Every time there is a wedding or funeral on my Dad’s side of the family, the ceremony takes place at the baptist tabernacle; the church of choice among the majority of my aunts and uncles, cousins and their kids.
It’s a really nice, welcoming place with new facilities and plenty of friendly people; who as the saying goes really would do anything for anyone.
Today we buried my beautiful aunty, Cath. She was an active member of the church, and will be missed by as many of the volunteers there as she will be in our family. They cared for her and loved her very much.
During the service my cousin sang a song which aunty Cath would have loved. My Dad read a poem which was very touching, and obviously difficult for him to read. Cath was the eldest of five kids. She looked after my Dad when he was young, and here he was reading at her funeral, after she suffered a very painful and drawn out battle with cancer — a bastard of a disease, which sucked the life out of her in horrendous ways. If there is one thing which the last few months have taught me, it’s to always give as much as you can to cancer research.
You’d have to be a particularly belligerent and miserable person to take offence at the numerous mentions of Jesus, God and the various ideas of living forever after you’re already dead which were scattered throughout the church service, up until this point. There’s a time and place to pull someone up about something they say in a religious context, and in the middle of a funeral for a very religious woman isn’t one of them. So when “Jesus said…” this and “God did…” that, I reminded myself that I wasn’t there to sell Christopher Hitchens books, but to stand by my parents, comfort my uncles and aunts, and lay a reassuring hand on the shoulder of my cousins; to say goodbye to a sister, aunty and friend we all loved.
Then the youth pastor took to the stage. “If this were a humanist service…”, he said, “Oh oh, here we go”, I thought, “…we wouldn’t be talking about Cath living on forever with Jesus Christ by her side”, he continued. “If this were an atheist funeral, we would be saying ‘that’s it for Cath now, it’s all over’. But as Christians we believe in something more than that, and we offer it up in a way which nothing else can.”
I’m using quotation marks around his words, which are not verbatim, but you get the gist; humanists are uncaring nihilists, but Christians are tip top. It wasn’t only me being particularly sensitive to words which someone else might have let go. My mother, not shy to recite catechism, and start a sentence with “As a Catholic, I believe…”, as if this ends all debate, whenever that sort of conversation crops up, nudged me gently as if to acknowledge the pastor was now firmly in unnecessarily confrontational territory, with his overall tone.
There are exactly two openly atheist members of my family, and I’m one of them. The youth pastor doesn’t know me at all, so it wasn’t likely he was aiming this particular section of his otherwise formulaic funeral gig speech at me. The other openly atheist member of my family is my uncle, who is himself recovering from cancer.
He is the man who welcomed aunty Cath into his home, when she could no longer take care of herself. Suffering a great deal himself, from the effects of chemotherapy which have thankfully now got him back onto the road to recovery, he had a house-full of friends and family almost every day, throughout her long illness, and I’m certain that even in the depths of his own painful battle with serious illness, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
There was no way Cath was going to die on a sterile hospital ward, surrounded by underpaid staff, bleeping machines, and the unwashed hands of people visiting other terminally ill patients. So Cath died in my uncle’s house, surrounded by family, pets and love.
My uncle was the ideal person, then, for the youth paster to single out as incapable of knowing what the death of a loved one “means”. Who better to score points against, than the man whose own funeral will be a humanist affair? That the pastor did all of this in that well rehearsed and ostensibly genuine tone of voice, which men of the cloth all seem to share; that matter of fact confidence that what they’re saying is controversial only to those who lack faith, made it all the more upsetting. He had no idea how insensitive he was being; and would no doubt be upset if he did.
I said nothing. We placed aunty Cath’s body into the ground, braced our collars against the howling wind and sleet, and trundled back to the church for tea and cake.
Now, sitting with my Dad, I chat politely over a mug of tea with various church volunteers. Whoever made that cake deserves their own TV show, and it was nice to be once again in the same room as the best family in the world. The majority of them being devout Christians has never, not once, got in the way of my relationship with each and every one of them. I’m lucky.
Some people have dick heads for a family. For me, it’s the exact opposite. If anything, I’m the only one who can be a bit of a knob now and then. I once inadvertently upset my cousin by talking about images from the Hubble Space Telescope proving it’s namesake right, in observing distant objects which formed shortly after the big bang, that the universe is expanding at an exponential rate. We know words like ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ aren’t big with Christians, but the way in which I wove it into proof the bible is “full of shit” could have been phrased a little more diplomatically. But that was a long time ago.
Back at the church, the youth pastor appeared. There’s a famous scene in Fawlty Towers, where Basil is so desperate not to mention the war, in front of his German hotel guests, that he goes straight for the goose step, after inadvertently mentioning the invasion of Poland.
The pastor shakes my Dad’s hand, who then introduces me: “This is my son, James. Unfortunately he’s an atheist”. “Unfortunately?!”, I retort, “There’s nothing unfortunate about it, Dad. I’m proud of it, but thanks for the introduction”. This, by the way, is how my Dad is. It’s pointless to get upset at him for it, because it wasn’t done deliberately. If there was an elephant in the middle of the room at a convention of the ‘Elephants don’t exist’ society, he’d be the first to jump on it’s back and ride it around, encouraging it to dip it’s trunk in the tea urn. There’s no bullshit with my Dad. If something needs saying, he says it, even if the only person who thinks it needed saying is my Dad.
“What about the empty tomb?”; an interesting opening gambit, which the pastor thrust forth, as if I was supposed to immediately crumble under such tough questioning. I won’t go into extended details here, on what we did talk about, but needless to say I picked him up on the insensitivity of his speech, during the service, but not before asking him about the history of the bible, which — curiously for a theologian — he seemed completely unaware of.
The jury is out on whether or not he got the message; mostly because he began throwing out so many lines from the big book of “so you’ve decided to win a debate with an atheist”, that I actually started to feel sorry for him. He is a very nice chap — and he does his bit. He’s not there for decoration. The church does ‘outreach’ like no-one’s business. They build schools in Africa; hospitals in war torn places — they are, minus their baffling belief in things which just aren’t true, a brilliant community.
Apart from having to do away with the notion that ‘Richard Dawkins is the atheist Jesus’ for the hundred millionth time; and after he failed to pull me into various semantic word games on consciousness, the meaning of life and “the bigger picture”, it was a fascinating exchange — not for the content of what was discussed, but for the mooted looks of disbelief from those who looked on, as ‘our James’ had the temerity to question the man with ‘all the answers’ — a man who is, if he is good to his word, as I write this, looking up writer Bart D. Ehrman, an author of whom he was previously unaware, and whose work will hopefully cause the pastor to think twice, in the future, about approaching a former Christian like me, with the one about Josephus proving Jesus was the creator of the universe in human form — a staggering non-sequitur he was happy to abide by, even after spending half an hour with me; the recently bereaved humanist, of whom he so ironically described as incapable of understanding Christ, not an hour earlier.
But the ultimate pay off was reserved for my dear Mother. She asked the pastor if he’d ever been to a humanist funeral. “No”, came his reply, to which my Mother — the woman who upon discovering many years ago that not only did her only son no longer consider himself Catholic, but no longer a believer in God — immediately interjected, “You should go to one, they’re very nice. It’s all about the person, and their life — very beautiful”.
I’ve never been more proud; not only because this was from a woman who would have previously considered someone who isn’t a Christian as being one and the same as the devil himself, but that she had realised this was the wrong way to think about humanism, and changed her view accordingly — so much so, that now here she was defending humanism in front of the man who had dismissed it as bereft of meaning, during his sermon.
I helped the pastor pick up his jaw from the ground, placed my hand on his shoulder, and giving him a broad smile delivered the line that you just know he had hoped to lay on me, when this whole conversation began; “I hope I’ve given you something to go away and think about”. He smiled, but before he escaped, I nonchalantly asked one last question while he was off guard. “Does the empty tomb thing bring a lot of people through the door?”. “Oh yes, plenty. We’re doing very well”.
EDIT: It’s probably worth pointing out that ‘bums on seats’ used in the title is an English expression for getting plenty of people into a venue, and not ‘bums’ as-in the Americanism for ‘tramps’ or ‘drifters’.