I’m a heathen. My schoolmates’ word, not mine. While they would file out for Ash Wednesday mass and other religious observances I would sit in the classroom with the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses to “do something constructive”. I am the only person in my family with no history of religious affiliation. My father and brother are baptized Catholics while my mother is Anglican. Recently I had a conversation with G.D. about religion and he wondered whether some people are just born with a threshold for the kind of belief that religious faith requires – an inbred skepticism. If this is possible I think I inherited mine from my dad.
“You don’t go around poking holes in people or picking their religion when they aren’t old enough to voice an opinion about it.” This was my father’s explanation for why I had neither pierced ears nor a christening as an infant, much to my mother’s chagrin. My upbringing wasn’t devoid of religion though. While we lived in Bermuda we went to a non-denominational church – the “No Name” brand of Christianity. I went to Sunday School. I learned bible verses, hymns and choruses. I really loved to sing and it’s probably the only thing about church I missed when I stopped going. My father taught me to pray, saying the Lord’s Prayer with me every night before I went to sleep. I vividly remember sitting with my children’s bible totally engrossed by the stories. I loved reading about Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath. But in retrospect stories is all they were. Although I understood the idea of God and knew the story of Jesus I don’t recall feeling either love or fear where they were concerned. I did love my father though. He never talked much about God or Jesus but he made me repeat the Golden Rule every day: do unto others as you would have done unto you.
We trundled along in our comfortable state until my father had a near fatal motorcycle accident when I was 6. His early retirement from the police force and the consequent financial strain prompted my parents to repatriate to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There are 117,000 people in St. Vincent and over 100 churches. In school we pray 4 times a day: morning assembly, before lunch, after lunch and dismissal. God is invoked in everything – people tack “D.V.” at the end of every other sentence. Deo Volente. God Willing. Being asked what church you belong to is as routine as being asked where you live. In the upheaval of the move and Dad’s convalescence and Mom becoming the only working adult, church fell by the wayside. I finished out my last year and a half of grade school in a school that was small and private so I was largely buffered from uncomfortable questions. High school marked the beginning of more pointed inquisitions.
I freely offered that I was not christened because I recognized the note of pride in my father’s voice when he talked about it. I was surprised by the level of hostility that was offered in return. I was already an outsider with my foreign accent and outspokenness – this was yet another thing that marked me as strange. I found myself in an awkward position. I didn’t dislike religion but I found myself being berated by people for not being religious enough. My half-hearted Christianity and doubts combined with the antagonism of my peers served to polarize my views and put me on the defensive when religion came up. In addition to this my parents’ marriage was crumbling…violently. By the time I was 15 I was sufficiently convinced that whatever “God” was he certainly wasn’t at my house – and said so openly. From that point, whenever I rejected a religious explanation or subscribed to an unpopular opinion my supposed lack of spiritual guidance was brought up, not to mention my broken home. Until I left for university I had one argument after another on anything ranging from premarital sex and homosexuality to music and movies.
Not surprisingly, going to school and living abroad made me even more liberal. Two degrees and two continents later I find myself back home again, and more out of step than ever. Like most developing nations socioeconomic problems are our chief concern. The story is common. People struggle with poverty, lack of education, unemployment and inadequate health care. The pull of drugs and violence is great. Of course we see much of the fallout in schools. I offer support and interventions for students struggling with emotional and behavioral difficulties. The problems these students face are less about their dispositions than their situations. Despite this, many of my coworkers subscribe to faith-based solutions to practical problems. I find this infuriating. It’s not unusual to find government officials in conference with delinquent students browbeating them about whether they go to church, quoting a mish-mash of bible verses. Parents, teachers and administrators like nothing better than to bemoan the attitude of “kids today” and blame it on the impiety of youth. “This is all because they stopped teaching religious education in schools you know! The country needs to make its way back to Christ!”
My frustration lies in the stasis that appears to accompany excessive reliance on religion. Believing in the Bible is one thing, legislating according to it is another. St. Vincent appears determined to live in the past, even as the rapidly changing world becomes unavoidable. I can’t help but marvel at the stubbornness that allows our government to refuse to sanction decent sex education despite rising HIV infection and teenage pregnancy rates. I rail against the popular wisdom that our society is religious when it is clearly increasingly secular. I hate being fed platitudes like “God will provide” in answer to questions about under-resourced rural schools. My aversion to religion has now become conflated with my feelings about the reactivity and resistance to change that typify Vincentian society. As such I feel compelled to champion the dissenting view because I can’t abide the blindness that comes with the alternative.
What’s curious in all this is sometimes I wish I could believe. While “religion” remains a thorn in my side I am still drawn to the concept of “faith”. Maybe it is because I am in a helping profession and humanist in my approach. Maybe all that Sunday School lodged itself deep in my subconscious. I’m not sure. But I am frequently astounded by the terrible wonderful world we live in, the awesomeness of our bodies and personalities and the promise of the future. This is why I am agnostic and not atheist: I feel something sometimes…something I cannot name but I know it’s there. Perhaps all I am feeling is that bit of the sublime that is in us all. I wonder if I am taking the coward’s way out by being agnostic. An atheist has his belief there is no god, while an agnostic has…doubt? It seems so wishy-washy. This isn’t a debate I’ll be done having with myself anytime soon. I suppose what I struggle with most is my desire for the debate to be personal as opposed to what feels like a constant conflict between myself and the rest of my country.