Does having a faith make us virtuous? (Nov 2007)

Friday, 01 April 2011 18:02

When Pepper wrote about how, when she had asked a member of her church for help, he had told her, 'You can't be a proper Christian because Christians don't get depressed,' (September/October 2007) I was not surprised. I knew how a great many people, who describe themselves as having a faith, behave with little kindness, generosity or concern for those who aren't seen as being suitable members of their community.

When I was a child my mother insisted that I attended Presbyterian Church and Sunday school, even though she never attended and my teenage sister, who did attend, refused to acknowledge my existence. Every Sunday I learnt my catechism and listened to the sermon, and no one in the church recognised my loneliness and offered me companionship, not even the minister whose favourite theme in his sermons was faith, hope and charity. 'Charity', he explained, meant 'love'.

Years later, when different groups, interested in mental health, invited me to give talks and workshops, I found a similar lack of concern amongst most of the different religious groups who contacted me. Local associations of MIND and various mental health charities, all managing on a shoestring, would take it as a matter of course to offer hospitality to an honoured guest, and, even when I waived my fee, would insist on giving me something as a token of their appreciation. With a few notable exceptions, religious groups assumed that I would work for free, be tardy in offering to pay my expenses, and unaware that I had simple human needs, such as needing protection from importuning members of the audience or feeling hungry or thirsty. This lack of concern I saw as the distain which people, who regard themselves as being especially good, show to outsiders.

However, all of this was very minor compared to what happened to many of my clients. Some clients would tell me how their vicar, minister or priest (I didn't have any Muslim clients) had told them that the disaster that had befallen them - their depression, or cancer, or bereavement - was punishment for their wickedness. Others told me how they had been excluded from their religious community because their suffering showed them to be unworthy of membership.

Those who suffer pose a threat to all those people who wish to believe that they live in a Just World where goodness is rewarded and wickedness punished. All religions teach that we live in a Just World, but differ in how they define good and bad, reward and punishment. A senior Anglican evangelical cleric once assured me that suffering is evidence of wickedness. If you believe this, you never have to feel the pain of pity. You see the sufferer as bringing his suffering upon himself. Some American evangelicals teach that, if you believe in Christ, He will make you rich. However, the evidence of earthly rewards for goodness is largely lacking, so it becomes necessary to believe in some reward after death, such as heaven, or paradise, or rebirth to a better life.

Even with a post-death reward, believers struggle to solve the conundrum which, stated simply, says God is all-good; God is all-powerful; suffering exists: for two of these statements to be true, the other has to be false. When Pepper asked for help she was asking her Christian helper to choose between believing that God is all-good or that God is all powerful. No wonder she was rejected.

If we believe in a God who takes a personal interest in us and expects us to be virtuous we can easily find ourselves trapped in a prison defined by good and bad, reward and punishment. All we have to do is to believe that we are, in essence, bad and unacceptable, unworthy of the right to exist, and thus we become focussed on a desperate need to be good while all the time doubting that we can ever meet the standard which our personal God has set.

Fortunately many people reject this form of religious belief. Instead they think in terms of some power which encompasses everything which exists and of which they are part. No longer needing to cling to the child-like certainty that demands a parent-like god, they accept the mystery and uncertainty of their existence. When they try to describe what they know and feel they might use mystical language, or religious language, or simply the language we use when we talk about nature or the creative process. Individual though these experiences are, there is a common core, whether we are, like Pepper, writing a poem, or, like me, looking at my garden. It is an experience which has nothing to do with reward for virtue or life after death. It is simply to do with being and belonging, and feeling at peace.