Why I am not a Christian

January 30th, 2014

My trouble with Christianity is that it is only true backwards. To take an example, here is a couplet from George Herbert -

Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through every vein

When I read it two things happen almost at once. The first is a stunned, visceral assent: a delight in the thought and its expression, and most of all in the way they are so perfectly united.

The second is to note that it’s not true. Pain is not always or even often the consequence of sin. My friend with the brain tumour and her husband are not being punished for anything anyone has done.

But suppose we read the couplet backwards – not as a description of the workings of sin in the world, but as a statement about the meaning of the word “Sin” and about whatever it is that “forceth pain to hunt his cruel food through every vein.”

Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, but I think not. To read the couplet the first way, straight ahead, is to treat “Sin” as an almost scientific term: it becomes part of the chain of cause and effect, a name we give to an observable, predictable, and in principle even measurable pattern of events in the world. It becomes an explanatory hypothesis. Used in this sense we can postulate “Sin” rather as we postulate the Higgs boson and then go to see if it helps us understand the world a bit better. But in that sense, “sin” clearly does not exist. It is an epicycle, a meme, a failed would-be explanatory mechanism.

Read backwards, however, the couplet tells us something about the meaning of the word “Sin”. This is more interesting. There is a “press and vice, which forceth suffering through every vein” – we know this because we see people and animals tortured all around us, usually by disease but sometimes by deliberate wanton act. This is clearly something that has evolved, in the sense that the earth was once lifeless and for billions of years without conscious life or feeling. So there is something in the way the universe works which has produced the capacity to suffer and maintained and refined it through innumerable generations. Calling that something “Sin” illuminates what the word might mean. It gives the doctrine of “Original Sin” something real to refer to, and makes it worth thinking about.

Thinking about doctrine in this way is not a habit that I am ever going to kick. I’ve done it almost as far back as I remember. Perhaps the most shameful thing I will admit to publicly is that I won a scholarship to Marlborough on the strength of my essay in the “Divinity” exam. But I remember, too, the feeling when I had finished writing – that I had no idea at all whether any of it was true. It was just a rhetorical exercise, in a mode in which I happen to be naturally gifted. So I concluded that the man who marked it so highly must be bluffing too.

Subsequent, banal experiences with Christians who were stupid, cruel, smug, pharisaical, and otherwise human cemented this disillusionment. I could read the Prayer Book and love it but when I attempted the Bible I would recoil, simply unable to believe that anyone would take it as the word of God. When people describe themselves as “bible-believing Christians” I can attach no meaning to the words, except as a label: it’s like being “flag-believing Britons”. Similarly, I don’t know what it could possibly mean to believe in a Creator.

None of this innoculated my imagination. I have had numerous experiences that would count as conversion if they’d actually converted me. I remember Robert Runcie celebrating a eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral, when it seemed quite irrelevant to ask if it was true: it was clearly something to be part of. At the other end of the scale, a couple of fundamentalists who had given up their lives to working with junky prostitutes in a provincial town broke bread with a quiet prayer over a linoleum tablecloth and that worked too. In Medjugorje I got zapped by the Holy Spirit and was for a while quite speechless with love for my crass and ignorant fellow pilgrims.

All this made me think that it didn’t matter whether I called myself a Christian but the Lambeth Conference of ’98 made me resolve not to do so. It was a triumph of the bullies, of the self-important, the vain and the thoughtlessly cruel. I may be a sinner, I thought, but at least I am miserable. I do not wish to be mistaken for a bishop.

But the New Atheist movement made it quite clear to me that I’m not one of them, either. I don’t believe that “religion” exists as a coherent category, let alone something which can or should be extirpated.

None of this is terribly satisfying. It is natural to suppose that our philosophical conclusions are the distinctive marks of our moral and intellectual excellence, but that doesn’t work for me. I know Christians who are nicer, cleverer, braver and more honest that I am. I even know some who appear to have no difficulty in believing the whole thing backwards and not all of them are Roman Catholic intellectuals. But I still can’t do it myself.

So why worry? Why not see it all as nonsense?” Because really it isn’t all nonsense: as a friend of mine, a former missionary, said once “It’s about the thing that is true even if Christianity isn’t true”. Christian language does things that no other use of language can. I can only conclude that God has called me to be an atheist.

This piece was written on impulse for the Church Times, so it assumes some familiarity with the culture of the Church of England. But I thought I would put it here to save explaining to people what it is I actually believe, or don’t.

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What happened?

June 5th, 2012

Notes made in the Cardiac HDU on 30/5/12, transcribed after I got home

Brought here from Addenbrookes after I started a heart attack in the audiology clinic. I had cycled there in a hurry over Windmill Hill, and as I continued felt, not chest pain, but a sense that my back was all tense and wrong. What I now think of as a shiny soreness on the inside of spine. My breastbone was also extremely tender on the outside. It needed rubbing and pushing to relieve the tension. I wanted to straighten my back and breathe more deeply. My spine felt hunched up between the shoulder blades. Breathing was raspy and metallic. My jaws ached, top and bottom, at the front.

None of this was particularly violent or incapacitating, but it would not recede or let me feel normal. Approaching Sawston, about nine miles on my journey, I had an odd sense of seeing myself from above and thought: “What a cliché – a middle-aged man who’s trying to pedal away from death”

That made me happier, but I still felt so wrong that I stopped in Sawston to ring C and say things were very odd, then pedalled on more slowly.

None the less, I was sure that this was just a spasm in my back, brought on by sitting wrongly on the bike. I had had almost the same symptoms the day before after and during my presentation a a group of Swedish editors, a tightness in the spine that could not be relieved by twisting or stretching.

But this time, in the audiology ward, I had a constant urge to push and rub my breastbone, There is still a weepy red patch at the bottom, four days later, where I rubbed right through the skin. I must have looked a bit bad, because they blood pressured me and took my pulse, before taking me down to A&E in a wheelchair, which I thought at first was over dramatic. but in the 15 minutes or so I spent waiting in a queue there, while the male nurse dealt with an aggressive Scottish drunk, I started to feel really bad, and the pain changed character so that sometimes my upper arms felt encased in squeezy cold metal mesh and sometimes the soreness was poking and prodding at my back, as if someone were pushing a broomstick upwards against it from the inside.

The people around my wheelchair started moving faster. I was given some paracetemol. This was useless. I was asked if I was allergic to anything — this was almost the first question asked by anyone who took me over in the next six hours,. i must have answered it ten times. I was given some kind of clotbuster. There was an aspirin, too, dissolved in a little cardboard cup.

My surroundings, once I was wheeled out of the A&E reception, began to look like the industrial cellars in a video game: black, grey and green, in fluorescent lighting. I remember a sudden drenching of sweat, like a thunderstorm, and then, as I was being lifted from wheelchair to trolley, a blast of dry heaves which everyone ignored. I was given an ECG and a black African doctor said over my shoulder to someone else that he didn’t like the sinus wave. That’s when I really knew what was happening. What seemed essential and possible was to behave courageously and deal with the pain. I asked for something for it, and somehow — did they set up a drip? — was given diamorphine. After five minutes, I asked for more, and was given it, without quibbles. The second dose really moved the pain away, a bit, but did nothing for fear and weakness. I did not think I was going to die.

By now flat on my back, rolled onto a stretcher, somehow. Movement was painful. Oxygen. Felt good, or seemed to relieve the scraping pressure inside. The plastic mask rasped on my nose in the ambulance. Sirens? I think I remember a bit of sirens. No sense of where we were. All the same bumpy trolley surface until lying in a large green-black echoing room in Papworth. A lean ?Irish doctor with steel-rimmed spectacles gave me a local anaesthetic in the groin and then for a long time all I could feel was a series of varying pressures there, and sometimes hands moving down by right knee.

Another, invisible, ?Scottish voice talks with clipped battle of Britain vowels about stent sizes to the doctor fixing me. Everything seems calm, decisive, practised, and reassuring.

Unknown time passes with the pushing and measured movements on my thigh.

The sensations of active pressure and pain recede a bit. Weakness, alarm, and fear. Then the doctor holds in front of my eyes a transparent plastic dish an on it maybe a centimetre of soggy crimson thread. “That’s the blood clot.” He says. “That’s what I pulled out of you.” He explained that he had stented me. That was the most vivid moment of the night. I was by then together enough to ask how he had got it out, and he said he had some kind of suction device.

They wheeled me up to the recovery ward. There was a huge tree outside the window whose foliage dipped and bobbed as a squirrel moved round in it. The room was full of a brassy, beeping monitors. I learned quite quickly to identify the tone mine made when I fibrillated or missed a beat, and for a while observed as my thoughts wandered round; every time they touched on work my heart stuttered. Somewhere around dusk a trolley came round with tea, and two digestive biscuits. They crumbled in my mouth like a sacrament.

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Richard Hooker

April 8th, 2011

The most extreme opposite true religion, is affected atheism.II.  They of whom God is altogether unapprehended are but few in number, and  for grossness of wit such, that they hardly and scarcely seem to hold  the place of human being. These we should judge to be of all others most  miserable, but that a wretcheder sort there are, on whom whereas nature  hath bestowed riper capacity, their evil disposition seriously goeth  about therewith to apprehend God as being not God. Whereby it cometh to  pass that of these two sorts of men, both godless, the one having  utterly no knowledge of God, the other study how to persuade themselves  that there is no such thing to be known.

From my phone.

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David Hume on a sense of proportion

April 7th, 2011

Such a reflection certainly tends to  mortify all our passions: But does it not thereby counterwork the  artifice of nature, who has happily deceived us into an opinion, that  human life is of some importance?

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More hume quotes.

March 25th, 2011

Comment superfluous
When a philosopher has once laid  hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural  effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and  reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd  reasoning

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Hume shows up his publishers

March 21st, 2011

Longinus thought  himself sufficiently justified, in asserting, that the arts and sciences  could never flourish, but in a free government: And in this opinion, he has been followed by several eminent writers  in our own country, who either confined their view merely to ancient  facts, or entertained too great a partiality in favour of that form of  government, established amongst us. But what would these writers have said, to the instances of modern Rome and of Florence?
This is in the edition published by the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis.

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Small moment of pleasure

April 13th, 2010

Yesterday my colleague David Shariatmadari was commissioning a comment from Richard Dawkins. “I’m so glad you’re not the notorious Andrew Brown” said RD and added, eagerly, “Has he been fired?” No: sorry to disappoint you, Richard.

Posted in Blather, God | 4 Comments »

In other news, the Pope is Catholic

February 8th, 2010

The National Secular Society is a campaigning atheist organisation. Its members believe that religion is a force for wickedness in this world. For some reason these simple and one would have thought perfectly obvious statements produce paroxysms of indignation in some people.

Firstly you get the defenders who say that atheism is not secularism. This is true, but in the case of the NSS irrelevant. Both words have numerous shades of meaning, but they can certainly overlap, and the NSS is situated precisely where they do: to quote Terry Sanderson, “We are a society of atheists fighting for secularism”.

From its website you can download some histories of the society, including Godless and Glad of it, Fifty years of militant secular humanism by David Tribe, who was president of the NSS between 1963 and 1971. Through their Amazon associates link, they sell anti-theism: “The God Delusion”. “God is not great”, “God, the failed hypothesis”, and “God hates you. Hate him back”. They sell badges proclaiming the bearer is an atheist, and so on. I’m sorry to belabour the point, but the core membership of the NSS is hostile to religion. It is not neutral.

I don’t think anyone has disputed that the NSS is a campaigning organisation. It is currently running campaigns against religious education: Sanderson wrote in, as it happens, the Guardian, that he wants “to abolish the concept of ‘religious education’ entirely.”

It campaigns against NHS funding for hospital chaplains; against prayers in council meetings; against religious influence in government; against religious involvement in the school system … the list goes on. These causes are all atheist as well as secularist. (I know the Accord coalition wants faith schools open to everyone and has religious members as well as the NSS. But NSS policy goes further: “One of the National Secular Society’s primary aims is the secularisation of Britain’s education system. We want all state-funded schools returned to community control”).

The question is not whether these causes are good or bad. You can make rational arguments on both sides of all of them. But the arguments the NSS makes are all atheist ones. Again, that’s not a criticism. It’s a fact.

Terry Sanderson, as head of the organisation, leads from the front. He was, for example, an enthusiastic convert to the idea that liberal believers are every bit as dangerous as fanatics.

“The liberals pave the way, open the doors and give succour to the very people they say bring their faith into disrepute. But it’s no good the liberals trying to dissociate themselves from their wilder compatriots in faith … The poor, bleating liberals [have] spent a lifetime reinforcing in their heads the childhood brainwashing that they will never overcome … the delusions of the liberals are not qualitatively different from those entertained by the Pat Robertsons or Abu Hamzas of this world.”

I’m not arguing (here) that this is silly and unpleasant. My point is that it is unquestionably militant atheism, “godless and glad of it”, to coin a phrase. Writing about the future of religion, he concluded:

“The founder of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh, said: “No man sees a religion die”. That may be so, but religions do eventually die. History is littered with their corpses. Until now they have always been replaced. But one day the human race’s growing indifference to the gods will prove more lethal than any anti-clericalist dagger. Religion will die.

I am sorry I won’t be around to see it.”

That is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint for which there is – obviously – space on cif belief. In fact I commissioned that article. But you couldn’t call it neutral towards religion.

What seems to have roused particular anger is my suggestion that he thinks catholicism is a wicked religion and its followers consequently dangerous. Why would anyone think that? Well, perhaps because they had read what Sanderson wrote, on the NSS web site, in November last year:

“The Catholic Church in Britain is dying on its feet. And rightly so. The Church of England is already on life support, but it continues to twitch. Both institutions provide a playground for some of the most gruesome and horrible people you could ever wish to meet (particularly if you are a child).

… The Catholic priesthood claims to disown its own erotic nature in order to remain “pure” – and yet endless court cases show many of the “fathers” to have been wallowing in a pit of unimaginable sexual depravity.

…Politicians and diplomats bow down to these monsters and let them get away with murder (quite literally sometimes). Whatever corruption the Vatican is involved in (and it has been involved in every conceivable immorality in its time) no-one in high secular authority (the UN, for instance) dare point the finger and ask for an explanation.

Through forming alliances with some of the worst dictators and tyrants the world has ever seen, the Vatican has managed to gain for itself a small patch of land where no international law can intrude, where no inspections take place, where no questions have to be answered. And from that protected base it stretches its poisonous tentacles around the world.”

If this stuff – “poisonous tentacles“; “Monsters … who get away with murder”; “Unimaginable sexual depravity”involved in every conceivable immorality” – were written about Jews or gay people, it would look barely sane and possibly criminal. Why should it be respected when the victims are Roman Catholics?

It’s possible that he just writes these things for effect because they are expected of the president of the National Secular Society but I don’t think so. He’s not a a hypocrite.

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Avatar

January 24th, 2010

I went to see Avatar because of a subtle and enthusiastic review by Roz Kaveney; a pity that she must have watched it in another universe. The film I saw had no plot, no characters, no conflict, and no depth of field. The last complaint is literal as well as metaphorical. The 3D effect is in some ways even more two-dimensional than normal films, since there is only one plane where anything is in focus. Everything that protrudes into the theatre or recedes from it is blurry and insubstantial if you look at it directly. Read the rest of this entry »

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Will a grand and honest decade be any better?

January 1st, 2010

Around quarter to midnight I wanted to quote Auden and I couldn’t remember the word. It was “clever”: “As the clever hopes expire/of a low dishonest decade.” Our hosts of the evening didn’t have much poetry written after about 1900 and their one anthology that might have done didn’t have September 1, 1939. Nor is it in his collected shorter poems, though I don’t remember it or even read it as a long one. It’s hardly epic; only just about perfect.

By the time I had run it down, I had read a lot more of his poetry than I set out to do: difficult to think of a better start to the year. And I had also found a remarkable piece of literary criticism: his review, in the New York Times, of The Return of the King. Auden was a huge fan of Tolkien’s, which I find unexpected, and what he wrote about the treatment of good and evil in fantasy is worth discussion:
To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.

This seems to me a wonderfully shrewd explanation of the way in which Tolkien is more involving than Milton emotionally. I can’t imagine reading Tolkien aloud for the sake of the language (I mean that almost literally: the words of some poems demand to be spoken) and I think that is the final test of poetry; but neither can I imagine anyone reading Paradise Lost to find out how it ends.

The first paragraph of Auden also repays admiring attention. He puts into three sentences one of the problems which the incarnation is supposed to solve in Christian thought. In fact they fit into the last sentence and a half: “physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. [yet] the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”

Auden puts it in a way that doesn’t mention God, and I think the problem can be understood without reference to Her. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it couldn’t. But I don’t think it’s a universal. That is to say, there are people and cultures to whom it appears wrong or absurd to say that “the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.”

(For an experiment, I am crossposting this on the Guardian site, to see what difference it makes to the comments. The observant reader will have noted that it has no moral, and no bearing on the existence or otherwise of god, and may even feel these matters need no further comment)

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