Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gonna go to the place that's the best

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the life and death of Brian, and the blog that documented them.

One of the regular visitors was a guy called Mark, a real, meatspace friend of Brian, rather than a dilettantish blogchum. Today, I went back to Brian's site one last time, and casually followed a link back to Mark's own blog.

Mark's an enthusiast for "Ulster mission hall gospel music", and chairman of something called the Ulster-Scots Agency. Now, this may raise a few gentle alarm bells among some of you: admit it, lots of us operate under the instinctive prejudice that Irish Catholics tend to be warm and eloquent and loquacious, while their Protestant neighbours are sour-faced bigots. But surely this is as daft as any other overarching cultural or ethnic generalisation; Wilde and Shaw and Yeats and Beckett were all born Prods, and I can't imagine any of them mincing down the Queen's Highway in sashes and bowlers.

Clearly, Mark's a religious man, but I've got no problem with that. Whatever gets you through the night and all. Then I read a little bit more, specifically what Mark said about Brian's last hours and his funeral:

"To the best of my knowledge (ie up until a few weeks ago), Brian rejected any form of personal faith, let alone a saving faith in Christ alone. However his wife Terri told me this afternoon that for the last few days he had been trying to talk to her, through his sedation, about 'God' and 'Heaven'. He was brought up in the red brick streets and mission halls of Woodvale in Belfast. We can just hope and pray - I'm asking you to do so."

And then:

"Brian's funeral was last Sunday, near Carndonagh in Donegal. It's a long story, but the good part is that I met his brother Bill, his friend Ivan and one of Brian's clients (incidentally also called Mark). All three confirmed to me that Brian had professed faith as a young man and took part in many beach missions and open air witnessing in his younger life. I had prayed that morning for some sort of confirmation of Brian's faith, and I got it three times over."

Again, fair enough. I know enough about Christian theology (I've got an A-level to prove it) to understand the importance that Protestants place on salvation through faith. Mark was sincerely concerned for what he perceived as the wellbeing of his friend's eternal soul - a friend who, let's remember, I never met, never really knew.

But then I remembered something that would probably have confirmed some of Mark's suspicions about people who choose a different route to heaven, but at the same time reinforced my own instincts that this religion business is all a bit unpleasant. After my grandfather died (this was some time before I was born), some Catholic friends of the family made a point of explaining to his widow that, because he'd committed suicide, they wouldn't be praying for him. Mortal sin and all that kind of thing. Sorry. Of course, it wasn't the fact that prayers were not forthcoming that upset my grandmother; it was that people who'd called themselves friends had chosen to tell her, in a time of howling grief, that her husband was too wicked to be a fit subject for their discussions with the Almighty.

I can understand Mark's desperation to grab at the slightest straws of evidence that Brian had got God before he died; and I can even understand those Catholics who decided that the method of my grandfather's death put him beyond redemption. Both points of view are entirely consistent with the dogmas and philosophies by which they choose to follow their lives. The same understanding extends to those Hindus who believe that the sand formation between India and Sri Lanka was built by an army of monkeys, or the Muslims who think that a woman with a driving licence is an affront to Allah. And, let's be ecumenical, to the Jews and Jains and Pagans and Parsees and adherents of any other faith who really, really, really believe stuff.

I just wish a few more religious people would display a similar level of understanding when it comes to the reasons I have for thinking that they're talking bollocks.


clodhopper said...

It's very sad, but not surprising from a country where a man was stopped at a roadblock and asked 'are you protestant or catholic?' and replied, 'I'm an atheist'. The response being 'yes, but are you a protestant atheist or a catholic atheist?' God help us!

Anonymous said...

"I just wish a few more religious people would display a similar level of understanding when it comes to the reasons I have for thinking that they're talking bollocks."

Amen to that, Tim!

Seriously though, I know exactly what you mean. I can remember uptight members of the Scripture Union at school telling me that I had no business celebrating Christmas as I didn't believe. To this day, my Christmas tree has a sun at the top and the family joke is that we're celebrating the Winter Solstice! My kids are unbaptised. Once, when they were still very young, my (Catholic) mother-in-law said to me:

"It's just, Marsha, if they were to die..."

unbaptised souls not going to Heaven or even purgatory and all that. How can I explain to someone like that, if my children died, the state of their souls would be the very last thing on my mind?

St. Anthony said...

What is most offensive, when dealing with anyone deeply religious is the utterly smug certainty they display in the notion that they are privy to the complete and unalloyed truth, and nothing you could say, no argument you could advance, would shake them in any way from their belief.

Come to think of it, a bit like me in fact, when it comes to just about any subject under the sun. Oh dear.

Tim F said...

Maybe the best bet it to claim to be a Prophylactic, Clodhopper...

Well, Marsha, since 90% of the tomfoolery surrounding a 'traditional' Christmas is really a throwback to pagan ritual, you're not being sacrilegious - just historically accurate.

Now you see, Anthony, I've got no problem with the religious certainty. I find it a refreshing change from my own half-assed agnosticism and, as you suggest, there are plenty of other things that I can get dogmatic over. If someone wants to talk to me about Jesus, that's fine, we can have a good old chinwag, but I hope he won't mind that after a while I'll attempt to steer the conversation towards Ishiguro or Duchamp or Otis Redding.

It's when they feel the need to express that certainty at the most inappropriate moments that I get angry - like those subhumans in the States who picket AIDS funerals with placards saying GOD HATES FAGS. That's when I want to throw the bastards to the lions again.

Jun Okumura said...

I'm with you on this, Tim.

Anonymous said...

Fair play to you Tim, well said

St. Anthony said...

It's not a particularly original observation but those funeral-picketing swivel-eyed loons ... aren't they just a little bit UnChristian?

Billy said...

"It's not a particularly original observation but those funeral-picketing swivel-eyed loons ... aren't they just a little bit UnChristian?"

Even loons like Pat Robertson think they go a bit too far. Read the Wikipedia page on founder Fred Phelps if you want to be terrified.

9/10ths Full of Penguins said...

They are not just 'a little bit UnChristian'

In my humble opinion as a Christian of a somewhat less explosive nature, that lot act completely 'UnChristian'.

I also have the theology to back that opinion up too....although its far too dull to go into.

Tim F said...

I was hoping you'd chip in, 9/10. I've heard some delicious conspiracy theories suggesting that Phelps and his crew are an elaborate hoax, a bunch of actors attempting to cast Christian fundies in a bad light.

9/10ths Full of Penguins said...

Sadly, the more extreme Christian fundies need very little help to be perceived in a bad light.

I have heard those conspiracy theories too. In a way I wish they were true. That way I wouldn't have to feel so ashamed.

People like Phelps who act with so much hate make me ashamed to be a Christian....

Which then makes me very angry as I shouldn't have to feel that way. Most of the time I am very proud to be identified as a Christian.

Tim F said...

And so you should, 9/10; in the same way that a doctor shouldn't feel ashamed of his profession because of the occasional Shipman. Don't let the tosser get you down.

The question is... do you accept that an atheist or an agnostic or a worshipper of the fatted calf might feel equally proud?

9/10ths Full of Penguins said...

Of course. The way I see it, what goes around, comes around...

Particularly as the worshipper of the fatted calf is likely to have much more fun.