So a couple of weeks ago a friend and I met up (yes at Nandos) to have a discussion about faith and beliefs and where our journeys have taken us. We have been on a similar journey in the last year or so questioning our childhood beliefs and those of our families and people close to us. It was this dinner that inspired me to write this long overdue blog.
To give a sense of context we were both brought up as Christians. Our flavour or branch of Protestantism was Seventh Day Adventist. Our families are in the main still members of this church and quite a few of our friendship circle still are. So we grew up observing Sabbath, as Jews do, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. We would attend church most weeks, heavily involved in both the singing and teaching elements of the faith. Personally I would lead choirs, run bible classes and indeed my lifelong passion for youth work was birthed in the context of wanting young people to be saved. I would read the bible literally believing in a literal seventh day creation, the anchor point for our worship on Saturday, a literal death and resurrection of Jesus, a literal flood and a literal return to earth by Jesus and eternal damnation for those who didn’t believe. I personally learned hermeneutics delving into the context of Hebrew, Koine Greek, Aramaic so that the Bible could become more alive me for me. I studied the Talmud, Apocryphal texts and even within the denomination we had our own extra biblical canon, in the form of the writings of Ellen G White, one of the founders of the church. By and large I was dyed in the wool religious fundamentalist. I define fundamentalist here as an adherent of a belief system who gives whole committment to the idea that their faith/church/belief is right and backs it up with an equally fervent belief in the literal interpretation of the texts that support it.
In my early thirties I started strongly questioning some of my beliefs. Some of this was sparked around some questions I had surrounding the loss of a child through miscarriage and the doubt grew stronger watching the slow demise through dementia of someone very to dear to my heart. I had questions. Questions within my faith group as to how and why this could be. Struggling to understand how faith could help me to understand a number of questions in life. I started to lose faith in the denomination as well when I felt that so often it was a them and us dialogue. I came across many instances of power manipulation, some crazy dogma and some disturbing beliefs strongly backed up by literal interpretations of both the Bible and in many instances the extra canonical writings. Open questioning in the main was discouraged. I disagreed and I used to lead teens into really exploring answers questions of faith for themselves with the premise that if their faith was strong enough it would answer questions. Questions around sexuality, prayer, relationships, integrity, afterlife. Explore don’t just take the pat answer. This resulted in questions around my integrity as a youth leader. Last minute cancellation calls to speak at youth events and retreats. Even people sending third party messages to my family with worry and concern. It is officially ten years this year that I personally disavowed that label of Seventh Day Adventist. I was happy to be just Christian. I have no less respect for those family and friends who still are part of this church/community, it was just not for me.
Fast forward a number of years I still had some burning questions in mind. I immersed myself in gospel music promotion. I got involved in numerous online fora and pushed the boat a number of times. I would appear to get on my theological high horse and question people about days of worship, glossalia, exploitative ministries as well as counter arguing those who had an issue with faith on the topics of community, wellbeing, charity and lastly morality. The last one was a kicker for me. I realised that for many years I only saw morality within the context of religion or faith, but surely that came with the assumption that people who didn’t believe were immoral?
Around my mid thirties I started to become aware of the humanist and atheist groundswell in popular culture in the West. Authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens intrigued me with their fiery tirades against religion. It almost felt like church again but this time a different pulpit. I became aware that others saw people of faith as crackpots, starters of all wars and lovers of imaginary friends. There was a resounding theme of free thinking that intrigued me. Are we ever free? What does this free thinking mean? Indeed I even went so far as to say on some fora that I wouldn’t mind an audience with Richard Dawkins so we could have a tremendous craic (look it up) on all things religious and secular. I even went out and bought the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins so I could a better grasp of what he was thinking.
I get the the whole point of free thinking was to allow people to analyse subject matter, wonders and mysteries by a process of logic, reason and empiricism as opposed to tradition and dogma. That there should be reason to explore, to understand things within the realm of our human mind without trying to explain away those things which we don’t know into a category of faith because it was easier to do so. What disturbed me though is that there never seemed to be any balance. Hardly anywhere was there a place in the middle where those who were struggling with questions of faith and secularism. Somewhere were you could put out that life is mysterious and some answers we will never know without being called a fence sitter or any other labels those either side of the dialogue wished to apply. I am not for labels around thinking. I often find it is way to easy and smacks of lazines to group people into labels by belief.
What stayed in my mind though was the dazzlingly incredible people I met who were both secularists and religious. Who held some fabulous viewpoints on life, the wider community in fact the world as a whole. Often holding court with such great individuals was such a privilege but NEVER did I the chance to get sit in a room with a combined group, shooting the breeze with difference of opinions who could then end up still getting on with life, sharing a Jamaican patty and a bottle of Rubicon after the debate was done!
Somewhere in the Middle
In the summer my family and I had a beautiful staycation in Scotland. It was at this holiday that I declared to my family I no longer consider myself a Christian. That whilst I respected the beliefs of those who do believe as such it is not for me anymore. Too many things don’t add up. The reasons as to why are a whole other blog post/short film for another time, but after years of struggling with this I am no longer affiliated to or defined by a religious belief. Neither am I an atheist totally dismissing the concept of a God or higher power. I have no idea if one exists. I am not sure if I really want to discover either. I am quite happy and content in the knowledge that life is for living and that my sole duty while I have breath is to learn more about myself and the environment I live in, to be content that some things will forever remain a mystery to me.
I will admit that those close to me have known I have struggled with this for many years. It’s almost like a coming out. In many ways I really understand those who break out of their norm in their community be it through their sexuality, interracial relationships, career choices are scared. They feel a sense of fear as to how people will interpret them. How will it affect their perception in their community, work, life and it is a tough one as often the people who still hold dear to the ideologies you have left or even those you want to join have their own communities with it’s own code of acceptance and behaviour.
For me I still want to attend conferences and meetings that are hosted by secularists or people of faith. Often they are eye opening, when dogma/biases against objectors are parked for a minute, in how amazingly we as humans will discover, explore and experience the breadth and depth of looking out for our fellow man/woman because of our love and respect for each other. I still love gospel and other Christian music. Not so much now from a theological point of view but it still remains great music to me. Faith inspired art, social activity and communities are still great for me even if I feel less part of the community due to my lack of faith.
The Next Chapter
Given that my true dear friends have heard me share this to them before I am not as fearful as I used to be. I do still have niggling doubts as to how I am perceived but heck I am human. We all have some frailties. One day I may even write a longer piece, a book maybe or even a short film. Such shifts in beliefs not only affect you but many around you. What about my wife? What about my daughters? What about those young people of faith who have looked up to me? What about those who have no belief who wonder why I don’t side with them?My choices are not just for me but deeply affect those who I hold dearest and nearest to me.
Some may label me an agnostic. I hate labels. Means nothing to me, I am somewhere in the middle and happy to continue dialogue. I hope I can find a happy space, and not online, that’s easy, but face to face, where I can continue to the dialogue with those who are passionate about their religion or secularism and learn some more about human nature.
I pride myself that in my work and life that I am a story teller. This is the next chapter. I have no idea how it ends.