Since I originally read that Terry Pratchett is a Humanist (albeit a “bad one”), I liked the sound of the description, and I’ve adopted it where appropriate. I’m more of an irreligious person nowadays, but I’ll get to that.
In Pratchett’s own words, “I think if there is any intelligence behind the Universe, it is so far from our comprehension that we may as well act as if it’s not there. I’m quite certain it doesn’t care what kind of food we eat on Fridays.”
I grew up in an interesting time. My father was born Catholic, my mother was born Methodist. Apparently the two were mutually exclusive in 1976 when they were married, so they wed in the Methodist church. There was some disagreement with the Catholics, as I understand it. My father was quite unhappy about it (he’s been dead for a while now, so I can’t ask him).
Since my paternal grandmother was a practising Catholic, I’d been with her to church several times and learnt all the words.
On the other hand, my maternal grandparents were practising Methodists, and as I lived with them for a time in my earlier years, I attended the same church in which my parents married, and learnt all the words.
To summarise, I had the kneeling, guilt-ridden talking-to-Mary-Mother-of-God, while on the other hand, better songs and a happier minister in Wesleyan doctrine.
Most of my formative years were happily ensconced in Anglicism, Methodism and a bit of Catholicism. My respective schools had the morning Lord’s Prayer, we sang hymns, and we had Bible Education (later renamed to Religious Instruction, but for all intents and purposes, it was Protestant Christianity we were taught). Looking back, it’s amusingly ironic that my English teachers told me to “question everything”, but there we were, listening to stories about Noah and Moses and Apartheid’s religious and racial superiority.
In 1990, I was sent away to boarding school. It was coincidentally the time of the great Satanism scare in South Africa (and apparently the rest of the world). Church doors were desecrated with spray paint, He-Man and Ninja Turtles were declared “evil”, and I was so thoroughly brainwashed, I wrote a letter to my parents rejecting them as Satanists for allowing me to watch such evil on the television. I then became a reborn Christian, joining a very happy group of people called the Assembly of God.
In retrospect, this could be the reason I was left at school over one of the holidays by my family, but my memory isn’t great and I may be conflating timelines.
My mother was shocked and appalled, obviously. Her eldest son was accusing her of some pretty nasty things. As with all brainwashing and conspiracy theories, the burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser. It was especially stressful because once again, in retrospect, they had tried to teach me how to think for myself. In the one thing I should have applied critical thinking skills, I did not.
I’m still ashamed to this day how I treated my parents at that time.
Then a year later, I moved schools. The reason I gave my parents was “I don’t fit in”. I later told my father the real reason. While he laid a significant portion of blame on the church, it was a combination of depression, anxiety and autism (I remained undiagnosed for another decade), with a little bit of abuse by older boys in the hostel.
A result of moving back to Johannesburg was a change in my lifestyle. I was now back home, with my parents and siblings, and no influence of my friends. I guess I cut myself off as well, and it was the terrible teens too. I became more obnoxious than before, and rebelled against my father, as you do.
The trouble is, even if he wasn’t the greatest father in the world, he died when I was 17 (my brother had a week until his 13th birthday, and my sister was 9), and I never got a chance to apologise for being obnoxious.
It was hard. It’s still hard. Time makes the pain less obvious, but it still hurts. I know it affected me badly, and the rest of my family must have taken it hard. We don’t talk much about it. I don’t think we spoke much about it then. My mother and I took him to hospital in the car because it was quicker than waiting for an ambulance, and for some stupid reason we didn’t have a home phone, cellphones hadn’t been invented yet, and my mother and brother had to call for an ambulance from a neighbour’s house.
So the night that my father died of a massive heart attack, and all the news was about some actor and ex-footballer called OJ Simpson, and I watched doctors through a crack in the door applying paddles to my father’s chest, and my mother’s cry as the specialist said that even if he’d survived, he’d probably be a vegetable, that was probably the turning point in my head about religion, and what a sham it was.
No one can understand the pain of losing a child. I watched my grandmother bury her son, five years and one day after burying her husband, and it changed her. I remember having to tell her how it happened, more than once, and it still hurts writing this now.
No one can understand the pain of losing a husband. My mother was never the same again.
My brother and sister and I, we changed too. For a long time, my brother lost his faith.
And then the most amusing thing happened: I became the person I hated. I drank, I smoked (sorry, mom), and I was nasty to people. I blamed it on my father’s death, on depression, on God, on how mean my father was to me, and how he left us, and how I had to be the man of the house and support my family (even though everyone specifically told me not to do that). The anger of my youth came back as the rage of my young adulthood.
It’s amusing only in an ironic way, but it wasn’t funny then. I hurt a lot of people with my sarcasm. My friend Stuart said many years ago, “Careful you don’t cut yourself with that tongue”, and it was ha-ha funny, but so true.
I turned 36 recently. I’m embarrassed by how I behaved towards my family and friends. I blamed everything but myself. It took a lot of introspection (and reading old blog posts) to see how little regard and respect I had for others. A few years ago I set about apologising to people in my life, as well as those no longer in my circle of friends. That was a tough, but necessary, lesson in humility. Even today, I need to remind myself that I’m not always right. Hubris is bad, mmmkay?
Which brings us back in a round-about way to my feelings on religion.
The so-called New Atheists, the ones who are mean about religion, aren’t my people. I don’t like that they have to be superior about science. It’s one thing to follow science and reason and reject religion. It’s quite another to be actively rude and unkind to fellow humans about it.
So I pick Humanism, specifically Secular Humanism. It “embraces human reason, ethics, social justice and philosophical naturalism, whilst specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.” (Wikipedia)
What is especially interesting about humanism is that it espouses morality and ethics, without the overriding need or belief in a supernatural power. In other words, you as a person are responsible for being a decent human being, without the threat of eternal damnation. It makes you responsible for how you behave, right here and now, and you have to deal with the consequences of your actions, right here and now. It even codifies critical thinking. How awesome is that?
So what it comes down to is this: it doesn’t matter whether there’s a supreme being. What matters is the here and now, and how I relate to the people and world around me. I try to be the best person I can, irrespective of some future in eternity (which I incidentally don’t believe in, otherwise what’s the point of 70+ years on Earth?).
The scientific method and critical thinking skills matter, but they’re not everything. As a great friend described to me this week, you look up into the sky and you are amazed by the light that travelled from distant galaxies, because it’s so beautiful, and massive. But what’s more amazing is that you’re able to see it, understand it, and embrace its beauty, thanks to the structure of the human eye and how it relates to the human brain. When the light left those galaxies, you didn’t even exist.
I’m continually improving my appreciation of the universe, and I’m guided by the beauty and splendour of it, without needing or wanting to imbue it with some spirituality. It’s amazing enough as it stands. Why cheapen it by assigning its creation to some being or thing?