Religion affects and permeates every element of society. In this blog, Adrian tries to explain how he disconnected from his religious beliefs and poses the question of what is left when it has gone.
I guess there are many people who have some concept of a Supreme Being, overseer, creator or ‘other-worldly’ force that shapes our lives, whether people are affiliated to one of the many organised religions or simply see themselves as religious without going to a church or other house or place of worship. I somewhat unwittingly subscribed to a very loose set of religious beliefs. A set of beliefs that permeated into my subconscious as I grew, the local culture providing the social framework that I operated within, dictating my social limits and setting forth a mind set that shaped my world view. I just happen to have been born into a Christian culture.
This ‘religious’ world view will often be called upon in assessing a course of action in a social situation or a moral decision, whether that’s in the course of raising a child, interactions with friends, deciding on helping or leaving a person to suffer, to judge right from wrong, provide concepts of good and evil as well as an array of challenges that everyone has to navigate throughout their lives. That is not to say that religion provided all the answers to situations. Basic humanity and humanist qualities are always a major factor, but the religious filter in which all things were considered was a major one. The level at which we draw on a religion or religious belief to assist us along a path varies greatly of course, from the subtle, gentle rumblings of ‘there is something more’ to the more extremist view, each scale of doctrinal faith providing another filter in which to assess and make decisions.
As I mentioned, I considered myself to be around the ‘very loose’ or possibly ‘moderate’ end of the religious spectrum. I attended Sunday school and the usual Christian ceremonies including baptism and marriage and swore an oath to God and the Queen in the Boy Scouts and attended various parades. The church was the epicentre of the community, respectable people attended and circled around the church and its activities. The mild religious world view manifests itself as a set of responses to certain situations based on those childhood and early adulthood experiences. It is a deep, subconscious filter creating habitual thought processes. If there is a death in the family then you would console yourself with the thought that it is part of a larger plan by an all knowing being or that you will be reunited after your own death or be consoled that they are still by your side as a presence, helping you the rest of the way. There are other moments I would pray for a loved one if they were ill, to do well in an exam, to show appreciation for something good that has happened or to help draw me out of a long patch of depression. This religious reasoning served me well enough and most things in my life could be attributed to a greater force. When my closest friend died at 15 years old in a car accident I consoled myself with the thought that it was his time and I would meet him again one day.
There then came a time when understanding and reasoning without religion were sought to provide comfort, albeit unconsciously in the beginning. A moment, or series of moments, when religion was just not enough or did not provide any comfort. This is an incredibly powerful switch where reason is called upon to help me through a difficult time rather than the default religious comfort of my youth. I began to address difficulties through understanding, applying the mind using parameters that embrace reason, and it worked. The joy is incredibly intense as there was a shift in my outlook on life from one of a passenger to an active participant leading in the healing and shaping of my own mind. A click of resonance that can physically reverberate through your body and a technique that can be applied to all life’s experience. A seed of reasoning that demands facts and understanding to grow and is critical of everything in the search of truth that is often very elusive, from the spoon fed news to the intricate workings of our own mind, from the seemingly unfair nature of the monetary system in which we live to the slow depletion of the planet as we extract resources. The shift in my psychological outlook from one of religious passenger to fact focussed driver was at first a subtle shift but one that eventually grows and finally turns its attention to the religion embedded within me from those early days of my Christian culture.
The reason inspired de-construction of a closely held personal belief is hard and the dissection of one that includes religion can be incredibly painful, even for the mild-mannered moderate like myself. It takes courage to pick apart your own beliefs, even if it means you will be in pain during and after doing it, especially in the moments where your religious beliefs act as a crutch through difficult times. To think that the person close to you will not be going to heaven and you will not see them again. This newly discovered ultimate finality of death is difficult to swallow and forms just one of the ideals propped up by faith. The attention falling on my own beliefs was an inevitable consequence of a broader dissatisfaction with my understanding of my own mind and the world in which I live and a desire to see things more clearly. The start of the replacement of those religious comforts with something purer and simpler had started.
In the midst of the dissection of my beliefs I also realised that religion was not applied to every minute of every day so there were already large gaps where I would not consciously dip into its assistance, realising more and more that it is possible to live large parts of my daily life already without turning to religion. There were already large gaps in the day where I may operate away from the conscious thoughts of a God, only applying religious meanings in the quieter, lonelier moments to help console and sooth. There may be moments when I was spending time dealing with the bills, thinking my way through a bad day at work with a colleague, chatting to a therapist or laughing at a comedy show on BBC radio 4. It is only occasional moments that I would apply the religious significance to things, although quite often I would realise that I’ve solved and worked my way through some problems using reason and understanding alone. I realised again that I have a new set of skills and the dawning that I can use these same learnt skills in the future.
The religious ideals and understandings from my early years ultimately required believing in something that cannot be proven by facts and science and becoming comfortable with this in the face of a new reasoning outlook. The more you rely on empirical evidence, the more it becomes difficult to reconcile your religious differences. The workings of your own mind are difficult enough to comprehend and figure out; the emotions, anxieties, loves and passions without a mix of unnecessary cloudiness and a belief system that was becoming less useful in actually helping.
So ultimately, painful as it was, I slowly shed my religious beliefs and replaced them with a fresh new view of the world, one of intricate beauty, awe, amazement and of just one life that teeters on the edge of chance and impending death. The reason it was so painful was because this mythical, Godly companion had been there my whole life in times of need, but now leaving me truly alone, scared and isolated. But, this was gradually replaced by a feeling of urgency. An urgency that I am alone, life is fragile and every minute is a moment to be enjoyed and appreciated, every conversation with a friend to be relished and every person I hug to be done as my last. The view that I will not meet my loved ones again is a painful thought and to not turn to this for comfort in times of need is very hard, but think about it; the moment you are with them now could be the last, the moments you spend with friends on this earth are the only times you will see them before you’re the wrong side of the grass. If you hold onto that urgency then it places so much emphasis on the moment and dispenses with the illusion of immortality. Religion is often proposed as an antidote for the human condition of loneliness but I can no longer suspend reason to attain it. My disconnection from God was a hard but an incredibly valuable realisation for me and one I needed.
This inevitably leads onto the question of the space that is left when religion is removed and what we do to fill it. How can the wonders of life be reconciled with science and reason when they seem so woefully inadequate to encapsulate the whole human experience? What can reason say of love, awe, wonder, deep felt connections with people and family and of course, the unexplained. This is where we can develop our own view of the world and, importantly, being comfortable with just not knowing. There is no shame in the not knowing and it does not need a ‘God’ to explain things that there is currently no evidence for. As a starting point for life beyond science and reason, its worth accepting that some of the things science unveils is intensely inspiring and our recent history has been peppered with an incredible new understanding of the world never before experienced by humans. This contains a great amount of groundwork for rebuilding a personal ‘spirituality’ without religion. The next step is really up to us.