Believers claim that God is omnipotent, the creator of heaven and earth. Occasionally in the Bible we see evidence of his powers – raining down plagues and destruction on people he didn’t approve of, making fire suddenly appear from nowhere, whisking a few favoured individuals up into heaven, turning a woman into a pillar of salt and other useful antics. Through Jesus, God supposedly raised people from the dead, fed hundreds with a few meagre supplies and, just to show he was no party-pooper, turned water into wine.
But what’s he been up to since then? Seems to me he’s been a tad shy and retiring for the last couple of thousand years. Although there have been plenty of opportunities for him to show his mighty power, thrill the faithful and confound the doubters, God seems to be resolutely sticking to the small stuff. These days he might help someone to find their car keys or pass an exam. Sometimes he does something a little more impressive, like helping someone to recover from a serious illness or injury when they weren’t expected to (although in most cases, people just die). But surely there’s so much more an all-powerful being could be doing?
God has been quite happy to allow rape, plunder, enslavement, torture, destruction and murder on a grand scale throughout the years. Did he stop the Inquisition in its tracks with a few nasty plagues? No. Did he swallow up the Nazis in the depths of the sea or the bowels of the earth before they had chance to fill the death camps? No. Did he step in to halt the genocide in Rwanda? No. Has he put an end to killer diseases such as malaria, typhoid or cancer? No. Did he put forth his mighty hand to stop the Asian tsunami, or protect millions from the effects of the Ethiopian famine? Did he divert Hurricane Katrina from her course to avoid death and destruction? Again, no.
In fact, what the hell has God been doing all this time? Has he lost his powers, or simply lost interest in us?
Just one more reason to believe that God is about as substantial as a puff of smoke and as likely to exist as pigs are to sprout wings and take to the sky.
The other day I had a conversation with a work colleague about religion. Or rather, she did most of the talking and I listened, interjecting a comment only occasionally. She felt that another work colleague of ours took her Christian evangelical beliefs much too seriously and had missed the point of religion all together. Religion, she explained, was all about being kind to others and doing good. You could do that without all the conditions that religion placed on faith. Our mutual colleague, she said, was wasting precious time adhering strictly to codes that were restricting her life, rather than enhancing it.
She went on to explain that she, too, was a Christian and had been quite fundamentalist in her views and actions for about 20 years. She had given her all to her church, rising to positions of responsibility that had required a lot of her time, effort and resources. Gradually she began to notice the self-righteousness of her fellow church members, an attitude of being better than others and a strong tendency to form exclusive cliques. She had finally decided that the core of religion was simple goodness and had resigned her onerous responsibilities and opted for a much more basic approach to her faith. She had received no thanks for all her previous hard work and no support from her co-religionists. She now attended a church that preached and practised simple faith and caring for others and felt a lot happier.
I could relate to much of what she was talking about. As a dedicated Mormon, I had been zealous in living my faith. So much so that, looking back, I can see all too clearly the social life that I missed out on, the potential friendships that I forfeited and the unnecessary restrictions that ruled my life and almost completely obliterated the person that I really was inside. Baptism into the church was said to be symbolic of burying the “natural man” and being reborn a new person. It was many years before I realised that my baptism had buried the real me and raised up an artificial stranger in its place.
As a Mormon, my thoughts and actions were dictated by scripture, commandments and church teachings. I had to suppress my natural instincts and impulses and act in accordance with someone else’s script for my life. Of course, in those days I thought that the someone else was God, acting through his earthly representatives. Whereas, before, my attitude had been “live and let live”, following baptism I developed very fixed ideas of who and what was wrong and right (viewed through the lens of Christianity and, more particularly, Mormonism). I began to value conformity above individuality, to look down on people who acted in a “worldly” way (i.e. smoked, drank, went to pubs or clubs and generally enjoyed themselves) and to see any deviation from complete obedience to church teachings and commandments as a sign of weakness and lack of faith.
As my co-worker had noticed in her Christian acquaintances, I too was very self-righteous and judgemental of others during my true-believing Mormon years. I realise now that it was a most offensive and unpleasant attitude to have. Like her, I had noticed the “clique-iness” of my own church congregation, mostly along social and economic lines. I had worked hard for the church, often at the expense of my limited free time, never refusing a call to serve and taking on responsible positions within the local children’s and women’s organisations of the church. When I finally realised that the church was not what I had always believed it to be and decided that I needed to step away from it for a while to get my bearings, I received no thanks for over 20 years of service and virtually no support from church members who I had naively thought were my friends.
Unlike my work colleague, though, I hadn’t turned to another form of religion when I became disillusioned with Mormonism, although at one point I did consider possibly attending a Unitarian church. My journey away from my church turned into a journey away from God and religion in general and it’s been a journey of personal self-discovery and a cause for great rejoicing.
One of the interesting things about our one-sided conversation was that, at any time, I could have recounted my own parallel experiences as a believing Mormon and as an ex-Mormon (although technically I’m still classed as a member of the church). But something held me back from revealing my religious past. I decided that I didn’t want to be known as a former believer, but as the person I am now, someone who has no belief in God or religion, a humanist. It’s as though the “new person” that was raised up through baptism has now been buried and the natural me has been resurrected. I can make my own decisions about how I view things and accept that most people are just trying to get through life in the best (or sometimes the only) way they know how. I can say what I think and do what I want, regardless of whether or not it conforms to someone else’s ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable or “righteous”. I can embrace my natural instincts instead of repressing them and I don’t have to continually measure myself – and others – against some impossible standard. I can swear and drink wine and watch R-rated movies without the least twinge of guilt. I never did those things very much before I joined the LDS church, and I don’t do them a lot now, but that’s my choice. That’s me, not the artificial goody-goody person that I used to be.
To some extent I can identify with the young woman that my colleague was talking about, because I can see my own experience in the way she is choosing to live her life. I wonder if, one day, she’ll feel that she’s missed out on some important things because of the restraints that her faith imposes. I hope, if she does, that it won’t be too late to build an authentic life outside of religion and enjoy the freedom and satisfaction that casting off those shackles has brought to me.
Having been a fan of Pat Condell for quite a while now, I have to say that he hits a bullseye with his latest video: Religion of Fear. It’s refreshing to find somebody who’s willing to speak his mind without fear of retribution and, as a matter of fact, echo my own inner thoughts on the matter. I wish that he would run for Parliament ‘cos I would back him all of the way.
On a related note, I find the news story of the Muslim bus driver who insisted that the passengers on his bus get off while he prays completely ridiculous. Religious observance shouldn’t give anybody an automatic right to do as they wish at the inconvenience of others.
For many years now, religious people have sought protection from criticism of their convictions on the grounds that they are ‘sacred’. Until recently, the s-word has usually guaranteed unquestioning respect for beliefs and activities that might otherwise have been considered ridiculous, bigoted or downright dangerous.
Nowadays, certain atheists have become much more outspoken and believers are finding that their religious views are being challenged, in some cases, quite aggressively. Naturally, this hasn’t gone down too well, particularly with the more dogmatic religionists who have enjoyed immunity from serious criticism for far too long and this vocal minority of articulate non-believers has sent fundamentalists of all faiths into a frenzy of indignation.
But why should belief in the supernatural automatically be labelled as sacred? Why should bizarre and unfounded myths about invisible sky-gods, and their accompanying rituals, be singled out for special treatment? Shouldn’t respect be earned? When certain interpretations of so-called sacred writings can engender intolerance, hatred, even murder in a fanatical minority of religionists, can they be considered worthy of veneration? If beliefs and scriptures can legitimately be interpreted to support violence and oppression, are they really deserving of respect?
Fundamentalist views, in particular, shouldn’t be afforded any protection from scrutiny and condemnation if and when it is warranted. The appalling attitudes towards gays, women and members of other religions (or none) by some of those demanding respect for the sacredness of their beliefs must be challenged boldly and consistently. Covering some very offensive ideas with a cloak of sacredness has allowed them to flourish. Disputing those ideas in the light of rationality and morality will show them up for what they really are.
Perhaps we should all start demanding that the things we hold inviolate are protected from disruption or condemnation. For example, after a long, busy working week I consider my Saturday morning lie-in to be sacrosanct. So I don’t appreciate it when earnest proselytisers come knocking on our door first thing every other Saturday, disturbing my peace and sending our neighbour’s dog literally barking mad. I’d tell them to buzz off and not bother coming back, but by the time I’ve stumbled, bleary-eyed, out of bed and found my dressing gown, they’ve moved off to have a loud and fervent conversation with the unlucky woman next door who chose the wrong moment to set out for the shops.
On a more serious note, the majority of people in the UK believe that free speech is an inalienable right. However, the exercise of this freedom seems to get some fundamentalists’ backs up to the extent of parading the streets carrying hate-filled placards and even rioting and stone-throwing if they think they can get away with it.
Most people cherish their families, but, again, religious fundamentalists apparently have no qualms about blowing up other people’s mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to get their warped point across. How can such perverted individuals demand respect for their views and yet feel perfectly justified in trampling on the very things that other people hold dear?
Labelling religious beliefs as sacred, in my opinion, often gives the believer carte blanche to express those beliefs in ways that inconvenience or even harm others with perfect impunity. I say, “No more!” Let them learn the kind of respect for the cherished convictions and freedoms of others that they demand for themselves. And banish the word ‘sacred’ all together.
To the Christians who think that I deserve to suffer an eternal weight of excruciating pain because I can’t bring myself to believe in the idea of a loving deity who condones immorality…
To the Catholics who say birth control is wrong in the face of over population and preventable diseases like AIDS…
To the Kabbalah members who advise that I should buy their blessed water at nearly £4 a bottle to be healed…
To the Westboro Baptist Church members who say that I’m evil for being in favour of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals having equal rights…
To the Mormons who tell me that I should repent – never mind not having anything to repent of! – and return to the fold or lose my eternal reward…
To the Muslims who say that I can’t call my teddy bear Muhammed…
To the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking on my door in an effort to save themselves and try to foist a Watchtower magazine on me…
To the Scientologists who call me an SP because I criticise and make fun of their wacky beliefs…
I say, DILLIGAF!
If you don’t comprehend what it is that I’m talking about, then let Kevin Bloody Wilson explain (strong language):
And DILLIGAF to anyone I’ve neglected to mention who rightly should have been included in the above list.
Edit: LiveLeak have now removed Fitna from their servers due to serious threats being made against their staff – a case of life imitating art, I guess – but it can still be seen on Google Video (see below) and YouTube.