My project of reading all the Little House on the Prairie books to my daughters is nearly at the end; we are half way through the very last book. I will give you a report on the entire experience in about three weeks – we have about 18 chapters to go, and I read a chapter to them most nights.
In the second to last book, Little Town on the Prairie, the pastor in town decides that it is time to run some revival meetings at the church. Laura is not sure that she will go, preferring to stay home and study, but she is persuaded that going would be the better thing to do when one of her school acquaintances exclaims, “Why, people who don’t go to revival meetings are atheists!” (Emphasis original.)
Horrifying. But it’s enough to persuade Laura that she must go to the revival meetings.
At first, the revival meeting seems not so bad – singing and prayers. But then, the Reverend’s sermon begins, and seemingly works up to a frenzy. “Repent ye, repent ye while yet there is time, time to be saved from damnation!” he roared.
Then there is a compelling account of Laura’s experience.
Chills ran up Laura’s spine and over her scalp. She seemed to feel something dark and frightening the grew and grew under that thrashing voice. The words no longer made sense, they were not sentences, they were only dreadful words. For one horrible instant Laura imagined that Reverend Brown was the Devil. His eyes had fires in them.
A young man comes forward to be ‘saved’ and the congregation is caught up in the wild fervour. But Laura…
looked at Pa and Ma. They were quietly standing and quietly singing, while the dark, wild thing that she had felt was roaring all around them like a blizzard. ….. Then church was over, but somehow not over. People were pressing forward to crowd around [the young men and the older woman] and wrestle for their souls. In a low voice Pa said to Ma, “Come, let’s go.”
I find this account fascinating, for the pictures of both the fervid church service, and the social pressure that the Ingalls family felt. The church service scares me too; I get frightened when people work themselves into a state of enthusiasm and indeed, hysteria. The pressure for social conformity is at least disconcerting. Clearly, the Ingalls family felt that they could not just not go to church, but they certainly did not enjoy the revival experience. Their faith seems to have been of a much quieter kind.
Of course, pressure for social conformity is always present, always disconcerting, always hard to fight against. My daughters felt awkward about not going to the pre-Easter “Christian options” performance at their school, and distinctly put out by missing out on the chocolate eggs that were handed out to all the attendees. It seems that most children in the school did attend the performance; the only other kids who weren’t attending were those from Muslim families.
The odd thing is that I felt uncomfortable when my younger daughters popped their heads over the fence and told our elderly neighbours that Mummy had been making hot atheist buns. It’s all very well abjuring religion, but it’s far easier to do so quietly, rather than letting the neighbours know. Fortunately, our neighbours were just amused, and after all, it was not as though we had confessed to supporting Port Adelaide instead of their preferred team, the Adelaide Crows.
(This last sentence will of course, be utterly opaque to anyone who does not live in Australia. There is an Australian version of football, played only in Australia, ‘though a not-too-dissimilar game is played in Ireland. Loyalty to a team is required. Neighbours, family, friends, can end up not speaking to each other at all, about anything, if they happen to support different teams.)
I’m used to feeling somewhat offside, an introvert in a world where extroverts are celebrated, an intellectual artsy type when sport is what is really valued, a feminist when these days, despite the many and glorious achievements of feminism (you do like voting, don’t you?), so many women actively reject the label, a New Zealander newly living in Australia. But being out there about being atheist is difficult. It’s not just laissez-faire about religion – it’s an active stance of rejecting religion and even belief altogether, and being sure that I am not co-opted into religious observance merely through complaisance with social norms. But those social norms can be very, very hard to resist.
If this is difficult for me, I wonder how much more difficult it might be for my daughters. Next year, I might let them make their own choice about the Easter performance. And if they go just for the chocolate eggs – well, that’s fine by me.