True confessions of a religious correspondent

Drawing upon a decade of reporting on religious observance in Britain and abroad, Andrew Brown explains why Good Friday means more than just the first day of a long Bank Holiday

Andrew Brown
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:54

After 10 years of writing about religion for a living, I realise that almost everything worthwhile I know about the subject I learnt in the first three months, when I realised that intelligent, educated and honest people could actually believe all that stuff. This was not an insight I was ever very successful in sharing with my colleagues. It may well have biased my reporting of the subject: intelligent, educated and scrupulously honest people are not a majority among the religious any more than they are among the pagans. But if you're going to spend 10 years of your life writing about one set of beliefs, it helps to make it tolerable if you suppose that these beliefs are worthwhile and might even be true.

It's not that I ever much doubted the existence of God. Everyone younger than 50 (except, apparently, Tony Blair) knows that he is only ever an inhalation away. A sense of something which is simultaneously the ultimate mystery and the ultimate meaning is a common part of human experience, even among Independent readers. It is possible to go further than that. At a Bosnian monastery, the scene of unspeakable atrocities in the Second World War, I got zapped by the Holy Spirit and wandered around in a state of slippery joy for hours, forgiving not only my enemies but even the friendly Brummie Irish pilgrims who had been trying to convert me for a week. And I often think that if there were no Christians left in the world, I would have to become one.

But then something happens. Often enough it is that I open the Bible. Everyone someone praises "Biblical morality" I want to ask them whether they have actually read the book. Perhaps on the 500th reading the civilised bits come through. But unless you have actually been brought up with it, so that its absurdities, like those of relatives, become part of the furniture of your mind, it is not a work to inspire confidence.

Then there are Christians. So many of them seem to go out of their way to demonstrate the sheer impossibility of believing what they do. This morning my local East Anglia paper included the following reflections, from the Rev David Jebson: "Gardeners appear cruel, especially when they're pruning and so God is sometimes misunderstood, especially when He allows suffering. Happily, those who acquiesce in His wisdom display the choice fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, patience, peace, etc.

"Make sure Jesus is the gardener of your soul, then one day he will transplant you to heaven!"

Another obstacle to belief is meeting saints. I had been really looking forward to meeting Mother Teresa, and when we were finally introduced, she took my hand, looked me straight in the eye and said: "Tell your readers that contraception murders love." Well, I thought: she's wrong about that; why should she be right about anything else? Of course she might have found something less ridiculous to say had she not known that I was a journalist. It may be thought a privilege to dash around meeting spiritual leaders but, as a journalist, you almost invariably meet people at their most banal and unimpressive. This is especially true when there are only the two of you present, because that almost always takes place in the context of an interview, which is usually a transaction with a stranger that belongs in short-stay hotel rooms.

Much better, if you want to sympathise with people, is to watch them at work; and this is something a news journalist hardly ever does. Of course, with religion the difficulties are multiplied by asking what exactly the work of the religious is. If the answer to that question is "prayer", it is an activity I cannot observe from the outside, any more than I could report a chess world championship from the point of the players. I might record the moves accurately, but I could have little idea of why they were played. Fortunately, a lot of the work of religions does not involve prayer. I have seen the Dalai Lama expounding the finer points of Tibetan theology - and revealing far more of himself than ever when he was talking English on subjects that I understood. I have watched the Pope working crowds, which is impressive; and have watched him working probably the smallest and least sympathetic audiences of his entire pontificate, which was much more impressive. That was in Finland, where the woman from one of the Helsinki papers leaned over to me at a cathedral service, and said: "I have put on stockings and a garter belt for the first time in protest against his attitude to women. Feel!"

She had, too. The point of this story is not that Catholicism and sex are closely entwined, but that it is often necessary to go abroad to discover just how strangely mixed are the bundles of beliefs and attitudes that we call religions. This is actually a very serious difficulty. The more time I spend writing about religions, the less certain I become what they are. There is a superstition around that any belief in metaphysical entities is religious. But I have met many atheists and no one who does not believe in abstract ideas. But as soon as you try to decide which beliefs are necessary for a religion, you run into difficulties. Not even a belief in God is required. Buddhism, for example, can be a completely atheistic religion, but it can also involve an entire heavenly bureaucracy. Monotheism everywhere grows saints like a rock grows barnacles; quite often the underlying rock disappears at once. Some religions, like Judaism, revolve around practices, rather than particular beliefs; to be a Catholic it seems you don't even have to do anything, so long as you feel guilty afterwards.

Of course, that joke is just another example of the way in which the salient fact about Catholicism, at least for journalistic purposes, is that it has weird sexual mores. I don't actually know any Catholics for whom sex is the most important part of their religion (except for professional purposes) yet that kind of distortion seems built in to the way that journalists approach strange beliefs. We are always taking two-dimensional views of three-dimensional belief systems. I don't think this is a vice confined to journalists; it's just that we get paid for indulging it, whereas the rest of the world misunderstands for pleasure.

This matters especially with things like fundamentalism. The more fundamentalists I have known, the more I have liked them as people, and the more deeply I have reprehended their beliefs. I remember a missionary who drove me around Romania. He had been working in that part of the world since long before the collapse of Communism, smuggling Bibles, shipping food, clothing and generally relieving more suffering in a week than I manage in a year. "I'm a fundamentalist, of course", he said in the tone of someone mentioning that he had two legs. He probably did believe that the Earth was only 6,000 years old. The point was that this seemed to him a completely unimportant question. It was right out on the periphery of his world-view, so far as I could tell. It followed from his moral convictions rather than determining them, and the well-springs of his actions had nothing to do with astrophysical theories. To concentrate on them was to take quite the wrong slice through his complicated bundle of beliefs.

The complexity of religions explains, I believe, why I have never been able seriously to entertain the claim that non-Christian religions might be true. From time to time Buddhism, or the Judaism expounded by a liberal rabbi of my acquaintance, seem to be much the most sensible and civilised ways of approaching the universe. But without marrying into them, or otherwise weaving them into my personal, three-dimensional life, I could not possibly enter into them. Christianity is the myth I was brought up in and in which I was entirely at home until puberty, when a travelling evangelist converted me to the electric guitar.

I know there is not and could not be any axiomatic way to choose between Christianity and Buddhism, or Islam and Scientology: all are equally distant from scientifically establishable fact. But then so is any large statement about the purpose of the universe. It is demonstrably absurd to claim that the universe is meaningless. Either meaning is a category that human beings impose on an alien environment, in which case to say that the universe independent of human beings lacks meaning makes as little sense as saying that it is ultimately unfashionable or green or Swedish. But if, on the other hand, meaning is an independent quality that was there before us and will survive us, then QED.

And the search for meaning, or pattern, or beauty - the three seem intimately connected - is obviously a fundamental human drive, well below the surface of consciousness. It is so widespread that I cannot believe it hasn't got some kind of survival value; it seems to be part of the genetically determined tool kit of human thought, like an ability to count. "Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee." And it is possible to know exactly what he means while at the same time seeing its untruth.

The religious imagination is not a fixed quantity: it can be developed or stunted; in some people it seems to be the only form of imagination; in others it is hardly there at all. But this is true of all human faculties, from eyesight to mathematics. It does not make us doubt the truth of what we see, or of arithmetic. And even if the truth of Christianity does evanesce when looked at straight, it is still plainly to be understood from the corner of the eye. The unique and scandalous glory of it is the figure of a man abandoned, tortured to death to give the public an instructive thrill, and who manages to forgive, and to be loved. It is the solid assertion, in the teeth of all the evidence, that suffering matters.

Of course, there's all the business afterwards about Easter day and the empty tomb; but I don't think it's necessary to believe in that. Spring happens, even if resurrections don't. What is splendid about Christianity is that it has kept alive the memory of Good Friday, and the terrifying suspicion that it is not safe to torture anyone, even the least of your brethren. The spread of that simple idea is all the evidence of resurrection I ever found. It ought to be enough.

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