There’s been a development in my battle of faith.
I’ve no problem with the fact that I’ve become an atheist, no, this relates more to the question of what comes next.
Below is part of a dedication I wrote for my Brother-in-Law. It was written at a time when I was angry and very sad:
I refuse to pray that you have gone to a better place,
because no god is deserving of my prayers.
I linked God with ‘a better place’, as if they went together. ‘Better place’ is fine, the link with God is not. I discovered my quandary when Jan (my wife) read Part One and said she was rather disappointed. (Nothing new there!). It appears to her as if I have dismissed God and the afterlife. Well, yes and no. True, I no longer believe in a deity, but have I really dismissed everything associated with it? Have I suspended all belief in an after-life, in whatever form?
Thing is, Jan is a Spiritualist. She believes that we go on. The fact is she sees 'spirit', has done all her life. It’s not something she asked for or courted, it’s something she was born with, something she describes (usually) as more of a curse than a blessing. It is definitively not fabricated, it is very real. All too real sometimes. But the crucial fact is, she doesn’t lie to me - or anybody else. Why should she lie to me? She tells me things, many things, and I know she is not making them up. Nor is she merely mistaken; she believes what she sees.
Now of course ‘mainstream’ religions dismiss Jan’s abilities (or gifts, or curse - whatever you want to call them) as the spawn of the devil. This is nonsense frankly, mainstream religions dismiss anything but themselves, and even go to war to prove which is the most compassionate! From my point of view, I don’t believe there is a devil, there is just bad. And the overwhelming majority of ‘bad’ is man made, developed and nurtured over time for self-gain, be it personal, financial or moral. The thing sitting on your shoulder inciting you to stab someone is not a bloody-toothed creature with a trident. No, it’s just us, albeit a rather nasty bit of us. You, me, anyone make choices. The choice to stab or not, to shoot or not. There may be a chemical imbalance in a minority of cases, where a brain is hoodwinked into mischief, but the majority of evil is perpetrated by sane people who have a choice. We can apportion blame or make excuses due to external influences, like alcohol or drugs, but ultimately, even that is our own fault.
I don’t kill people, or rip them off. Neither do the overwhelming majority of people. But it’s not because some great entity in the sky puts a hand on my shoulder and stops me. Definitely not. I show respect and have a conscience. Unless I get genuinely ill, to kill would be my choice – and so far I have resisted the temptation. If you believe that God is all powerful and he / she / it is 'creator of all', by association, they must also have created evil. The creator constructed an alter-ego called the devil who would take the blame for all the bad bits. Convenient eh? The upshot is that I do not believe that the entity is responsible for good or bad, because the entity doesn’t exist. It’s me – us – who make the choices, good or bad.
Christianity’s depiction of the afterlife as of a cosy, welcoming garden. Summed up by: ‘dwell in the house of the lord for ever’ (or his garden). Our forfeit for living an eternal life is to give ourselves to the ‘boss’ during our time alive, which is a barely perceptible nick on the infinite clockface of time. We’re asked to trust in something that has cost us dear throughout recent history, both pecuniary and through conflict where, in its various guises, religion has generated the most unspeakable horrors. The ‘faithful’ have been cajoled into fighting the most vile wars in religion's name. Sorry – it simply doesn’t wash. Worse, people not only give their souls away but also pay cash for the privilege of being part of ‘the club’.
Following a particular religion (or God) is based on both the reward of the afterlife and the threat of purgatory. Fear is used to influence us, induced by evil people in the real world. Just look at the pandemic, fear worked there didn’t it? We complied with all sorts of nonsensical dross. The truth of all that will come out, and the puppeteers will eventually be brought to book, but it has left deep scars in many of us. That wasn’t God or The Devil, that was man; wicked, evil man.
My not believing in a Christian God, by definition, also make me non-religious. That’s a huge swathe of history and culture I can ignore. Actually, I can’t ignore it because religion is all around us. It’s woven into the fabric of everything. It influences people’s behaviour and thought, on most occasions beneficially, occasionally with dreadful consequences. Religions bubble away beneath our everyday lives. Whether we are believers or not, we feel the rumbling beneath our feet. If I was a devout Christian and tried to discuss who and what is right with my Muslim neighbour, we would have something in common, we both believe in an ultimate deity, but after that the accord divides. Worldwide, the chapters, verses and words in our two teachings diverge to a level where combat results. Me and my neighbour may not go that far, but as human beings, without any religion, we could be firm friends. With religion it appears, we can only go so far.
Think Tigris and Euphrates in bomb-ravaged Iraq, the two religions run parallel in roughly the same direction but between is a battlefield where theological and physical battles rage.
Interestingly, there are religions that teach that no deities exist, instead prioritizing the following of a moral and ethical code. These religions are considered nontheistic. Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and even sometimes Hinduism are examples. Maybe I should join one of these. Or maybe I should stay out of it all altogether. I guess the question is, do I need a religion?
We use our education, our brains and our instincts to make decisions or choices. In our formative years, so much is influenced, spiritually and personally, by our mentors. Later we're free to make our own choices, but as far as religion is concerned, few of us change direction. One of those big early influences is religion. If we had no religion in the world how would we get on? It would be no worse I think. John Lennon referenced this back in 1971. Wise man he was. I wonder where he is. Imagine.
Despite the fact I've chosen to be an atheist, I actually like a lot about the church and how it manifests materially. The buildings, some of the music; and who can resist carols. Then there’s the decency of many of the people who practice their faith, often older people who are perhaps anticipating an early audience with their God. I spent many happy hours, no, not happy, contented, in religious buildings while we were travelling, mainly in France. Because it was so hot during summer, often around 40 degrees, the only places cool enough to spend time were huge stone-built, naturally insulated, religious edifices – peace and tranquillity included. As a bonus we encounter the kind of silence only experienced in an empty church. Then there are the fabulous windows and towering architecture, intricate sculptures and time aged wood carvings.
The dilemma is that the bits of the church I do enjoy wouldn’t be there without a God. A God created by man. So, I’ve reached a theological impasse. I suppose I should thank the people who created their Gods with their fantastical stories and monstrous temples so that I can keep cool. Yes, going to church is cool.
One other thought, how does anyone know that their God in the right one? Or that being part of a particular denomination is the right choice. Or that the teachings of a particular sect or branch are the correct ones. There is simply no way to know. This is where Faith comes in - believe. There are more than 4,500 denominations after all. Ok, most have a similar Deity at their heart, but they all have a different set of teachings (albeit slightly) and squabbling and fighting result. Then, because someone else wants power, they form a new sect, and create a slightly different set of teachings. So another denomination is born. Historically money, power and influence are at the heart of much of the battling. So to choose. For example, Church of England or Catholic? No contest here for me personally. The Catholic Church has been latterly responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against children – largely unacknowledged or apologised for. So I ruled Catholic out first - then, C of E, then gradually, the rest.
In daily life, we have a basic set of rules by which we live – or most of us do. Rather complicated at times to cater for different misdemeanours. But if we all adhered to a couple of basic non-religious moral ones, such as common decency and respect for one another, it could prevent much angst. The problem is with that is there will always be someone who wants a bit more, a bigger slice of the cake, so they shout the loudest – this is true in religion as in everyday life.
The upshot of all this is that yes, I am an atheist who believes, in all likelihood, that there is something else to follow.
One final thought - this life we lead can be fraught, for the likes of my Brother-in-Law, barely tolerable. But what if the afterlife is worse? We don't know do we? Oh lord!
Complicated isn’t it? Best make the most of this time round.
Finally, an amended dedication to Ian:
Inveterate chuckler and nice man.
Although no god is deserving of my prayers,
I hope that you have gone to a better place.
No benign deity would have seen you suffer as you did.
So, no prayers. Just my hope that somewhere
beyond the clouds, you are at peace.
RIP my friend.