For me, the last few weeks have been full of Burns (or more likely Jean Armour) suppers. As a speaker, I’m invariably sober. Even when not driving, I’m aware that I’m going to have to stand up and make sense, but sobriety is not a universal feature of these occasions and there have been some interesting conversations along the way.
Last week’s was about religion. Three of us had been brought up Catholic while the fourth at our end of the table was an atheist of fairly dogmatic persuasion. The Catholics – among whom I number myself – were lapsed, although we all agreed that Catholicism is the Hotel California of religions. Checking out is remarkably easy. Leaving, on the other hand... Our atheist friend clearly found this disturbing.
I have friends of all beliefs and none. I once went to a Scottish pagan handfasting ceremony complete with flowery bower and a broomstick over which the bride and groom jumped: it was memorable, moving, friendly and above all fun. My late dad contrived to have a Catholic priest, along with a Baptist and an Episcopalian minister conducting his funeral, covering his bases as people said afterwards.
We rub along together, hardly ever discussing religion at all. If pushed, I’d say that the Celtic form of Christianity, pragmatic, simple and imaginative, is probably the one that appeals to me most. There are times – especially when I’m trying to write – that the life of an anchorite seems quite attractive.
It has always struck me that the least tolerant people are just as likely to be atheists as subscribers to the more extreme manifestations of faith. Peculiarly irritating are those who imply – hell, they state it with uncompromising certainty – that any belief system at all is a crutch, invented to comfort the intellectually challenged. When one or two people in the company diffidently suggest that they do have a faith, and the inevitable response is 'of course people can’t bear reality so they just have to make up the notion of God!' then even the most polite among us find ourselves aware of a slight raising of hackles. They have every right to believe it, but the inescapable implication is that they are so much less deluded, so much more sensible and intelligent than you are.
On this occasion, we acknowledged our differences and moved on, but the facile quality of the dismissal has stayed with me. Many may still believe in a simple white-robed God, sending 'ane to heaven and ten to hell' but many of us don’t. That being the case, unless the religious beliefs in question challenge the civil rights of others, we are probably wise to adopt Father Jack’s useful 'that would be an ecumenical matter' dictum, extending it to other world religions and non-religions as well. Or maintain a discreet silence. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns, after all.