Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Losing and gaining faith

There's an unusually civilised thread over on CiF Belief How did you lose, or find, your faith?

If AB were to refrain from writing and publishing atheist-bashing pieces and do what he claims to want to do, which is foster the kind of respectful atmosphere of this thread, then I would be much more inclined to start commenting there again.

My own situation is quite simple. I was brought up by my churchgoing parents very much in the liberal Anglican tradition. My father eventually became a Lay Reader in the Church of England, entitled to conduct Matins unassisted and to assist with the chalice at communion. And a better, gentler man you couldn't hope to meet. But by the time I was about 12 or so I realised that I had the greatest of problems with accepting all the miracle stuff (and I suspect my parents had similar difficulties, which was why it was never emphasised at home).

I remember being sent off to summer camp one year about this age, and it turned out to be a rather more religious affair than my parents had quite bargained for. At one point in Bible-study classes I asked where Abel's wife had come from, since if Adam and Eve were the first people, and they had no daughter. The answer came back "Good question. I don't know." and that was all the answer I got. When I related the story to my parents they were greatly amused at the question and the lack of answer, and thoroughly approved of me having asked it.

Still, I went through confirmation classes, partly because it didn't occur to me not to, and I didn't want to upset my parents.

Because it was a small village parish in Norfolk, I was the only person undergoing confirmation in the parish at the time, so confirmation classes were one-on-one sessions with the vicar. Apparently my mother asked him at one point how I was doing, and his answer was to the effect that all the right sorts of answers were coming out, but that there was no telling what was going on inside my head. In retrospect, I think that was an extremely perspicacious comment, as in fact I was going though it in exam mode - treating the work between sessions just as any other piece of school homework. Again, it didn't occur to me to do otherwise.

At this time, this kind of gentle liberal Anglicanism was the only experience of religion I had. When I went to university, I quietly abandoned my churchgoing habits, but was persuaded to attend a Christian Union meeting (having previously been asked by a friend to help out in their cricket team against the CU of another college). I have to say I was pretty gobsmacked. It was very evangelical, lots of singing and waving hands in the air, almost as if it was a football match, just a hint of hysteria in the air. There was lots of talk of miracles. One of the students related a story of having found £20 in the gutter just at the time he had had to pay for a replacement rear windscreen on his car, and ascribed the coincidence to God's intervention. I realised that you couldn't justify that connection.

Then I married, and it turned out that my wife's family were Australian Catholics, and my mother-in-law treated her faith in God very much as a superstition in which she genuinely believed. If prayers weren't said at the right sorts of times, all kinds of bad things would happen. This was all a massive turn-off to me, and again, I was undergoing culture shock - it had never occurred to me that there were people who treated their faith this way. In my ignorance, I had thought that almost all Christianity was the kind of gentle liberal Anglicanism I had been brought up in. So all my experiences of religion were in fact gradually persuading me that there wasn't a basis for it all.

On Dawkins' scale, I would have perhaps been a 4 on entering university (i.e. a pretty neutral agnostic) a 5 by the time I left university (an agnostic tending towards atheism). But I wasn't a complete atheist since I acknowledged that there wasn't any way you could disprove God's existence, and I hadn't yet acquired the sophistication of thought on how to deal with unfalsifiable God concepts.

Then in my 30s I joined a private internet forum, which had a bunch of very bright people, and we got discussing just about everything. And when religion came up I found myself arguing against the religious claims most of the time, and increasingly found how threadbare they were. By the time Dawkins published The God Delusion, there wasn't really anything in it that I hadn't already worked out for myself, but it was something of a comfort to see it all written out in black & white in somebody else's words, and to see that others had reached the same conclusions.

About the one thing that TGD did was to make me that much less willing to identify with the liberals against the evangelicals in the Church of England's perpetual tussles between them. Partly as a result of TGD (though I suspect the idea had already been growing in my mind) I concluded that the liberal versions of Christianity were just as irrational as the evangelical versions. Their immediate consequences were less harmful, but in effect they lent cover and respectability to the less reputable forms of religion, and I was not prepared to go along with it.

This weeks Question on CIF includes the following statement:

To gain faith, or lose it, are curiously similar experiences

It is interesting to compare the experiences of those posting with that assertion. It seems to me that gaining faith is very much a sudden and emotional experience. The phrase "born again" captures the essence of it very well. But the various reports of the experiences of losing faith are a very great contrast to that - they are a very gradual process of acknowledgement that the foundations of a person's faith are not fit to bear the structure built on top of them. That is my own experience, and the essence of it seems to have been shared by most others who have described the process of losing faith.

So it appears that gaining faith and losing it are very different kinds of experiences.

I was very struck by the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong when I first came across them.

I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a loved one’s sickness, allow a particular athletic team to defeat its opponent, or affect the weather for anyone’s benefit. I do not think it appropriate for me to pretend that those things are possible when everything I know about the natural order of the world I inhabit proclaims that they are not.

That sums me up very well. Spong is still looking for an alternative way of describing his experience of God. I have decided that the God of theism is so thoroughly ingrained as the commonly understood definition of the word that to re-use it with any other meaning is going to cause confusion. So I don't believe in God.

1 comment:

  1. My own experiences of gaining and losing 'faith' were different in that the former was a much slower process than the latter.I have given a brief outline of losing faith at CIF on Stephen Bates' post, gaining it was tied up closely with aesthetic feelings particularly architecture and music. This eventually led to a 'bells and smells' conversion and becoming a member of an anglo-catholic congregation. However I never really found an intellectual justification for belief ( 'there isn't one' i hear you say ) and once I experienced the reality of religious life and practice my sceptical genes kicked in. So there's a huge irony for you becoming religious got me thinking properly and turned me into an atheist! I would therefore agree with Julian Baggini when he says that losing faith is a much more final event than gaining it.