On Prayers, carols and grimaces – to be godless and devoid of god-shaped holes

I find church services make me grimace more each year. I grimace inwardly, it would be rude to grimace in front of the parish, though most wouldn’t notice the grimace as it would be worst when they are kneeling to pray. Mind you, the vicar might see me, and she might be a tattle tale, or pull me over during the handshake and ask about my overly active facial muscles and then we’d have to have that talk – atheist to Anglican, Anglican to atheist. 

I am not one of those atheists who hankers for the church service and gets a thrill of togetherness when in a pew. 

I like churches, but I prefer them on a Monday afternoon, when you can saunter and peruse the plaques, masonry and leaflets on outreach, society, and floral arrangement  timetables. 

I don’t go to church at Christmas, I feel no pang. I watched a church service with my family, some of them like that sort of thing and I am the only one that somehow dropped out of the deity rigmarole.(for anyone who has a problem with the term “watched”, this meant that I watched a service on the TV, this seemed to be an important issue, though it changes nothing I have written) Carols don’t lose their delight, though my favourite version is a brass band outside a fading shopping centre, where the rendition of Silent Night stops drunks in their tracks on their quest to find an advent pub that hasn’t barred them yet. It’s been a while since I saw that, the last time Chorley in a different century.

It is the prayers that become harder to watch on each new viewing. Every year, they become more ridiculous to me. It might be the delivery, that sonorous monotone that suggests no real dialogue with a god, merely a recital by actors who have been touring with the same script for so long, they have forgotten what the words mean and why they are saying them. 

I wonder how the reciters imagine who their words are going to? Is it an embodiment of a creator, a spirit or something indefinable. The fact that the god is not as clearly conceived as it was the past doesn’t stop the tradition or the pleas, it is the done thing. 

In my adult years, I have never really been able to conceive what this Christian God thing is. I have spoken to Vicars, Deans and Bishops, and there comes a point in their explanation where my mind winces, not out of mockery for their opinions, just because it can’t seem to make any sense to me. This happens to when I have the behaviour of sub atomic particles explained to me, but I understand why I am confused. I haven’t put the effort in. When I go off and research more, I get inklings and shadows of what it all means. I will never be a scientist, but I find that by questioning and reading, the concepts become illuminated, sometimes only for seconds. I believe that if I really put the effort in, if I stopped being distracted by all those other shiny spines on my bookshelves, I could get closer to comprehension. The opposite is true of godly religions. The more I read, the more it seems to make no sense at all, just a hangover from a time where evidence based explanations were more elusive and so something beyond the physical and measurable was brought in as a motorcycle leap, mid equation. I know of no reason why I stopped believing in God or gods, it is not due to some precocious intelligence, charismatic geneticist or the allure of a librarian’s cargo cult where the science books rained down from the sky and concussion by On the Origin of Species led to an awakening and elation. 

This is why I try not to get hung up on religion. I will save my time to get hung up by dogma and the bigotry that can lead to. Sometimes bigotry doesn’t even need dogma, just a lack of information and a few hunches will suffice.  

Anything that doesn’t offer the freedom to question and the freedom to think how you wish, anything that burns books or bans speakers (utilitarian rules applicable), anything that hampers education, you know, the usual list that leads to those conflicts when we have to try and accept those who say what we don’t like but hopefully we don’t send them to a gulag or stake. 

This is why when people say, “you must meet this rabbi/preacher/imam, it could really change the way you think and you could have a good argument”, I often say no. If I was without time constraints, I might say yes more often but, just as I don’t have enough spare time to sit and listen to someone persuade me that I must see Battlefield Earth or die unsated, I ration the time for being told how and why I must let a god into my life. 

My life may have holes, that’s why it sometimes makes a whistling sound when I am in a hurry, but none of them seem to be god-shaped.

I am back on tour in the new year with new shows, some new solo shows, some new shows with Grace Petrie and Josie Long, as well as the return of Pointless Anger, Righteous Ire and Dirty Book Club. all that hullabaloo is HERE

Tip Top Chris Hadfield interview is amongst additions to http://www.cosmicgenome.com and Android friendly version available from Boxing Day. New Brian Cox review of the year and plenty more. 

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24 Responses to On Prayers, carols and grimaces – to be godless and devoid of god-shaped holes

  1. Joe says:

    Regarding the monotony of recited prayers, I have often thought the same of my local parish which I occasionally attend with my mother on special occasions (carol services, etc).

    I’ve also seen the congregation age, dwindle and fail to be replaced by a younger generation. This may be particular to my church – I know some have a very active community, both young and old – but that coupling of a tired older generation with a disinterested younger one feels a lot like the religious doctrine starting to dissolve.

    Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a bit of a hot potato, mind.

  2. Roger says:

    I was told off by my wife on Christmas eve for pointing out to my 7 year old son that the priest was just about to drink the baby Jesus’ blood and eat his flesh, discussing with him which bit of flesh it was because it looked quite crispy – perhaps a toe-nail? – and then pointing out to him that cannibalism is generally regarded as a bad thing. Apparently it’s embarrassing when I do this, although it doesn’t embarrass me.

  3. It’s probably quite rare that atheists can identify the precise moment or reason why they stopped believing in god or assorted deities. I was drip-fed religious dogma from the cradle onwards and it went the same way as the meat I was forced to eat, I chewed but never swallowed. The dog got the meat I smuggled out in my pockets, God was discarded along with the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus when was old enough to smell a rat. My pious grandmother thought I was the spawn of Satan. She hit me when I insisted that religion was the root of all evil, not me. I bear my atheism as a badge of honour but I don’t try to force it onto others, and that I think is the fundamental difference between “us” and “them”.

  4. patzin says:

    thanks for this particular blog. Over the years I have found myself leaning towards lack of belief in god, but my upbringing and the culture I live in, fight that. I’ve found more solice in eastern philosophy for a way of living. Yet I think we are creatures that don’t want to feel alone & have created a god or gods to help us understand the world. I have struggled with these concepts for years.

  5. mraemiller says:

    I’ve never felt with the Catholic Church that it doesn’t offer the freedom to question and the freedom to think how u wish. It’s more a case of you can ask what questions you like but the answer is always the same : “No”. Children handing out SPUCK propaganda, statues of saints that are unintentionally comical, singing that sounds ever more repressed and awkward, avuncular priests trying to avoid awkward theological questions, leaflets and papers full of absurd arguments about litergy because virtually any adult discussions would be heretical. Schismatic internal groups like Quest and ACTA who know the Church hates them but cant quite leave. Hardline sub-SSPX fanatics who dont understand why we dont have a Canon 915 campaign in the UK. Opus Dei so holy no one knows who they are. Honestly, Robin, why wouldnt you want to go to mass?

  6. Ann Sheppard says:

    I am tired of having to counter challenges to my godlessness, being told that I can’t possibly have a fulfilled life, that a true appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the universe is only possible if you believe it was mackled together by some beardy geezer over a short week. You’d think if he’d been around for eternity he would have taken a little longer over the creation of the only life in the cosmos … anyhoo. I find that atheists of my acquaintance have a much broader knowledge and acceptance of the variety of belief systems available to those who need them – part of the questioning and curiosity of the godless? I certainly don’t see it as a hole in my life, a lack of something – in fact, having no god in your life makes SO much room for more interesting, useful, relevant and beautiful things 😀

  7. Jem says:

    This post strikes quite a chord with me. This is the first year for quite some time that I’ve not been to a Christmas carol service. It was actually out of necessity, due to a diary clash with a party my 6 y/o was due to attend on the same Sunday afternoon, but it’s given me cause to reflect.

    Having been an atheist for a number of years, it’s only startlingly recently that I made the move to full rationalism, and feel all the better for it.

    However, as a result of this, I can’t sit and listen to church service prayers, without feeling that at this point, religion is exposed as the organised superstition that it really is.

    I also find myself getting incredibly irate that I have the “lord’s prayer” firmly lodged in my brain, in the way that other, more useful information isn’t.

    By way of retaliation, whenever this bit of the service arises, I mentally recite the lyrics to Eric Idle’s Galaxy Sing, and have taken to using it as a nursery rhyme for my children, in the hope that they get some use out of it one day.

    So, yes, while this year I’ve missed out on a cup of tea, a mince pie and the camaraderie of fighting off the cold in a 900 year old building, I can’t say I’m missing anything else. Except a run through of the Galaxy Song, backed by the sound of 100 or so others mumbling their way through a supernatural begging letter.

  8. Timothy says:

    If it’s not for you Robin, then don’t go! There are (sadly) a number of places in the world today where people are persecuted FOR attending church, but I can’t think of any contemporary society where you will be persecuted for NOT doing so. If God and religion cause you so much angst, or even just make you grimace, then steer clear. For myself, I can’t imagine life without God, but I have complete and total respect for those of you who choose another path; freedom of choice is everything. What I can’t understand is why you would choose to turn your back on this way of life, but keep peeping in through the windows and criticising those who embrace it. Just walk away. We’re sorry to see you go, but it’s a free world, at least in our particular corner.

    • robinince says:

      it doesn’t cause me so much angst. I really have no idea how you have taken this from the blog post. I also don’t criticise those who do it. Again, it seems you are hungry to feel criticised when I clearly state that people having religion doesn’t bother me. You join the group of people who can read what they want into something so it can justify their umbrage. As for peeping throughout the curtains, maybe you missed that I was seeing it because my family were watching. As for the idea that people are not persecuted for not going to church – I don’t know enough to comment, but I do know people who are persecuted and killed for not following the codes of some religions. But this is not a battle for who is and who isn’t persecuted. People should be free to live and believe as they wish (again, utilitarian rules applying)

    • Simpon says:

      Try living in mid west or Deep South Bible Belt USA and openly espousing atheism. It may not be persecution in the biblical sense if stoning and smiting but you will be a social pariah. How’s that for a loving and inclusive religion

  9. KB says:

    My God-shaped holes healed over at quite a young age, after it took more and more effort to be OK with the various religious inconsistencies and unfairnesses (eloquently and entertainingly pointed out by T Minchin). It was remarkably freeing to just flick the switch over in my brain: “Hey! I AM an atheist!”, as I imagine it must be for gay people to come out, or to finally get to the loo after a long car trip. It makes Christmas a lot more relaxed.

  10. kerry says:

    I find blogs like this incredibly tiresome. I know the zeitgeist dictates that we all ought to be rubbishing Christianity but, honestly, would you dare go into a mosque and pour sarcasm all over the prayers? Grow up, please,,

  11. Paddy Bramwells says:

    On Christmas Eve we spent a lovely evening hosted by my nephew at his home in North London. Friends and family, lots of wine, food and conversation. At some point he gets it into his head for us all to go to midnight mass as there is a church very close to his house. Not having been brought up in a church-going household I think he had some fairy tale vision of a packed church where we would sing lively carols for about 20 minutes and then return. We spent an hour in a two thirds empty church surrounded by people that made me look young, getting through a service that was devoid of energy, pace, joy or excitement. I am not saying that a mass should be a facile entertainment, but it should be engaging, especially if you want to attract more congregation. It brought back memories of being an altar boy, bored out of my mind. Still, we did have a pop star with us (like you do) and she sang beautifully, so that was nice.

  12. Chris W says:

    On Christmas Day my cousin (a retired vicar) went to an elderly friend’s house to “help with dinner,” taking elderly friend’s brother (another retired vicar) and brother’s wife. On arrival, the three of them promptly went to church, where they prayed for a full four hours. They returned, ate, and left. Instead of receiving help, elderly friend cooked, provided and cleaned for four. Elderly friend is 83 and not in the best of health.

    I have no idea what they prayed for, how it made them feel or what they thought it might possibly accomplish, but I think it might have been more useful to peel a few potatoes.

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