An age of enlightentment?

On BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday morning was a discussion about the trend that fewer people say they believe in a God and that fewer associate themselves with a faith system or religion. Such people ticked the “no religion” box on the census. I was one of them. So why did I not follow my father’s ancestors into Methodism?

The discussion focused on Christianity, aptly so at this time of year, mainly because, although the UK has a secular Government, the country is officially Christian. For instance, the only church in which matrimony has any legal force is Christian – those of other faiths must use a registry office, or other licensed place, and have a separate, purely ceremonial, but no less important, celebration of marriage. This is the case for all weddings in Germany. It was said that the UK is the only country that appoints its head of state, at present HM Queen Elizabeth II, in a religious ceremony – coronation at Westminster Abbey, just the same as William I, The Conqueror, on Christmas Day in 1066.

In The Thurber Carnival, the author, American comedian James Thurber, described himself as Catholic on the basis that it was the denomination of the church he did not currently attend. In the radio discussion it was suggested that some people identify themselves as Christian in a religious way and others in a cultural sense. What I understood by this distinction was that the first group worship regularly, but the cultural group are those who tick the Christian box and are “hatched, matched and despatched” at the local parish church or chapel. And they celebrate Christmas. Perhaps they enjoy a good sing-song when the carol season comes.

Whether my parents actually believed in God, I am not sure. I cannot recall asking mother, and my father went by the precautionary principle that it was probably wise not to reject God absolutely in case it turned out that He exists. I suspect then, that they were Christian in the cultural sense. They were certainly not regular church- or chapel-goers.

There can be little doubt that my grandparents and their forebears believed in God, especially on father’s side, with their enthusiastic pursuit of Wesleyan-Methodism. I think it is fair to say that not one of my grandparents or the ancestors I know about, not living near a port city, met anyone who had some other faith, such as Islam, Hinduism, or Judaism, so the only challenge to their beliefs would be from doubters or scientific discovery. But what scientific discovery would that be?

One of the functions of religions has been to attempt to answer fundamental questions about how things came to be the way they are. As the Good Book says in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “ For now we see through a glass, darkly …”.

Take, for example, third great grandfather William Dennies (1784-1847). William could not have known about the theory of evolution, which is widely accepted as the explanation of how plants and animals have reached their current state, as Charles Darwin had not published On the Origin of Species. So there was nothing to challenge “All things bright and beautiful the Lord God made them all”. Equally, while he probably accepted that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe, he would not have known just how remote a speck in the outer regions of the Milky Way we inhabit. William could not have known about the Periodic Table of the Elements and therefore how all of the natural elements could have been made and how they arrived on Earth. He could not have known how weather systems work and may very well have preached in chapel that storms were God’s retribution for his congregation’s sins. And he could not know about DNA or palaeontological discoveries about earlier hominids. To sum up, even if some far-sighted soul had told William that the traditional Creation story was wrong there would be no evidence to back them up.

At grammar school in the 1970s Religious Education (RE) was compulsory, but, thankfully for me, only one half hour session per week. If RE had been about the wide range of religions that could be encountered in the nearby city of Birmingham, even 40-odd years ago, it would have had some academic interest, but the only religion given any consideration was Christianity.

My RE teacher was from south Wales, so I shall call him Mr Davies, who would have to be getting on for 100 by now. Mr Davies’ brand of Christianity was something I recognised from childhood attendance at chapel. That, too, was compulsory. It was Methodism, with its strict moral code that many of its followers ignored behind their doors or by taking alcohol in the pub or restaurant or at parties. Or, God forbid, dancing! It was a code that he seemed to expect us all to adopt to the exclusion of any other. Mr Davies inhabited a world that William Dennies would recognise, free from any notion of 150 years’ scientific advancement.

In his lessons Mr Davies was addressing a generation of teenagers who had grown up with the space race and the idea that science, including Harold Wilson’s white-hot heat of technology, would find all of the answers. True, some in the class were active Christians and rightly proud of it, but most were keen to learn and were turned off by someone who added nothing to our otherwise growing pool of knowledge and skills. The most distasteful trait of Mr Davies was his bigotry.

I should add that we had a lot of excellent and inspirational teachers who really gave us a leg-up into the real world beyond school. Most made some sort of impression, but I cannot recall anything that Mr Davies rambled on about.

I only remember President Kennedy’s “We don’t choose to do these things because they are easy” speech from repetition after the event, probably when the Apollo space program was reported on our grainy black and white television, but that speech was the catalyst to my interest in science as a search for the truth about who I am and how I got here. And that journey beyond the confines of Earth has inspired some of today’s finest scientists and broadcasters on science.

That said, I suspect that Mr Davies was about the nearest I will get to meeting someone like my third great grandfather. Like my grandfather, and his father (both of whom I only know from family anecdote), William, I gather, maintained a strong and genuine faith in God as the creator and regulator of Earth and in his denomination of Christianity as a moral code that all should live by implicitly. I don’t suggest this was out of ignorance: that would be to insult a man who cannot reply, but I do wonder whether he would be among those abandoning their faith had he known what I know now.

You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy its principal ceremony.

Happy Christmas!

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