Religion is a subject that fascinates me as much as any other phenomenon of human existence. Yet I have been an atheist for most of my life, and can honestly say that I never felt fulfilled by, less still enjoyed the religious practice that formed a part of my childhood. This assembly of thoughts and memories is an attempt to bring together my experiences of religion, perhaps with the hope that it might provide some sort of purgation, or at least to contextualise why I remain intrigued by something I long ago rejected.
Despite my enjoyment of the week, there is something enormously callous and distasteful about the pilgrimage racket, and it became the theme of my novella, “The Miracles”. What message is it sending to the afflicted to send them to Lourdes in the hope of a “miracle”? It amounts to saying that if they pray hard enough, God may listen and make them “normal” like the rest of us. I can understand (though obviously not empathise with) the terminally ill heading to Lourdes, or some other pilgrimage, as a miracle is their last hope; but the same is not true for severely autistic children, the wheelchair-bound, or the otherwise mentally and physically disabled. They were born that way, or have become that way through accident or disease. This amounts to trying to second guess God, whom the faithful must presume had made the afflicted in that way, as well as making a value judgement that the way they are ought to be changed. My revulsion runs deeper than the common riposte; “Why does God hate amputees?” If you think it’s more to do with the experience of taking a pilgrimage, then explain the crutches hanging from the wall of the grotto – a clear signal that “miracles do happen” and that the faithful ought to maintain hope for one. Who wants the trip? Have the afflicted asked to go, or are they sent? A parallel that occurs to me is a charity worker who once gave a recruitment talk to a group of us at work, saying that it’s fine to be selfishly motivated when others benefit. She showed us photographs of her “good deeds” with elderly people, which amounted to playing them recordings of Britney Spears, shoving baseball caps on their heads, and telling them they were having a good time. Seeing pictures of their vacant faces, I’m not sure they would agree. Precisely who benefits? Do physically handicapped children, returning home without a “cure”, feel they have let the side down? Miracles don’t happen. Is it not better for everyone to accept their lot and get on with their lives, without judging somebody or being themselves judged in need of a cure, or clinging onto the false hope of a reversal of fortune?