Why are churches full of old people?

This is a question that used to flit, smirking, through my mind in my days as a religious sceptic. I wouldn’t say I was ever an atheist, but I certainly had no belief in any sort of religious higher power. Some superior force out there somewhere, perhaps, but not something or someone to be worshipped or praised or relied on.

St Bridget's
Our small but happy crowd at St Bridget’s Anglican church, Paramaribo, Suriname. But who is missing?

How could there be a father figure I didn’t know about? And why would I need one when I was so clever and powerful myself?

If you had asked me then why churches were full of old people, I would have said it was because they had more time on their hands and they were closer to death, so they were covering themselves in case the grim reaper came calling and found them unprepared. Like dodgy businessmen and their accountants getting their story straight before going to see the bank manager, they were making sure they had answers for any awkward questions.

Now, I see that it’s not so much that the old people are there, but that the younger ones aren’t. As children, we might be taken to church, partly to expose us to the possibility of God and partly because if we were there, we weren’t somewhere else, getting up to no good.

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I’m pretty sure that was my own parents’ rationale. It was a safe environment. Okay, you can get into trouble anywhere, but you’re less likely to do it during a service or at choir practice than hanging around on street corners.

So that put – and still puts – a few young people in church. And with them are their parents, young adults still in the early stages of building their lives. Their mothers, anyway. The fathers might still believe they were in charge, despite having played such a small and simple role in the creation of a child.

And the old people were there.

What you didn’t see were the 20 to 35-year-old single people, because they were too busy recovering from working hard and playing hard. And they didn’t  feel the need to be there, anyway, because when you’re in the prime of life you feel in control. Motivational speakers fill us with the notion of  doing everything ourselves. We have to make it happen. We are responsible for our own destiny. There is no such word as  can’t.

Admirable sentiments, in many ways. And “driven” people are often successful. What are they driven by? Financial security, perhaps. But it’s more likely to be ambition, desire for material things, and once they’ve got them, that can turn to greed.

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Pic courtesy of Pixabay, the free online photo resource. Credit:betticohen

But one thing such people are not doing is thanking God. They may be congratulating themselves, but that is widely regarded as a bad thing that leads to complacency, so they are urged to put that achievement in the bank and set off in pursuit of the next.

Have you ever wondered why professional footballers don’t always smile after scoring a goal? It’s because they (or their coaches) are afraid that enjoying the moment will lead to relaxation and switching off, leaving the team vulnerable. So, they score, they punch the air and they snarl “Come on!” as if they had just conceded a goal rather than gained one.

Such people are, in short, not humble enough to believe in God, because if they do that, they are not believing in themselves, and they are taught that that way lies failure.

As we get older, the vast majority of us will suffer setbacks, tragedies or health problems. And such things teach us that it is not all in our control.

That is why the church population is as it is. Churches are not full of weak people: they are full of people who do their best but are humble enough to understand that their strengths and talents alone – they alone – are not enough.

Dear Whoever – Disasters and atheists

She's young, she's innocent, she's growing up in our dirty old world. And she's wondering what the hell is going on.
This is the world through the eyes of a child.

girl bomb

Dear Whoever,

I’m praying to you but I don’t know who you are. My grandparents used to pray to God, but now lots of people say there is no such person and anyone who’s religious is just imagining it. And other people say there is, but not the one that Christians call God, the one who had a son called Jesus. They have other names for their god. Whatever, this is what’s on my mind this week.

Natural disasters. What’s that all about? Earthquakes, like there was this week in Taiwan. Loads of people killed and injured for no apparent reason. I can see why people in previous centuries thought those sorts of things were divine punishments. Even today there are people who think that – mainly those who haven’t had much of an education.

In the developed world, where we’ve all got some kind of grasp of science, we can either imagine how an earthquake or something happens, or at least we will believe the experts who tell us how and why they happen.

Tectonic plates, seismic shifts, all that sort of thing. We don’t really understand, but we know somebody who does, so we’re not afraid that it’s going to happen to us if we do something bad.

I think that’s why there are so many people nowadays that don’t believe in God. They think humans are so clever that we can work everything out for ourselves.

I suppose that’s true up to a point. Scientists are finding things out all the time, or at least coming up with theories. The Big Bang Theory, for instance. That really makes me laugh. The idea that the universe wasn’t created by a brain, a mind, but by an unexplainable event way, way in the past, that started life on earth, and we’ve learned more and more and become more and more sophisticated to the point that now we’ve got space stations and brain surgery, microwavable popcorn and Justin Bieber.

I’m not knocking Justin Bieber. A lot of my friends like him and I suppose I must admit he’s quite cute.

But getting back to the debate, God vs science, the atheists often argue that if there was a god, how come bad things like earthquakes happen.

And all I can say to that is this: “I don’t know.” But if it’s all down to us to solve the world’s problems, we’re not doing a very good job of it, are we?

It’s a complex subject, probably the most complex one you could possibly think of. And wasn’t the Big Bang Theory disproved recently? That’s the thing about humans and science. We accept one theory until further down the line somebody proves it wasn’t true all along. So having faith in something a scientist tells you is just like having a religious faith.

In all the years man has roamed this planet, fouling it up as he went, nobody has proved that God didn’t exist. I know that’s not as good as proving that he does exist, but each to his own, in my opinion. Non-believers just like to mock other people, I suppose.




The gospel according to an optician

You can’t do that: it’s not natural


Politicians and TV personalities might be the great pundits of our times, but they don’t have exclusive rights to deep pronouncements. My personal list of potential gurus grew unexpectedly when an optician challenged the opinion of a fellow professional with the words “It’s not what God intended.”

He was talking, ladies and gentlemen, about my contact lens prescription, and I have to say I agree with him up to a point. In order for this story to proceed without alienating anyone, let’s establish some fundamentals. For the benefit of atheists, agnostics and those who believe only in themselves, the remark could equally well have been “It’s not what nature intended.”

I don’t know if this optician really believes in God, but he certainly sounded serious about this. And if he does believe, presumably he has discussed this sort of thing with his maker, such was the authority with which he spoke.

And no, I can’t find any reference to optometry in the Bible, even in general terms. The ten commandments contain nothing remotely similar to ‘Thou shalt not wear glasses with big, bold frames that make thee look like a 1970s cartoon character, nor the sort of lenses that go dark when thou art in the sunshine’. I would have thought that last one would have been in there if anything, because it is a bit like turning day into night, which obviously none of us can do. And shouldn’t do, even if we could.


The prescription that gave rise to this whole thing was given to me about 10 years ago by an optician whose whereabouts I will not reveal, because he may be a perfectly nice person but he has a way of making people’s skin crawl. He sounded for all the world like one of Adolf Hitler’s evil doctors when, looking into my eyes, he said slowly and deliberately, “I’m going to make your left eye for reading and your right eye for distance,” as if this would involve pain and permanent mutilation unless I cracked and gave him the secret recipe for the seasoning in Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Don’t insult me with your lies, Tommy. We have photographs of you with Colonel Sanders himself. In the kitchen at his headquarters.” He leaned forward and his voice went softer and higher for the clincher: “Looking at a spice rack.” He adjusted his monocle and ordered one of his subordinates to put on a Susan Boyle CD.

He didn’t, of course. But he did sound creepy and it had been at the back of my mind ever since, until this new optician brought it right out into the open. A chill went down my spine as I realized… Sorry. No it didn’t.

So God, if you believe in him (which I do, incidentally) or nature, didn’t intend an optical professional to treat my eyes individually, only as a pair, both doing the same job? Did God or nature think that varifocal glasses were okay? And what would be the celestial position on correcting squints?

The possibilities are endless. If God had intended us to go on standby he wouldn’t have given us guaranteed seats on planes. Progress and innovation are two of those things that set us apart from the animals. You might be able to teach a dog to perform a simple task, but he’s not going to go away and set up a business passing the skill on to his fellow hounds.

Similarly, thinking outside the box is what distinguishes a genius from the merely excellent. I’m not saying my radical old eye man is a genius, because I doubt whether he came up with the idea himself. But he had the guts to go along with something that he knew his more conservative colleagues would reject.

The human brain is a wonderful thing, and if it can think up ideas to help its own functionality, there really is no limit to human potential. So who’s to say they won’t one day find not just cures for all diseases but ways of preventing these things from ever getting started?

My new optician surely didn’t intend his innocent remark to spark any kind of debate. He just thought he had a better idea. But then he probably thinks God didn’t intend people to write blogs, and that even if He did, He wanted us all to write about politics.


Dear Whoever – please stop the terror

I’m praying to you but I don’t know who you are. My grandparents used to pray to God, but now lots of people say there is no such person and anyone who’s religious is just imagining it. And other people say there is, but not the one that Christians call God, the one who had a son called Jesus. They have other names for their god. Whatever, this is what’s on my mind this week.

girl bomb

Dear Whoever,

Another week, another atrocity. The Mali hotel hostage thing was very different from the Paris attacks, but still another example of the fact that the human race has split into groups which don’t like each other.

african kids

What worries me, though, is that there is friction among people within the groups. Like many people, I adapted my Facebook pic with the French flag as a gesture of solidarity, but then immediately you had people saying we cared about Paris but not about things that happened in the rest of the world.

I don’t think that’s true. It’s just that you can’t worry about everything – there just isn’t time. And if I prayed to you about all the bad things that have happened and asked you to look after all the people who need it, but named them (as groups, not individually, obviously) I would be talking to you all day and all night.

I have faith in most of the world leaders and think they’re trying to do a good job, but there is always somebody criticizing them, and the people who do that are not the ones who have to make the decisions.

So what right do I, for instance, have to say that Barack Obama or David Cameron are wrong in what they choose to do? I don’t even know what I would do in their situation.

The French Prime Minister, Monsieur Hollande, says he’s going to get IS for this, but I don’t think he really knows how that would work. He’s just standing up to the people who have harmed his people and his country, so he has to say that, doesn’t he? Otherwise his own people will think he’s not capable of defending them.

girl for whoever

It’s like our dog, Zebra. Even when he was a puppy he would be barking like crazy any time someone or another dog went past our house. I don’t know what he thought he was going to do about it if anybody took him up on it, but he was doing his job. And funnily enough, even though he’s as gentle as can be, people who come into the garden – the plumber, the electrician and other visitors – are a bit scared of him because they don’t know him and he could be the kind of dog that bites.

So that’s what Mr. Hollande is doing: he’s barking at the terrorists and because they’re capable of doing terrible things themselves, they probably think he is too.

I just hope it all quietens down and we can go back to being worried about the weather instead. High winds and rain, that’s what I want to be concerned about. Actually I quite like it when there’s a storm going on and the rain is lashing my bedroom window, because I’m safe and sound inside. My dad is the Prime Minister around here and he barks a bit from time to time. Or maybe it’s a coalition with my Mum – she certainly behaves like the boss in certain situations.

Whatever, it’s not me who’s in charge, and most of the time I can carry on quite calmly, as if all is well in the world. Because that’s all I want, really, doesn’t everyone?



Dear Whoever – Thank you

Dear Whoever,

I’m praying to you but I don’t know who you are. My grandparents used to pray to God, but now lots of people say there is no such person and anyone who’s religious is just imagining it. And other people say there is, but not the one that Christians call God, the one who had a son called Jesus. They have other names for their god. Whatever, this is what’s on my mind this week.

girl bw

Not too bad a week on the international horrible things front. New horrible things, anyway. There is always something in the news that you don’t want to see or hear but you do anyway. I suppose that’s how they make sure people are watching their TV news programmes and looking at their websites.

The news people must know something that I don’t. If I was running the BBC or CNN I would be trying to find nice things to tell the world about.

So, the plane crash in Egypt probably was a bomb like everyone thought. At least the victims’ bodies have been flown home now and the families can bury them and get on with their lives. That’s what we did with my Gran a few years ago. It was a bit of a shock when she passed away, and everything was sad and weird for a while, but the feeling passes. I used to go to the cemetery and put flowers on her grave, but after a while I stopped doing that.

Actually, Whoever, I used to stand there looking at her gravestone and talking to her and you. Out loud. I hope you both heard me. I used to put freesias in the little metal vase. Freesias are good for that because for one thing they’re cheap but pretty and smell nice, and for another thing they’re not as delicate as some flowers.

They’re always dead by the time you go back, but I suppose if you put a vase in your back garden the same thing would happen. Cut flowers need to be looked after, like when my Dad buys my Mum some, which he does from time to time.

Nobody’s ever bought me flowers yet, but Mum says there’s plenty of time for that. It’s a funny thing to do, anyway, giving somebody something that isn’t going to last. It’s like chocolates: you eat them and they’re gone, so is that how long their feelings last, the person who gave them to you?

Nothing seems to last, does it? Everybody dies, mobile phones get outdated, laptops start doing funny things because they’re three years old. What used to be your favourite t-shirt gradually loses its colour and the shape goes a bit funny so you get a new one and that’s your favourite then.

black girl

I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it. Anyway, thank you for the fact that when one thing finishes another one comes along. I’ve decided I’m going to be an optimist, because that seems like a better way to do things. Thank you for me and everyone I know not being on that plane. I’m sorry for the people who were, of course, so I hope this doesn’t make me sound selfish.

But thank you for looking after me and I hope my Gran is okay. If she’s with you I’m sure she will be. Those people who don’t believe in you, I wonder what they think happened to their Gran when she died.




Dear Whoever – Mysterious plane crashes

I’m praying to you but I don’t know who you are. My grandparents used to pray to God, but now lots of people say there is no such person and anyone who’s religious is just imagining it. And other people say there is, but not the one that Christians call God, the one who had a son called Jesus. They have other names for their god. Whatever, this is what’s on my mind this week.

plane crash

Mysterious plane crashes. There was another one this week when a Russian plane crashed in Egypt and everyone on board was killed.

Why does this keep happening? Planes crash for no apparent reason and others disappear, never to be seen again. You didn’t hear about it so much a few years ago, so presumably it didn’t happen so much.

And nobody ever seems to come up with a simple explanation. It makes you wonder. I am told that statistically air travel is safer than many other things. People will tell you you’re more likely to get run over by a bus, and they think that’s a clever thing to say.

Well it doesn’t fill me with confidence, because it’s just a version of the whole parents-comforting-children thing, which is very nice but I’m beginning to doubt it. Whatever you’re worried about, your parents will tell you it’s going to be okay, but how do they know? They can’t guarantee anything.

Many people pray about that sort of thing, too. They ask their god to make this or that happen or prevent something. I do it with you, don’t I? And it makes me feel better. And nothing really bad has ever happened to me. But ministers die horrible deaths. Jews are very vocal about religion, but look what Hitler did to them in the Second World War.

I tell you, Whoever, sometimes I think the atheists are right, and we’re on our own down here. I don’t want to think that, and I keep bobbing back up to the surface when I feel I’m sinking, but it’s not easy.


There are so many different interpretations of the Bible and probably the Qu’ran and other books too.

Some people think we are getting close to the time when Jesus will come back to the world and sort everything out. Well I hope he does, because we’re certainly making a mess of things here and it feels like it’s getting out of control.

If there is a god who is devoted to doing good, is there also really a devil determined to poop everything up?

Well, I’m sticking with you, Whoever, because you’re the best chance I’ve got. But it’s difficult to convince other people. So please keep your arms around me and see me through this troubled period on earth. I personally don’t wish anything bad on anyone, so if everyone takes the same attitude, we should be okay, shouldn’t we?


Dear Whoever

I’m praying to you but I don’t know who you are. My grandparents used to pray to God, but now lots of people say there is no such person and anyone who’s religious is just imagining it. And other people say there is, but not the one that Christians call God, the one who had a son called Jesus. They have other names for their god. Whatever, this is what’s on my mind this week.


Dear Whoever,

I suppose I should introduce myself to the people reading this, but I’m not going to because exactly who I am is not important. What is important is that there are billions of people in the world who are like me deep down. We all want peace and we all want to live happily, with a roof over our head, not cold but not too warm. We want to be fit and healthy and safe. Actually, I am those things, and I’m grateful for it, although I can’t really imagine anything else, because as I said, that’s how my life has always been.

I have parents who live together and seem happy with each other. Many of my friends’ parents are divorced or were never married in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with that, I know. Or rather my parents tell me there’s nothing wrong with it. When they were kids, everyone had a Mum and Dad living together, but I gather that was not necessarily because they were happy. It was because they couldn’t afford to get divorced. My Mum and Dad have been married forever and they’re going to be together forever. Don’t ask me how I know that, I just do.


muslim girl

I’ve got lots of friends and a cat and a laptop and a phone. What more does anybody need?

Our family has enough money, even though my Dad, in particular, would like to have more because he says there’s always something cropping up that needs paying for. The car breaks down, the cat gets ill, prices go up, and the sums he and Mum have done for balancing the books, as they call it, don’t add up anymore.

One thing we don’t have to worry about is healthcare, because we live in the United Kingdom, which is known as the UK, and we have something called the National Health Service (NHS). I’m not sure exactly where that gets its money from, but I think it’s from people who work, and they pay a certain amount every month which ends up in a hospital’s bank account. Something like that.

Anyway, I’ve never seen my parents pay the doctor, and I’ve never been in hospital, so I wouldn’t know about that. I’ve got a cousin who’s a nurse, though, and he tells me the government is always trying to save money by giving the NHS less of it. Yes, I said ‘he’. It’s not that unusual to have male nurses, is it? You see a lot of female doctors.

So that’s what I’m talking to you about tonight, Whoever. Bless the doctors and nurses and the specialists who know everything there is to know about whatever it is they’re interested in.

Ideally I would ask you to never let anybody get ill or have an accident, but I suppose if you could arrange that, you would have done it by now. Why do bad things happen to good people? Ross said that on Friends when his shampoo leaked in his luggage on the way back from holiday.

Friends is pretty funny even though it’s ancient now. My parents have the complete box set and I’ve watched all of it. It’s a very grownup programme and it shows how life is for adults, so maybe I will live in an apartment like they do one day. I want to be like Rachel because she’s really pretty and works in the fashion world. Monica’s more like my Mum and Phoebe’s crazy. Joey’s nice and he’s very popular with girls. But he never has an actual girlfriend. That’s weird. It’s not like he couldn’t get one. Maybe he’s not as confident as he pretends.

Sorry, Whoever. I digress, as my English teacher says. I don’t know why it’s not ‘I am digressing’ or ‘I have digressed’, but that’s what he says. So please keep everybody safe and well and if you can organize for the Friends people to get back together, that would be great.