Religion: The Beautiful Game?
In the beginning, Something created Everything—the rest is just speculation…
It was late, dark, and bitterly cold. Walking home, making the usual right-turn into my own street, half conscious after another tough day at the office, I spotted two shadowy figures approaching on the pavement ahead. As I crossed the road towards my house, strangely, the silhouettes mirrored my movements. Suspicious of the coincidence of the currently anonymous figures, I carried on, gaze fixed firmly on the ground as we got closer. Within a few feet, I heard a “hey!” The thoughts that go through a tired mind in that situation are many and varied: Who is this? Why are they talking to me in the street? Do I know these people? I am about to be attacked, yards from my own door? Fight-or-flight engaged, I looked up to confront my accosters…
The first thing I spotted was the goofy smiling faces, instantly lessening any sense of danger. Then, looking down at impeccable blazers wrapped around winter coats, the badges and motif: The Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints. The universal sign that suggests, “you are not about to be mugged… but a mugging might be more enjoyable.”
Like many an atheist, the dismissive attitude towards any kind of potential religious or spiritual engagement is something I have previously relaxed into in every similar situation my whole life. Whether through a lack of connection to the subject matter, a general suspicion, or a staunch (nay militant) anti-theist stance, we non-believers tend to react negatively to any attempt made by those of faith to engage us in the Divine. Recently, after some eye-opening experiences, I have begun a process of mellowing somewhat. After all, within the UK, 75% of people identify with a religion. They can’t all be wrong…right?
And this is the purpose of this piece: to challenge the attitude of atheists towards believers.
A secular metaphor
A wise friend once used a metaphor to describe religion:
Religion is like a sport… I really enjoy the game, but don’t follow any particular team.
The analogy is one which this author has recently begun to connect with, becoming engrossed in the discussion without ever deviating from inherent values instilled during a largely secular childhood. However, before this removal of a metaphorical spiritual filter paper, the mere mention of Him, or Adam, or Eve, or anything greater than “what is” was enough to send a feeling through me that became a mixture of queasiness, irritation and incredulity. It never really became an issue, given the aforementioned upbringing and non-religiousness of friends and family.
Church was just a place where we were made to go once or twice a year whilst at school, to sit on uncomfortable wooden planks (specifically designed to be so uncomfortable that nodding off was impossible), to sing awful hymns about angels and listen to a dusty old man ramble on about nothing in particular from a book that, unbelievably, contained no pictures. Religion for me, from an early age, was associated with the outdated, the traditional, the mundane, and the irrelevant. It seemed somewhat oppressive too—you can’t do this, don’t do that. Growing older, as an analytical mind assessed the merits of the Bible’s content, some of the moral teachings remained useful but the overarching proclamation of a Creator, a big entity in the sky who made everything, saw everything, and had a plan for everything, became more and more unlikely in my mind.
Older still, set in my ways with an arrogant belief in my own opinion on the matter, I made attempts to intellectualise. No realm of rationality could possibly explain what these “believers” espoused as undeniable truth. Therefore, in my mind, the Grand Proclamations were false; a well meaning collection of stories that had been manipulated and exaggerated to incredible proportions. Those who were wise enough to stand-toe-to-toe with my views on the matter were sprayed with (in my opinion) water-tight arguments and reason, my blasphemy launched in a blaze of heated rationality. Suggestions in favour of faith were dismissed, and further retorts about God’s Will, Eternity, and “what-it-says-in-The-Holy-Book” stirred a powerfully exasperated irritation within me. With no resolution ever forthcoming, we would agree to disagree, and I would scuttle away silently wondering how my seemingly intelligent argumentative adversary could believe something so strongly that was so out-of-line with my perspective of rationality and truth.
However, recent developments in my personal life have initiated a rethink on the matter. Experiences, at which I would have scoffed at years ago, have opened my mind to the concept that I might not actually be right (ironically, God forbid). I hasten to add, this does not refer to my atheist beliefs which remain strong (though, we’ll see about that on my day of judgement, should it so come). I am referring instead to the attitude I had towards those of faith: the Disciples, the Bible-bashers, the born-agains and the general believers who put their faith in God.
For I have realised that, to fully understand the belief of someone who believes, you must fully engage them with a completely open mind. A mind open to the concept that there is a Higher Being, despite the absence of evidence and the atheist’s ardent opposition to the idea. You must open yourself up to the world of religion to see why people believe as they believe and, more importantly, the benefits they gain from it. An aspect of my dismissive attitude towards an omnipotent chieftain may even have stemmed from a fear of the implications of such. But you must also realise that, no matter how strongly anyone feels, we as a human race are, despite our efforts, unlikely to ever provide conclusive evidence to either prove, or disprove, the existence of a god or gods.
The latter argument suggests that the whole debate could be considered redundant. But what is life without a bit or arguing, eh?
I’ve recently spent a considerable amount of time around people of faith in the South of the USA (the Bible Belt, no less). Church is different there in comparison to the UK. Traditional gothic buildings are replaced with sprawling concert-esque venues. Organs are replaced with full rock bands, including backing singers. Wooden pews are replaced with luxurious cinema chairs (cup holders not included). Stained-glass windows and tapestries are replaced with multiple video screens and dry ice. So aesthetically at least, the US knows how to church. The success continues socially, too: the congregation, where over 500 vibrant and engaged members file in cheerfully, manoeuvre to get the best seats and greet almost everyone else with enthusiastic chatter. At the commencement of the service, they hush to listen intently to a shamelessly charismatic preacher. The sermon is delivered on a theme of the day, littered with anecdotes, jokes, and inspiration. Powerful proclamations are met with sporadic “Jesus Christ!” or “praise Jesus” outbursts. Musical interludes and videos break up the “show.” It was, at once, like the stereotypes, but not like the stereotypes. For me, the whole thing was captivating.
More than just a service, I attended a Bible Studies class. Bible Studies, for the uninitiated, are like extra-curricular tutorials at school or university, to supplement the lecture—but the subject is The Big Man. Again, surrounded by people with an urge to dedicate even more time out of their week to God beyond the minimum church service, proceedings were hypnotising. I, of course, contributed little in the way of discussion. These were a time for praise and peace, not cynicism, and so I absorbed. I felt that the mellowing was well and truly underway…
There was something quite strange about these experiences. I felt at once relaxed, encapsulated and entertained. Again, I must stress that this was in no way an epiphanic episode, but I guess I was starting to “enjoy the game” a bit more. The most powerful aspect for me, however, was the people I met, who, without exception, were warm, friendly, welcoming, and positive. These were the kind of people who exuded positive energy and passed it on, amongst themselves and even into me. Church in the US seemed like a battery recharge, fuelling people for the week until the next spiritual pitstop. The themes of service, sacrifice and gratefulness are widespread, inspiring a great deal of community action, charity, and goodwill. Finally, I had the insight I should have had years ago about why people believe the way they believe, and the positive influence it can have on life. I felt strangely tranquil.
An atheistic conversion
I’ve often wondered what I’m arguing about as an atheist. Am I a Crusader of Truth, in defence of science and rationality? Am I attempting to challenge a frequent source of oppression in the world? Am I trying to convert people to the relatively meaningless world of atheism? I conclude that I just enjoy a good argument. Even so, considering all the good that belonging to a religion can inspire, would a conversion to atheism make the world a better place? Given my experience in the USA, and the energy that I saw growing in people as a direct result of their belief in something greater, I cannot say for sure that it would. If we, as non-believers, move our focus from the negative aspects of religion to the positive, then we will be in a position to recognise its potential for good in the world.
I probably should clarify why, given the tone of this piece, I am not on my way to a conversion. The basic answer is that, although I am actively trying to support those of faith in their beliefs, I still fundamentally believe that there is no God. Further, I do not feel the need for a belief in God in my life. Some turn to God for comfort, some for hope, some for happiness, some for purpose. At this stage, my life has plenty of each of these, without feeling like there’s anything missing, spiritually at least. Some, in turn, would say that is something to do with the presence of God anyway. They are, of course, welcome to that belief. I’ve stopped being concerned with what happens in the afterlife, if anything, which can be a criticism aimed at atheists. When questioned about eternity, Ricky Gervais hit the nail on the head in stating that atheists “have nothing to die for, and have everything to live for.” However, as mentioned earlier, no one will ever be able to confirm or reject the existence of a deity, hence my commitment to respecting beliefs which so contradict my own. My experience has been with Christianity mainly, but I imagine the exploration would be similar with other denominations.
Remember those two shadowy figures, from the dark street? The young gentlemen I met were indeed lovely chaps (from Japan and Las Vegas respectively, no less). I asked why they had come so far. They told me that God had told them to come to my dreary hometown to help the community here find Him. In my previous incarnation, I may have retorted “well… He’s taking the piss then,” but I resisted the urge. I engaged them in conversation, argument and counter argument to such an extent that they actually said to me “eh, listen dude, we gotta go…” and in a flash they were gone, onto their next (and hopefully less primed) target. I had been so annoying that these saintly messengers from The Big Man had had their tolerance broken. I imagine they are currently writing an identical article to this from the reverse angle…
I wish them well in their quest. I would hope that, should they find success in bringing God to people in the UK, the newfound belief would create a powerful force for good in those individuals. Ultimately, that should be the end-goal for everyone: being and doing good. The source of this good, I feel, shouldn’t be important—atheist, Christian, Muslim or even Pastafarian, I wish them all good luck. I’ll continue to enjoy the game. When the final whistle goes, I guess we all might even find out for sure if there’s a winner.