The Pope’s visit to Scotland brought my general confusion about my religious beliefs to the surface again. What do I believe? It’s always been a succession of tolerance and intolerance for religion, and nothing I can do or think seems to flatten it out.
I’m like Spooky Mulder, I Want To Believe. But so often, it’s too difficult. People make it too difficult. What is it religion about these days? What was it ever about?
I’ve never been in the least bit pious, but I still detest atheism with all my heart. I’ll always question everyone and everything and never believe in absolutes. But that’s not what organised religion wants. I have trouble with their terminology, even simple words like ‘faith’ – how can you have faith in something that doesn’t ever become apparent? And yet, isn’t it the height of arrogance to believe that every one of life’s ‘mysteries’ has an explanation? Is ‘faith’ only for those who can’t get their stupid heads around The Big Bang or the theory of evolution? Or is it a matter of clinging to the belief that one day, all will be revealed?
I like the idea that God exists, but if He does, surely he’s not the judgmental ogre some people clearly want us to fear? If people in need are comforted by the existence of God, He must be OK? Why should they spend their lives cowering in terror of a vengeful God? How can anything be a ‘sin’ at all if murderers and rapists can be exonerated of all sin by a clergyman during their dying breath? What’s the point of confessing ‘sins’ at all, why not wait until your death bed and just tell the priest, “I was only kidding, I want to be good now”? Won’t a reliance on ‘faith’ simply let you down in the end anyway? When illness took my grandmothers (one Church of Scotland, the other Italian Roman Catholic), did their faith matter to them on their death beds? Well, I firmly believe that it gave them great comfort, yes.
Where I come from, in the west of Scotland, what religion you belonged to mattered to an absurd, and horribly casual, degree. It decided who your friends would be, what school you’d go to, often what job you’d be able to get into, even what football team it was most ‘advisable’ to support. Growing up made me furious about religion; not with religion itself, but with people for making it such a divisive issue.
Then again, my home village made religion OK. We had a succession of lovely Church of Scotland ministers and Catholic priests, none of whom made the notion of religion frightening or forbidding, just invested people with, at the very least, a degree of fellowship, optimism and comfort.
Myself, I was baptised Church of Scotland but I was always madly attracted to Roman Catholicism. Partly because of my grandmother and the atmosphere in Italian churches, partly because of the art and iconography. I’ve always adored Roberto Ferruzzi’s painting Madonna Of The Poor, because it was always in my grandmother’s various kitchens, and I keep a miniature version of it in my own kitchen. I inherited one but before that, I trekked all around Rome’s city centre looking for a copy. In 1985, I also went on a school trip around the Mediterranean in which we stopped by Jerusalem and Bethlehem; it was, in all honesty, a properly ‘religious’ experience. Strangely enough, and I wrote this in my diary at the time, Israel was one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been and the people were astonishingly lovely. Considering the mayhem that’s taken place in the name of religion and territory in the 25 years since I went there, it’s difficult to believe it was as great as that – but it really was.
And there’s another thing: people always blame ‘religion’ for war and suffering – but how can something so nebulous be responsible? It’s people who start and fight wars. They can start them in the name of religion but ulitimately, it’s the choice of people, elected or unelected, like every other decision that gets made worldwide. Israel v Arabs, George Bush v Saddam Hussein, George W Bush v Osama Bin Laden, Rangers idiots v Celtic idiots… it’s all people.
And shouldn’t religion be a private matter anyway? What on earth is it doing in schools? Is their nothing I can do about the teaching of issues of faith to my children in an Irish national school? Why do they come home talking about ‘Holy God?’ Doesn’t education exist to deal exclusively in discernable, provable facts? Should I be happy about my child singing in the church choir, even if she loves it? As it happens, I am. She loves singing and frankly I’d rather she was singing in a church choir than belting out a version of ‘My Humps’ or some such drivel.
But the thing that never, ever fails to get my goat is the judgmental attitude of the pious to everyone else, the self-righteous God-botherers who wish to impose their indoctrinated beliefs on the way others should live their lives. Why do the most devoutly religious believe it’s their duty to be judgmental on God’s behalf? Mind your own bloody business. The most judgmental people I’ve ever met (or read in the right-wing press) have been that way because they think the rest of us are comparatively Godless.
What is Christianity about anyway? Is it the values of forgiveness, fairness, tolerance, sharing and love? Or is it judgment, blame, reprisal, suspicion, spite and alienation? Time and again, I find it’s the latter. In which case, I suspect I know what Christianity’s biggest problem is – Christians.
Strangely, all the things I despise about the Catholic church in 2010 have very little, if anything, to do with the teachings of Christ as I understood them. Did Jesus say we couldn’t use condoms? Did Jesus declare women to be second class citizens? Did Jesus say the people of the church were to abstain from sexual relations? Did Jesus come across as a really calm, level-headed bloke until someone mentioned ‘the gays’, at which point he threw a blokey strop and condemned them to hell? Aren’t these notions all prejudiced Old Testament drivel? When they talk, judgmentally, about those who adopt an ‘a-la-carte Catholicism’, aren’t they being ridiculously hypocritical with their ‘a-la-carte’ interpretations and lifts from the bible? Yes, they are.
Sadly, I’m unlikely to reach a conclusion on this unless I go through a Cliff Richard or Tony Blair-like conversion – it’s not going to happen, so sorry if you’ve been reading this hoping for one. But I’ll remain forever, privately religious. I’ve always thought my religion wasn’t really God, or Jesus, but my departed relatives. When I pray (and I do, often), it’s to my grandparents. They were always the most wonderful, inspiring spiritual and moral guides in their lifetimes, and it comforts me to believe they can still do so now they’ve passed on. Amen.