Friday, 26 February 2016

My religion doesn’t make me feel smugly self-righteous, or superior to atheists - but it does makes me feel grateful

Okay, let’s start with the small stuff. Is there anything more annoying than deliberately holding a door open for someone, only for them to sweep past you without so much as a grunt of appreciation? Oh, yes - there’s slowing down on the motorway to allow a car into your lane only for the ill-mannered wretch to fail to give any sign of acknowledgement. And, of course, there’s the ever-popular one when you’re driving down a road too narrow to allow two cars to pass comfortably, so you pull in only for the barbarian in the oncoming car pay no attention to you as they sail smugly past. That always improves my mood. As for living with a teenager in the house - well, enough Grumpy Old Men stuff. Let’s face it, we like people to show gratitude when we do them a kindness, no matter how small that kindness is, or how mechanical and unmeant the display of gratitude might be. Without these quotidian signs of mutual respect, we might as well be living in New York or Paris, or working in the banking sector.

The reason we non-finance folk reacted with such fury to the behaviour of bankers after the Crash of ’08 was not so much that it revealed many of them to have been greedy and incompetent: it was more the utter lack of gratitude they displayed afterwards when humungous quantities of public money - our money (or, to be strictly accurate, our descendants' money) - were ploughed into their failing institutions to keep them afloat. How did they treat the people whose taxes had saved their bacon? Like dirt. We middle-class, middle-income types who’d deferred gratification on a whole range of fronts and had instead saved some money to protect ourselves and our families against unexpected disasters, and to ensure that we never became dependent on the enervating state, found ourselves being punished with interest rates below the rate of inflation, while the small businesses which are the bedrock of our economy and many of which need investment in their early days (and, often, later) found that the banks, bloated with artificially cheap money from the government (again, our money) stopped lending to the sector of the economy which needed it - the very sector on whose success the country depends. Ultimately, it was the lack of thanks we got from the finance sector that made us loathe it so whole-heartedly: it had breached the rules of civilised society.

What’s this all got to do with religion - or rather, Christianity, which is the only one I’m familiar with?

One of the numerous things which baffles and annoys atheists about Christians is our strange habit of praising God all the time. If you’re the Supreme Being, Radio 4 comedians never tire of pointing out, why would you need the creatures whose world you created and whose fate you control (or, at least, know) to be forever telling you how fabulously brilliant you are? After all, I don’t imagine the chairmen of FTSE 100 companies spend all day ploughing through emails from their staff telling them the sun shines out of their freckles. What’s the excuse for this relentless brown-nosing of God? After all, the God that we’re always bellowing “Hallelujah!” at (that would be the New Testament One - the Old Testament version was, to be frank, a bit of a bastard) isn’t some celestial version of Donald Trump, in constant need of having His ridiculously swollen ego further engorged by whooping followers wanting Him to make the world Great Again.  If you think God is going to smite your enemies in the way The Donald (who’s about as Christian as he is conservative) has promised to negotiate the shit out of those Chinese mothers and toss out all them Muslim SOBs, you're going to be disappointed. That's not what God's for.

Until a few years ago, I too worried that constantly praising God was a bit OTT, and might represent a not-so-subtle Moonies-style brain-washing activity designed to deflect our attention from  thorny issues like babies being born deformed, absolutely wonderful people dying of cancer at a tragically early age, and Lenny Henry continuing to get work from the BBC. I knew that I was getting something out of praising God: I just wasn’t sure what it was. Our vicar addressed the issue in a sermon a couple of years ago, and, lo, all was light. We are asked to praise God, not because He needs it, but because we need it. We need it because it focusses our attention on something other than ourselves and our own desires and problems: something permanent and eternal which underpins all existence. This liberates us from self-obsession, and it does so in a way that doesn’t big up our egos - after all, ego-obsession is the very thing the exercise of praising God is designed to free us from.

I’ve no idea what all this praising does for my co-religionists, but I’ve found, over time, that it has increased my capacity for gratitude for the things that bring me joy: a great novel, a poem, a piece of music, a cathedral, a mountain-scape, a sunset, my home, my family, my friends, kind strangers, a glimpse of a pretty girl… Of course, I’ve always enjoyed all those things, but the pleasure I derive from them now has been heightened by a corresponding sense of gratitude. Maybe that’s because I now have someone or something to thank for all these gifts.

Another result of this acquired habit of gratitude - which may not derive entirely from the ritual of praising God, but which I intuitively feel has something to do with it - is an increased suspicion of puritanism in most of its forms. Some temporary pleasures are vicious, and need to be avoided and deserve to be preached against - there's no doubt pleasure to be derived from mainlining heroin and shagging someone different every night, but, let's face it, they're not great life-choices. But anyone who praises their god while calling for a ban on all music, or representational art, or any form of theatrical drama, or glories in destroying the awe-inspiring creations of other cultures (for instance, Christian churches and pagan temples) - well, they can praise their god all they want, but they're the victims of brainwashing - self-imposed in most cases. I have no objection to asceticism in principle - the renunciation of the things of this earth: that’s entirely the business of the renouncer. There are many different paths to God. But as soon as the renouncer seeks to entirely deny people the sort of innocent, healthy pleasures that nourish the soul, they can bugger off - they've taken a seriously wrong turn somewhere along the spiritual road. Similarly, anybody who praises their god just before murdering non-combatants, or who uses their faith as an excuse to rape, torture, mutilate or behead those unbelievers who offer no genuine existential threat to them or their religion, or who praises their creator while teaching their children to associate their god with deranged, hate-filled prejudice - well, I doubt that regularly praising god is doing much to increase their appreciation of all the worthwhile, enlightening, sustaining, joyful aspects of this life. (You may have noticed that I'm not much of a "vale of tears" merchant - this may very well be a sign of shallowness.)

Mind you, participation in the rituals of the Anglo-Catholic church hasn't cured my tendency to shout foul-mouthed abuse at drivers who refuse to acknowledge a kindness, or to make me feel any more kindly towards bankers, or to prevent a red mist descending at the mere sound of Diane Abbott’s name. Ah well - I’ll settle for the habit of gratitude.

And before all you atheists object - no, I'm not claiming that you don't appreciate the things of this earth as keenly as I do, or that you don't feel jolly grateful for all the blessings which shower upon you. Of course not. I'm just trying to explain one of the many reasons why this particular God-botherer goes on bothering God. 

I'm ever so grateful for your attention.

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