I haven’t blogged in quite a while and I’ve had a few interesting conversations and seen a few interesting things this week that have got me thinking.
A number of the things I’ll be talking about have, I’m sure, been said a thousand times before. I know it’s not the first time I’ve thought them but I’ll say them again anyway.
The first thing that got me thinking this week was on Wednesday night. I was having a (drink fuelled) conversation with an old colleague of mine about religion. She is from a large family and was brought up in a strongly catholic household. Some of her siblings have taken on the catholic faith wholeheartedly and others have rejected it. She hovers. She does not believe in a god, or at least not in the way her parents do, but she has been baptised, she chose to have a communion and, in the summer, she is getting married in a church. In her view, these are rites of passage for her, not because of the religious aspects of it but because of the tradition of her family. Her older sisters chose to have a communion, her brother did not. She saw how the decisions of her sisters were celebrated and her brother’s decision was met with disapproval and disappointment. There was a pressure to conform, so she did. Her cousin has had a baby out of wedlock and is a single mother and the family gossip and bitch about it. Her cousin is a sinner.
She does not go to church on a regular basis any more and she didn’t even go during easter this year for the first time in her life. Even though she has chosen to separate herself from the church, she has not completely rejected it. She is happy with her life but still feels that often referred to catholic guilt at not living her life according to the faith that she was brought up in. That got us talking about the fact that the guilt she felt was about letting her parents down more than any religious inclination she had. After all, the most influential factor that determines what we believe is the faith of our parents.
She asked whether I thought it was the same for me, if I was an atheist because of the way I was brought up and it would be silly of me to say no. Of course my parents’ beliefs had an effect on me. My mum is an atheist, she was brought up an atheist. Her parents chose to have (what must have been some of the first) humanist funerals. My dad has never had much to say on the subject of his beliefs, it’s not important to him and he’d say he was an atheist. I think his family made the odd trip to church but it was never a main aspect of their family life. My first instinct was to jump to the defence of my parents and say that rather than push an atheist view on me, it meant that they gave me space to choose for myself but I had to think carefully about that. Did they really give me the freedom to choose for myself or did they subtly, and probably unintentionally, push me in a certain direction? I remember being at primary school and being sat in a circle with all of my classmates. It must have been a ‘circle time’ activity, we went round the circle and one by one had to announce our beliefs to the whole class. I must have had a discussion with my mum not long before on the subject of beliefs and she had told me that some people believe that there was a man called Jesus who was the son of god and she told me that she didn’t believe that was true, she believed there was a man called Jesus who had existed but that she didn’t think he was really the son of god. I must have been in year 3 so would have only been 7 or 8. The question for the children in the class was really ‘What do your parents believe?’ as who really knows what to believe when they’re 7 and 8 years old? I remember regurgitating what my mum had told me not long before, I thought Jesus was a real person but that I didn’t really think he was the son of god. It’s weird the moments that stick in your head, I remember this event so clearly. My teacher then told me that meant I was a Naturalist. I think she was probably confused and meant Humanist (why did I have to be labelled with something? All I said was that I didn’t think Jesus was the son of god, all that meant was that I wasn’t a Christian.).
Any way my point in all this is that of course my parents lack of faith influenced me but that didn’t mean that they prevented me from experiencing other faiths. I had a friend whose parents were Christian and went to the local church on a Sunday morning. I wanted to stay over at her house on Saturday night so we asked our mums, her mum said she was fine with it but they were going to church in the morning. I quickly back tracked and said not worry I’d go home but my mum announced that it was fine for me to stay over and she thought it would be a good idea for me to go to church with them in the morning. I was confused. Why on earth was she suggesting I go to church? She wasn’t religious and I certainly had no desire to go to church with them but I found myself in a situation I wasn’t allowed to get out of. She was making sure I had at least a little experience of church. She was giving me a chance to experience different things and make my own conclusions. When I have children I think, given a chance, I’d do exactly the same thing. It’s no good preaching about not labelling a child and giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves but we actually need to present children with these choices, with all the facts and without bias and give them the power to choose. Of course we’re going to have a huge effect on our children, that’s unavoidable but I think my parents did a good job enabling me to think for myself and make informed decisions.
Another thing that got me thinking today was The Review Show which was on last night. Twitter buzzed momentarily as Robin Ince was one of the guests and was going to have to deal with Peter Hitchins. The first topic of conversation was Phillip Pullman’s new book ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ which I am just about to begin reading. Pullman disappointed me when the film of Northern Lights was made (renamed The Golden Compass) and was, in my view, completely ruined as all references to religion and god were removed but he won me back round when talking about this new book. He was being asked, rather predictably, about the offence this book would cause. We have this terrible obsession at the moment with offending people, like being offended is the worst thing that could happen to a person. Pullman said that nobody has the right to go through life without being offended which is just so brilliantly simple and true.
Religion is something which is hugely important in society. It is something which effects how millions of people across the world live, behave and are treated. The importance of religion to humanity is precisely the reason why it should be talked about, debated, challenged and scrutinised. Some people seem to think that religion should have a force field surrounding it, that it should be exempt from questioning or criticism. These are the same people who complain about books like Pullman’s, they protest against Jerry Springer the Opera, they try to ban The Life of Brian from cinemas all because they may offend people. We need to be allowed to challenge institutions which have a huge amount of power over people because it is when these institutions are allowed to carry on unchecked and unquestioned that societies, communities and individuals get abused, trodden on and forgotten about. If you are confident enough in your belief, a little debate shouldn’t do you any harm. If your institution is without fault, a little delving shouldn’t uncover any problems and if there are faults, maybe something should be done about them rather than just being covered over and ignored.
Can we all stop being so precious? At worst, offence means that we feel uncomfortable or angry for a short time, at best, it makes us more passionate, clearer and confident about our own opinions. How can you go a day without being offended by something? If you simply can’t deal with it, you might as well stay inside all day and never speak to anyone else ever again.