Confusion can be irritating, infuriating, and isolating. On the flip side, celebrating uncertainty – whilst acknowledging that a lack of answers can be temporarily debilitating – can often lead to exciting discovery and personal growth. Not wishing to sound too much like a motivational speaker, I nonetheless confess that not knowing what I don’t know is generally a wonderful opportunity to slay the dragon of ignorance. I write about things that have puzzled, surprised, and overwhelmed me!
Religion has stumped me for most of my adult life, and now seems as good a time as ever to understand why.
Apologies for the gobbledygook in advance but I believe that I don’t believe. Since belief is a fundamental part of religion, I think that this clumsy definition of my present position accurately frames my confusion. Logically, since I don’t believe – and evidence of this stance will follow – I suspect this makes me an atheist, yet I celebrate religious festivals, got married in a church, and make a beeline to sacred places when I travel the world. So on reflection, does this make me a confused agnostic? To add to the turmoil, I do believe that I have faith. A faith that is so strong that it has been an integral part of me since I was a kid. A faith that has shaped my view on life, what I do with it (especially on a Saturday) and how I spend my money – often for little return. My enduring faith is wrapped up in my football team – Notts County – a team that has fallen so rapidly from grace that I often question why I keep the faith when despair and disappointment are the usual outcomes. However, I keep the faith season after season. I guess most people don’t get it. It’s more than just a game. My roots, my rock, memories, especially of my late dad, and what could have been. The latter is more about choice – exercised as a youngster – when I chose the black and white stripes over our red neighbors across the river Trent who, let’s say, have enjoyed significantly more on-field success, notably from around about the time I became an ardent Notts fan.
This disclosure, although cathartic, wasn’t moving me any further forward on my quest to solve the riddle of religion. I needed help. Following a series of rejections, false trails and patiently waiting – all the hallmarks of the initial stages of confusion – I held out, and sure enough fate (or maybe persistence) led me to pastor and bible teacher Ron Bailey. I knew the path of inquiry I wanted to follow but first, I wanted to know about his journey.
Born in the Potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, half a mile from Vale Park – the home of Port Vale – Ron quipped, “We could clearly hear when they scored!” An easy tap-in for me – “So not often then!” Ron regained the lead – “Lots of us grew up thinking the club’s full name was Port Vale Nil!” We had broken the ice.
Unlike my journey though, Ron’s football heritage pretty much ended in his formative years although his brother remains a passionate Vale fan to this day. Funny how commitment can touch and take hold, or was it that both his brother and I needed to be committed given the respective endearing underdog status of both teams. Yet Ron was moved in a different direction, even though it wasn’t immediate.
“My father was a precision tool maker, and my mother was a freehand painter in the potteries. We had no church connections. Apart from one Sunday school class I never went to church. At grammar school we had religious education lessons. Shortly afterwards I was confirmed. I had been baptized as a baby but that wasn’t of any significance to me. Like you I was, and continue to be, curious.” I reflected for a moment. I had witnessed many a crying baby being christened in church and wondered if this religious grab was evidence of early indoctrination. Although, from my own experiences, the ceremonies seemed nonetheless right even if I was less convinced by the divinity deed. Ron continued.
“I don’t think there was ever a time in my life that I didn’t believe in God. I don’t know where that came from. It was just an assumption that there was a God and I prayed at night.” Joining the choir Ron “absorbed” the lifestyle of the Anglican Church although he was keen to add, “It was almost like a spectator sport. I looked and learned but I didn’t think there was anything expected of me. This all changed when I saw a Billy Graham film based on his Harringay Crusader. I responded to his message realizing that Christ had died for me. If the bible was true, he paid the penalty for my sins and that required a response from me. If someone saved your life you don’t just walk away.” Was there a similarity of belief in both of our journeys? A significant trigger point that mapped out a lifetime of conviction? Without the intervention of my dad at that precise moment in my life who knows how different my future would have been. My Notts County journey had been significant and like Ron, I just couldn’t walk away.
Following a career principally in the corporate world of finance, Ron spent three years at bible college before becoming a pastor and preaching in over twenty countries. Now a local elder at the New Covenant Christ Church in Bracknell, his commitment to serving God has spanned sixty years.
Can you have faith without religion?
Smiling, Ron responded, “Yes, I think you can to a degree. I have faith without religion.” Well, I wasn’t expecting that! He continued, “I belong to a non-conformist church. There are no rituals, I don’t know what saint’s days are when and I don’t do anything for lent.” This guy was a rebel!
“But I am interested in religion, and I think it says something else. There is a verse in that obscure book in the bible – Ecclesiastes – ‘God has put eternity in their hearts,’ and it is my conviction that human beings are interested in their origins and ultimate destiny.” This observation echoed my calling. Notts embodied my origins and Meadow Lane was often my retreat when life threw a curve ball at me. A place where I could be in a crowd but, if I chose to be, alone in my thoughts. Our ultimate destiny? Back into the English Football League and the reclaiming of our place in history – the oldest football league club in the world! Ron added, “This notion is expressed in other religions, but there is some seed which needs, I think, a point of reference and I don’t think that is an accident.”
Ron added, “I also think we have an instinctive moral code – not that we necessarily obey it. The conscience is like a spiritual smoke alarm. When it goes off the body reacts to it.” I had lost count of the times that I had experienced that feeling and Ron’s metaphor was uncannily accurate.
“Putting all of these things side by side I have an instinct to ask the question ‘why?’ One of the failures of modern-day culture and science, with which I am fascinated, focuses upon the question of ‘how?’ I am interested in space, time, and particle physics but these disciplines never ask the question ‘why?’ I know that there are animals that make tools, so that doesn’t make humanity unique, but I don’t know of any that have a sense of their origins, curiosity, or sense of destiny.”
Returning to my earlier disclosure Ron accepted the challenge – “You say you are a confused agnostic. Amongst scientists, there are very few that would call themselves atheists. Indeed, when the Atheist Society put up slogans on buses even they were forced to say – ‘there is probably no God.’”
There are several religions in the world. Are they all correct or are some further up the league?
“They can’t all be correct. Logically you cannot have two opposing statements which deny one another, and they both be right. Logically they could both be wrong.” I found this disclosure refreshingly candid but confusing too, although I had little measure since I wasn’t familiar with any religion save a smattering of Christianity by reason of birth. However, Ron did concede that there were important insights in almost all religions.
“I am a Bible Christian and my first point of reference – my ultimate court of appeal – is the Bible.” He then outlined the construction of the scriptures using terms I had heard of but never fully understood. “It contains two separate books – the Old Testament or Covenant and the New Covenant. Two occasions in which God entered into a unique and reciprocal relationship with disciples creating a sense of belonging. The New Covenant is a new bond with God made possible through Jesus Christ.”
“For me there is another kind of proof of the general trustworthiness of the scriptures. War brings out the worst and best in people. I’ve been to Auschwitz twice and cried my way through the place. An unbelievable horror.” Ron then untangled humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom, which only slaughter for food or protection, by acknowledging that we are the only species who kill for dominance, leading him to the conclusion that there is something inherently defective within our genetic makeup. “I believe that is what the Bible calls a sin.”
Using a powerful modern-day descriptor Ron reflected upon the Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien – a catholic – in which one of the infamous rings was dedicated to the human desire for power. Given the dysfunctional prowess of mortals Ron pondered a recent news report about the use of drones. “I was watching a piece about the use of drones for getting help to isolated people. Then a later newsfeed carried a story about the same technology being used in warfare.” Ron’s conviction was that this craving of power was a uniquely human characteristic, before concluding, “The Bible is, in my opinion, the only thing that tries to give an answer to this dilemma.”
I have two incredible children and once had a beautiful wife. She died of cancer at fifty. Why should anyone turn to religion when they lose a loved one so early in their life, let alone a child?
“That is the ultimate question and there are no slick answers to that one.” I remained passive. My silence was intentional – I wanted to Ron to fill this vast void that had left me icy cold towards the notion of a benevolent God let alone any religion that could stand up to this level of scrutiny.
“I start from the opposite side of that question.” He paused before adding the most horrific personal experience, “I lost my son to a drowning incident in South Africa when he was twenty-two. He was brilliant. Having been to Oxford he had just accepted a full scholarship to Harvard.” Ron didn’t have to, but he continued, “We have seven children. My daughter, in her mid-forties, is profoundly handicapped. She only has two words, “Hello” and “Apple,” I think because her name is Abigail, and she possibly thinks her name is Apple. I am not without pain. I haven’t breezed through life.”
My clumsy attempt to spark some form of sanctimonious bidding in the grief stakes was humbly disassembled by Ron who elegantly summarized my original position as – if this is how God behaves how can I believe? Indeed, why would I want to believe? Spot on. Pray continue.
Returning to his unequivocal faith Ron concluded that God’s love was beyond explanation or description. “Why did this happen to me? I don’t know. But I believe that one day I will and, in the meantime, I trust – another word for faith – in God.”
Although disappointed that this revelation left a chasm of conjecture, for a brief moment I felt envious. Having recently attended the funeral of a friend’s son I couldn’t disentangle my own reflected grief in attempting to answer the terrible question – what if this happened to me? How could I process it? And would the rest of my life be dedicated to this impossible question at the expense of everything else that is important and beautiful in my life? Being able not to make sense and to await an answer had its obvious benefits. Yet I couldn’t shake off the sense of frustration in not knowing the answer.
Ron, no doubt sensing my anxiety, brought a welcome modicum of levity, “You speak of having faith in Notts County. Faith is when you put your whole weight behind something. Putting all of your eggs in one basket.” Then he asked me a fundamental question, “Would you risk your life on Notts?” Of course not was my response. “Then you have hope in Notts – which is nonetheless legitimate – even if it is a hopeless hope.” He had seen our latest result, hadn’t he?
How do you respond to the Karl Marx quote, “Religion is the opium of the people”?
Ron immediately stumped me, since I thought this statement would catch him off-guard. I was utterly wrong! “I think there is a lot of truth in what he said.”
He continued, “This is why I don’t think of myself as being religious. Often religion is another expression of power, used to control people.”
Returning to his Christian faith Ron qualified his assertion, “At its heart Christianity is a relationship between two people – the one who needs saving and the one who is the savior. You cannot apply that doctrine to the masses.” Ron declared that sometimes that power had to be confronted.
Providing a poignant example, Ron spoke of the not so glorious days of the British Raj on the Indian subcontinent which nonetheless prohibited the Hindu custom of burning widows on the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands.
I was keen to push this philosophical enquiry further and remind Ron of the legendary presumption contained within The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a wonderfully irreverent science fiction series created by Douglas Adams, first aired on BBC radio in 1978, that went something like this – to believe in God you need faith, whereupon as God appears the need for faith immediately ceases resulting in God disappearing in a puff of logic. Ron smiled and nodded his head eagerly in response, acknowledging the cleverness of this observation.
“I would want to examine what he means by logic because you cannot disprove the existence of God by logic. It is not possible in logic to prove the non-existence of something. That is an axiom of logic.” As I mulled over this apparently convincing retort Ron had me smiling again, “It’s an interesting anomaly to me as to why so many people who say they are atheists, like the actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry for example, get angry about something they don’t believe in!” I guess that was me told!
Isn’t religion just like football – our cultural heritage often preordains what we should believe, and like football, we generally keep to one team throughout our lives?
I reasserted this statement by reminding Ron that as a youngster I had a stark choice – Notts County or Nottingham Forest and some would argue that I made the wrong decision. But then again, I had stayed loyal since. My supplementary question followed, asking Ron to consider the simplicity of unwavering
allegiance, and querying why those that didn’t believe in religion were often, for example, destined to exist in purgatory – rather like the National League?
Finding it difficult to disguise his amusement at this analogy Ron responded in his usual effervescent manner, “Of course I don’t believe in purgatory because there is no trace of that in the biblical revelations – that is a catholic dogma.” I stood corrected!
“I think that for some people football is a religion. It consumes them. A thing of passion.” I was clear that Notts County had not consumed me, but I couldn’t argue with the second-half of his match analysis.
“I am interested in so many things; however, the Bible is a unique book because it finds me where I am – it really speaks to me. There are other books with amazing insights but, in my opinion, the Bible does this so consistently – and this reliability makes it believable.”
In summing up his conjecture Ron disclosed a fascinating insight into his logic – “So I believed, then I thought about things with strict logic and having made a leap of faith then it is only logical to me that I want to know God and serve him. Thus, my God does not disappear in a puff of logic!”
“Atheist, Professor Alice Roberts, has written a book called ‘The Little Book of Humanism’ that proposes that the key questions we need to ask are the ‘how’ ones. I believe this is a denial of human nature as we are innately curious about things.” We are – and I am! Perhaps I have reconnected with my childhood need to ask the question “why,” a phrase so consistently and often annoyingly uttered by my own children during their formative years. I had to admit that these early years were probably the best years of my life and writing had given me a second chance to pose those spectacularly innocent and thought-provoking questions.
Returning to his earlier admission of his avid interest in particle physics Ron concluded with a joke, “An atheist and God were having a conversation when the former declared, ‘We don’t need you anymore since we have all of the answers. We know exactly what happened as a result of the big bang. If we have the right dirt ultimately we will be able to create life!’ God simply replied, ‘Get your own dirt!’”
I began this journey with a certainty that religion and God were things that don’t logically exist. I met Ron and found that we shared many of the same attributes
– a spirit of curiosity, a frequency to ask the question “why” and a keen sense of humor. Although our individual trigger points at which we discovered our own interpretations of faith vary, our conviction was not that much different. However, I am still to be convinced of many things – and that isn’t a bad position to be in. I also discovered that God was alive and kicking in Ron, as is my faith that in the not too distant future Notts County will be back where they belong – in the English Football League!
© Ian Kirke 2022 / Twitter @ianjkirke