In the beginning....

I think I was about 6 when I started to have "issues" with God. I was brought up in a religious household, and like most children of that age I tended to believe what I was told. Then in 1972 the Tutankhamun exhibition came to the UK - I was too young to go to it, and my mother, in any case, refused point-blank to stand in any queue for longer than 30 minutes (Tut queuers allegedly waited up to 8 hours, so she did have a point!). If I couldn't go to London, I was determined to read up on as much "Tutology" as I could, and so started a long term love affair with Ancient Egypt.

But then one day came a rather puzzling moment. I had been happily reading about the great plethora of Egyptian gods, and it suddenly struck me that your average Ancient Egyptian had believed quite sincerely in these gods. Indeed chaos had resulted in the country when Tut's father, Akhenaten, decided he wanted nothing to do with them, and was going to worship a very different god. Even my 6 year old mind knew that there was nothing particularly stupid about Ancient Egyptians - the evidence of the pyramids would certainly suggest otherwise. In many respects they were rather like us, how could they have been so wrong? How could "my" god trump theirs, when they had thought that "their" gods were so correct? It was a puzzle.

It got even more puzzling as I became older and discovered that not only had other people at different times believed equally sincerely in other gods, but that many people on the current planet had differing belief systems. I struggled with belief through much of my childhood before deciding around the time I went to university that I didn't believe in God.

In some ways this was a bit of a relief, in other ways very difficult, as I happened to be an organist. And it's pretty impossible to get away from the church if that's your chosen instrument. Some incredible examples of stupidity from church people around this time only reinforced my unbelief. A member of the cathedral that I happened to be an organ scholar at announced to a stupefied group of cathedral related diners that York Minster had been struck by lightning as God's revenge on the then Bishop of Durham, who had expressed doubts about the virgin birth, and the physicality of the Resurrection. The Dean, who was a dear good man, muttered that he would have thought God would be a better shot.

Post-university, still playing the organ, still feeling very uncomfortable and torn, unbelieving but knowing that as a musician the organ was my livelihood, I attended a rather more liberal church. This was actually a real game-changer for me. I finally had the room where, if I couldn't be entirely honest about my feelings, I could at least be open about questioning beliefs that seemed odd, out-dated, or even plain cruel to me. I became interested in liberal theology, and as a result I ended up moving back towards belief again, albeit with some views that I kept carefully hidden away from my more orthodox parents and friends, for fear of hurting them.

Where am I now? Writing this has been an interesting experience, which came out of reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. The God Delusion is, I guess, a call to atheism with the first four chapters arguments against the existence of God (or gods), while the latter part of the book looks at morality and human society with or without religion (would we still be good without God?). Dawkins contends that the world would be a much happier place without the sometimes malign influence of religion.

Personally I wasn't too surprised that I found the first 4 chapters difficult going. Much as I admire Dawkins' writing on evolutionary matters, he can sound rather hysterical when he is religion bashing, but the thing is.....he does have a point. He reiterates, I think not unfairly, that there is something not right when society can joke or be critical about anything, but that religion, or even cultural "oddities" that are put down as religious custom are beyond reproach. I would certainly rather be kind than anything else, and would hate to stamp on anyone's religious (or cultural) sensibilities; but can't that path eventually lead to accommodating those who wish to impose their particular belief system on everyone else, not just for fear of offending them, but for fear of what they might do if offended?

Move on to the end of the book, and I was much more at home. Dawkins is always thoroughly enjoyable on the subject of evolution in particular and science in general. His love for his subject shines through, and carried this reader enthusiastically with it. There are also some great nuggets of science for anyone who thinks that the universe might be a less inspiring place without God/s. My favourite being "Every time you drink a glass of water the odds are that you will imbibe at least one molecule that passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell. It's just elementary probability theory...And of course, there's nothing special about Cromwell or bladders [though I rather think Dawkins had Cromwell's "Bowels of Christ" speech in his mind while penning this analogy] -- you have just breathed in a nitrogen atom that passed through the right lung of the third iguanodon to the left of the tall cycad tree". I do think this is a wonderful breathtaking image, guaranteed to entrance anyone who loves the world that surrounds us.

Did the book convince me that atheism was the only way forward? No, although I enjoyed it hugely, and agreed with much of the writer's own beliefs. Dawkins contends that a world without religion would be a better place. I'm not convinced that this is true not least because I feel that much of the evil that has been committed in this world in the name of religious belief is just that - evil. Couching it in terms of "I am doing it for God" makes it feel acceptable to the person who commits the deed, and can make it look acceptable to those who choose to think that way, but it doesn't make it right. People have done very evil things in the name of their country, or in the name of political beliefs, but in those cases too, I think it is less to do with what they say it is for, and more to do with justifying their own base actions. Of course if religious, or political, belief had never existed it would be impossible to do this; but I think that cat has been out of its bag for far too long.

Would we be good without God? I think the answer to that is by and large yes. But without the influence of religion some things would be very different. Coincidentally I was listening to the St. Mattthew Passion while reading The God delusion. It struck me that Bach would always have been Bach, he would always have been the genius he was, but I suspect that without his personal belief system, he would have been a rather different Bach. Some works just wouldn't have been written, and I suspect that oddly some of the humanity of his music would have been lost without his belief.

Shortly after I finished the book, a 10-13 year old boy walked into a wedding reception in Turkey, and blew himself up. He did it in the name of his god on, presumably, the instruction of evil people, who had found a young mind ripe for manipulation. Never had The God Delusion seemed so relevant. People have weird beliefs, we all choose to believe in something that isn't tangible to us, whether it's a religious belief, a political viewpoint, or how we think other people view us. And whatever we believe, in my opinion, is fine, as long as it doesn't hurt others.

Writing this, I realised that Dawkins did have a very good point. I find writing about my personal religious beliefs hard. I can talk more openly and easily about just about anything else. Like most people I vacillate, some days there's more clarity, other days more confusion. And, you know, I'm okay with that. I don't expect anyone else to share my beliefs, and I don't want or expect anyone else to impose their beliefs on me. The natural world values diversity, perhaps we should follow its lead.


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