Thursday, September 06, 2007

Like any half-decent atheist, I’m fond of a bit of religion

September 5, 2007

Thank God I’m an atheist. It’s a big step to take, but it was becoming difficult to cling to the agnostic fig-leaf any longer.
As Lloyd George once said, if you sit on the fence too long it means that the iron enters your soul. Now, however, I am reassured by Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, that I can “stand tall to face the far horizon”. Atheism, he says, “nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind, and indeed a healthy mind”.

I’m a bit worried about that “nearly always” – an uncharacteristically fuzzy phrase surely, from the master of certainty;

but at least I can stand shoulder to shoulder with the new president of the British Humanist Association, Polly Toynbee, who announces that by embracing atheism we are resisting religious zealotry, “because the here and now is all there is, and our destiny is in our own hands”.

I suppose I agree with that. The notion of a life hereafter, the rewards of Heaven or the punishment of Hell are fantasies that I find it easy to dispense with, while the alternative – to seek the spiritual life within the confines of one’s own imagination – is a far more challenging proposition.

I wonder, then, why I find the militant convictions of the anti-religionists so chilling? Far from converting me, I find myself repelled by the way that Professor Dawkins so expertly picks off each and every argument put up by those who cling to their faith, while

the virulence of Toynbee’s attacks on the evils of state-sponsored religion is unattractive, at best. They may be intellectually rigorous, but they do not win me over.

They seem, however, to be having a wider effect. A poll in The Sunday Times, carried out for John Humphrys, the broadcaster, whose book In God We Doubt is published this week, revealed that nearly half of those questioned – 42 per cent – think that religion has had a harmful effect. This may stem more from the current suspicion of Muslim extremists than a flight from faith, but it does suggest that we have entered a new and increasingly intolerant era, for which the God-assailants must accept some responsibility. “Perhaps we are having an effect now,” comments Professor Dawkins. And perhaps “we” are.

I cannot, however, share Professor Dawkins’s contempt for what he sees as the vacuity of those who proclaim their doubts about an external God, but still cling to the traditions or the comfort of organised religion. Nor do I warm to Toynbee’s visceral hostility to the idea of an established Church. I stood, earlier this week, at a funeral where the bereaved family – not themselves believers – took deep solace from a Presbyterian service, with hymns whose lines were rich in language and faith. We listened to words from Proverbs about the virtuous woman who is “a crown to her husband”, and felt that the surroundings of an ancient church were perfectly in tune with the messages of love and remembrance that ran through the service.

By the end of it, my atheism was still intact, but I was very glad to have been there. I cannot, like Professor Dawkins, think the less of anyone who takes pleasure from a familiar liturgy, nor deride those who fall back on a Church whose central tenets they reject. Professor Dawkins is expert at exposing, with pinpoint precision, the inconsistencies of this position. He compares those who take comfort from traditional religion to people stuck for the night on a bare mountain, who warm to the appearance of a large St Bernard dog, “not forgetting, of course, the brandy barrel around its neck”. Death, he says, is something to be approached without hope or fear. It is far more invigorating to face “the strong keen wind of understanding”, which comes with a complete absence of faith, than to cling to “the security blanket of ignorance”.

Methinks the Professor takes a little too much satisfaction in the eloquence of his own metaphors and too little account of the richness of the alternatives.

As for Toynbee, I cannot quite follow her contempt for the evils perpetrated by our established religion. She cites the damage perpetrated by faith schools, the absurdity of a constitution that allows bishops into the House of Lords, and the extremism of Christian organisations that campaign against homosexuality, abortion and stem-cell research. There are arguments to be had about all of these, but I shrink from the shrill language with which she deploys them.

Do we really think, like her, that public services are “held to ransom by the weird sexual fantasies of unelected service providers”, or that faith groups are responsible for the “homophobic bullying” of young boys who are driven to kill themselves in our schools, or that religious leaders, “given an ounce of power . . . abuse it to deny basic liberties”? All this she ascribes to the overweening influence of our established religion, by which she must mean the Anglican Church.

Yet never in our history has that influence been so weak, its doctrines so torn by doubt, its preaching so uncertain. Listening to the Toynbee tirades one might imagine that this country was in the hands of a latterday Torquemada, or that Thomas Cromwell was once again sending heretics to the rack. Instead, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury who agonises, publicly, over the complexities of the Christian faith, and a Church that is on the point of tearing itself apart because the liberal argument on homosexual priests is becoming unstoppable.

What unites both Dawkins and Toynbee is their absolute insistence that we sign up to the fixed and rigid agenda they have set us. For one, it is a case of choosing between rationalism and stupidity. For the other, it comes down to the liberalism of the secular life, or the red-necked fundamentalism of state-sponsored religion.

All this leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Despite my new-found position, I still seem to be on the shifting sands of uncertainty. Is there, I wonder, something called an atheist heretic?

Selected Comments

In my view he is still agnostic but can no longer bring himself to admit it. A small giveaway is his continuing affection for spirituality, evidenced by his experience of attending a funeral service.

Don, Birmingham,

Charming as it may sometimes be, religion is utter balls from start to finish, and there comes a time to reject a charming thing in order to decry its complete lack of sense. This is a judgment call. You can be soft and forgiving to the ancient, virulent idiocy, or you can join in the effort to knock it on the head for once and for all.

Felix, Nottingham,

I think you're completely missing the point about Dawkins's argument. The slaughter and mayhem that has taken place in the name of religion is completely and utterly unjustifiable. Saying "I'm fond of a bit of religion" is like saying "I'm a bit fond of Hitler because he gave us the cute Beetle car, which makes us feel warm and nice inside."

Smoking also offers people solace. But that doesn't stop us from telling them to stop. Perhaps religion should also come with a warning: religion kills. As long as we let religion live, religion will continue to kill.

One other thing: just because Dawkins calls a spade a spade, that doesn't make his arguments strident. If you want to be lied to, go to religion. How can you be repelled by the arguments of someone who lifts the veils from you eyes?

If you still love religion, don't complain about Muslim women wearing the burkha, because you want to wear a religious veil and live in a deluded world.

PJ, Bangalore,

It's frightening to see reasoned debate being dismissed in a national newspaper for being too "intellectually rigorous" or expertly articulated.

Religion has served its purpose. It now presents a real danger to civilisation.

Some Christians believe the universe was created 6,000 years ago (you know, after the invention of the wheel). What's more frightening is the fact that people with such Stone Aged minds have access to real power - and nuclear weapons.

Dave Pollard, Nelson,

I have always been suspicious of religious people, who seem to need to be part of a herd with a common belief in rewards (or punishment) after death, to convince them to live a 'good' life now, (or in some cases to blow up other people). I feel much more comfortable with atheists who 'behave themselves' because usually, it is the natural human thing to do.
Religion has outlived its time. It served to unite people in history, albeit under leaders who used it to control the masses and often led them to war against other religions.
Surely it's time to move on and embrace the thoughts written by John Lennon in the song 'Imagine'.

tony, birmingham, uk

The reason why I - and I guess Dawkins - criticise religious people (whether they still accept the whole thing as orginally designed, or just dip into bits and pieces as the mood takes them, as Linklater says), is simple. No respect can possibly attach to a grown up who chooses or affects to subscribe to a system of thought and belief which is manifestly untrue i.e. any form of supernatural phenomomenon, even if in certain cirucmstances it may well be more comforting to them than the truth.

julian, london,

I am not entirely sure the point mr Linklater is trying to make here. The whole point of a lack of belief is that there isn't one. From what I am aware, Professor Dawkins has not set any 'agenda' for atheism. I think that would be an impossible task to define or to execute, given the nature of atheists. As for Polly Toynbee, I cannot comment on her position as I don't read the Guardian, but I feel sure that I would agree with her at least on Faith Schools.

I get the feeling that the above is simply the author coming to terms with his newfound freedom of mind. It is not always easy, I know. Incidentally, I find religious funeral services deeply disturbing. Particularly this 'sure knowledge of the afterlife' thing.

garry sutherland, Glasgow, UK

Polly Toynbee may be stating an extreme version of the case against the established church but sometimes one needs to pull hard to tear something apart that has been in place for centuries. The Anglican church may be a fractured weak animal today but having any established church sets a precident for "faith" being given a special status and that leads to things like schools funded by my taxes that can teach the "truth" of a religion when it is at best an opinion.

I must say my personal experiences of attending religious funeral services as a non-believer is different from Mr Linklater's. Yes there can be grandure and beauty in the place and music and some of the words but still I shudder when I hear words refering to everlasting life beyond the grave spoken about someone I know to be a doubter or outright non-believer. Something at the back of my mind always say "so why doesn't the priest say he believes the departed will have gone to hell then?"

Martin Baines, Bury St Edmunds,

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