Last update: 11-Dec-2013 10:36 pm
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Waiting for God? Oh.
Last week I went to Sunday Mass at church for the first time in my life.
A friend took me to St Finbar’s RC church in Diego Martin. The priest there is Irish. Which was amusing for me. Like watching an old episode of the British sitcom Father Ted.
The reason I ended up at church on a Sunday evening when I should have been at home watching television is complicated. Let’s just say it was my way of saying sorry to somebody.
I wouldn’t normally step inside a religious building except as a tourist maccoing mosques in the Middle East or monasteries in Montpellier. I’m an atheist, like the majority of Brits. The UK is one of the most secular countries in the world. In the British Social Attitudes survey of 2009, 51 per cent selected “No religion.” Just six per cent of Brits regularly attend church, according to census statistics. And in a 2011 poll by YouGov, just 34 per cent of the UK population said they believe in God.
Put another way: 66 per cent of Brits do not believe in god. We gave up on the concept ages ago and started worrying about other stuff. A church in England on a Sunday is a desolate place. A church bell dolefully ringing across a village, unheard by a nation deafened to religion.
Religion in T&T seems, to my untutored eye, far more of an important social factor. Whereas the Church of England represents a piece of living antiquity, the beautifully restored Anglican Church, St Patrick’s, I recently visited in Mt Pleasant, Tobago, is living antiquity but also an integral part of local people’s lives. And not in a pious way. The church there is an enabler of community as much as a place of worship. Its location overlooking a serene landscape is heavenly. Its graveyard is a resting place for generations of families. In England, nobody is buried when they die, there isn’t enough space left in the ground. They get cremated. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Driving through Tobago on a Saturday you would think the island deserted. Nobody on the roads. Nothing open. Seventh Day Adventism, a popular religion there, has Saturday as its Sabbath. On Sundays, shops also close for the Catholics and Anglicans. Tobago is a quiet place of a weekend, except for the sound of prayer blowing on the wind.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Woodford Square, Port-of-Spain are a quiet bunch too, timidly asking if you’re interested in reading something. We have them in England too, mostly they work door-to-door, like God’s salesmen. Here they are more visible, out in the open. But why so many of them?
What would Jehovah do? Would he go amongst the humble, à la Jesus?
A colleague told me about the marathon Satan-renouncing sessions her mother expects her to do at their Pentecostal church. Another told me about her family’s conversion from Presbyterianism to Islam. There seems to be a lot of converting going on here.
There are still some notable religious Brits of course. The Queen, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are all Christians. But it is the recent immigrants who are most zealous. Nigerians and other West Africans in London are absolutely mad about Jesus. They go to church for eight hours on Sundays, you see them returning home at dusk, shattered. Totally prayed out. Poles and Greek-Cypriots are also big on God.
There are some extremely zealous British Muslims as you may have heard. Some of them such staunch believers they hack off heads and blow up tube trains. But most of my Muslim friends—Turks, Arabs, Somalis, Pakistanis—especially those born in the UK, do not worship god. My Jewish friends do not believe in god. They are secular liberal Jews. None of my Catholic friends believe in God, even though they’ve been confirmed. Hinduism in Britain, other than the giant BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple in Neasden, North West London, is a religion most people channel via the Beatles’ Ravi Shankar-inspired pilgrimage to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. George Harrison’s sitar on Within You, Without You is the closest we get to worshipping Shiva.
As one of the world’s oldest religions, it’s difficult for young Hindus in modern Britain to connect. Over here, I’m losing count of the number of posters of Sathya Sai Baba I have seen—a symbol of the modern power of Hinduism in T&T as well as in India.
The UK officially recognises each religious holiday including Divali, Eid and Hannukah. But only one is ordained a national holiday, Christmas.
Brits are not anti-religion, we are just confused by the multiplicity of options and the squabbles people have about which one is correct. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants still fight each other over the correct way to believe in the same Christian god and the same disciple.
A Syrian-Christian living in Arima told me if you put 3,000 Arabs together in a room they would have 3,000 fights because of their religious sects and historical differences. Whereas here, he said, if you put 3,000 Trinis in a room they would just party; they leave their religion at home.
It is impressive how religion in T&T does not create barriers or hate. Peaceful co-existence and respect for each other’s faiths is heartwarming. I mean, for God’s sake, can’t we all just get along?
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