When I was a small child I said my prayers by the bedside at night because – well, because it was what the children of middle class English families did. My prayers were not answered, and I know now why this was. But not then, as God was a ‘given’. Expressing doubt in his existence was unwise in the extreme, particularly at the Anglican institutions where I was sent to school.
The experience of a boarding preparatory school in the 1950s at the age of seven – one year after the sudden death of my mother – was a sombre one to say the least. One lived constantly with a certain level of fear: of punishment, of bullying and something we did not then understand of the predilections of some of the masters. Prayer seemed the only option through which one might possibly obtain relief, and I prayed nightly and at length. Not that my mother might somehow be restored – I knew enough them to realise that that was never to be an option – but to be allowed simply to go home. Each morning I awaited the summons to be told that my father had telephoned to say that he had changed his mind and wanted me back to continue my education at a local day school. It never came. Hope faded, and the intense grief faded into a bearable numbness that became in the end, a part of life. Now it could be said that since even then, though I did not know it, since I was not possessed of any sincere religious belief then how could I expect an answer to a prayer? And this was the sort of neat non-answer one came to expect from the ‘genuine’ religious.
It is the same with suffering in general. Why does God allow such suffering in the world? is the perpetually repeated question. Because suffering is a necessary experience, we are told. It strengthens us, makes us holy. And we are privileged to suffer because in so doing we join Jesus in His suffering. And why are some people so wicked, so cruel to their fellow men and women? Because God gave us free will, we are told – some of us chose to live principled and ethical lives (those of faith, of course) while others – usually not believers – will become thieves and murderers. What a cheap cop out! What utter boloney!
Well, I am glad that I live in the real world now, because it is a beautiful and often joyous place, a place of limitless wonder. And when the realisation came that I had no religious faith and in fact never had any, the sense of release and relief was profound indeed. Pity I wasted all those hours on my knees when I could have been out running in the meadows.