the simple reason that our local church, with its rituals, solemnity and poetry is by far the best place to celebrate the sacraments of our lives. So I have ignored the giant looming dichotomy this represents, in a manner that I suspect many if not most English people do today.
This comfortable hypocrisy has come to an end for me in the last two years. I have found myself transformed from a vague agnostic into a serious atheist.
It all started when I developed an interest in understanding something of the Islamic faith. This is probably not particularly unusual given the times we live in. I mentioned my interest in passing to the owner of the local Indian restaurant in the street we live in when we are in London. The next morning, before 9am, he had dropped in a Qur'an and a collection of supporting literature that he had collected from his Imam. This was the first thing I learned. Muslims take proselytizing very seriously indeed.
Now I would be the first to acknowledge the beauty of some of the writing I found there but the main thing that struck me as I read on was that it was all totally and utterly bonkers. Freed from the societal context that any reading of the Bible must be accompanied by in England, the Qur'an comes across as the writings of a lunatic. Never mind the accompanying literature, which expands on the theme of mental ill health in considerable detail. I was surprised by this since I knew that over a billion people hold this stuff to be true. There were two possible explanations of this. Either I was mad, or they all were. After a millisecond or two of consideration you can probably guess where I ended up.
Having established that Muslims believed some very odd things indeed it occurred to me that perhaps the Bible was no better. As I had been reading the Qur'an I had the idea in the back of my mind that Christianity, supposedly the foundation of our western society, must be somehow more sensible. In that one thought I revealed myself as having been raised in England, in the Church Of England more precisely, a church where belief in God has been most definitely optional and ignorance is bliss.
After opening the Bible and reading for a while I realised that it was uncannily similar to the Qur'an. Beautiful language in parts, but actually nuts. I won't bore you here with examples as many others have now done this in illuminating detail. But there really are some utterly mad things in there. Even if we ignore the huge numbers of mutually contradictory statements it contains, there are still statements that are perfectly clear and utterly wrong. Lots of them.
Around the time I was doing this reading my young daughters were starting to ask those really simple, really hard questions that they do. I had resolved to never fob them off with an untrue explanation as I had hated that as a child (and children have a sixth sense for when this is happening to them). I am fortunate that I was trained as a Physicist (and many of children's questions are actually very scientific) and that I often have the time to be able to explain as I do not work in a normal job. One day one of them asked me that stinker, 'how did the world get here?'. And 'what is god?'. It turns out that some well meaning fool of a teacher at their preschool had told her that 'god made the world'. I now faced a difficult decision, one that was as much about my life as theirs. How could I give my children the proper explanation of the origin of the universe without explaining why their teacher was wrong as well?
So I explained about the big bang and how it all evolved to today, and that asking about 'before' the big bang was probably a silly question as that was when we thought time had started, so there was no 'before'. Then one asked, 'so who is god?' and I finally bit the bullet and replied, 'there is no such thing, it's all just made up nonsense for people who don't understand the world properly'.
In the two years since this moment we have seen the world change substantially in its attitudes to religion. An enormous polarisation is happening. The rise of the evangelical Christian movement in the US and to a limited extent in the UK has catalysed it. In the US these nuts have been in charge of the country for the last seven years and the effects can now be seen. An incredibly foolish war, a terrifying trend towards a police state and a general government ineptitude unprecedented in recent American history. Here in the UK we have just had ten years of a Prime Minister who really does believe in the Christian god. We have certainly had those before but it has been a long time since one was happy to admit the 'god will be my judge' as Tony Blair did in public when justifying his absurd support of that other Christian leader George W Bush in his pointless war.
Traditionally in Britain and the US we have had a lot of tolerance for those who wish to hold a religious belief. The feeling always was that as Enlightenment values were steadily winning the battle against unreason, that religious belief was slowly dying, we could afford to be magnanimous about it, keep quiet and let it all fade away in time. The Church Of England was almost dedicated to this cause. Somewhere in the late twentieth century this tide turned. The religious hardcore decided to actively fight back. Evangelical belief, both Christian and Muslim, took hold and spread itself as fast as it knew how.
In the last two years the reasonable people have woken up and realised that all is not well. That the ground won since the Enlightenment is at serious risk. In the US Sam Harris's 'The End Of Faith' started the debate, followed by the short and to the point 'Letter To A Christian Nation'. Here in the UK Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have lead the charge. And many others are piling into the fray. And here in the UK at least it turns out that people are a lot less credulous than the god squad imagined. And they are losing that tolerance for religion at a rate of knots.
All this disagreement leaves a very practical set of questions unanswered. Where do we go to celebrate the momentous events of our lives? This, as everyone knows, has been the main function of the Church Of England for the last hundred years. Births, Weddings, Funerals. Now that the Church has driven all us atheists away and broken that unspoken covenant, that belief in god is optional, what are we to do? We represent the vast majority here in the UK, but the institution that is responsible for all the cool buildings won't let us use them if we speak the truth, that there is no god.
It is now possible to be buried or married outside of your local church. There are some fine venues for this scattered about. But personally I'd like to be buried in the the beautiful churchyard in my own community. I'd like to see my daughters married there, with their community all around them to witness, not in some distant hotel. This might seem like a childish desire but we ignore the power and meaning of ritual at our peril. It is one of the most alluring reasons to join a religion. I miss it in my life. Where do we go now to mark the event of midwinter with our local community? The pub? And a religion that owns a building as lovely as our local church has a powerful pull when one has something important to commemorate.
I propose that we take these buildings away from the Christian church. A second Reformation. Give them back to the communities that built them and cherished them for centuries. Let the Christians use them for their Sunday service (with all of six attendees here) by all means. But return them to the people they belong to. Let us use them as we see fit. Celebrate new life. Remember our dead. Join people in the contract of marriage. If we can do that then I cannot imagine why we might ever want religion back.
Uphill Farm, July 2007
1. There are some excellent books recently published;
-The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
-The End Of Faith, Sam Harris
-Letter To A Christian Nation, Sam Harris
-God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens
Daniel Dennett is also worth reading;
2. The Guardian newspaper ran a survey to find our how religious British people were in 2006. 63% described themselves as 'non-religious' and over 80% said that they felt that religion was a cause of division and tension in society.
3. The Church of England owns 16,200 churches, of which 12,000 are considered of special architectural interest including around 45% of all Grade 1 Listed buildings.
4. Church of England attendance is a tiny fraction of the UK population of 60 million people. Monthly attendance is around 1.7 million people. Weekly around nine hundred thousand people, or considerably less than 2%.