Ticking the “no religion” box on this year’s Census was done without hesitation. Well I say without hesitation, but it left me pondering how I got to the stage where I don’t believe in any God, don’t pray, do not believe in an afterlife, and never attend any place of worship.
Some of you reading this will know that I took myself off to Church aged 11, studied theology at university and spent the bulk of my working life managing the land and property assets that belong to the Church of England. It has been a bit of a journey – my “love affair” with Christianity lasted about 30 years!
It all started with Miss Rose; my RE teacher at Whitchurch High School and a lesson she delivered on the Old Testament story of the burning bush. She attempted some theology and tried to explain to us that there were three possibilities that explained the miracle of the Burning Bush:
1. It was just that, a miracle
2. The bush may have been a “desert rhododendron” that suddenly came into bloom (still not sure if that might be true)
3. It may have been an act of spontaneous combustion, where the bush sparked into flames because of the heat of the desert, and then all the loose and dry leaves burned, leaving the main bulk of the bush in place.
Take your pick!
I left that classroom (having had to draw a picture of said bush) with a firm belief in my own option (number 4).
Option 4 goes something like this:
…there was no flaming bush – bushes do not suddenly burst into flames and then remain intact. And neither do messengers of God (in my experience) appear in bushes, burning or otherwise. The story was therefore made up.
I was only 11 – the tragedy is Miss Rose did not feel able to say to me that the story was “made up” but it was made up for a reason. And if only she could have, she may have found that her class listened up!
The joy of a theological education was to escape me for the next 7 years…
King’s College, London was (in the 80’s at least) considered to be a good place to study theology and my first lecture entitled “what was so special about the tin-pot charismatic from Galilee” offered a glimpse that my three years might not be completely wasted as there were lecturers there willing to challenge us.
Prof Leslie Houlden (contributer to the ground-breaking Myth of God Incarnate) took me and a mate to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street during my last term and imparted what I believe now to be the central problem with Christianity or indeed any religion. He put it simply: “people interpret the sacred texts (like the Bible) to suit their own belief systems…until we are able to find the truth and explain it, theology will continue as a necessary subject”
As I wandered into my 20’s I at least understood that the Bible was a mix of story, myth, fable, poetry, bad history, and propaganda.
But churches across the world treat the Bible as creedal. I used to sit in Churches and slowly but surely, like the effects of a dripping tap, my belief was dissolving.
It was a struggle to “let go”. There will always remain something magical for me in a Gothic Anglo-Catholic Church. Add some choral music and a soaring clarinet and I’m transported. Every time!
But by the time I reached 30 my church going had all but stopped. Two things had made my attendance impossible.
• The whole notion of “Jesus dying for our sins” became an abhorrent bit of theology for me. The Easter story is steeped in the ancient religious belief systems and language of Sacrifice. I used to think about it…A sacrificial lamb, crucified on a cross…for our wrong doings. No! It just feels wrong to me – unjust, ugly, and not wanted.
• The “evangelical” side of most religion, not just Christianity, makes me feel nauseous. I reached the very clear view that even if I believed everything fully; I still would not necessarily want others to feel the same. I am a born liberal – each to his own. There is no way on earth I could share my religious beliefs with anyone. I’m just not built that way.
One of the many curses of studying theology is that the minute you mention it (especially in pubs) people like to have a discussion! Such discussions usually follow on from the question “what did I think of the Da Vinci Code!?” They get easier now. I get in very quickly the fact that I do not believe in God. That’s a big statement, but the thing is, I just don’t!
But don’t worry; I remain un-evangelical about it. Forceful atheists can be just as boring and annoying as street preaching evangelicals in my book.
So there we are. Full circle. Back to Bob aged 11 walking out of an RE class thinking I’ll believe in burning bushes when I see one!
ps. I have not read the Da Vinci Code. Life is too short #fact