Inside, I asked her what she thought of the church. She was sitting cross legged, had a great haircut and a very American affable manner. She smiled at me like we were already best friends. She said “It’s gaudy. It’s a display of skill instead of honouring God. It’s not about joy and life but authority and sadness. But that’s the beauty of God – he accepts us all, even if our attempts to honour him are a bit hypocritical sometimes.”
Outside, I asked him what he thought of the church. He was handing out flyers to a Fado club and seemed relieved to be chatted with like a human being. He told me it was worth a visit if I hadn’t been inside already. He asked me where I grew up and then he said he used to work on a cruise ship between Vancouver and Alaska, in the 80s and 90s, and that the landscapes were very beautiful. I told him that was a long time ago, but it must not feel that way to him. He said, “I have photos from that time that will stay with me forever.” We shook hands warmly when I left. These conversations were not like the Alaskan landscapes, but they had the quality of stopping for a moment to really look at a tree you might normally walk by, to notice its stillness, its detail, how it moves, how quietly beautiful it is, how close you came to just walking by.
On the morning of the first day of the CityLab, while introducing the lab Thomas Walgrave touched upon a topic that is close to my heart – the idea that so called “conservative” people are trying to do away with so many hard-won social resources in the name of progress, while “progressive” people are attempting to conserve civil rights that have been hard fought for. The link between politics and religion was notable throughout the day, and frequently cropped up in discussions, and this first moment of letting that particular contradiction sit with us in the room felt like a fitting introduction to the host of other political contradictions that make themselves visible when religion is discussed in earnest.
The lab began by having us all watch a documentary called A Matter of Faith which painted a kind of portrait of the religious make-up of Portugal. I was struck by the fact that only 6% of Portuguese people defined as having no religion – I imagined in the UK the number would have been much higher, but perhaps my opinion on that is skewed by the people I spend time with in the UK. I was also struck by the ways in which Islamaphobia has inevitably wound its way into a discourse about religion. As the academic who spoke to us after the lecture pointed out, after quite a nuanced depiction of the religions in Portugal in the film (including a mosque earlier in the film), the last story on screen was of a man whose daughter had moved to Syria to join Isis. It seemed an odd place to end the documentary, a kind of controversial take-away that plays into the ways in which the media is fed by sensationalist stories of extremism. As Thomas pointed out in the introduction, Portugal has a shared history and shared roots with Islam, and Islamaphobia has been relatively absent in Portugal in the current political climate, but the academic pointed out that a “banal form of Islamaphobia” was taking root in Portugal, displayed both by the ending of the film, and in political discourse. He gave us the example of Catholic far right intellectuals protesting that public funds should not be put towards the renovation of a mosque in Lisbon because of the supposed “secular state” – failing to mention that the Catholic church receives 10% of the overall annual budget, which does not strike an outsider as particularly secular.
But past the political dimension of religion in Portugal (which, particularly with regards to the Catholic church who seem to have a link to every political party in the country, is not easy to dismiss), watching the documentary made me feel uncomfortable on a personal level, particularly the talking heads, some of whom seemed to be earnestly trying to convert the camera in their interviews. I realised the extent to which I inwardly flinch when someone tells me about their religion. It’s quite different from how I feel when someone tells me about their faith – conversations about faith have a kind of gentle closeness, spoken quietly, haltingly, with words like, “I know this may sound silly or flakey, but I believe…” These are conversation about death, about mystery, about meaning, if there is any, sometimes had late at night after drinking or while looking up at the sky, and can feel like the most intimate pillow talk between lovers. A conversation about religion, however, can feel loud, forthright, spoken with too much confidence, like the relative who is always giving you advice even when you haven’t asked for it and you’re pretty sure they don’t even understand what you do for a living.
In the afternoon, we were asked to go to a place of worship and start a conversation, both with someone inside and with someone outside. And inside, I had a conversation about faith. And about religion. And it did waiver between the intimate uncertainty and references to God and Jesus that made me flinch for some reason, even though I’m undecided on both. But in hushed tones in that church the woman I spoke with found gaudy, talking in such a familiar way with a stranger about a topic I discuss typically only with close friends, very infrequently, and very late at night, I felt alive – and aware of the fact that, ultimately, that was what we were talking about – the fact that we were both alive. Such an obvious point but discussed so rarely, particularly between strangers.