I wasn’t there and I didn’t do it. I hadn’t even been born at the time!
For a long time I always associated Easter with guilt. Although my family would try to stuff me with chocolate, and church would try to tell me it was joyful with antiquated, mournful melodies, it is the feeling of guilt that lingers in my memory. I partially blame it on Aunt Lil.
Aunt Lil wasn’t a real aunt – just a kind lady that used to provide hospitality and a warm fireplace to a lost adolescent. Relatively recently, after two years in psychotherapy, my therapist and I concluded that I have spent my whole life looking for my mother. Aunt Lil was one of the many that I have found en route.
For all sorts of reasons that I won’t bore you with now, my mother was ‘absent’ for a lot of my formative years. After my mother died when I was a teenager, my father and I often popped round to Aunt Lil’s – a kind lady from the local Methodist church who would sometimes cook a meal for us and offer cheese and biscuits when my father came out of the pub. She was a widow and seemed to welcome the company, and we appreciated her care. I spent a lot of time round Aunt Lil’s chatting and drinking tea, listening to how much she missed her husband, and sharing my own teenage angst.
Although Aunt Lil and I shared a sense of mischief, Easter Sunday was always very serious…
My holiday reading was Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker. I had travelled a similar journey (albeit in a less publicised way). Having made the change from being an evangelical leader, preacher, counsellor, and author (for over 30 years) to an unashamed, blogging atheist, I thought it would be interesting to read the human story. I wondered how far Barker’s experience would parallel my own, and if his analysis of his change would help me see my own in a new perspective. I am really glad that I read through to the end of the book.
The book is divided into four sections: his life as a believer; his loss of faith; more detailed reasons for rejecting Christianity; his present work for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
His faith didn’t disappear overnight, and I could certainly identify with the agony of the period where he felt so hypocritical. On the outside everything was OK and everybody was looking to him for Christian leadership and teaching, but on the inside the certainty of his faith was shifting dramatically. And once the faith had really disappeared, his experience certainly shed light on my own clinging to a pretence for so long. Not only was I clinging to a culture and people that I had known for most of my adult life, but I was also clinging to a public reputation that I had established. In our cases, faith wasn’t just a private matter, but it also came with a history, a community, and an important identity. The faith was private, but the ‘ baggage’ was public and, in some ways, was more ‘psychologically sticky’…
I bought Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem on the strength of reading his Misquoting Jesus, and I wasn’t disappointed.
There are three things about Ehrman’s writing that help me sit up and listen to what he is saying.
First, he is world renowned scholar in his field. He has been teaching the bible at university level for years and knows the book and its documents and the scholarship associated with it inside out.
Secondly, he is a very able communicator. The substance of the Misquoting Jesus is the scholarship surrounding the New Testament documents – a very technical subject. Despite this, he wrote a very readable book for the non-expert. In God’s Problem he looks at the subject of suffering and examines how, for him, the answers as to why we suffer provided in the bible seriously fail to convince him that an omnipotent and loving god exists.He moves with ease and grace through the theology and philosophy of the Old and New Testaments, all the time reminding us that despite the words, suffering is a very human problem. The modern day examples of suffering he discusses are personal and real, and cry out for answers. We may be able to detach ourselves from the suffering of Old Testament nations, but, as Ehrman reminds us, the obscenity of the Holocaust is closer to home, as is the suffering of our family members and neighbours…
The mountains were cypress-green and breathtakingly beautiful. Spiros was standing in one of the most impressive parts of Greece. On a brilliant spring morning he was at the foot of Mount Parnassus, a few miles from Corinth. In spite of the beauty, all he could think about was the problem of the boat which had become stuck on the sands of his mind for some weeks now.
Should he buy it, or shouldn’t he? If he didn’t decide soon, it would be too late. He had the money. Some had been left by his father; the rest had been painfully saved over the past ten years. But now, at the moment of decision, he seemed paralysed, unable to jump. It was such an important decision, such a lot of money, and he urgently needed a message from the gods. His wife had sent him to Delphi because her sister had been helped. Rumour and family superstition or experience had combined to help Spiros half believe that the Delphic Oracle would make the divine will known.
And behind all this Spiros was driven by factors that were working at a less conscious level. Of course, he missed his father dreadfully, and at night, or alone in the harbour, suppressed questions surfaced. Was there life beyond the grave? Would he be good enough to please the gods? Would he ever see his father again? Were the gods really in control? Did the gods really exist?…
In a hard-hitting article in The Guardian, Theo Hobson takes the Church of England to task for its ‘wet clerics’ and their failure to carry through a reformation of the church in relation women. He laments the fact that division and injustice are being perpetuated because of liberal woolly-mindedness.
In 1992, the Anglican church finally agreed to ordain women but allowed those who disagreed and who wished to teach against this to keep their jobs. In 2005, the church agreed that women could, in theory, become bishops and finally break through one glass ceiling so firmly trodden on by men. However, in a recent report, the church is still arguing that the toleration of dissent should still be encouraged. As Hobson argues:
Imagine if Parliament had voted for female suffrage, but also allowed conservatives who disagreed with the development to form a parallel parliament untainted by women’s votes.
Either it is right to remove the cultural abuse of women by denying them an equal voice and opportunities, or it is not. If it is right to do so, why continue to fudge the issue and promote abuse and the teaching of abuse?
I find myself angry about this failure to reform for at least three reasons. First, as a humanist it grieves me that women in the church are clearly being disenfranchised in some way…
In America, apparently, many people say they want it but can’t get it, and in the UK many don’t want it, but can’t get rid of it – god in school, that is.
As a school pupil I had to endure it every day – the compulsory hymn and routine prayers. Just imagine it, 600 teenage boys with their mind focused on one thing (and believe me, it wasn’t god or their Latin homework), growling the hymn as quietly and as nonchalantly as possible (you could get punished for not singing), then standing and trying to provoke other people to laugh during the troubled stillness of the prayers being monotonously intoned by the headteacher. It was a ‘really meaningful’ religious act.
The Roman Catholics were excused, of course. As I remember it, we didn’t persecute them or try to burn them in the school yard at break-times. They were held in awe for having the mysterious secret that enabled them to avoid the daily assembly torture as well as escape the compulsory Religious Education lessons where we quizzed the aging teachers about sex (again, and again, and again, and again).
By the time I became a teacher the hymns had gone, but in the schools I worked in, there had to be an inspiring little homily, usually on a religious theme, and there were still prayers. Although at the time I was a Christian, even I could see the pointlessness of it…
“We have the answer!”
“If you have any problem coping in any way, there is a quick and obvious fix. It is free. All you have to do, is just take it. Let it rule your life and you will be free. Compulsive thoughts? No problem, just pray. Depression? No problem, just fast and pray. Addictions? No problem, just learn a couple of New Testament letters off by heart. All the supernatural power outside the world is waiting for you. All you have to do is access it in this simple way. Of course, in former times we might have told you to flagellate yourself, but you don’t need to do that these days. We have moved on. And we do have the answer.”
There is a very interesting post by Lorena – Addiction Recovery: Can It Be Supernatural? – where she describes her contact with a Texan pastor who condemned her contact with a psychological counsellor for depression and recommended a behaviour modification program of prayer, fasting, and memorizing large chunks of the bible instead. Lorena explains her anger at this suggestion, and develops her reasons. So much of her experience and reasoning resonated with my own. It echoed my own anger at a religious faith which occasionally seems so blind to what it is encouraging people to believe and do.
Being a former evangelical church leader, and now a humanist and practising therapist, I think I can write about both of the worlds that Lorena describes with some insider knowledge…