I didn’t grow up in a religious home. My dad battled not to roll his eyes at the mention of religion when I was little, and I remember my mom scuttling around phoning her friends to try and find a Bible for my primary school homework assignment that required it.
I had been dragged along to spiritual festivals and was in meditation groups before my voice broke, but I didn’t learn what Shrove Tuesday was until university, and I didn’t know the words to a single Christmas carol until last year, when Gareth Cliff conspired to bring the Boney M Acclimatisation Project to everyone’s ears.
And I never considered it a disadvantage. In fact, it made me feel superior. I felt pity for those who had grown up religious, with all that cultural baggage. I found their worldview quaint and anachronistic, and a little absurd. I was free in my pursuit of truth, and didn’t have to waste time railing against the establishment because that establishment cut no ice with the people I knew.
But you don’t realise until you leave it, that whatever life you lead as a child and teenager is a bubble, even if it is a liberal and expansive one. And I started to become very angry when I noticed what was going on around me. No matter how much I enveloped myself in rational arguments and Eastern philosophy and spirituality, I could not escape the fact that I lived in a predominantly Christian country. In the kind of Christianity I could not understand.
I thought it was self-evident that the Bible is a book of metaphors. And yet the majority of people seemed to take it literally, interpreting it in hateful ways. That was not just quaint and bizarre; it affected our culture and people’s lives in very real ways.
A friend of mine was thrown out of his home when his parents discovered that he was gay. He was then sent off to a church camp to be ‘cured’. I realised “my parents are very religious” was a common reason not to come out – as if religion, and loving your children, were mutually exclusive. Was the central message of every religion not love?
I had become, by the time I went to university, quite wildly anti the Christian orthodoxy. I would refuse to say grace if people asked me to, and bristle with annoyance if it sounded like anyone assumed I bought into their faith. I remember my university banned the Christian Society from meeting on campus because of their stance on homosexuality, and I swelled with pride.
And then I fell in love.
I gave a religious boy a chance, despite the fact that it was unequivocally against my dating rules, for the very noble and godly reason that I was more attracted to him than I had ever been to anyone in my life. Even Colin Farrel. And I wanted to have lots and lots of gay sex with him.
He hid the extent of his religious craziness until a few months in, when I had inconveniently fallen in love. It started with him being uncomfortable when I went to yoga, and progressed, over time, to include putting the fear of god into me about Revelations (something I still cannot shake) and climaxed with him telling me I had to move into the guest room and play it straight when his father came to stay because his father had been known to “speak in tongues” and believes that gay people “are possessed and need to be exorcised”.
And naturally, we fought about it a lot. I could not believe that someone so intelligent could be so brainwashed by his upbringing. It made me angry that he was afraid to live his life in front of his family, and that his family were so unsupportive. It made me angry that he felt ashamed of himself. It made me angry that he had freak-outs about our life, as if our love was impure or insufficient or sinful. I was insulted that he could think that.
But I realised one day, when I heard myself ranting about his beliefs, that I was picking fights with the victim. Yes, his views were insulting and demeaning. Yes, they meant we had periods of no sex. But actually, it wasn’t about me. What kind of support was I providing to the man I loved by getting angry about his internal battle? I should be on his side, not the side of liberal ideals.
The basis of my anger was the conviction that he was refusing to see sense: that he was deliberately continuing to upset himself, and therefore me. But religious belief, I realised, is nothing like spiritual curiosity: it cannot be argued against. It is greater, and deeper, than anyone can understand.
My arguing against his religion wasn’t freeing him at all; it was simply pushing him away. Faith was his baggage. And like all baggage, the right thing to do was accept it as part of him, and simply hope that it would eventually make him less unhappy. Being judgemental of religion would make me no better than the very thing I hated about religion: its judgements and moral arrogance.
The idea that we both may be going to hell was a genuine torment in his life, and something that he grappled with every day. I could not even begin to imagine how awful that must be to live with; far worse than my humiliation at having to pretend to be his straight flatmate for a weekend when his family visited.
My problem with religion was academic compared to his problem with religion.