Sunday 11 May 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Overheard in the playground at the school where I work: “why do they call it Good Friday?” “Because on that Friday people give you chocolate Easter eggs, which is a good thing”.

Children’s imagination, uh? It makes it hard to believe that we live in a Christian country after all.

Until now I have actively avoided the subject of Christianity as raised by the British Prime Minister David Cameron recently, because religion is one of those topics about which some people can get quite worked up. But as a committed atheist who has begun to call himself “humanist” more than “atheist” in the last few years, I found it hard to resist the temptation.

I agree in principle with Mr Cameron that Britain is a Christian country, but mainly from a historical and cultural perspective. Christianity shaped most of this nation’s institutions, from the monarchy to the laws that still govern society today. Like in other European countries where Christianity was the dominant religion (I’m thinking of Germany, for instance), it also had an impact on the arts, both visual and performing. However, away from this scenario, I am more in agreement with the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, who said the UK had “entered a post-Christian era”. All you have to do is look at how active participation in the church has declined. Belief, as a concept, has widened up its meaning and it is no longer the province of the deeply pious but also of those who wear our humanism on our sleeves.

Has Christianity in the UK been read its last rites?
More clarification is needed on the term “humanism”. It might be self-explanatory – after all we are all humans – but in today’s world this philosophy has acquired a new dimension. Humanism’s main aim is to promote the well-being of all human beings. We believe (and in this we have claimed back the word “believe” from the realm of religion) that the pursuit of individual rights and freedoms for the benefit of the collective is one of the most important moral goals in society. Our main identity marker is human above all. This allows us to treat everyone else equally regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, (dis)ability or... religious affiliation.

In my case, humanism also allows me to doubt. Atheism is too rigid. When I have called myself atheist in the past I realise that I have done it in relation to a God I don’t believe in and to whom I don’t have to refer. When it comes to humanism I can leave the God question aside and approach the subject more openly. Part of this is based on my upbringing in Cuba.

It has often been said that socialist states (usually called “communist” in the west, but let us not go there today) were secular in nature and against religion at its core. That statement is half-right. Cuba, the former Soviet Union and the rest of the socialist bloc did their utmost to stop the Church’s influence on the population, whether it was the Russian Orthodox Church in the old USSR or the Catholic Church in Cuba. But in doing so, socialist states created their own religion with its own doctrines and liturgy. That is why many people born and raised in socialist and ex-socialist nations cannot claim total and absolute atheism. There was always belief, but instead of God and his Son, we worshipped our maximum leaders. Ensconced away in the background there was also the lurking presence of religion, as in old-fashioned religion. Only late in life did I come to understand how much my late grandma’s strong Catholic faith and Afro-Cuban beliefs had affected me. Do I believe in a supreme being? No, but I also remember Santa Bárbara when it rains, guv (don’t worry, that’s a Cuban reference).

This brings me back to the UK. Some of the people to whom I have spoken about religion call themselves atheists or agnostic. But this is, to me, more like a western variation of atheism, one in which they (atheists and agnostics) position themselves against the notion of religion without leaving any space for doubt and questioning. The irony is that that is how science works, with doubt questioning at the forefront. To me this doubt and questioning means that I can look at the human brain in a different way, as an organ capable of triggering off mental processes which might at times defy logic.

There are some side effects – unintended or not – of bringing attention to the UK as a Christian country. One of them is to establish an “other”. The more you say that Great Britain is a Christian nation and use this as an identity marker the more you start to look at other religions and their practitioners as aliens, or “others”. And we know what happens to aliens. They get blasted by Ripley.

One last reflection. It is ironic that it was the Prime Minister who said that the UK should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country” when it has been his government the one that has behaved the most un-Christian-like. Through a series of punitive measures the coalition has created a time-bomb that could detonate any minute. We saw a snippet in the riots that swept through England in the summer of 2011 and then again in October 2012 when thousands of people marched in protest of the savage budget cuts which Cameron and co. had introduced. Early Christians sold their possessions and distributed them to all men and women according to their need. Cameron's government has made poor people poorer whilst bowing to the super-rich. Not very Christian-like, methinks.

To sum up, between the Prime Minister’s faux Christianity and the child in the playground commenting on the meaning behind Good Friday, I know which version I would adopt as my definition of Great Britain as a Christian country, even if the child were to be accused of blasphemy. After all, we all love chocolate, don’t we?

© 2014

Photo by the blog author

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 14th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Interesting post

    I think the post-Christian label (for UK) is quite accurate, it acknoweldges the Christian heritage and how important it is, while accepting that most people aren't part of that religion any more.

  2. How can we claim to be a purely Christian nation when there are so many different faiths here? I don't practice any religion although my label says C of E but what does it matter so long as I treat others with the kindness they deserve.

  3. interesting thoughts here... i think the main religion in a country always sets the tune for things that have been achieved as well... just think of hospitals, kindergarten, schools, homeless feeding.. lots of those things have been started by christians... even though i wouldn't call germany a christian country any more there are still lots of things that we'd never had if there never had been christians that started it once.. ha.. my two cents but i'am a christian so... smiles

  4. Pues lo cierto que la palabra cristianismo parece que se haya pasado de moda, ya que es difícil hoy en día mantener la religión católica.
    Feliz domingo.

  5. I have mulled over the question of religion for very long.. I am not religious, but have been fascinated by how strong a sense of identity religion gives to people and communities. I live in a country that calls itself secular. But I wonder about what secular means. I wonder how people fight on religion.. was that intended when the concept of religion came into being? I doubt it. The question of religion is always a question for me, and any writing on it is always illuminating in some way... I liked your post. I think religion, at the end of it, is what meaning we give to it.

  6. I'm about as religious as the cat's scat lol and believe in it even less. All a way for man to be controlled, but it does help people and give them hope, so that is a good thing. I agree with the kid too.

  7. I personally think there is just as much wrong with Christianity as there is right with it. My feelings about the social and governmental structures of the U.S. are the same (as much wrong about them as right about them). Never-the-less, I would still rise to defend Christianity and the U.S. from external and internal attacks.

    Too many people wish not only to control their own lives, but to impose their will and beliefs on other people. Too many Christians want to "convert the heathens;" too many atheists start screaming that their individual rights are being infringed upon because children sing a song with Christian connotations at a public school Christmas program. To both types, I usually try to impose my will and say, "Sit down and shut up" .... politely, of course.

    Seriously, I have not been in a church except for weddings, funerals and as a tourist since I was age fourteen, but I am happy -- not threatened -- when I encounter people with genuine religious faith.

    Put most simply, there are classy ways for an individual to offer his opinion and to discuss his position .... and, there are ways which make one appear to be a grandstander at best and a raving, fanatical nut at worst.

    Congratulations, CiL, on a classy post.

  8. I'd like to think cameron said this out of some kind of sincere conviction. I suspect he just said it to sound a little tiny bit more like Nigel Farage without actually being him :(

  9. Your humanism is closer to the way I feel (and try to act) than any religion, but doesn't go quite far enough for me.
    Other species (plant and animal) deserve respect and care as well.
    And we too have a Prime Minister who as a devout Christian follows what I believe to be some very, very unChristian and unethical paths.

  10. Thanks for your kind words.

    Elephant, you're right, I should have also mentioned animals and plants. I, too, feel the same way towards them.

    Greetings from London.

  11. I think there is a lot of evil done in the name of Christianity, here in the US anyway. I like to think that by saying I am an atheist I am taking a stand against Christianity and if I were to say I am an agnostic or a humanist my stand becomes more lenient to Christianity. Bear in mind that I was raised in a southern Baptist church and just moved from Oklahoma recently. To my mind, it is simply a fairy tale of sorts and I just don't get how people can believe in it.

  12. It's almost impossible to define a whole nation based on religion, but I'd say Britain has definitely been shaped by Christian culture...

    In a few more generations, even this influence will be gone and I hope for a more multi-cultural, tolerant attitude.

  13. As always, a delightful and provocative post that I will chew on for days --

  14. Atheism and Religion are too far apart I must say. Taking the middle path is something that that is more comfortable and meaningful I suppose.

  15. I seem to have spent a lot of time, in various countries, looking at how people make sense of themselves and the worlds they inhabit - which seems to me to underpin religion. So the Maori see the earth as originating in volcanoes while the Aborigines have doctrine of everything growing out of the 'Dreamtime.' It seems a common need to make sense of where we came from - and logic that we can't all be right.

    So what matters more is what use we make of it. Belief in a god (of whatever shape or colour) is secondary to caring for and respecting each other. Kindness should not be a stepping-stone to some sort of afterlife, rather a better way to help the world go round in the here and now.

  16. I have always believed that the most important thing is how we interact with others - including animal and plant life - and not so much which religion we belong to.
    For instance, I have encountered many a "devout" Christian who lacks the most basic of Christian attributes...and it is the same story in many other religions.
    On the other hand, I have known atheists who are the kindest and most humble people I have ever met.
    So, I would say that it is how you behave that matters and not which faith you belong to.

    Many thanks for an extremely thought-provoking post.:)

  17. Very interesting article. I enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  18. Chocolate is 'always a good thing' LOL
    A very thought provoking post.
    Once I met a christian whom was the most judgmental person I have ever met.
    If I treat others as I want to be treated I feel that is a 'good religion' to practice.

  19. I am on the other side of the pond and so don't really follow Cameron so much, but I wonder if he wasn't saying this to distinguish a Western heritage rather than an Eastern or MiddleEastern one--so that it may have had to do more with Eastern than Easter. These are all interesting questions. Thanks. k.

  20. Outlawyer is me, Manicddaily--an old blogger blog I di not use. k.

  21. I dont know mario. When I say on these times Im a christian and catholic sounds now like a curious thing:)
    But maybe we don't choose in what we believe.
    Hurt me all these problems with catholic church.
    Im not blind and I think Im intelligent.
    But believe is something about Love and when I thi k inlove is all the love.
    I think God is love.
    Is simple and complicate to explain.
    But when you love God you can't say not to Him.
    Is the hard road I know isnt easy.
    But always I think in that I choose again love Him and try to live the love.
    Amyway I can say when Francisco the new Pope arrive to the church he confirms many things I think all my life.
    Sorry for the long write Mario

  22. Thank you for the long write, Gloria! :-)

    Thanks, everyone for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  23. heh. i think that much could be said of christianity most anywhere...and this is coming from a former pastor...smiles...we say one thing, and live another makes it easy to discount or discredit when the people in the religeon dont even follow it...



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