I remember being told as a small child that God was in the sky, so I recall looking up, seeing the Sun (it’s hard to miss, you know) and going, “ok, I get it, the Sun is God”.
Imagine the face of the Sunday School teacher when I announced this in her class bright an early one Summer Sunday! She probably thought I was this floppy haired, supposedly good Catholic boy, being brought up in some Sun-God worshipping quasi-Druidic cult. I’m not sure what they expected from me though, dd she really think that small children were able to grasp metaphysical ideas like a God that is in a place in the sky that isn’t somewhere I can visit? At this point I still thought faxes rolled themselves up into very small tubes and threaded themselves down the wire. It’s hard enough to hold on to your belief in the Easter Bunny (even though that one uses chocolate, not an afterlife, as the reward) at that age, give me a break!
So, when I was about 8 I remember telling myself “No, the Sun is not God, God is up there somewhere but you can’t see him and neither can astronauts when they go into space” and then getting this sinking feeling, a mixture of remorse for being wrong and an unmistakable sense of my faith draining away.
That didn’t stop me from going to Church nigh on every Sunday with my mother for the next 6 years or so. I took communion, said my Our Fathers and Hail Marys, took confession and tried to believe in the letter of the Bible.
But it was hard. I had a lot of questions and after my Sun/God fiasco I was scared to ask for fear of being wrong.
Why did my teachers tell me about the Big Bang if the Bible said everything was made in seven days? Who was right? I knew for sure neither of them was ‘lying’ exactly but it’s not like their versions of events were even remotely similar.
The one that really got to me was the hypocrisy of a omnipotent and benevolent God. If we were his creations, his children, and he loved unconditionally with this limitless capacity for care and attention, then we do we still kill each other and why do earthquakes happen? Why doesn’t he intervene or prevent them in the first place? I know the answer from my priest was ‘he is, imagine how much worse things would be if he didn’t intervene’ so my response was ‘so he’s not omnipotent then, he isn’t capable of preventing these disasters, just reducing them’ … this makes him appear considerably less omnipresent and powerful than he’s made out to be in the Bible. A troublesome concept for the billions of the devout offering him their prayers for help.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still define very much as a Christian. I feel connected and included in the religion and it’s community and, to some extent, I believe. I tend to only go to Church on Easter and Christmas but then I do enjoy the visit, I always found Church very relaxing.
So where does that leave us? I don’t think that my situation is in any way unique. I am sure there are lots of children out there yearning to ask serious, often unintentionally blasphemous, questions about the religions they grew up with but can’t. When you’re that age you’re so inquisitive, but you’re usually asking where babies come from, not inquiring as to the nature of the divine! So the fear of being wrong couples with a fear of rejection by this community that you’re in. It’s so much easier to keep your head down, say ‘thanks’ instead of ‘amen’ when the priest gives you the wafer (sorry, body of Christ, forgetting my transubstantiation) and gradually lose your faith as a result of unanswered questions.
Often religions shy away from questions. They avoid them under the false pretence that questions will weaken them or damage the faith of their followers by sowing the seeds of doubt. They are categorically wrong. Religion should embrace the doubtful and always seek out and challenge difficult problems in their dogma. Questions act to reinforce the devotion and understanding people have of their religion. The process of addressing these questions gives the devout an opportunity to strengthen their belief and to consider possibilities they might not have thought of and to come up with answers to them.
Answers, that’s the crucial word in this story. What was religion first devised for? (If you can agree that it was devised, from an atheist point of view) Religion was a story that was told to give people simple answers to difficult questions and to put their minds at rest. Why do we die? What happens after? What are dreams? Why do we exist? Whether it’s problems raised by science, politics or the media, religions should be constantly providing an alternative answer to life’s difficult questions. It shouldn’t be ‘because God said so (a terrible answer I received once) but specific and useful. Imagine that, an alternative 6 o’clock news with frank responses from religious figures on the goings on in the world.
“Today, several people were killed in a flood in Pakistan” – and the response from The Reverend Dr. Douglass Bailey “Bad things happen in the freedom that comes with the gift of life. When bad things happen to any of God’s children, God is grieved and suffers with us”
Now that’s a much better theological response to a tough question. Embrace it, accept it and allow it to make your faith stronger.