I am certain that I am not alone in begrudgingly accompanying my family to midnight mass every year on Christmas Eve, despite my lack of belief in God. In our increasingly areligious society, religion is often manifested in terms of tradition rather than widespread devout faith. David Cameron is in a minority of recent party leaders as religious man; just look at the atheist Ed Miliband, the agnostic Nick Clegg and even Nigel Farage as a self-professed ‘lapsed’ Anglican. Cameron’s repeated declarations of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ aren’t thoroughly convincing, considering numerous polls and a recent official report showing a ‘general decline’ in the Christian character of the nation. This is reflected in Cameron’s own message, which urges Christian values over specific Christian beliefs. It is, of course, entirely consistent with conservative ideology which seeks to preserve traditions – here, religion.
This attitude towards religion is prevalent in modern Christian communities in Britain. It is easy to envision the trip to church on Christmas Eve with mulled-wine-tinted glasses; all scarves and warm coats, candles and choirs, stained windows and high ceilings. It is easy to forget the essentially theological nature of it. Most of us zone out during the wordy, preachy parts. I notice this especially since I go with non-English family. My 11 year old cousin’s English, while good, is, naturally, not fluent. Preaching about God seems therefore strangely absent in the whole traditional trip to mass. But without God, we’re just a group of people in a nicely decorated room singing songs that remind us of our childhood. Indeed, this is what religious traditions are for many people raised in a somewhat Christian household or community who have since grown to either not believe in or seldom think about God.
We are no longer even Kierkegaard’s ‘Sunday Christians’, we are holiday Christians – grabbing any opportunity for presents, pancakes or chocolate eggs whilst sometimes attending church to justify these traditions. I use ‘we’ loosely here as I describe the British Christian community as a whole, rather than my own atheism. Considering the pagan origins of these Christian celebrations, these are surely some of the least Christian aspects of the religion. Still, tradition does not have to be inherently bad. It can certainly bring people together. Perhaps the best part of midnight mass is the sense of community; I was touched to watch a young man approach an elderly man who had been struggling to stand up during the service and offer him a lift home as we all made our way out of the church. I saw this act as human, rather than Christian. Hopefully I need not tediously list kind acts committed by atheists at this point.
At this point I should note that Catholicism is my particular concern here, simply because the Christian side of my family is Catholic. Admittedly, this gives me less authority to comment on the nature of the predominantly Protestant British Christian life. Nevertheless, I believe this sense of religion as a tradition is applicable to both communities, as I gather from friends with Protestant families.
So I sat there, as every year, being told that I am a sinner and to ask for forgiveness for my sins. To be told this in a Church which condemns homosexuality, contraception and abortion does not feel like a simply harmless tradition. This is not to say that I think all forms of religion are evil, just that there are potentially harmful messages contained within aspects of religions. Adults have the right to make up their own decisions about this. Children, on the other hand, cannot. My main contention is that there should be no pressure surrounding religion, and treating religious practices as harmless traditions puts pressure, whether positive or negative, for members of a household or community to partake. This is particularly of concern when it comes to children. It is almost impossible for anyone to make an unbiased decision about religion, but for children raised in a noticeably religious or antireligious environment it is far more difficult. Surely for both theists and atheists it is preferable for a choice about religion to be made as freely as possible? Besides, the damage harmful elements of religion can have on children cannot be underestimated. Reggie Yates’ recent BBC documentary Gay and Under Attack about LGBT individuals within Black and Asian communities considered the perception of homosexuality and transsexuality in these often highly religious communities. Some noted that despite their own homosexuality, they still fought to dispel their own homophobia ingrained from childhood. The impact of this for Sahil, besides driving him close to suicide, is that the process of fully realising his sexuality is far more difficult than it should be. Although it was clear that his family were very much devout theists, these ideas cannot be dismissed as if hold no place in major religions.
My beliefs, in the end, are simple: it can be harmful to treat religion as a tradition whose roots do not need to be addressed and that there should be no pressure surrounding conforming or not conforming to religion. Of course, all beliefs deserve to be challenged.
Image: Almonroth via Wikimedia Commons