Southerly by David Haywood


The Problem With Religion

I've always thought that the problem with religion (and especially Christianity) is that it's so very loud. To give but one example: our apartment in Berlin was next door to the Gethsemane Church; and the vicar and his parishioners were constantly ringing bells, and singing their heads off at all hours -- even on a Sunday morning. They had absolutely no consideration for their neighbours.

And then there was the nightly ruckus caused by a local believer when I first moved to Christchurch. We lived across the river from the Barbadoes Street Cemetery, and an unhappy Christian would begin pacing the graveyard around midnight, shouting for hours on end: "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?"

Actually the word 'shouting' doesn't begin to do justice to the volume that this chap managed to achieve. It would be more accurately described as a subterranean bass bellowing -- a noise that effortlessly passed through a double-brick wall and the pillow I had jammed over my head. Of course, the sound levels weren't helped by the neighbours, who would fling open their windows and shout passages from the Bible back at him, such as : "Go forth and multiply or I'll call the police" (Genesis 1:28).

I should mention at this point that I very much dislike people being rude to religious believers -- because it makes me feel compelled to be polite by way of balance. Thus when the Mormons knock on my door while I'm watching Top Gear, I do not greet them with icy rejection in the manner that I'd prefer. No, I offer them a nice cup of tea, and take their damned pamphlet; because I know they've had icy rejection from every other house in the street, and I feel terribly, terribly sorry for them.

In fact, I was once so polite to an American Mormon that he wept with gratitude, and told me a long story about how he'd come to Christchurch to bring the word of Brigham Young to savages living in grass huts -- only to discover that Christchurch had no grass huts and was more-or-less just like Salt Lake City, except full of people who hate Mormons.

My Glaswegian anarchist grandfather was surprisingly keen on door-knocking proselytizers, although not for spiritual reasons. He used invite them inside, sit them down, hobble them with a cup of tea, and then attempt to annihilate their system of beliefs. My grandfather loved a good argument, and -- for a Glaswegian anarchist -- knew a surprising amount of the Bible by heart. In my presence, he once enraged a Jehovah's Witness to such an extent that the Jehovah's Witness used some very un-Jehovah-like language indeed.

It was something to do with a Biblical episode in which Jesus (as a child) wanted to play with some other children, but they didn't want to play with him, and so he turned them into goats. I forget what it proved, other than the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses can be just as loud as regular Christians, and will use the word 'fuck' when sufficiently provoked. I bet that's what the parents said too -- when they saw what Jesus had done to their children.

Incidentally, I've read the Bible a couple of times, and have never found any mention of Jesus transforming children into goats, so I suppose it was invented by my grandfather purely in order to enrage proselytizers. Eventually he achieved a kind of religious trifecta -- and was banned by the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists. They used to cross the street to avoid his house.

Another problem I have with religion is its unnecessary complexity. In Christianity, there is that whole big deal about it being a strictly monotheistic religion -- except, of course, for the thing with the Holy Trinity. Yes, I understand that this is because the Trinity is like Bennifer or Brangelina, and is kind of a celebrity super-couple (plus one); but frankly, this excuse is rather stretching credulity as far as I'm concerned. As an eight-year-old, my brother tied the local Presbyterian minister in theological knots when asking for clarification on the subject. A few months later the minister had a crisis of faith and submitted his resignation; I hardly think that these two incidents were unrelated.

The most impressive theological analysis I've ever heard was from a mother in a supermarket, who was buying wrapping-paper with her child. "We celebrate Christmas because that's the day that Jesus was born," she said. "He wore sandals -- just like you."

They should get this woman to do a new translation of the Bible, in my opinion. It would probably save a lot of wars, and I know it would do no end of good for the sandal industry.

Of course, it's not very nice to poke fun at sincerely-held religious beliefs, and I daresay that many people will find my light-hearted words on this subject to be slightly uncomfortable-making. But consider how impolite religious believers can be towards one another.

Religion A: My God is the only true god. He is kind and just. He knows everything and he can perform any miracle that he wants. My god is omnipresent -- that means he's everywhere, even in the plumbing!

Religion B: Fancy being so superstitious! Your God is just a figment of your silly imagination. My God is the only true god. He is genuinely kind and just, and can really do all the things that your imaginary god claims to be able to do. Plus he's the God of love and tolerance. Oh, and if you don't believe me I'll kill you!

Religion A: Not if I kill you first!

Followers of the Scottish Premier Football League will be familiar with the general flavour of such philosophical debates, and indeed the above conversation could equally well be rendered as follows:

Rangers' FC supporter:: Jimmy McGrory kicked like a jessie!

Celtic FC supporter: I disprove your argument thus...

Rangers' FC supporter:: Oof! [as his nose is broken by a head-butt from Celtic FC supporter...]

Mind you, even if religion were as simple as "everyone should wear sandals" it wouldn't do any good. It seems to me that, generally speaking, most believers not only don't know what their religion is actually about, but they don't care much either. After all, if you're uninformed of the detail then it's easier to make the religion agree with what you'd prefer to think -- rather than having to believe what it says.

And, of course, they care even less about understanding anyone else's belief system. In my bleaker moments, I'm sometimes tempted to view religion as simply another form of tribalism -- albeit with the added bonus of an afterlife with feasting and virgins and houses made of solid gold and no annoying atheists.

Sometimes it's hard to look beyond the ghastlier manifestations of religion: the suicide bombs; the wickedness of Brendan Smyth and Graham Capill; the hypocrisy of Ted Haggard; the intolerance of Pat Robertson and Brian Tamaki. I could go on and on -- and thoroughly depress myself.

But then I remember the legions of genuine believers who unassumingly devote themselves to helping other people. As in other aspects of life, it's the quiet ones that are so easily overlooked. The volunteers who deliver meals-on-wheels, the kind-hearted people who give hospitality to strangers in need, those who donate their time to collect for charity-clothing organizations, who visit the sick in hospital, and the unfashionable and un-thanked people of many faiths who bring comfort to prisoners.

When you focus on these quiet believers, who aren't loudly self-promoting and self-righteous, then you realize that -- in some interpretations at any rate -- there is no problem with religion at all.

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