I’ve never really been quite able to describe myself as an atheist. It has just never really felt like a label that fit me, at least partially because it feels like a denial of my childhood. I was raised a good Anglican, and with a few exceptions, I went to church every Sunday until I was about 16. I expect my experience with religion was fairly typical – I believed what I was told when I was young because it presented a world that broadly explained the world around me. I was never particularly bothered by the presence of “evil” – the classic moment of turning on religion comes from a moment of personal suffering where a so-called benevolent god does something that feels like a personal affront. I never had that anti-epiphany, and I think by-and-large the idea that free will permitted these things seemed like a pretty adequate explanation. Even natural disasters and the like broadly fitted into this conception, because if the world weren’t at least somewhat aleatory, well, free-will would be over-determined by the predictability of events. My very young mind had never heard of chaos theory or systems thinking.
I remember the first time that religion-as-such and god-in-particular was challenged for me. It was when I first heard “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. I’d heard people cuss by invoking Jesus or God before, but I think that song was the first time I really understood what blasphemy was. It hit me viscerally, like a freight train, and I was probably bothered by it for a long time. Weirdly for a moment that I recall with such clarity, I can’t place it in time or space. I must have been pretty young, because I distinctly remember the song no longer being a problem per-se when my Great Grandmother died, when I was around 8. In the day or two before she passed away the whole family gathered around, and my only real recollection of her touched exactly on this key issue of “free will”. Despite being a pretty strong young believer, I was frustrated that as a baby I’d been baptised, making me into a member of the kingdom of God without my say-so. I don’t think the idea was that I didn’t want to be a Christian, but the idea of free will was inimical to the concept of infant baptism. I felt, roughly, that you had to pick one of the two ideas. She took my complaint seriously, and we discussed the rites of passage inside the faith. She said I still had the choice to opt out of the religion by never being confirmed. Of course, that’s a largely hollow formality in Anglicanism, but it was the wedge in the door, keeping my options open.
Roughly my whole life since then has been pushing that door open, but I’ve never been able to push completely through to the other side to believe in a completely arbitrary and meaningless universe. It’s not exactly Pascal’s wager, it’s the counter-argument put by a good friend of mine (who is himself an Atheist) that science has no ultimate answers at this point. At some point when you’re that enquiring mind asking “why?” you just end up having to say “well, just because, damnit!” and there’s the sliver of doubt that means you can’t quite ever close that religious door behind you.
Discussing religion is not much of a pastime anymore, partially because it’s been a few years since I said anything new – and I’ve argued from both sides. I had one particularly religious friend, a wargamer, that I’d often stop off to visit on my way back from Masterton, and he’d argue the anti-religious case, and I’d take the side of the angels. Neither of us ever left convinced, but it sure cuts down on any kind of animosity when you’re doing your damnedest to put the other fella’s argument for him. At the time, it helped me bridge the gaps in perspective, but these days I increasingly struggle with all of it, in different ways. It’s just such an alien mindset – maybe I need to get back in that arena and convince some agnostics to get off the fence and go to bat for God.
There’s really only one way these days that I ever really get glimmerings of what I used to think and feel as a kid, and what I imagine my religious friends sometimes feel, and that’s listening to Louis and the Good Book. I think what I like about it is that it’s celebratory but not preachy. One of my former colleagues used to listen to “Christian Rock” and “Gospel Music” and I always felt like those guys were really trying far too hard to pitch a personal connection with God, and seem to really only have positive things to say. Aside from anything else, I’m never that interested in things that represent something as complex as God in such simplistic terms. Religion, personal belief, relationships with God (or other people) are difficult, ambiguous, complex, variable… and the kind of Christian music I accidentally encounter from time to time never seems willing to acknowledge that it’s difficult, and I guess I just don’t respect that. Well, not so with Louis. The album’s got it’s celebrations, like “This Train”, but it’s also got the classically existential “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. It’s got some of the classic difficult bible stories. It’s tremendously appealing and fun, but it’s not simplistic or simple. It has its argument to make, but it doesn’t pretend that the road to God is paved with gold. It’s grown-up, and I love every bit of it, even if the god it celebrates isn’t really my guy anymore and hasn’t been for nearly 30 years.