Faces of Gods
For my third book project with Alain de Botton, Religion was one of the most personally uncomfortable of subjects I felt I could tackle for him.
If he was the recipient of a fiercely secular home life then I was the casualty of regular church weddings, Christenings and funerals. But then there was the Salvation Army.
From the age of eight I decided I wanted to play a musical instrument. Perhaps, I reasoned, if I went to Sunday school they might invite me to blow a bugle for the band I heard in the precinct – carol tunes under the Xmas light bulbs, chilled hands hooked around the bells of cold brass. In readiness for that forthcoming job offer, I even bought a packet of balloons in the belief that I needed to strengthen my pre-pubescent pulmonary vessels.
I remember the chest-bursting chorus of Onward Christian Soldiers. But instead, I was offered a tambourine to rattle.
What still bothers me is the faded portrait of Jesus that hung from the wall – a sad portrait of a sickly young man not too dissimilar from my then teacher though with added drops of blood descending the pale face caused by the prickly thorns that encircled his lank, centre-parted hair. So obviously European and middle-class was he, this Son of God. He seemed recently more laughable at his resemblance to bin Laden whose gentle soft portrait of the Saudi outlaw was splashed across the New York Times in the days after 9/11.
Work on the book coincided with Pope Ratzinger’s visit to Britain and I used this timing to follow his holy entourage accompanied by protesters whooping their parodies, parading their alternative doctrines. His Bishop henchmen juxtaposed beautifully with gorgeous models from Monsoon and the victims of celibacy gone wrong displayed their former selves as child/priest victims of rape.
Over in Feltham, west London Father Chris Viper in St Lawrence’s kindly accommodated me for a few days, allowing me to photograph his daily Mass and private moments in his sacristy. The Croydon Buddhists put me in touch with the Rivendell retreat where I passed a most agreeable day with resident monk Nagasiddhi and his followers, in a solitary former rectory. But some weeks spent negotiating a Sabbath with Jewish Liberals turned to dust. Somewhere, the wrong bells were sounding and I smelled a collusion, our requests dwindling within that synagogue after the seemingly unfathomable practice of documentary was explained.
More confusingly, Alain also asked me to infiltrate London Metropolitan University’s Holloway Road campus though at the time I saw no relevance to this idea of atheism – or religion for that matter. With Alain, you might at first look to the brief without worrying too much about context – his initial thoughts morphing to newer ideas. One then hopefully offers far more peripheral material, if the opportunity arises.
Looking back 25-plus years, I remembered a project I’d endured about Evangelism and Born Agains (plus others). Try as they might, attempts to have me speaking in tongues on the floor of the Prince’s Ballroom at Butlins during Easter Bible Week or between giant rolls of shag pile in a carpet warehouse, frustrated the more determined pastor.
Without realising it, I seem to have covered – with the exception of the more obscure ones such as Cheondoism or Aladura – a modest archive of worship and idolatry, devotion and pilgrimage. It’s just that the faces of Gods are no more real or plausible to me than Sheik Osama or Gorn.
‘Religion for Atheists’ is published on January 26th by Hamish Hamilton.
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Tags: Alain de Botton, atheism, atheist, book