So now that I have declared my position – practicing agnostic – let’s examine how I got to this point.
Mom was religious. She followed in the footsteps of her father who was serious and devout but not intolerant. They were members of the United Church of Canada though Mom had a lapse of a decade when she became interested in the Presbyterian Church while we lived in Welland and then later in Peterborough. It wasn’t a serious lapse. At some point she returned to the United Church and became involved in Northminster United Church, very active in two choirs (the main choir and the ‘Good News Singers’ (somewhere I may still have a cassette recording of this group), and served on the Board for a number of years. I’m not sure what her fundamental beliefs were but I think she was much more oriented to a New Testament forgiving beneficent god rather than an Old Testament jealous punishing god. What drove her to dedicate so much of her life to organized religion?: was it habit?, an inculcated expectation of her father? A devotion to the liturgy and music of the Christian tradition? I think it was a combination of these things. Mom was a very intelligent woman but I don’t think she examined her beliefs much. She had a quiet belief – not a demonstrative ‘holy roller’ style; she prayed but I don’t think she fundamentally thought God was an interventionist in this life. I’m not at all sure what she believed about an afterlife. I’m pretty sure she hoped there was one.
Mom, much more than Dad, took steps to encourage religious education in her boys, certainly me. That is to be expected given her own devotion, and likely more determined with respect to me as the eldest child. She had similar expectations of my younger brothers but I think she became more and more relaxed with Steve and Jim by their teen years. I didn’t much think about it – Sunday mornings, you went to Sunday School (we often walked ourselves to Sunday School even when our parents stayed home). I didn’t much like going to Sunday School (that would be the introversion in me again) but I did like bible stories. And when we actually attended church i was impressed by the theatricality of the liturgy itself, and the solemnity of the church buildings, especially the noble old Presbyterian Church in Welland. I’m not sure how Mom felt about me drifting further and further away from her traditional beliefs.
I might mention here Marlene’s own religious orientation. Her father George was very active in the Northminster Church; I get the feeling that, while her mother, Helen, was a very diligent church-goer her life long, it seemed to me it was more pro-forma than devotion. Marlene was a dutiful oldest daughter who not only went to Sunday School regularly when she was young, but also participated in Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) meetings weekly at the church, and in her later teen years, sang in the choir. Marlene’s adherence became much more relaxed in her later years, and even as she vacillated between the horse farm and the Unitarian Church on Sundays she never stopped believing in a Christian god. I think our drift from the United Church troubled Helen more than it did my Mom.
Scouts: Religion & Life Award
Growing up in conventional Ontario in the 1960s, and in particular my active involvement in Scouts, influenced my religious orientation as much as church did. Scouts offered a certain amount of structure, a minor level paramilitary culture instilling a sense of duty and personal responsibility. I took my Scouting career seriously, as I did most things in my life and it gave me a strong sense of ceremony and satisfaction. I passed all my requirements for Second Class, First Class and ultimately a Queen Scout. (I also rose in rank from Member to Seconder to Patrol Leader and finally Troop Leader.) One of the [optional] requirements to be a Queen’s Scout was to earn your Religion and Life Award. I asked the Minister of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church if he would guide me through the curriculum and examine me and recommend me for the Award.
Over ten weeks I learned a lot about the Bible and Christianity, or, at least, a lot that a fifteen-year-old could hope to comprehend. Much of it was memory work, some of which I still retain (and I have to say, it still serves me well in Jeopardy): I learned to recite the names of all the Books in the Bible, from Genesis to Zachariah and Malachi in the Old Testament and from Matthew to Jude and The Revelation of Saint John the Divine in the New Testament; I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, The Creed, and the 23rd Psalm, and maybe some others that I’ve since forgotten; and we discussed many of the famous stories in both Old and New Testaments. I think we skipped over the Songs of Solomon.
All this gave me a strong grounding in the fundamentals of Christianity and this also served as a foundation for questioning some of these fundamental elements. This training also served me well in knowing many of the allegories in classical English literature and schooled me in my later efforts in the teaching of the Bible to Unitarian Sunday School classes. I also home-schooled each of my kids in the Bible when they reached age 11. I think they appreciate it now.
University (Comparative Religions)
My inquiring mind began to be stretched in University through some of the optional courses I took in pursuit of my Bachelor of Arts degree. I wasn’t on some troubled quest to challenge and betray my earlier religious education, I was just curious to know. So I took a course in Comparative Religions, as well as a course in the History of Philosophy (the course in the Significance of Mathematics may also have had an effect). The result was an appreciation of two things:
- that man’s search for meaning has been a continuous quest for at least 10,000 years and gradually became more and more based on provable theories and facts than upon received wisdom from a god or gods,
- and that the European Christian ideas of god were not the only point of view, and had deep and shared roots with ancient beliefs.
These insights lead me farther and further away from the notion of Christianity being the ‘true religion’, and further that all religions were both correct for serving the cultural needs of the people who adhered to them, and fundamentally flawed.
I don’t know when I decided I was an agnostic (to doubt or question the existence of a god) but at some point I had become quite content with that label. It seems to me the agnostic condition is the only one that a thinking person should adopt. It seems impossible to me to accept that there is an active deity in the lives of human beings and the idea of god as the answer to the question, ‘who/what created the universe?’, is a tautology. Similarly, to declare oneself as an atheist (rejecting the existence of a god) is to be as doctrinaire as any convinced religious practitioner.
As I mentioned earlier, Marlene was probably as inculcated in Christian values and beliefs as I was, both of us raised in a typically Protestant family upbringing of the times (the ’50s and ’60s), but Marlene was never so academically oriented and didn’t trouble herself much with the questions and doubts of a philosopher of meaning. She just quietly accepted religion (United Church version) as a normal part of life. In this way she merely drifted along with me as I evolved my religious thinking. We were married in the Dunham family church (Northminster United Church); we had both Shannon and Ryan baptized in their turn in the Northminster Church. But by the time Alison came along Marlene and I had become members of First Unitarian Congregation in Ottawa and she was ‘Named’ there. The kids took religious education there but by the time we had moved to Oakville Ontario and there was not a well-established Unitarian Congregation in town, Marlene began to revert to the United Church and enrolled the two oldest in Sunday School at the local church. Marlene may have attended services herself but I did not.
When we returned to Ottawa Marlene briefly enrolled the kids in the local United Church Sunday School again and I supplemented their education with my own Sunday [home] School Classes. Gradually the kids’ religious instruction petered out and Marlene’s weak interest lapsed completely. What evidently was happening in her life was an increasing level of interest in nature, and especially horses. And who can blame her. Many people find spiritual salve in beasts, and horses in particular, as they both elicit fear and respect. (As for me, my devotion to horses never got much beyond fear, except from a distance as I watched them on a racetrack.)
Unitarianism and Agnosticism
Why, if I was agnostic, did I maintain an affiliation with The Unitarian sect? In part it has to do with my sense of engagement – I may have become agnostic in my beliefs, but I still had an inquiring mind. One of the tenants of modern Unitarianism is, ‘The answer is to question’. Suited me. It also has to do with my sense of what is spirituality. Just because I no longer adhere to traditional religious beliefs doesn’t mean there is no place in my life for honouring the achievements of our forebears in struggling with these larger-than-life questions. The awe-inspiring artistry and architecture of civilizations past, and recent, should be valued; the need for societies to have in place some institutions to ensure the rights and obligations of man to his fellow man must be respected, and the inquiring mind should never be content with unsatisfactory or missing answers to difficult questions, especially where the received wisdom is unchallenged. I am a skeptic by inclination, and experience, though not of the tear it down nihilism type; knowledge is only ever advanced by challenging and questioning what is claimed to be truth.
But being a questioning agnostic and at the same time valuing the traditions of the past creates a sort of internal tension. In studying and searching for answers I somehow stumbled upon Unitarianism (and its cousin, Universalism), discovered the wonderful church building and congregation of the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa.
Unitarianism has an old Protestant tradition, and some say has roots going back even further, 1900 years to Coptic Gnosticism in Egypt. Unlike other Protestant sects who strained against the yolk of the Roman Catholic priesthood, Unitarians went further and challenged the Nicaean Creed laid down in 325 A.D., which sanctified the concept of the Trinity (God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). Unitarians could find no biblical reference for this claim and rejected it in favour of a unitary God in one form only. (Universalists seemed less exercised over this problem but rather worried about the Old Testament god as a judgmental vengeful god, and even in the Christian creed that the path to heaven is belief in Jesus the Saviour, and argued instead for universal salvation. The two sects finally merged, in America at least, in 1961.) From the beginning these two sects became outcast from both the dominant Roman Catholic Church and all the Protestant sects. This crucible of persecution may have only served the members to strive even harder to seek truth and to accept within their midst contrarians and individualists from many sects. As Wikipaedia explains, ‘the beliefs of individual Unitarian Universalists range widely, and can include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, humanism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, syncretism, Omnism, Noe-paganism, atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, panentheism, pandeism, deism and the teachings of the Baha’i Faith’. Phew.
All in all, I became and remain a Unitarian – it’s a place where I can practice my agnosticism.
As to Marlene, she devoted most of her Sunday mornings to Fawg Forest Farm, or as I called it, the ‘Church of the Holy Horse’.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada
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