The festive period is always a bit of a weird time for non-religious people who, like me, were raised in religious families. I haven’t attended church regularly since I was 16, but I'm still enchanted by the magic of a Christmas Eve midnight service – the candlelight and the carols, and the chance to hug and kiss lifelong friends as the clock strikes midnight.
So I can understand how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was brought up in a Jewish household, came to the conclusion, after “a period of questioning things”, that he does not consider himself an atheist. Like him, the older I get, the more I believe that religion really can be “very important”.
Of course, Zuckerberg has inevitably come in for questioning over his comments, and I can understand that too. Religion has a lot to answer for, from the spreading of discrimination and prejudice, to division, hatred and conflict. It was a combination of division and doubt that first drove me away from the Church as a teenager – but I've also seen first-hand how powerful religion can be as a source of love, support and strength.
In November I lost someone whose impact on my life has been far bigger than Carrie Fisher, George Michael or David Bowie. My Aunty Grace was a shining beacon of light in my childhood and teens, a woman of enormous warmth, strength, hospitality and, above all, faith. At her funeral, sat between my mother and grandmother, I was struck by how many people described her as “Christ-like”. The term made me cringe at first – until I thought more deeply about what it means.
Earlier this year, Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook about meeting Pope Francis with his wife, Priscilla Chan. “We admire his message of mercy and tenderness, and how he's found new ways to communicate with people of every faith around the world,” he said. “You can feel his warmth and kindness, and how deeply he cares about helping people.” Profound meetings like this have informed Zuckerberg's newfound belief in the importance of religion, just as my own change of heart is so influenced by the memory of Aunty Grace.
For her, being “Christ-like” meant embodying love and charity in all that she did. It meant supporting the marginalised, loving people however messed up they were, however much she disagreed with them, and staying unwaveringly true to what she believed. But her faith was also distinct from religion. She wasn't a fanatic, a gullible fool, or someone who believed she could simply tick the right boxes and be granted a visa to heaven.
Her son described how she hated religious ritual and pomp; how hers was a living faith, expressed through loving people unconditionally. Having been turned off by the trappings of organised religion myself, his words brought her faith to life for me. She modelled herself on the way she believed that God loved. When life felt overwhelming, it was a conviction that someone else was in control that kept her going.
In my work with charity Women for Refugee Women, too, I've seen the importance of religion to so many asylum-seeking women; the strength, hope and courage that faith gives them in their desperate situations; the compassion they show each other, regardless of their differing beliefs and backgrounds, and despite their own problems. Though religion isn't a prerequisite for any of these things, I've seen it provide comfort at the bleakest and most hopeless of times.
Maybe it's something about growing up, and the renewed sense of spirituality that comes from loving and losing, but my view of religion has certainly softened. Like Zuckerberg, I'm still not necessarily sure what I believe in, if anything. But as a humanist I can't deny the good I've seen religion do, as well as the harm that's done in its name.
On the cusp of 2017, when the world feels so uncertain and frightening, I need a faith like my Aunty Grace's more than ever.
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