Anyone who was at our wedding remembers a very special moment when my husband and four of his childhood friends posed for a group photo. In their forties, they were still great mates. One of them, Nick, had flown in from New Zealand to surprise the others. He died suddenly doing what he loved a few years back.
This week we received the sad news that another of the five, Philip, had also passed. Philip was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in his late teens and told he wouldn’t live to see his 21st birthday. Tomorrow we’ll attend his funeral. He was 59.
Philip and his wife, Kathy, are a testament to the power of faith. Both deeply religious, they built a successful dental business and raised two beautiful children to be competent and compassionate adults. A good portion of Philip’s life was spent undergoing difficult and painful medical treatments. They prayed. They went to church. They believed that God would help him through.
I do not belive in God but in recent years I have come to believe in belief. Science keeps proving that state of mind can have a positive impact on longevity, quality of life and recovery from serious illness. For many people, religion helps them to find and maintain that positive state of mind.
I had a great conversation with an elderly friend recently. She’s been religious her whole life, and she’s also a great thinker and academic. The two seemed incongruous to me so I asked her about the paradox; how does such an intelligent person place so much faith in an imaginary being?
This is what she said.
“The biggest mistake that atheists make is assuming that people of faith are simple minded or delusional. Logically, I accept that there is no mythical being with a long beard that watches my every move and grants wishes to people that pray to him. I’m not a fool. God, for me, is a word that represents love and hope and all those intangible things that connect us to every living thing. My belief is a choice. I choose to believe because my life is better with these beliefs and I am a better person because of them. Every week I spend time with other people, thinking about how well my behaviour matches my values and being grateful for everything I have. Churches are full of people that don’t literally believe in God.”
It seems for some people that faith is not just about belief. It’s also about suspending disbelief.
I didn’t know Philip well enough to ever ask him if he literally believed in God. It doesn’t matter. On the few occasions that I met him and Kathy I was impressed by the depth of their faith and the significant impact it had made to the quality of their lives. They were better humans because of it.
There have been times in my life when I’ve been cynical about all religions, convinced that they were responsible for war and persecution. I now believe that this argument confuses cause and effect. Some humans will use religion as an excuse to behave badly and to incite others to do the same. But in the absence of religion, wouldn’t the same people simply find another excuse? Would a world full of atheists be a kinder and less violent world? I sincerely don’t think so.
I’m a skeptic. Most people confuse that word with ‘cynic’. A skeptic is someone that believes something based on evidence. I also think it includes being open to the possibility that something might be true where there is insufficient evidence to prove it either way. This is very different to the flawed argument I often see in relation to things unproven; that what is unproven is false, ineffective or useless. Something unproven may be all these things but it may also not be all these things. We just won’t know until there’s evidence.
Having seen the movie, The Connection; Mind Your Body, with expert after expert citing research into what’s known as ‘the mind-body connection’ I no longer doubt the significance of belief. The evidence is there. Our state of mind influences everything. It can switch dangerous parts of our DNA off and it can help us to defy the predictions of doctors.
That’s why I think we should support anyone’s decision to participate in religion.
I do have concerns about some of the dogma in most major religions but I also notice that many of them are evolving. There are now female clergy in previously all male positions. There are people of faith prepared to openly acknowledge that the texts upon which their religions are based are archaic and should be the starting point for discussion rather than than a rule book.
I don’t think it’s okay the threaten children with burning forever if they don’t comply and I do think young people should be taught to behave ethically for its own sake, and not because they fear the consequences.
And yet, when I spend time with adult friends whose faith is significant to them I am struck by a common theme. Regardless of which faith they belong to (and I have friends in most of them) their faith is a source of inspiration, comfort, guidance and community.
Tomorrow my husband will help to carry the coffin of one of his dearest friends. It will be deeply sad for him. Philip’s friends and family will take great comfort in the idea that he is now in a better place and finally free from all the pain and suffering that plagued his life. There will be a service. They will thank God for the long and happy life that Philip shared with his wonderful wife and children.
Credit where credit is due. Regardless of the beliefs of anyone else in the church, there can be no doubt that Philip’s faith, and the faith of his family, have kept him alive for many, many years beyond expectations. It will also be apparent that faith will provide those that loved him with deep consolation during their grief. It seems to me that these benefits make faith a very powerful force in our lives.
Farewell, Philip and thank you for being such a true friend to my husband. You will be greatly missed. Thank you for teaching me, through your undeniable example, about the power of faith.
I am not likely to join any organised religion. All of them have elements that I find difficult to reconcile with my own values. That doesn’t stop me from recognising that faith is powerful force. I believe in belief.
I will keep working on living a life of kindness, gratitude and being the best person I can be. I will keep being inspired by the natural world and the breathtaking spirituality I feel in a rainforest. I like A. C. Grayling’s observation that you don’t need to believe in a god to have a spiritual life.
I know that having this spiritual aspect to my life helps me to be well and helps me to continue to evolve, to test my behaviour against my values, to make mistakes and learn from them. I suspect this is what is supposed to be at the core of all religions.
Perhaps the final word goes to another religious friend who told me this when I asked her about her faith:
“God is another word for love. When you hear god just replace it with love. That’s how you can understand my religion.”
I’ll be doing that tomorrow during Philip’s funeral service. I’ll replace the word ‘god’ with ‘love’ because, when it comes right down to it (and at funerals, it really does come right down to it), love really is what it’s all about.
I will also spend time reflecting upon the power of faith and the benefits of religion. There can be no doubt that it’s a source of comfort, inspiration and love for many, many people.