Religious or Normal?

Religious or Normal?

- in Culture
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Illustration: Cecilia Hansson

It is difficult being taken seriously when coming out as religious in Sweden. As we leave Easter behind us, Marcus Bornlid Lesseur wonders if we should not re-evaluate our view on religion.

”The Enlightenment is dead”

These were the words of the most popular author in France right now, Michel Houellebecq, when he was interviewed by literary magazine The Paris last year.

In connection to the release of his novel Submission, depicting a France in which the Muslim Brotherhood have claimed political power, he talked at length about religion’s role in society. He also stated that ”the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality”.

The interview was published only a few days before the attack against Charli Hebdo, whose latest issue was covered by a portrait of the author. And if you want to, you can choose to view that move as a form of affirmation of Michel Houellebecq’s views, which he in no way is the only one to hold.

In the latest years, atheist literature is one of the things that has experienced somewhat of a renaissance. The successes of right-wing Christian America, as well as the increased impact of various Islamist terror groups, has lead naturalistically schooled persons such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens into seeing it as a necessity to take up the fight against organised religion.

Similarly, most of us are also used to viewing religion as the anti-thesis of rationality and reason, a fragment from the past that should be left in the trash bin of history once and for all. Or, as one of the interviewees put it in David Thurfjell’s, professor in comparative religion, book Det gudlösa folket: ”If I am to be completely honest, isn’t religion quite useless? It leads to war, oppression of women, and misery. Besides, it is scientifically proven that it isn’t true! I really don’t get how someone can believe in religion today.”

In spite of all this: there are those of us who has an ambivalent relation to the religious. Not least me.

When I think back to my childhood, it feels as though I spent every Sunday in Kalmar Cathedral. Every Sunday, the way I feel it looking back, I forced myself to crawl out of bed and sleepily walk to the baroque church in Stortorget; every Sunday I wore my red shroud as I walked past the pews in the nave during the entrance procession; every Sunday I stood to the right of the chancel, listening to the priest, from whose hand I received the altar bread during Holy Communion at the end of mass.

I was ten years old when I joined the church choir. And, aware as I was of the fact that you did not get any street cred from singing hymns of God´s bliss and the importance of accepting Jesus into your hearth, I have often done my utmost to hide this from others. Or the fact that I – even during my Marxist years in school, when religion was synonymous with opium for the people – have felt drawn to religion.

Not only would it have seemed uncool if this came out, but most people would probably also have seen me as kind of nuts. As a friend in Lund put it, when he in recent times felt a somewhat unexpected pull to go back to church: “It takes either getting out of a drug habit or doing time if you are to come out as Christian at our age. Otherwise you are seen as insane”.

But my interest and attraction to religion is not something that has levelled out with the years. Not that I necessarily believe in God (or any other supernatural power for that matter). But at the same time, I have never quite managed to shake the gnawing feeling that perhaps I really should, that my reason might deceive me, and that I simply have failed to grasp something fundamental. Because is that not what all deeply religious people say, that faith itself is what is important, even if it cannot be proven?

And even if it sounds mundane, there is so much in the great world religions that touch me – the beauty, the wisdom, the gravity. Often, it feels as if I never see my life and existence as clearly as when I am in church.

Interestingly enough, the Swedes that maybe only peek through the door to the religious are many more than those who close it behind themselves. At least if you look at the numbers. Even if the pews are empty in the most secular country in the world, Det gudlösa folket tells us that no more than eleven percent of all Swedes denied believing in “any God, supernatural power or force” when they were asked about it in 2005. And two decades before that, in 1989, 69 percent of the populace saw themselves as Christian “in my own way” – the second highest number in all of Europe.

One of the main reasons that Swedes still shy from calling themselves religious is, according to David Thurfjell, that the very definition of the word “religion” has come to mean something else since the 20th century. He holds that the word now is in many ways associated with something fundamentally un-Swedish.

It is one thing that traces of Christianity can be found in various parts of Swedish society, or that most Swedes are still christened, go through confirmation and celebrate Christian holidays. Because according to the Swedish way of looking at it, you are only a true Christian – that is, a Religious Person – if you are somewhat of a fundamentalist with a detachment from reality, living your life in strict consideration of church dogmas. And, of course, this goes against the Swedish self-image of being the very embodiment of rationality and reason.

However, I believe that the contact phobia many people feel towards the concept of religion is quite odd. As Göran Rosenberg points out in an article from Dagens Nyheter (2007-08-28), religion is, simply put, “every type of belief on what reality is, on what it means to be human, on the goals and meanings of life”, and the concept as such does not necessarily require a belief in God.

In the Paris Review´s interview with Michel Houellebecq, the author explains that he does not believe that a society can survive without religion. Who knows – maybe that is how it is. And maybe the emotional attraction to the religious is something fundamentally human, something we, as a result of evolution or for some other reason, cannot get rid of, no matter what rational counter-arguments we face or how the societies we live in are structured.

Yet despite this I keep wondering what the point is of me still feeling compelled to go to church or indulge in literature such as Augustine´s Confessions, when I am so sceptical towards the theological contents. But the main reason, I suppose, is that religion and the religious rooms give me an opportunity to reflect on questions regarding death, life, ethics, truth and how I should live my life in a way that I rarely get a chance to in my daily life.

And for that reason I will probably, from now on and despite my doubts, remain in the church pew and search for the sublime.

Translation: Carl-William Ersgård

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