Losing my religion
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Date: 29 September, 2003

Street scene


'How could I reconcile the strong suspicion that God wasn't there with the feeling of peace that I used to have? The loneliness was brutal. Religion is not talked about in polite society and apostasy is not talked about by the religious politely.'

  Charlotte Haines lost her faith five years ago but is uneasy about calling herself an atheist.

It's interesting how we haven't seen much of Dot since she regained her faith. It would be easy to condemn the BBC for such behaviour, however, personally I want to thank them.

For those who do not watch Eastenders, Dot Branning has provided us with a sense of security throughout all the drama of Albert Square with her traditional and sometimes parodied faith.

I expect few viewers were prepared for Dot's discovery last Easter that after a violent robbery rendering her unconscious, Jesus her friend for years had gone AWOL.

Faith has also gone missing in modern literature with James Wood's debut novel The Book Against God portraying the fallout of apostasy within a pious family.

Eastenders bravely showed us numerous scenes of Dot's new-found sense of nothingness. We could share Dot's discomfort, as she had to call a halt to the vicar's prayers and explain that although she was an upstanding Christian a few days before, now she couldn't bear the mention of God in her presence.

Wood's antihero on the other hand does not so much struggle with the missing God as much as find himself forced to admit to his family that he hasn't shared their faith in years. The pithy platitudes that his vicar father desperately tries to ply him with exemplify the common attitude of the church in this situation.

So why is it that we have to turn to Eastenders and a fashionable novel to explore what really happens when we are abandoned or we show God the door?

Five years ago my faith dissolved and I found myself very alone, bemused and angry. As the journey to non-faith was very much an intellectual one, I had to deal with questioning the past.

Had my religious life been a sham? Had I been duped and how could I admit such a thing? How could I reconcile the strong suspicion that God wasn't there with the feeling of peace that I used to have?

More to the point how was I to explain to church friends that I didn't actually want that feeling back though I was not sure why. The loneliness was brutal. Religion is not talked about in polite society, and apostasy is not talked about by the religious politely.

There is a Secular Society for full time atheists and bountiful churches to cater for your particular flavour of God but where is the support group to take you in when you can't believe in God but want to mourn his passing?

As Wood vividly shows, Christians are so profoundly challenged by a friend's apostasy, that at best trite mantras are endlessly repeated and at worst they make pre-emptive strikes in order to protect themselves from challenge. Another favourite is to insist that God is simply testing you, or worse He is angry with you, and everything will be all right as long as you are open to Him.

Dot may have re-found her Lord, but frankly I don't think there is one to find. However, and this is the really difficult bit, I find myself still unable to sign up to atheism.

I am an ex-believer in search of what exactly I don't know for I can't completely dismiss the metaphysical, yet cannot believe in the God and spirituality of Christendom or any other religion for that matter. Finding words to explore a secular spirituality is difficult without being mistaken as religious.

All of which makes me wonder why it is so hard for us to talk about the spiritual outside of the context of religion without smugness, sniggering or sneering?

Maybe if both arch atheists and the church could come to terms with losing their monopoly on truth and were able to talk frankly about the realities of belief, we might understand a little more about each other and life.

Order your copy of The Book Against God

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