I have always thought of myself as religious and have no hesitation in saying so. As a young boy I accepted the existence of a God that in some respects resembled a loving and caring but absent father or grandfather. Perhaps this is understandable as in hindsight this God resembled my father (not in appearance, but as loving, caring and frequently absent).
Although a belief in the existence of God was was fairly widespread in Aotearoa New Zealand in the mid 1950s, I was not aware of any specific doctrine. I did attend Sunday School for a while when I was around seven or eight, and I enjoyed the stories we were told, in much the same way as I enjoyed stories such as Winnie-the-Pooh or Wind in the Willows or those of Hans Christian Andersen. In other words I understood they were stories, not factual accounts of real events.
At that time we lived in a small town of around 4,000 inhabitants and up to the time we left when I was fourteen I had never heard religious doctrine or beliefs discussed. The few times I attended a church service I’d hear a sermon, but I don’t recall hearing mention of Satan, hell, eternal salvation/damnation nor a requirement to believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus. Much of what I heard I would be equally valid for non-theists in that it essentially was all about the golden rule and, more importantly, how to apply it in difficult situations.
I was always suspicious that there were some things about God that were kept from children I was curious what that might be, but accepted that I would find out in due course. My belief that adults knew more about God was realised by the shocking story I heard during religious studies when I was around seven or eight. You can read about it in The day God spoke to me.
The incident didn’t change my understanding of God but it did lead me to understand that others perceived God differently. This was confirmed shortly after when I began to read the Bible. Not knowing any other way I started at the beginning – Genesis. I’ve told this story in Secret Bible reading.
Perhaps this is where I differ somewhat from others who have reached a similar conclusion. I didn’t abandon my belief in God. I abandoned any belief in the Bible. Perhaps it was because that vision/delusion I experienced earlier was, and still is so real to me. Over the next few years I developed a belief closer to pantheism
I had no further contact with religion until the beginning of my teens. A Chapel opened a short distance from our home, and my mother encouraged me to attend Bible class there in Wednesday evenings. I believe this was primarily as a means of improving my socialisation rather than to progress religious education.
From what I remember, the discussions concentrated almost elusively on Jesus’ teachings and once again on how to apply the Golden Rule in our lives. The best part of Bible class was that every Saturday evening we would go to an event in the city, about 30 minutes drive away. Sometimes the events were religious rallies, which I felt were emotional nonsense, but often the events were things that typical teenagers would attend. Three, four or five cars would make the Journey to New Plymouth each weekend and I always made sure I sat next to a rather shy, but in my eyes very beautiful girl.
I continued to attend Bible class for about a year and then gave up. I told my parents that is was because they were teaching things I disagreed with (which was true), but if I am to be totally honest, I stopped attending because that girl had stopped attending.
Towards the end of my time at Bible class, some of the topics were getting rather deep into Christian theology. Topics such as the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, and substitutionary atonement had been introduced. There was considerable leeway in what was considered acceptable understanding. If I recall correctly many of the stories in the Old Testament could be understood in a non-literal sense, as could some aspects of Jesus’ life such as the virgin birth. However it was clear that we were being steered towards a physical resurrection of Jesus and the concept of substitutionary atonement. The former I thought of as nonsense, the latter as an abomination.
That was my last exposure to the study of theology. Although I continued to have a view of God that wavered between pantheism and panentheism, that old comfortable image of God as a father figure would to pop up from time to time. This bothered me as my rational understanding of God didn’t match what I experienced. I was working in a vacuum as I felt I had no-one I was able to share my beliefs with. Even after I married, this was one topic I never raised with my wife.
My wife, like most Japanese are not particularly devout, and can slip comfortably between Shintoism and Buddhism as appropriate for any given occasion. I found this fascinating, but she was unable to explain to my satisfaction how one could hold two apparently contradictory beliefs at the same time. This was 20 or more years before the arrival of the Internet, and with a limited budget, the local library was my only source of information. It’s resources on religion of any type was extremely limited and on Shintoism non-existent.
I don’t recall any of the books or authors after all this time, but I do recall coming to the conclusion that was the genesis of what I believe today: God is unknowable, and if unknowable, there’s no certainty that he/she/it exists at all. From time to time I get flashes of insight similar to the one that occurred when God spoke to me in religious studies. But are they really something from outside (a supernatural force), a natural phenomenon that might be explained under pantheism, or something that is internal: part of being human? Just because they feel divine doesn’t mean that they are.
I decided that if God is unknowable then any understanding of a God we do experience is one we unconsciously construct ourselves from our culture, history and personal experience. If God exists, there’s no certainty that what we create is a reflection of that God.
So there we are. I doubt very much that there’s a deity, even more so one named Yahweh. Yet I experience what Quakers call The Light, the small still voice that prods my conscience but feels separate from it. My beliefs are entirely compatible with with Quakerism as it’s practiced in NZ, and it’s where I feel most at home in a religious context.
In an ongoing discussion on a post I made a few days ago, I was pointed to the Non-Belief in America Research Website where the typology of non-belief is summarised. It lists six types and I can identify myself in two of the types: Ritual Atheist/Agnostic and Seeker-Agnostic, yet I still consider myself religious and feel uncomfortable identifying as agnostic or atheist
While I’m comfortable with religious, I know many with whom I have had discussions on the Internet, jump to the wrong conclusion. If I say I’m religious or listen for the will of God, then it’s assumed I’m a Bible believing Christian. Inevitably the discussion is hijacked by those wanting to know what I believe or don’t believe about the Resurrection, or the nature of God or the infallibility of the Bible or why does God condone genocide, none of which are relevant to the discussion at hand.
I have considered using the term spiritual, but that seems to be associated with the occult and here in NZ with traditional Maori beliefs, so that’s just as likely to be misunderstood as religious.
I could identify myself as a liberal Quaker, but my concern with that is others will conclude all Quakers hold similar beliefs to my own. As Quakerism is a non-creedal faith, the last thing I want to do is give the impression that any other Quaker holds the same beliefs as I do. It can get rather tedious qualifying that my belief is not necessarily held by other Quakers. And again, identifying as part of a specific religious group risks a discussion being diverted to one about that religious group, especially if it’s as poorly understood as Quakerism. For most discussions it’s not necessary to identify with a specific faith group.
So dear reader, while I like the term religious, is it more unhelpful than it is helpful. If the former, what do you suggest instead? Please don’t offer confused or Weird. I’ve already considered and rejected them.