the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

it's always personal

fighting the good fight

Before exploring further this matter of justification and the large claim I've made about it, I should give some background to my own wonder about faith-based belief.

I was exposed to the Christian faith from about the age of five or six until about the age of twelve, when I attended, along with my elder siblings, a Salvation Army Sunday School. A weekly sermon, hymn-singing, Bible readings in a circle. The question of the existence of god was probably the first major intellectual question to exercise me - though I admit I never seriously entertained the idea of god's reality. From the first, the question took the form of 'Why do others believe?' or 'Why have they invented this god? What's this powerful need they have?'.

In spite of Sunday School, I wasn't from a religious family. My parents weren't church-goers, and I now suspect that the main motive for sending us off to the Sallies was for a few hours' weekend respite. Oh, and moral guidance ...

God never rated a mention in our rare family discussions. I brought up the subject only once. I asked my slightly older sister if she believed in him. After a pause, she claimed she did. I didn't know whether to believe her, whether she said it for my sake, whether she'd seriously thought about it. I was stunned, but not shaken in my own view. Obviously, she wasn't as smart as I'd imagined.

What had convinced me so early that the Christian god was a fiction? Certainly, events in my young life, too distracting to delve into, had primed me for scepticism, and I was struck by the endless insistence upon a god who made us and loved us and wanted us not to sin but forgave our sins anyway if we would only believe in him. And worship him, apparently. Why would an inconceivably perfect and powerful being want our worship? The very idea heavily detracted from his perfection in my book. Worship and prayer seemed much more easily understandable in terms of human need and human tradition. Prayer was a bizarre practice, which seemed to have nothing whatever to do with the positing of a divinity. Even if I granted the existence of such a divinity, what evidence was there that he enjoyed the spectacle of people fawning over him and prostrating themselves before him? Were we out to make the guy vomit on an hourly basis? Was this an attempt to win the guy's respect, for fuck's sake?

It just seemed much more likely that all these worshippers were doing it for their own sake, because they enjoyed prostrating and humiliating themselves, or somehow needed to, and good luck to them. And it wasn't much of a leap to the realisation that the god himself was an invention designed to fulfil that need and to provide that strange pleasure. This helped to explain why, considering the prima facie unlikeliness of the real existence of such a convenient if bizarre character, those who promoted his existence and insisted on our worshipping of him were so uninterested in issues of evidence and proof.

I was well aware that these were dangerous, even if blindingly obvious, thoughts never to be voiced within the walls of the Sunday School. There seemed an unspoken agreement to maintain a delusion too fragile to withstand the pressure of even the most childlike criticism.

My sense of confusion and amazement at the confection of beliefs making up Christianity, as well as Judaism, Islam and any other faith-based belief system, still remains. The fact that many highly intelligent people subscribe to these beliefs doesn't concern me, though it astonishes me at times. Above all it makes me determined to understand why.


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