What is this thing called Belief? A Humanist’s perspective.

It is the end of the Easter weekend and the beginning of the northern hemisphere summer (although the temperatures belie it). It is difficult to determine which event is more important to the people of Britain: the notion of summer or Easter, the most essential event of the Christian calendar?

A few days ago I would have unashamedly sat squarely in the summer camp but right now I’m not so sure. In years to come will I recall this winter as being particularly glum and seemingly unending as it does now? I fancy it will blend with the other three consecutive northern winters I have experienced before it. When was the deepest snowfall, the coldest day, the most persistent frost? I won’t be able to say whether it was 2009 or 2013. What I will remember is that during the Easter of 2013 something took hold in my head with regards to the meaning of faith, perhaps even of God (and yes I deign to use a big ‘G’).

Like many others in the modern world I am an occasional Christian: when the occasion suits I declare myself one for the sake of the peace, or more likely because I lack the courage to take the atheist corner. After having not set foot in a church on Easter Sunday for a few years I felt it was time to join the faithful. I chose an old Anglican establishment in the centre of Luton, the English town where I live. I freely admit that it was as much the allure of the old stone church, some 830 years old, with its stained-glass windows and cavernous interior,  as the thought of a charismatic celebration of Christ’s resurrection that drew me there. This was in spite of the fact that I was raised a Catholic and if pressed would label myself one rather than a Christian. Still, the last time I had set foot in a Catholic Mass I found it a little wearisome and disconcerting – the tried and tested hymns sung fairly tunelessly to an organ accompaniment, the responses to the liturgy uttered routinely by some and a forced emphasis by others, perhaps keen to impress upon the congregation the strength of their religious zest.

Amongst the Anglican congregation of St Mary’s I felt a spirit of unity and passion that had been lacking at the other service. It wasn’t the first charismatic service I had been to; I use to go along to an evening Presbyterian service with a friend back in Zimbabwe where there had been much singing and waving of arms and flags, but something crystallized in my mind during this service. Perhaps the environs of the old building appealing to my sentimental self played a part; or perhaps it was the presence of Bishop Richard, the bishop of Bedfordshire, who presided over the service; or the happy faces of the children waving coloured flags to the side of the altar; or the assorted instruments on the other side of the altar – trumpets, guitars and a cello amongst them – giving a joyful harmony to the songs of praise and celebration. I think that word celebration is the one that best sums up the nature of that Easter service. People celebrating a new beginning, and not just the fact that this Easter coincided with the beginning of summer and the psychological notion that warmer weather was imminent. Here were people rejoicing because they could, because the prime intercessor of their faith, Jesus Christ, had died for their sins and risen again to give them a second chance. It was a reaffirmation of their own desire to be good people: good fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Sitting here I’m thinking that perhaps it is easier for those of northern temperate climes to feel this renewal at the end of winter and all that it represents – the coldness, the leafless trees, the feeling of austerity and sombreness.

Reading these words you are probably assuming that I am indeed a Christian, never mind what I may have said about my seasonal worshipping habits. The truth is that I am not, have not been for some time. Perhaps I never was. What bothers me? Besides the usual doubts of someone with a scientific and evolutionary disposition, the Bible itself, principally the Resurrection and Jesus Christ revealed as the Son of God i.e. the essence of Easter and the religious service I was attending. If you see an inherent contradiction it’s not lost on me either! I imagine that like many experiencing the first bitter pangs that come through ‘losing their religion’, and by that I mean those inherited beliefs, written and oral traditions, back then I had to cast aside everything I had been told and ingested, step back and reassess my beliefs. I still didn’t label myself an atheist, an Unbeliever, but by the most literal of definitions I was. Not that I was necessarily uncomfortable with my position; I just felt no need to adjust it from the position of closet doubter. At that time I was living in a fairly conservative society at university in South Africa or at home in Zimbabwe, many of best friends being professed Christians, and I felt it best not to rock the boat.

My best friend Ben was the earliest professed atheist I can remember. His argument against  God was simple but powerful: there are x number of religions in the world, each professing to be the true path to enlightenment – if there really was a God of one faith why would he tolerate such a situation? This is the argument of a rational person and it sat uneasily with me for many years but to the religious zealot his or her belief is paramount, fundamental and all conquering. Given the fullness of time the world will become either an Islamic caliphate, a unified global community of Christian worshippers or something else, depending on their particular brand of religion. Ridiculous as that may seem to many progressive, worldly individuals living in Western nations today, most other Believers (and I use a big ‘B’ here to signify anyone of formal religious affiliation) don’t seem unduly bothered by this, the religious paradox. No, in recent years the pendulum has swung, in the West at least, towards what has been dubbed in some circles as militant atheism. The Unbelievers have stood up and asked the question of the Believers: Why do you believe in God in the face of empirical and scientific evidence, amassed year-on-year? 

I for one stand with the scientific camp. Scientific endeavour underpins all our material advances and much of our understanding of the world around us. Our inherent curiosity compels us to continue to question and to discover. Where the so-called militant atheist camp has overstepped the mark in my mind is in their desire to remove the moral underpinnings of religion and decry them as misguided, naive, or even dangerous. There is a ‘God-shaped space’ in our brains or so I read in a New Scientist magazine edition last year (the God Issue, 17 March 2012). We are predisposed towards belief in supernatural entities. This is backed up by studies, especially with babies and young children; all very interesting stuff. I suppose this is where I want to tie-in my own experience of Easter this year: people believing in something bigger and better than themselves. Jesus of the Gospels was an amazing man even if he wasn’t the definitive, one and only Son of God. His sermon on the mount has been referred to as the first recorded declaration of  Human Rights I read somewhere. Because of who he claimed to be and the nature of his proclaimed mission on Earth he is a controversial figure, but nonetheless enduring. I don’t think we have had a truly inspired discussion on the nature of this man and his legacy between the two camps – the Believers and the Unbelievers. I think it’s time.

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2 thoughts on “What is this thing called Belief? A Humanist’s perspective.”

  1. Interesting. I also have thought a bit about these religion issues.
    As I understand, belief is not centered on God. Then, as your friend Ben rightly says, there would be something illogical.
    Being Christian and going to Church, should be, a permanent celebration. Instead of this, I find masses very sad and depressing, I can never stop myself from thinking that many came just for a little conscience scrub, there is often very little communication too. But if it was to be just for this, I would have probably continued to be a Christian, as I do believe in doing one’s mind good and going to mass can be similar to going to a nice place, filled with an athmosphere of some sort of spiritual uplifting, even though a half naked statue of a man nailed on a cross can cause a bizarre feeling…
    What made me turn away from this Christianity thing is more due to some facts, such as one has to repent all his life, the whole idea behind the confession, the blood and violence in the stories of the Book (this one really seserves a big B) ans so on. Actually I stopped believing in all this when I left St Georges, at 14, I think I had an overdose of church, singing, confessing and so forth. And maybe also seeing racist Cristians, this always troubled me.

    I do not like the concept of atheism, though. Why deny something that cannot be fully proven ?
    Life, love, joy should be the guides of our lives. One never needs to say long prayers in order to concentrate on the essential, or maybe it is to attein a sort of transe through which one bettens his self ?
    I believe in something that is not necessarily identifiable by the human race. We may be clever, have technology but is it enough to think that we can prove the existence of God ? God is very often (too) many things. For some a white-bearded wise old man, for others some sort of force. To deny a life force is to deny oneself. That’s why i do not like atheism !

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  2. Xavier, you raise some good points. Like me you see belief in something bigger, something transcendental as natural, a ‘life force’ as you put it. In other words faith is valid. Returning to the rationalist argument which is also the argument of the atheists I admire the underpinnings to their reasoning. After all has anyone actually seen a manifestation of God in material form? Has this God spoken to them aloud in a language they understand? And of course the age old question, “if God is good why is there suffering in the world?”
    Of course Belief is not comprehensible in such terms. Furthermore, even if one does have a kind of faith and a belief in the goodness of God, why worship him in the face of suffering and injustice? Most of us dislike egotists and those who demand the praise of others for their own fulfilment. Somewhat understandably some people see God in this light as well. The only way to reconcile the contradiction is to believe in evil as well and a tug-of-war between the two.
    The thing that most religions and beliefs struggle to define and put into a context are questions of materialism. Most material things are for all intents and purposes neutral. I will leave it there for now but thanks for your reply.

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