Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 4

Easter Sunday is a day of joyful celebration for Christians around the world. On this day we remember that our God defeated his enemies with love. For all those who ask for proof that God exists we can point to Jesus. Here was a man who could turn water into wine, heal the sick with a touch and raise the dead. Ordinary people heard him speak, saw what he could do and followed him in their thousands. The leaders of the church and state were angry at his popularity and terrified of his power. They had him put to death as a criminal but he rose from the dead. He defeated all of his enemies without harming any of them. He harmed their power and their wealth so they tried to stop him. They failed.

I am sometimes asked how I know that God exists. Do my questioners wish me to perform a miracle? If I were to heal a sick person then they would claim that it would have happened anyway. They would look for a scientific quirk or claim that the person had not really been sick. If I were to generate some wonder such as turning water into wine then they would claim I was doing some clever magic trick. If a person is determined not to believe in God then this sort of performance will not convince them. I would not be able to prove to them that God exists no matter what I did; they would always find some reason or excuse why the outcome had not been enabled by God.

Faith is defined as a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. When I was growing up and started to ask questions about God and biblical teaching, much of my confusion centred around the difficulty of trying to prove facts. How could I know that the answer I was being given was correct when so many of the premises seemed hazy and disputed? I was told to look to the bible and found contradictions. I was told that this was due to the way the book had been written so long ago, put together by a committee, interpreted over time and eventually translated from the ancient language in which it was written. Given all of this, it is no wonder that some of it can be a bit tricky to understand.

I now read the bible as a guide book rather than a rule book. It provides historical context and accounts of lives that we can learn from. It also provides beautiful poetry and stories. It is a valuable resource and should be used to offer help and comfort. I do not like to see it used as a reason to condemn people; I do not believe that we have any right to judge others. If a person chooses to follow God then Christians should welcome them as Jesus did. If a person chooses not to follow God then they should be free to make that choice.

Some of my atheist friends cannot see how I can be a Christian and still love science. This is my explanation of how I see things. When I look around at the cosmos I see order. The interrelationships between the largest galaxies, their solar systems and planets is awesome. On earth we have the sun and moon affecting the life cycle of every living being and every living being affecting all others. From the largest predators to the smallest micro organisms, all have an important role to play in maintaining the balance of life. When something is damaged, be it a forest burnt down or a child cutting their knee in a fall, nature will try to heal itself if left alone.

I do not believe that this perfect order is a coincidence. I believe that, if the world we live in was initially created by a big bang, then God made that happen. In the most simple terms, I see God as a scientist and his creation is so vast and amazing that I am not capable of understanding it all. There are a great many things that I do not understand but accept; particle physics sounds fascinating but I have never really grasped it fully. Me being able to understand, explain and prove something is not necessary for that thing to exist.

God has done many things in my life, personal things, that have proved to me that he exists. He has healed a sick child when the medical experts told the parents that there was no hope. He has spoken to me when I have talked to him. Just as a young child will feel more comfortable and confident performing on a scary stage knowing that their parent is sitting, unseen in the audience willing them to do well, so God watches over my life. If I go to a party with my husband I do not need to hold on to him throughout the event to know that he is there. If I need him then I know that I can turn to him for support. Thus it is with God.

To those who seem hell bent on removing a belief in God from the world because of the harm that men acting spuriously in his name have wreaked I would ask them to consider the comfort that God offers those who believe in him, who aim to live in love as Jesus taught them. Why would the atheists wish to remove such an important element of someone’s life just because they disagree with the premises of the faith? We should not be afraid of something just because we do not understand it and we should not ridicule or condemn others just because we disagree with their beliefs.

I will try very hard not to judge, to be tolerant of disparate views and accepting of others choices. I will try to live my life showing love to myself and to others. I wish you all a very Happy Easter.

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Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 3

Throughout my life I seem to have had a penchant for doing things just a little bit differently to the norm. Although my primary degree was in Computer Science I took this subject through the Arts Faculty at my university to enable me to take Philosophy alongside. I cannot begin to say how much I enjoyed studying Philosophy. Had I not been determined to gain a qualification that would lead to a well paid job then this would have been my subject of choice. I read the texts for pleasure, could write my assignments without effort and gained good marks without trying. The subject taught me that absolutes are rare in arguments and that any opinion can be made to appear reasonable if presented in a certain way. It laid the foundations of my distrust of politicians and the media.

Throughout history the established church has been used to manipulate people’s behaviour by those in power. It is generally recognised that power and money corrupt those who wield them and the church has always enjoyed both. The hierarchies of the establishment have attracted the ruthlessly ambitious and fear has been used to secure the longevity of the institutions as moral blackmail and social condemnation have been preached and imposed. It has suited the political classes to make use of the established church to shape the behaviour of the general population. The power plays between church and state have continually resulted in bloodshed through the ages.

Alongside this though, much good has also been done. Convents and Monasteries provided employment, education and medical care for those in their vicinity. Food would be handed out to the starving and safe shelter offered to the wives and daughters of the wealthy when their protectors travelled. Although the inhabitants of these institutions may have been placed there by their families as an astute offering to the powerful church and to avoid a costly and possibly unsatisfactory apprenticeship or marriage, the work that they did often benefited both the local and wider community.

There have also always been some individuals who have entered the church with an untainted vocation. Innumerable, small, breakaway denominations have been established by those who despaired of the corruption that abounded and felt called by God to offer an alternative. Others have successfully worked within the establishment to serve rather than master their congregations. These individuals teach and preach a loving faith rather than a fearful obligation.

The bloody history of the church provides it’s detractors with ample examples of atrocities. These continue through to modern times and are not confined to the Christian denominations. Quotes from holy books are used to excuse maiming and murder; wars are started in the name of a god; women are subjugated and punished for thinking for themselves; none of this is done in the spirit of love but in the pursuit of power. A set of rules is imposed, loosely based on a particular interpretation of a few verses from an approved text; skilled orators draw support from those who fear change or hanker for a time that favoured them. God’s name is taken in vain by so many who  claim to serve him by feeding prejudice and a compromised morality.

The stories of Jesus talk of him dining with those that the church of his time condemned. He took as his friends a motley crew of misfits, miscreants and social rejects. He spent his time helping those who were sick, hungry, condemned and rejected by society. He told his followers to love themselves and each other. The established church has always sought to complicate this simple message and impose it’s own set of rules for it’s own gain.

I don’t know a great deal about the other major religions but my understanding is that they have suffered similar manipulations. At their heart their holy books seem to offer sensible advice for living a good life. Their leaders have then taken these and interpreted aspects to suit their own agendas. I suspect that the fanatics and extremists are following their leaders rather than the gist of the teachings of their God.

Church membership offers a great deal of comfort and support to many people and, despite my criticisms of the way it is run, I would not advocate it’s demise. I despise the hypocrisy of those who preach division, condemnation and hate in the name of a loving God; who use the wealth and power of their position to further their own prejudiced views. However, much good is still done by the many individuals who benefit from the support and guidance offered by the church as they go about their everyday lives. When helping others is at the heart of the work that a church performs it can still be a force for good in our troubled world.

Jesus did not compel anyone to follow him. He explained his ideas and invited any who wished to join him to do so. There was no coercion, no threat or ridicule for those who chose to walk away. I have noticed in recent times that a number of friends of mine who have embraced atheism will talk of religious believers in a way that puts them down as deluded and foolish. These people seem to be going the way of the religious bigots, attempting to force their point of view on others.

I know that my God exists but I feel no need to prove it to others. I will explain my reasons if asked, but believe that each of us should have the freedom to decide for ourselves. Trying to use force or ridicule suggests a desperation to have others agree with a particular point of view, perhaps to validate or perpetuate it. My God is all powerful and all knowing; he will exist with or without popular support and needs no help from me.

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Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 2

When I graduated from university and left the family home in Belfast to start my new job in the south of England it felt as if I had the whole of my life in front of me. I welcomed the chance to have a fresh start amongst people who had never known me and would have no expectations that I would feel the need to live up to. It was frightening and exciting and sometimes lonely. There were so many aspects of my old life that I wished to leave behind but some old habits die hard. I decided to join a local church.

I do not know of any Presbyterian churches in England but the small town where I bought my first flat offered a Catholic Church, a Church of England and a Methodist Church. I chose the Methodist Church largely because I seemed to remember that my father’s family had once been Methodists and the other churches, with their unfathomable rituals, still seemed too scary. With my new found freedom to socialise exactly as I pleased it did not suit me to attend every week. I got to know few people from the congregation (the English seemed so distant and unfriendly compared to the Irish) but when I got married it was to this church that I turned to perform the ceremony. I still believed in my God and wanted to say my vows under his roof.

After my marriage we moved to the village where we now live and once again I looked to join a church; looking back I cannot really explain why this seemed important to me. Our village has a Church of England church and a Strict Baptist Chapel. There is also a Methodist Church in a neighbouring village that I could easily walk to. Having come from a Methodist Church I tried this first but was put off by the advanced age and small size of the congregation. They seemed amazed when I appeared one Sunday morning and asked me to choose the closing  hymn, a friendly gesture that terrified me by the attention it drew down. I was advised by neighbours that I may not be welcomed at the Strict Baptist Chapel, although I didn’t fully understand why, so chose to join the Church of England.

I was a semi regular member of this congregation for several years until my children started to attend with me. The vicar and a church warden did not take kindly to them building towers with the prayer mats that had been made by ladies of the church over many years. I was informed that the church welcomed well behaved children and that my children’s behaviour was not acceptable. I resigned my position as secretary of the Parochial Church Council and have not been back since.

My membership of the PCC had soured my views of this church. I did not agree with many decisions made by the vicar who seemed to harbour a grudge that so many in the village attended only occasionally and were not willing to donate the tithe that he felt was his due. When suggestions were made about ways to encourage more to attend he would refuse to contemplate changes that may not be acceptable to the core, older members. It seemed to me that he wished to welcome attendees on his terms whereas I wanted to see the church open it’s arms to all as Jesus had done. Having got to know the rituals I now found them soothing but recognised that they could be off putting to the unfamiliar. With kids of my own I could also see how boring church services could appear.

Due to the events that caused me to cut my ties with the church I felt a sense of relief when I left. We started going swimming as a family every Sunday morning followed by a big Sunday lunch and a relaxing afternoon. When the children got older swimming was replaced by hockey practice. I have not felt the need to join another church; this was the end of my direct experience of organised religion.

None of these events did anything to dent my personal faith in God. I recognised that the policies I objected to were being put in place by people and did not follow the gist of biblical teaching. Of course, we can and do read the bible in different ways. This amazing and beautiful book is often quoted in support of the most grotesque of ideas. Personally I choose to take a much simpler view.

I have always believed that God wanted us to love ourselves and each other above everything else and try to follow his definition of love (1 Corinthians 13 v 4-7). He gave us the basic rules to live by which seem to me to be sensible advice for a good life for all (do not murder, steal, lie, covet, commit adultery, worship material objects or work non stop with no rest). So much of the bible is open to misinterpretation but I could not see these theological arguments as important. I believe that God wants me to live in a spirit of love for all. That is what I try to do.

Having walked away from the the organised religion offered by the established church I was left to examine my faith on my own. For the first time I was putting my questions directly to God without asking theologians for help. The answers I was given have shaped my beliefs ever since. I am more relaxed and comfortable with my faith now and feel no need to try to persuade anyone else of God’s existence. He is there for me and that has enriched my life beyond measure.

English: Edgworth Methodist Church, , , Lancas...

Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 1

I was born and raised in Belfast, christened and confirmed in the Irish Presbyterian church that I attended from a young age. My parents were not regular church goers but sent my sister and I along to Sunday School each week. I embraced the various youth groups available in the church community joining Brownies, Guides, Crusaders, the Scripture Union and Bible Study groups. This was my social life for the majority of my youth.

As young children we accept what we are taught by our parents and what we absorb from the attitudes of our local community. I was taken along to the 12th of July parades in the city and enjoyed the bands and the spectacle. How I envied the girls of my age in their pretty, shiny dance dresses who could twirl and throw their sparkly sticks as they walked in front of the various Orange Orders. I never thought to question what any of it symbolised.

When I discovered that a couple living a few doors up from my parent’s house were Catholics I was quite shocked. To my knowledge I had never met a Catholic before. Some of the children in our road called them names that I did not understand. The names sounded fierce and I felt uncomfortable and puzzled by the unexplained hate. The couple had a boat and I once asked them if I could go out on it with them. They said yes but it never happened. Although there must have been Catholic students at the extra curricular music school that I attended for years I did not mix with them. I was not to get to know any Catholics until I went to university.

The friends that I made through my teenage years were linked through the various church youth groups that we frequented. I am still in touch with many of them today. Some talked openly about the faith that we were all now questioning but which I still accepted. It was a way of life as much as a belief. We would get together at the meetings, on organised trips away, at church concerts and at each others houses. We were young people having fun and enjoying each others company.

By the time I went to university I was questioning everything about my life but especially aspects of my faith. I was fascinated by what appeared to me to be the shady world of Catholicism and worried my mother by befriending a large family of Catholics who lived on the wrong side of town. There were sixteen children in the family, some married with children of their own. They introduced me to an underworld that I knew existed but had never experienced. I was intrigued.

It seems strange to think that we all accepted as normal being stopped and bodily searched before being allowed to enter the central shopping district in Belfast. Checkpoints could be set up on roads without warning and ID demanded at any time. Parts of the city were entirely blocked off and riots commonplace. I was frightened when I had to lie down on the floor of a bus when it was stoned and the windows broken as the driver tried to get us to safety through the crowd that had suddenly appeared to block his route. A girl who had gone to school with my sister was shot dead as she left church one Sunday evening. The father of one of my good friends was shot dead as he left work one evening in a case of mistaken identity. One of our teachers had lost a leg when the coffee shop she was visiting was blown up. A neighbour who was a policeman was shot but survived and recovered from the attack. The Troubles affected me in these ways but could somehow, largely be ignored.

The Catholic family that I befriended were much more closely involved. To my knowledge they were not members of any sectarian forces but they seemed to know a lot of people who were. They talked of a friend who was worried about a favour he owed because he had asked for a boy who had messed with his sister to be kneecapped. They laughed about leading the army on a merry dance through a community’s back yards as they smuggled those being searched for out through the front. This friendly, welcoming family offered me endless cups of tea and chatted away about the events I read about in the paper with a knowledge that should probably have frightened me. There was no bravado or boasting; this was their way of life.

I did not stay long in this environment. Welcoming though they had been, I knew that I did not belong and the alien culture lost the appeal of novelty in time. I had other avenues to explore with my new found student freedom but my eyes had been opened to a religious intolerance that I had blindly accepted. I was questioning the rights and wrongs of the whole Irish situation and finding no easy answers. There were none. My parent’s attitudes, as much as I could understand them, now seemed archaic.

A few old friends from my church were starting to talk about the good loyalists and the bad republicans. They were agreeing with the views of their parents and vociferously taking sides. I began to feel the first stirrings of despair that supposedly intelligent people could not consider alternative opinions. These young people were hell bent on perpetuating the issues that I saw as causing the Troubles in the first place.

I wanted out: out from the strictures placed on me by family expectation that I would conform; out from the potential condemnation of the still strong church community that so many both admired and feared; out of a a country that offered a warm welcome to those who appeared to be the same as them but a cold shoulder to any suggestion of change; out of the country that I no longer wished to be my home.

The God that I still believed in was a God of love, not hate. I did not wish to raise my future children in an environment that I now viewed as toxic. I was young, ambitious and felt no ties to this troubled place. I moved away.

English: The Shankill road, Belfast during the...