Life After Church, Part 3.

(a continuation of the series started by slb and quadmoniker)

I’m a heathen. My schoolmates’ word, not mine. While they would file out for Ash Wednesday mass and other religious observances I would sit in the classroom with the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses to “do something constructive”. I am the only person in my family with no history of religious affiliation. My father and brother are baptized Catholics while my mother is Anglican. Recently I had a conversation with G.D. about religion and he wondered whether some people are just born with a threshold for the kind of belief that religious faith requires – an inbred skepticism. If this is possible I think I inherited mine from my dad.

“You don’t go around poking holes in people or picking their religion when they aren’t old enough to voice an opinion about it.” This was my father’s explanation for why I had neither pierced ears nor a christening as an infant, much to my mother’s chagrin. My upbringing wasn’t devoid of religion though. While we lived in Bermuda we went to a non-denominational church – the “No Name” brand of Christianity. I went to Sunday School. I learned bible verses, hymns and choruses. I really loved to sing and it’s probably the only thing about church I missed when I stopped going. My father taught me to pray, saying the Lord’s Prayer with me every night before I went to sleep. I vividly remember sitting with my children’s bible totally engrossed by the stories. I loved reading about Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath. But in retrospect stories is all they were. Although I understood the idea of God and knew the story of Jesus I don’t recall feeling either love or fear where they were concerned. I did love my father though. He never talked much about God or Jesus but he made me repeat the Golden Rule every day: do unto others as you would have done unto you.

We trundled along in our comfortable state until my father had a near fatal motorcycle accident when I was 6. His early retirement from the police force and the consequent financial strain prompted my parents to repatriate to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There are 117,000 people in St. Vincent and over 100 churches. In school we pray 4 times a day: morning assembly, before lunch, after lunch and dismissal. God is invoked in everything – people tack “D.V.” at the end of every other sentence. Deo Volente. God Willing. Being asked what church you belong to is as routine as being asked where you live. In the upheaval of the move and Dad’s convalescence and Mom becoming the only working adult, church fell by the wayside. I finished out my last year and a half of grade school in a school that was small and private so I was largely buffered from uncomfortable questions. High school marked the beginning of more pointed inquisitions.

I freely offered that I was not christened because I recognized the note of pride in my father’s voice when he talked about it. I was surprised by the level of hostility that was offered in return. I was already an outsider with my foreign accent and outspokenness – this was yet another thing that marked me as strange. I found myself in an awkward position. I didn’t dislike religion but I found myself being berated by people for not being religious enough. My half-hearted Christianity and doubts combined with the antagonism of my peers served to polarize my views and put me on the defensive when religion came up. In addition to this my parents’ marriage was crumbling…violently. By the time I was 15 I was sufficiently convinced that whatever “God” was he certainly wasn’t at my house – and said so openly. From that point, whenever I rejected a religious explanation or subscribed to an unpopular opinion my supposed lack of spiritual guidance was brought up, not to mention my broken home. Until I left for university I had one argument after another on anything ranging from premarital sex and homosexuality to music and movies.

Not surprisingly, going to school and living abroad made me even more liberal. Two degrees and two continents later I find myself back home again, and more out of step than ever. Like most developing nations socioeconomic problems are our chief concern. The story is common. People struggle with poverty, lack of education, unemployment and inadequate health care. The pull of drugs and violence is great. Of course we see much of the fallout in schools. I offer support and interventions for students struggling with emotional and behavioral difficulties. The problems these students face are less about their dispositions than their situations. Despite this, many of my coworkers subscribe to faith-based solutions to practical problems. I find this infuriating. It’s not unusual to find government officials in conference with delinquent students browbeating them about whether they go to church, quoting a mish-mash of bible verses. Parents, teachers and administrators like nothing better than to bemoan the attitude of “kids today” and blame it on the impiety of youth. “This is all because they stopped teaching religious education in schools you know! The country needs to make its way back to Christ!”

My frustration lies in the stasis that appears to accompany excessive reliance on religion. Believing in the Bible is one thing, legislating according to it is another. St. Vincent appears determined to live in the past, even as the rapidly changing world becomes unavoidable. I can’t help but marvel at the stubbornness that allows our government to refuse to sanction decent sex education despite rising HIV infection and teenage pregnancy rates. I rail against the popular wisdom that our society is religious when it is clearly increasingly secular. I hate being fed platitudes like “God will provide” in answer to questions about under-resourced rural schools. My aversion to religion has now become conflated with my feelings about the reactivity and resistance to change that typify Vincentian society. As such I feel compelled to champion the dissenting view because I can’t abide the blindness that comes with the alternative.

What’s curious in all this is sometimes I wish I could believe. While “religion” remains a thorn in my side I am still drawn to the concept of “faith”. Maybe it is because I am in a helping profession and humanist in my approach. Maybe all that Sunday School lodged itself deep in my subconscious. I’m not sure. But I am frequently astounded by the terrible wonderful world we live in, the awesomeness of our bodies and personalities and the promise of the future. This is why I am agnostic and not atheist: I feel something sometimes…something I cannot name but I know it’s there. Perhaps all I am feeling is that bit of the sublime that is in us all. I wonder if I am taking the coward’s way out by being agnostic. An atheist has his belief there is no god, while an agnostic has…doubt? It seems so wishy-washy. This isn’t a debate I’ll be done having with myself anytime soon. I suppose what I struggle with most is my desire for the debate to be personal as opposed to what feels like a constant conflict between myself and the rest of my country.

  • I love this “Life After Church” series.

  • I know what you mean. Moving back to Ghana after college was kind of an interesting time for me for similar reasons. My guess is St. Vincent’s obsession with religion is very similar to what I had to deal with. Was the country ever properly secular or has it always been like this?

  • Kwasi: Are you sure you mean to ask me if if was ever properly secular? Our past is overwhelmingly religious and this informs the rhetoric and attitudes most people employ. However, society is becoming increasingly secular despite the lip service we pay to religion.

  • I wonder if I am taking the coward’s way out by being agnostic. An atheist has his belief there is no god, while an agnostic has…doubt? It seems so wishy-washy.

    This is why I avoid calling myself anything. I feel like agnostic is wishy-washy, but I can’t quite bring myself to claiming atheism. Maybe because it seems so final? Anyway, *great* piece, UE. :-)

  • UE: I guess this is one of those historic differences. With us the country has always been religious but the business of government started out very secular and then changed with time. The original version of our national anthem didn’t even mention god.

    Shani: I’m not really sure its wishy-washy to say you don’t know. I think one of the issues I tend to have with people on both sides is how willing they are to claim absolute knowledge of the truth for very shaky reasons. IMO sometimes “I don’t know” is the most honest response

  • Simplyvee

    I can understand the rational behind agnostic being wishy-washy and I find myself having to think about it for a while before I say what I am. I would prefer to take your route Shani and not claim to anything but I am sad to say that at times I take the easy way out and just say that I am Catholic. Which is how I was raised. But then being Catholic is probably the main reason I have so much doubt about what true faith or religion is. Not to mention being from St. Vincent as well. I have witnessed your frustration UE and I wish I can say it will get better. But it won’t.
    Maybe my lack of faith is linked to my lack of faith in my country.

  • Kwasi: That’s really interesting. Here, god is all up and through government and the anthem, and the national pledge. Small wonder it’s not in the coat of arms, that’s “Pax et Justitia”: Peace and Justice.

  • Vee: I found the second half of the piece hard to write for that reason. I feel like I’m not just talking about religion, but how I feel about SVG as a place, and the whole philosophy that surrounds life here. The way religion functions here in my mind has now become a metaphor for so many other problems I have with this place. It’s sad because it makes it feel less and less like somewhere that I can feel truly at home.

  • Simplyvee

    UE: You are like a modern day Socrates, with boobs. From your revolutionary teachings to your impending doom of being charged with Who knows. But you are right about it feeling less and less like somewhere I want to call home.

  • I have to disagree with the assertion that agnosticism is ‘wishy-washy.’ It’s the only logically defensible faith position, but it’s a pretty humble one on top of being a reasonable one.

  • ladyfresshh

    the picture you painted is frightening as much as i love my family i would be afraid to have government in lock step with their views…oh wait we are just coming out of 4 years of Bush…nevermind.

  • ladyfresshh

    yep denial…make that 8 years

  • G.D.: Even though I know that I don’t feel it all the time. Of course I have a thought out reason for why I am agnostic, and it makes “sense” but it’s not always satisfying if you get what I mean.

  • Steve

    I’m a huge fan of this series I can relate to it in so many ways…

  • Simplyvee

    Not to open a new can of worms but I am just curious as to what exactly you may believe in. What’s your concept of God? Has you lack of faith in the government/country/people crippled your faith in anything else but yourself?

  • Vee: Both my mom and dad said basically the same thing – that you have to live trying as hard as you can not to deliberately hurt anyone and maintaining integrity in your actions and decisions. I guess what I believe in is being principled, and as far as possible, honest. I find it hard to believe in a creator, or any anthropomorphized image of “God” but I do believe in the interconnectedness of all things in the world – that we are a web and maybe that in itself is divine. To an extent I believe in karma, not as punishment or “fate” but as cause and effect and the consequent ripples cause by a particular action, the motivation of the doer, stuff like that. I think the energy we send out into the world in the form of deeds, thoughts and actions affects what we receive. Note, I didn’t say “dictates” because the world is not a just place – horrible things happen to innocent people all the time.

    I think my past experiences have prepared me to be more focused on what I can do for myself. I do believe in self-determination to a great degree. But then some Christians believe that sort of thing, no? What about free will and “God helps those who help themselves.” ? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I lack faith in SVG or people. I haven’t fallen to such Hobbesian levels of despair just yet. I will say though that I have great hopes for people and the expectation that they can rise to the occasion but I am prepared to be disappointed.

  • KienTitel

    I am, ummm, I dunno what I am other than a human being, a lover of knowledge, an admirer of tenacity and a fighter for mental freedom. I don’t care if God exists, I don’t think it matters if he does. What i think matters are people’s attitudes. In my opinion, here in St Vincent, yes i am also from St Vincent, there is a culture of learned helplessness; most people lack the impetus to get up and do something for themselves. If there is something that they want to do or attain their first course of action is almost invariably to seek a solution in the ‘spiritual realm’ it is sad and funny at the same time. A sick person will literally sit and pray about an ailment instead of going to a doctor – even if they do go to the doctor, their pastor’s/priest’s opinion is valued more than that of a trained medical professional. I myself grew up in a very devout Christian setting. In fact i vividly remember being told “you need to pray to pass your exams if dont pray you wont pass” well i subsequently failed/under performed in most of my classes. It wasn’t until i started reading Marcus Aurelius, Friedrich Nietzsche, de Sade etc that I found that succes/failure are all tenets of the mind/the will. This is something that cannot be taught, an individual must find it on their own. Most people, I have found, at one time or another have actually realized this. However, sadly, most of them attempt to interpret this realization using the old worn out instrument of religious dogma.
    Having said this, I dont think that there is much hope for those who ignorantly hold onto said dogma. And frankly it is best to leave them to wallow in their ignorance.