Over the years, I have come across news stories reporting along the lines that ‘people who have a religious faith’ are healthier and happier. Well, I suppose the immediate reaction to that claim will range from ‘told you Jesus loves you, now repent, sinner, repent!’ to ‘yeah, right, and the Moon is made of cheese’, with neither camp even considering that the other might have a point.
The news stories will detail how ‘people who profess to have a faith recuperate faster from illness and surgery’, and it is no surprise that such stories are the bread and butter of our popular press. It is, in fact, a perennial favourite of Britain’s much-loved Daily Mail - a quick google shows it carried the claim several times in the past five years - and if you want ‘definitive proof’ that it’s true, you’ll come across any number of internet sites supplying it. All - now there’s another surprise - seem to be sites fun by various religious bodies or promoting ‘family values’. And when Breitbart also gets in on the act, many of us might agree it is high time we counted the family silver again.
In truth, as far as I am concerned the claim is too woolly to substantiate: the first difficulty would seem to be how you ‘measure’ happiness, although gauging how healthy an individual is would perhaps be a little easier. And what constitutes ‘having a faith’. One website I came across correlates church attendance with ‘happiness’ - people who said they attended church regularly reported ‘feeling happy’ with their lives more than those who didn’t. But another website posed the relevant question: could those figures simply be explained by the fact that happy people are simply more inclined to go to church? At the end of the day, and rather unhelpfully, you pays your money and you makes your choice.
And yet . . .
‘And yet’ - now there, it would seem is a capitulation: after all my sneering and jeering, am I getting soft in my old age? Am I slowly coming round to the view that fairies might after all live at the bottom of the garden?
. . .
I am what is often called a ‘cradle Catholic’, someone who was born and baptised into, and raised in, the Roman Catholic church. And I really wish I hadn’t been. But here’s a conundrum: I am to all intents and purposes an atheist, yet if I were directly asked the question ‘do you believe in God’ I would do two thing - I would say ‘yes’, and then I would immediately shut down any further discussion. I would not only refuse to answer any more questions, I would refuse to take part in an subsequent talk on the matter. And I would do so for one simple reason: I don’t at all believe in the slightest in the ‘God’ of conventional faiths, the ‘God’ of christianity or islam, some ‘all-knowing, all-powerful being’ who ‘created the universe’.
My ‘God’ would be something far more mundane, though, as far as I am concerned, equally important (if not more so): optimism, hope, looking on the bright side, altruism, kindness, consideration, selflessness. And these most certainly exist - as do their counterparts: despair, greed, hate, selfishness. So to deny that ‘God’ exists would be to deny the virtue of much else that is ‘good’. From what little I know of humanism, I suppose you could call my outlook humanist (but let me stress that I know bugger all about humanism).
When, though, I meet someone who professes to ‘have a faith’, I don’t, as all too often seems to happen when they encounter ‘an atheist’, tackle their ‘silly faith’ straight on and try to show that it is all just so much hooey (although to be frank I do believe it is just so much hooey). I leave them be in their faith, because I sincerely believe they are rather better off than many who don’t have a ‘faith’.
I know that might sound contradictory, so let me try and explain: as far as I am concerned what is important the ‘having a faith’, not the ‘what’ they have faith in. Do I believe and accept that a certain Jesus Christ was ‘born of a virgin’, ‘God made man’, ‘gave his life to save mankind’, ‘ascended into Heaven’, will be resurrected on ‘Judgment Day’ and whose ‘love is all-permeating’? No, I don’t. But do I accept that others do believe it all and - crucially - it gives them comfort and succour and some kind of support in their lives? Well, yes, I do.
I feel it is not the particulars of a someone’s ‘faith’ that are important, but simply that they ‘have a faith’. And if - as some studies seem to show (here is one and here is another) - those who profess to ‘have a faith’ do report being happier and do seem to enjoy better health, I am inclined to believe it is down to having a more positive outlook. I almost wrote ‘merely down to having a more positive outlook’, but I didn’t, because that rather trivialises it all.
. . .
I have meant to write the above post for several years, but never actually got around to it. I am doing so now, though, because, there has been another post I have meant to write for some time, but which I again have put off writing, and the above can lead into it.
The other day a woman at work, Sue, a Londoner but the daughter of two Irish who grew up in both Ireland and London, and crucially another ‘cradle Catholic’ happened to mention that she was bullied at her convent school. Another former pupil had tracked her down, informed her she was organising a school reunion and would she like to come. ‘No bloody way,’ said Sue. The only other pupil, she said, she would like to meet again with whom she had lost touch was another girl who always stood up for her when the bullying took place. The nuns did bugger all and just let it happen. If you met Sue today, you would be hard-pushed to imagine how anyone could bully her: she is quite tall, self-possessed and, it would seem, no one’s pushover. And yet she was. And like me she, too, wants nothing more to do with the RC church.
I suppose my major gripe is that my ‘Catholic upbringing’ completely distorted my view of women and, as far as I am concerned, affected my relationships with women rather badly, or, to put it another way, they could have been better in that I might not have reacted so badly to being dumped and might myself not have treated some woman what I now think is quite badly. Given my age, of course, my chauvinism might well be a result of the age in which I grew up. When I was young girls were still expected to take second place, have few ambitions except to become a wife and mother and whose role it was assumed to be was to make life just that much easier for the men in their lives. But I do feel my Catholic upbringing had a great deal to do with imbuing in me - and many others, of course - what is often referred to as ‘the madonna/whore complex’.
(NB. Two stories: Stephanie, a lawyer at work of about my age who was sent to a private girls boarding school when she was young told me she and the other girls were taught how to play cricket and to understand the game. Why? Well, if at some point in the future the man who became their husband wanted to talk about cricket, they would thus be well-prepared and would be able to hold their own in any discussion.
Then there’s the apparent reason why when the welfare state was established in Britain, the retirement age was set at 65 for men, but only 60 for women. Why? Well, it was reasoned that ‘most women were on average five years younger than their husband, so if they were working it would be useful for them to be able to retire at the same time as he did so look after him.)
Now, from the vantage point of a man who is closer to 70 than 60, I believe I can see much far more clearly: I would never describe myself as ‘a feminist’ because to me it always sounds so horribly arch and phoney when men do so. But I shall say that it now seems to me that in so many ways women, whether here in the affluent Western world or in ‘less developed’ societies get still get a raw deal. For example, is there any way that female genital mutilation could ever be justified? Ever? And here in the ‘developed’ Western world there are still far too many instances of a woman being paid less for doing the same job as a man. Why?
. . .
As far a my personal relations with women are concerned, I do quite explicitly blame the Roman Catholic church and the bearing it had on my upbringing and emotional development, quite specifically its institutional misogyny. It is best and neatly summed up in what is usually called the ‘madonna/whore’ attitude: on the one hand women - as in the cult of ‘Our Lady’ - are pretty much regarded as perfect beings (‘Our Lady’ as ‘the mother of Christ’ being regarded as the most perfect of all) and as such perfect beings are forgiven no transgression whatsoever. So, for example, and given the very odd christian view that sexual intercourse is sinful, Mary’s son Jesus simply could not have been created as the result of any coupling Mary might have engaged in, but just had to be born ‘of a virgin’.
(Years ago, when I was 17 and in my last year at school, I and about five six other boys were given our RI lessons by the headmaster who took over from a Dom Adrian Morey in my final year. He was an Irishman, Webster Wilson by name, who also took me for my German A level tuition and had married a German woman. I rather liked him and got on well with him, but sadly he was an object of ridicule in the school: he had somehow got off on the wrong foot and never regained the right foot.
Anyway, we all sat on his chairs and sofas in his well-appointed study on which on that day in a winter term a log fire burned gloriously. It was very soporific, and in the way that these things do, over the weeks a routine had emerged in which I or some other boy would engage Mr Wilson in conversation about something or other and keep him talking for an hour while everyone else dozed peacefully for an hour.
One day I told him that I, who was also taking sciences A levels, simply couldn’t get my head around the notion of the ‘virgin birth’. It just couldn’t be possible, I said. Mr Wilson countered with a question: ‘Do you believe in God?’ he asked me. Yes, I told him, I did. ‘Do you believe God created the laws of nature?’ he asked. Well, yes, I suppose I do, I replied. ‘Well, then he can break them, too, can’t he,’ Mr Wilson explained. And that was it.)
Naturally, women didn’t always - I should imagine ever - live up to the perfect state to which they were expected to aspire and ‘transgressed’. How could they? How can they? That state is impossible to achieve for all of us. But when they didn’t, they were regarded as jezebels, sinful beings like Eve in the Garden of Eden, who seduced Adam into eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Note that the emphasis is always on Adam who is said to have been seduced, and was thus the less guilty of the two: it was Eve who - in the myth - is the transgressor.
As a lad brought up on this rubbish, when I was at university - my sex life didn’t start until I was 19 - forever trying to get woman ‘to screw’, though this being the Sixties when the pill was still not widely prescribed, it was always a challenge. But then if a woman did do so, my attitude subtly changed. Whereas before they had been on a pedestal, now they were somehow not quite worthy, regardless that I had been an active agent in making them unworthy.
This was all compounded by, at 12, becoming rather plump and shortsighted, that I did not regard myself as very attractive to girls. The upshot was that when I finally did ‘score’, I was pretty much convinced the girl who had ‘given in’ was pretty much only doing me a favour. It has taken a good many years - far, far too many years - to realise that women have a sex drive equal to that of men.
My relationships all seemed to follow a pattern: I would fall desperately in love, but the girl would end it and I would be heartbroken and consequently treat the next girl badly. I don’t suppose this can be entirely blamed on the RC church’s misogyny - or, in an attempt to be evenhanded what I regard as its misogyny - and I also believe that attending single-sex boys schools from the age of 10 and simply not growing up with girls will also have a bearing.
But - and this is a hell of an admission - it is really only in the past 30 or so years that I have come to see women in the round: people who just happen to have a different gender to me.