Some people are religious. Some people are atheists. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could leave it at that and all live happily ever after?
Sadly, we don't live in a John Lennon song and if there's one thing that has become blatantly obvious in the wake of the Pope's visit to the UK, it's that extreme atheism and extreme religious views are just as irritating as each other.
Before I go any further, let me clarify my situation: I am not massively religious. I do believe in something, but the older I get, the more confused I become about what that actually is. I believe - largely - in life after death. I do not believe that the world was created in seven days. I am what I like to refer to as a "spiritual agnostic." I have a sense of faith and I very much identify with some of the messages of love, forgiveness and respect that are associated with the Christian faith. I do not identify with any of the homophobic, narrow-minded and ultimately offensive views of some Christians. I do respect every individual's right to believe in whatever they choose, but I do not support inflammatory hate against any section of society and I do not accept the institutionalised cover up of paedophilia within the church. So that's me: Sitting somewhat awkwardly in the middle between mild Christianity, whilst despairing of some extremist views put forward in its name and agnosticism with a dash of spiritualism thrown in for good measure.
So why am I writing this? Why do I feel the need to set up camp so firmly in the middle, distancing myself from either extreme?
Because, as I said, both extremes have shown themselves in something of a poor light recently. Now before I get complaints, that's not me bashing Christianity. I said extremes, after all. It's the extremists - both religious and atheist - that I have a bit of an issue with.
If someone finds strength in a belief in God, who am I to take that away from them? Indeed, who is anyone to take that from them? If a belief in the afterlife offers someone a crumb of comfort in the dark days after losing a loved one, why should anyone have the right to mock them for that belief?
I know many Christians. I have Catholic friends, I have Protestant friends and I have friends who, like myself, like some of the more loving and compassionate lessons within the bible (do unto others as you would have done unto you etc) and try to live by them, without taking everything in the book literally or referring to themselves as necessarily "religious." I also have friends who belong to all sorts of other religions, but in the context of this blog, I'm sticking with Christianity for now.
What angers me and what I'm sure angers the atheists, is the fact that the very same book that preaches love and tolerance is then used to preach hatred towards certain sections of society and to justify the unjustifiable. When the same people who speak of "loving thy neighbour" discover that said neighbour is gay, suddenly there's a seismic shift in their attitude. "Well, only God can judge them," they tell us, whilst blatantly judging them themselves. And lets ask ourselves why? Because a book that was written thousands of years ago in a world entirely different to one we live in now says so? Yes, I appreciate that the hardcore religious believe that the bible is the word of God and that if he says being gay is sinful, they're going to go right ahead and take that at face value. But doesn't it fly in the face of the messages of love the bible preaches? The lessons of tolerance? Judge not, lest ye be judged? You have to ask yourself: If the bible is the word of God, why does he contradict himself so much?
As for the systematic cover-up of paedophilia within the church... Children everywhere have the right to feel safe and to be protected. To shelter a priest who has taken away that safety, who has destroyed the innocence of a youngster, is surely sinful in itself? To err is human, to forgive divine, but... Well, an eye for an eye and all that. No matter how high up a person is within the church, abuse is still abuse and should be punished. The fact that priests have been moved to new parishes and allowed to continue working rather than ever having to face up to their crimes is indeed sickening and I shared in the anger that many felt during the pope's visit, for this and many other reasons.
But to shroud every person who identifies his or herself as a Christian with the same anger is unfair. I know plenty of Christians up in arms about the idea of children being abused and the perpetrators being allowed to effectively get away with it. I know Christians who use condoms, because they're intelligent enough to know that they don't cause AIDS (dearie me, for someone so revered the pope's a bit thick). And I have Christian friends who truly do believe in the phrase "live and let live" when it comes to people of all sexualities. And yet these people - my friends - are constantly lumped into the same category by extreme atheists who can't seem to grasp the idea that not all Christians are "brainwashed." People are born with free will and can believe whatever they want to believe.
Which leads me on to the other side of the coin. I truly believe that extreme atheism - and I mean extreme, not just those who casually say "I don't really believe in God" - can be just as harmful as religious extremism.
There are those who are so intent on proving the non-existence of God that it begins to come across less as scientific interest and more as some kind of holier than thou (no pun intended!) example of higher intelligence. Their own, rather than that of a deity. If I had to take a guess, I'd say that the majority of free-thinking people in this country believe in evolution. I know I do. I'd also say that the majority of free-thinking people in this country believe in scientific discoveries rather than miracles. But does that mean we have to rule out the idea of spiritualism? Does it mean we have to mock those who choose to believe in God, or in the afterlife?
In the wake of the pope's visit, the internet has been littered with Richard Dawkins quotes, anti-religious statements and some quite insulting opinions, tarring all Christians with the same, homophobic, paedophilic brush. Forums, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace (I assume someone out there still uses MySpace, right? I don't, but someone must...), Bebo... It's all there. Spat out in anger: "THERE IS NO FUCKING GOD, HOW STUPID ARE THESE PEOPLE?!"
In the case of covered-up child abuse, ignorance towards contraception and sexual freedom, or homophobia of the worst kind, that anger is justified. But far too often, these people are shouting at all Christians. If you believe in God, they think you're an idiot. "LOOK, THE SCIENCE PROVES HE DOESN'T EXIST!"
In fairness, proving God does exist is harder than finding a photo of Jordan in which she looks like a nice, natural woman. It's fairly impossible if you don't already have a little faith and are therefore prepared to take something a little less than concrete. But does quoting scientists and denouncing all believers in this manner make you any better? An extreme atheist would argue that it shows a higher level of intelligence. I would argue that for all the academic intelligence in the world, it shows a distinct lack of emotional intelligence.
If a person wants to pray before bedtime, let them. If a person wants to go to church, let them. If you encounter a person with such extreme religious views that you find yourself enraged or offended, by all means tackle them with reasonable debate. But don't assume that all Christians hold the same views. All hardcore Christians might. But many are open-minded, understanding and tolerant. Just as many atheists are non-judgemental, accepting and placid. You can choose not to believe in God and simply go about your life, meeting others and treating them fairly, just as you can choose to become a religious believer and do exactly the same.
Why must we take everything to the extreme? Why must we stand so massively opposed? It's possible to sit in the middle. To take the good from religion - the lessons on love and supporting your fellow human - and ignore the bad. It's possible to understand and respect the work of the world's best scientists without thinking it somehow qualifies you to judge religious people unfairly. To be open minded and accept that we actually don't have all the answers, but that people are free to be who they are and believe what they want. We don't have to agree. We simply have to live alongside each other for the brief snatch of time that we inhabit this planet for. It's possible to live and let live. To be neither religious or critical of those who are.
It's possible to be a "spiritual agnostic." I should know. I am one.