The God Thing

I have only once before written on my version of “the God thing” (to quote Denis Wright). That was in 1957 when in a Scripture Class in my final year at school I came “out of the closet”, and in a long essay, revealed that I was a non-believer and advocated the teaching of comparative religion in schools. The forbearing Anglican Minister of the Parish awarded me the Scripture prize. I do not know if that would happen today.

(Don’t worry, I aim to keep this short.)

I come from a religious Christian family. My mother was Anglican, my father a Catholic. They managed the mix considerately and carefully without either becoming subservient to the other. My sister embraces her religion and cousins fully embraced theirs to the point one became a nun and one studied at St Patricks Seminary.

My realization that I did not believe in a god consolidated itself when I was nearly 12 years old. Until I went to University, however, I did not feel free to discuss my views and, apart from the immediate family, have not unsolicitedly volunteered my views much until my later years, and until now only do so in situations of strong provocation. One of my mother’s injunctions “keep a still tongue in a wise head” seemed to apply aptly to this issue (but, in my case, not to many others).

Although I have studied a modicum of Philosophy at a tertiary level, and lots of Psychology, I know no more than the mere basics about just a few of the great world religions so I am not really in a position to make comments upon them. I do not characterize myself as a humanist, as there are some things about that position I do not agree with, anyway I do not feel I have to have a position. It is not a question of a space abhorring a vacuum. Just because I believe there is no god this does not leave a vacuum for me. In the same way as when I say I do not believe there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, I have no need to answer a question, “What then do you believe is at the bottom of the garden?”

Even my studies in formal Philosophy had me focused on other things. I am very interested in the philosophy of education over the ages, the “why” more importantly than “what”, especially since compulsory education. (See, I divert myself so easily away from the, to me, less important “God thing”.)

But I do like people and think they are important. I have great hope for that capacity for goodness and kindness that is to be found as part of the human condition. Predictive text tried to make that “cognition”, and indeed it is right. Cognition and compassion are also great assets to the human race. This is evinced in the heartfelt reactions after a minority of human beings do dreadful things to other humans or animals.

Although I regard the human race as just one part of the animal kingdom, these characteristics of ours make us well suited to live in a sophisticated, co-operative social format and thus to defend ourselves against predators and to become the dominant species. We are aware that we are not the only social animals. Other animals can be seen showing compassion, no doubt created by some capacity to empathize. So while we are in an evolutionary sense dominant, I do not think we are totally different.

So why do we believe? It appears to give some of us strength and when it does this it is something I admire. I have seen friends cope with almost unbelievable losses with the support of their belief systems. I have been glad for them that they have these beliefs.

Almost all religions that I know a minuscule about encourage, in their basic doctrines, goodness, compassion, helping the less fortunate and generally obeying moral codes that are close to universal. I have seen these codes followed by most human beings, believers and non-believers alike, and find that they can also have a purely human origin and I can often see psychological reasons for those who transgress such codes.

The difficulties for me, as a non believer, in accepting other’s religions is because of the impositions, not really of the god parts and some of the belief parts, but mostly what I will rudely describe as extra-doctrinal trappings. These are most of what I can find that distinguishes one system from another or the general credo of a believer from that of most non-believers. So it amazes me if, for example, we look at the differences in the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and their similarities and then turn to the centuries of conflict about the status of Jesus, the role of Mohammed and the rituals of practising their individual faiths, when there is so much basic doctrinal similarity in the invocations as to how to live in a society. Such similarity occurs also in the way most non-believers feel it is their duty to live in society, such duty coming from, I contend, the psychological impetus for reciprocal respect and love rather than from instruction.

Naturally, having lived now for many years, I treasure among my friends a number of religious people. I respect their views and, when when we are together, such as when visiting or traveling, always try to co-operate in their facilitation of their need to fulfill their own acts of worship.

I resent two attitudes which often show themselves but my friends would not be a party to either. One is the exclusive and therefore sometimes inevitably racist, sexist or dominating nature of some few who practice religions. The second is a derogatory view that is surprisingly common and was expressed quite recently by none other than by Cardinal Pell, that those “good” non-believers, and he did acknowledge that there is such a group, are not thinking for themselves. He used the words “coat tails” and “Christianity”.

That is when I start to lose any vestige of a “still tongue in a wise head”. All that usually keeps me under control is an, admittedly unworthy, sense of smug superiority that an athiest can turn the other cheek more becomingly than a highly placed Christian.

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About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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3 Responses to The God Thing

  1. A wise posting, in my view. I’d be a little cautious about the ‘still tongue’ because as we have seen too many times in the past 100 years, a still tongue may be taken for consent, and often tacit consent to something abhorrent to humanity. So the wise must speak out at the appropriate time, or their wisdom means nothing.

    Full marks to the Anglican Minister of the Parish in 1957, by the way. He [it would have to be a “he” in 1957!] demonstrated great generosity of spirit, as any religious person should. Any person, come to that. I have never found the basic humanitarian ideals amongst religious and non-religious people, or among religions, to be any different, and I’ve lived for many years amongst people of different or no discernible faith.

    I think it over-simplifies when it’s said that people have fought for centuries over their beliefs. When you study the history of religions, you discover that the beliefs themselves are practically irrelevant to conflict; it’s how you’re treated because of your religion that matters. Is the battle between Jews and Muslims in Palestine over doctrine? How often does doctrine come up as the basis for war between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland? When did violence really erupt between Hindus and Muslims in India? It was only when all of these became political and economic issues, usually cloaked by nationalism in various forms, that doctrine was made the rationale for conflict. It never was about doctrine. It was about land, equality and freedom. It still is.

    Why is there not bitter struggle between religions in Australia as there is elsewhere? Because most have enough of the good things in life to be content to live with each other; not with a knife at the others’ throats, or a bomb. Violence erupts when people feel a keen sense of injustice. [It amazes me that Aboriginal people are not more violent towards those they blame for their loss – or is the violence turned inwards for them, against each other? Another question, not for here.]

    Have I gone off topic here? I don’t think so, but you may!

    Denis

  2. Anne Powles says:

    Thank you for your response. You see what I mean by ignorance? I should have attended some of your lectures sometime in my past! I have pretty well ignored many of these issues because I was so inwardly certain of my personal beliefs, having thought about them for so long, but religious issues have been very significant over such a long time and it would have been good to have paid more attention. Although I did realise that there were other factors in most of the conflicts, I always assumed that doctrinal issues also played a significant part, particularly in rousing the people. In the teaching of modern European History there was quite a significant emphasis on the opinions and actions of protestant breakaways etc. I should have worked out that this may not have been as significant as portayed as the crab apple fights between the Catholic and the Protestant children when I was a child were entirely to do with the fact that they went to different schools!!

    A still tongue or soft excuse can sometimes work – it got me out of either a First Communion or Confirmation! I was given that choice and wriggled out of either option without divulging my lack of belief and causing any distress at home, but I do agree with you on the general dangers of not speaking out.

    That is a very interesting point you make about the Aboriginal people. It certainly fits from a psychological perspective and would follow from the most unfortunate way they continue to be treated. A topic as you say for another time as it is equally big.

    Meanwhile I will go and be thoroughly beaten again at an on-line game of scrabble by my son’s mother-in-law, who is a wonderful, gentle devout Ismaili Muslim woman, originally from East Africa with whom I have not ever had, or I am sure never will have, a cross word let alone conflict (unless she beats me by just too many points this time!)

    • In the past, doctrine did play a bigger part – I’m sure you’re right about that. But we see over and over that doctrine is used as a disguise for ulterior motives and for political purposes. Suicide bombing is, sadly, a good example.

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