He went looking for God and ended up an angry agnostic – unable to believe but enraged by the arrogance of militant atheists. It’s hard to see the purpose of the world, he says, but don’t blame its evils on religion
I still recall the exact times and places when the Big Questions declared themselves to my childish consciousness. The first arrived when I was in short trousers and knew even less than I know today.
I had been playing with some friends on a disused aerodrome near my home in Cardiff. We used the abandoned carcasses of old aircraft to attack the squadrons of imaginary German bombers droning above us in the darkening sky. When we had wiped them out, my friends went home for tea. I hung around. It was one of those days when my mother, a hairdresser who worked from home, was giving a perm to a neighbour and I hated the stench of the chemicals.
By now it was dark. The glory of the night sky had yet to be lost to light pollution and on cloudless nights the stars went on for ever. That was what troubled me. How could they go on for ever? And if the universe was everything, what was it all in? And how could it be in anything because that would have to be in something else and . . . and . . . and so on. And what was there before any of it existed? And how did it all come into existence? And finally – the really, really Big Question – why?
The other Big Question came to me at about the same age. I was on a bus returning from our week’s holiday in Aberyst-wyth. I hated buses. I was always sick on them. It was while I was hanging over the platform at the back that I discovered mortality. For the first time in my short life I realised that one day I would die.
Once again the question was: why? What was the point of being born if all there was to look forward to was dying? For the length of that ghastly journey and into the next day, everything seemed completely and utterly pointless. Then the normal service of childhood was resumed and it went away. But it came back. Questions like that always do.
It took me a few more years to grasp that rather a lot of people were worrying about their own versions of the Big Questions and had been for quite a long time.
The 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal described the predicament of those who do not know “. . . why I am set down here rather than elsewhere, nor why the brief period appointed for my life is assigned to me at this moment rather than another in all the eternity that has gone before and will come after me. On all sides I behold nothing but infinity, in which I am a mere atom, a mere passing shadow that returns no more. All I know is that I must die soon, but what I understand least of all is this very death which I cannot escape”.
Pascal did not come to believe in a personal God until his early thirties. I was one of the many whose questions were answered by the church right from the beginning. There was no question of my not going to church. That’s what we did in my family.
At 15 I left school to work on a local newspaper and then, two years later, left home to work for a bigger paper in the Welsh valleys. It was then that I stopped going to church. Saturday night was pub-crawl night, which meant that Sunday morning was spent recovering. But in any case I realised that going to church was a meaningless exercise. I was bored by the ritualised responses, by priests who seemed to have nothing to say, by my own failure to be genuinely moved by any of it.
Yet I continued to pray. I prayed every single night without fail for half a century. The problem was that I had absolutely no notion of the God to whom I was supposed to be praying or, for that matter, why I was praying. Did I really think my prayers would make any difference? I doubt it. So, if I was getting nothing out of it and neither were the people I was praying for, why was I bothering? Mostly, I wanted to believe. I envied friends with an apparently solid faith their certainties and the comfort their faith appeared to bring them.
My years as a reporter and foreign correspondent took their toll. I was not much more than a boy when I watched the miners of Aberfan digging for the bodies of their children after the coal tip crushed their school. A few years later I was watching weeping mothers trying to free the bodies of their children from the ruins of houses wrecked by an earthquake in Nicaragua. In various African countries I have seen children, all hope gone from their blank and staring eyes, slowly starving to death. In divided countries all over the world I have seen the bodies of young men horribly mutilated by other young men for no other reason than that they belonged to the wrong tribe or religion.
In war zones I have listened to soldiers – ordinary people like you and me, with their own children to love and care for – justify the slaughter of other entirely innocent human beings, other children.
And over and over again I was asking myself the other Big Question, one that would not have occurred to the innocent little boy on the aerodrome: where was God?
My spiritual journey – if that’s not too high-falutin’ a notion – took me from my childish Big Questions to my ultimate failure to find any corresponding Big Answers. I have ended up – so far, at any rate – as a doubter. It’s clear that I’m far from alone.
In almost half a century of journalism I have never had such a response to anything I have written or broadcast as I did to last year’s Radio 4 series Humphrys in Search of God. The letters arrived by the sackful. It felt a bit like putting my fingers on the religious pulse of the nation; and the pulse is still strong. However empty the pews may be there are plenty of people with a sincere and passionate belief. There are also plenty of people who think it’s all a load of nonsense.
What surprised me is how many think of themselves as neither believers nor atheists but doubters. They, too, are sincere. Devout sceptics, if you like. And many of them feel beleaguered. I’m with them. SINCE starting to write my book, I have fallen into the habit of asking almost everyone I meet if they believe in God. And here’s the interesting thing: it was only the atheists who seemed absolutely certain.
Of course, this proves nothing: it’s purely anecdotal and statistically worthless. But let me try to sum up the attitude of those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt:
1. Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.
2. The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.
3.They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.
4.They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance – just a child whose parents have had her baptised.
5.They have been bullied into believing.
6. If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.
7 Trust me: I’m an atheist. I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with that little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.
So let’s answer each of those points:
1. This is so clearly untrue it’s barely worth bothering with. Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling The God Delusion, was reduced to producing a “study” by Mensa that purported to show an inverse relationship between intelligence and belief. He also claimed that only a very few members of the Royal Society believe in a personal god. So what? Some believers are undoubtedly stupid (witness the creationists) but I’ve met one or two atheists I wouldn’t trust to change a lightbulb.
2. Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible. It doesn’t prove anything about either.
3. Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.
4. True, and many children reject it when they get older. But many others stay with it.
5. This is also true in many cases but you can’t actually bully someone into believing – just into pretending to believe.
6. Of course the mad mullahs are dangerous and extreme Islamism is a threat to be taken seriously. But we’ve survived monotheist religion for 4,000 years or so, and I can think of one or two other things that are a greater threat to civilisation.
7. Why? For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.
It’s bad enough being a failed Christian – sneered at by atheists and believers. It’s even worse being what I suppose you could call someone like me – a failed atheist. Or maybe it’s not. That’s what Giles Fraser has been calling himself for years and he happens to be an Anglican vicar.
Here’s his own description of himself when he was younger: “a bolshy kid who discovered Marx at school and gave myself over to it hook, line and sinker”. During the miners’ strike in the mid1980s he realised what a sham it all was – “a privileged public schoolboy like me playing at politics”, as he told me. His “faith” in Marx-ism collapsed but he remained an atheist.
It was his interest in atheism that made him take religion seriously. He did his PhD on Nietzsche, and theology became “a sort of hobby”. He immersed himself in the great theologians and, after years of looking into theology from the outside, he discovered that he was on the inside looking out. He realised that he believed in God. He seems genuinely puzzled by it.
There are many like him in the Anglican Church who share his scorn (if not contempt) for the more traditional approach to Christianity. He is embarrassed by “stupid” Christians thinking they know more about the nature of the universe than clever atheists like Dawkins. Ask him to prove that God exists – one of the subjects of his philosophy lectures at Oxford – and he cheerfully admits that he can’t. He goes further: “The so-called proofs of God’s existence are all rubbish.”
Ask him if the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened and he says: “Umm . . . dunno . . . can’t prove it.”
Ask him about evangelical Christians and he snorts: “Evangelicals have misunderstood the Bible. They turn it into some bloody Ikea manual.”
Ask him to sum up the state of battle between militant believers and militant atheists and he says: “Atheists have the best arguments, which makes belief such a precarious thing.”
In hours of conversation over the kitchen table I have tried hard to pick a proper argument with him about theology – he teaches it – but I have failed. That’s partly because he freely acknowledges that theology is not some sort of intellectual platform on which faith can be built. He quotes Augustine: theology is “faith seeking understanding” – which means you get your faith first and then try to make sense of it. And faith is not a belief that certain propositions about the world are true. It is not grounded in rational argument and neither is there any good line of reasoning that can persuade one to believe. Belief just isn’t like that, says Fraser. So what is it like? Why does a believer believe?
What’s interesting is that you get much the same answer to that question whether it comes from a philosopher/vicar like Giles Fraser or a theo-logian/archbishop like Rowan Williams or an old lady who has never read a book on theology in her life and wouldn’t know the difference between an ontological argument and a pork pie. Why should she? Theology, as Fraser says, is not the foundation of faith.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the little old lady might use a different vocabulary to try to explain why they believe, but it comes to the same thing in the end. They believe because they believe. This is not about intellect or learning: it’s more basic than that. It is both more profound and more simple.
I suspect that on the most primitive level it is not all that different from the little scrap of blanket that so many small children rely on. They need it whenever they get tired or life looks a bit threatening.
I invite you to imagine the impossibly grand figure of the Archbishop of Canterbury sitting on the steps of his cathedral with his thumb stuck in his mouth, stroking his bearded cheek with the little bit of satin at the edge of his comfort blanket.
This image may not do a great deal for the dignity of the primate’s office, but the comfort blanket is not a million miles away from what religion offers at its most simplistic. Strip from Christianity the notion of proof, evidence and historical events (or nonevents) and what drives belief has little to do with the head and a great deal to do with the heart.
Many atheists, as my list suggests, say that people believe because of the way they were brought up: children are credulous and accept what they are told. As they grow older they get rid of their comfort blankets and often the beliefs with which they were inculcated. But not everyone does that – and even those who do may return to belief, in one form or another, in later life.
There remains what the atheist philosopher AC Grayling calls “the lingering splinter in the mind . . . a sense of yearning for the absolute”. There is a profound longing for something that will stimulate and satisfy emotionally and spiritually.
Grayling and other atheists understand that longing perfectly well, but what puzzles them is why it cannot be satisfied by pottering about in the garden, a walk in the hills, watching a sunset, listening to a piece of great music. Yet that misses the point.
Believers may very well find comfort and solace in all those things but where atheists are wrong is in failing to recognise and understand that most believers want something else as well. It is hard to talk to Christians about religion without them eventually using the word “love”.
Grayling co-wrote the play On Religion in which a lead character is loosely based on Giles Fraser. One of his main scenes is taken from Fraser’s own life.
He told me about it: “The night before I got married my brother sat me down in an Indian restaurant and (too many beers) got me to make a list on a napkin of why this girl was the right person for me to marry. One side of the napkin had all the pros and the other side the cons.
“What was fascinating about the list was that nothing I could write down – kind, pretty, warm, sexy, etc – could ever add up to “I love her”. To marry and make the love commitment is the nearest thing to faith I know because it is something done with the same degree of risk.
“Would a person who needed everything fully evidenced and rationally demonstrated ever be in a position to say, ‘I love you’? Couldn’t a Dawkins-type figure make a case for love being a fiction, a function of human need, a function of biology and selfish genes? He may have many useful and persuasive things to say but there is something deeply mistaken about thinking love is simply reducible to the chemistry of the brain.
“Love, like faith, is to make more of a commitment than one can prove. But there is a truth to it that I won’t – indeed can’t – back away from. Of course, there is much to say about all of this and I can think of a dozen reasons why faith and love might look different. But the truth of both is, for me, found in the poetry, not in the science.”
Militant atheists seem to have enormous difficulty in understanding why so many people – many of them just as clever as they are – manage to live by their beliefs. Here’s what Dawkins told Laurie Taylor in New Humanist magazine: “I don’t know what it would mean to say that we live by faith in our daily life. There is, I suppose, a sense that we are sometimes too busy to reason everything out, but otherwise I don’t know what it means.”
It seems to me that he misses the point entirely. It’s not necessarily that people are too busy to reason things out. It’s more that they don’t want to. They want to believe. In spite of the terrible things that have been done in the name of God over the millennia, religious belief brings immeasurable comfort.
Personally, I do not accept the divinity of Jesus. I do not believe that his mother was made pregnant by the Holy Ghost, that he was resurrected after his death on the cross, or that he physically ascended to heaven. But that belief enriches the lives of many.
It does not make them stupid, let alone deluded. It makes them human. Their faith gives them a context into which they can fit their lives and a hope of better things to come – if not in this world, then the next. And if the next world turns out not to exist . . . well, they’ll never know, will they? I HAVE talked to many people about God – eminent theologians, historians, scientists, clerics – but let me finish with a woman called Mrs Buchanan. You’ll never have heard of her and I can’t give you her first name because I knew her in the days when children did not call adults by their first names. Even my mother called her Mrs Buchanan or Mrs B. Her life, I now realise, was sad. The one thing she and her husband wanted above everything else was children, and that was not to be. There was no IVF in the 1950s.
My own mother had five children. There was often very little money and sometimes she struggled to cope. Mrs B was always there to help. She was a stalwart of the Mothers’ Union at our local church and she regarded it as her duty. Monday was washing day, and every Monday afternoon she would turn up – her hat pinned firmly to her hair – to help with the ironing. The hat stayed on. Outside her own home I never saw her without it.
Mr and Mrs Buchanan were an unremarkable couple – quiet, honest, decent, God-fearing. They worked hard – I have his old teak toolbox beside the desk in my office to this day – and made no demands of anyone. The church was an important part of their lives, not that you would ever hear them talking about their belief. It was simply there and they were glad of it. It provided structure and, I think, some meaning to their lives.
What have the Buchanans and the millions like them to do with the militant atheists and their supercharged campaign against religion? The latter will say it is irrelevant. They will probably accuse me of viewing the world through the rose-tinted spectacles of half a century ago when society was altogether less cynical and world-weary. They will say that people like the Buchanans – if they still exist – would be better off if only they could see religion and the church for the nonsense that it is. And they’d be wrong. For them, what matters is what can be proved to be true. That’s it. But in the real world, outside the walls of their intellectual ivory towers, that’s not it.
This is not an intellectual game. Even if we know what is true – and we don’t – you cannot reduce life to a set of provable realities. Humanity is too complex for that. In the end, it comes down to whether the world would be a better place without religion; and that is a matter of judgment, not certainty.
Yes, we loathe and fear the fanaticism that leads to a man strapping a bomb to his body and blowing up other human beings. But we should also fear a world in which the predominant values are materialism and consumerism, and the greatest aspiration of too many children is to become a “celebrity”. The existence of religion can offer some balance in a society obsessed with image, which turns vacuity into virtue.
As I write these last few sentences I look out from my office onto the tennis court facing my house. It is a hot, muggy day and a group of young women are playing. They are clothed from head to toe in black, their jeans poking out from beneath the chadors. They look peculiarly ungainly and they must be stifling. As a nonMuslim it seems a bit odd and a bit alien to me, but so does a lot of other things – such as the fashionably dressed young people who get so drunk on Friday and Saturday nights you have to think twice about venturing into the town centre. We each make our own choices.
One choice is to accept the conclusion reached by Jean-Paul Sartre in The Age of Reason: “There is no purpose to existence, only nothingness.”
That is a perfectly rational conclusion if, like me, you cannot accept that we exist in order to worship God. It is very hard to see any purpose in a world where an accident of birth determines whether a child leads a long and healthy life or dies an early death in grinding poverty; a world of hunger and war and disease; a world that we may be destroying through our own greed and stupidity. But however much he may appeal to our reason, Sartre’s conclusion is too bleak for me.
Trite it may be, but most of us can see the beauty as well as the horrors of the world and, sometimes, humanity at its most noble. We sense a spiritual element in that nobility and, in the miracle of unselfish love and sacrifice, something beyond our conscious understanding. You don’t need to be an eastern mystic or a devout religious believer to feel that. We should not – we must not – be browbeaten by arrogant atheists and meekly accept their “deluded” label. They are no more capable of understanding this most profound mystery than a small child making his first awe-inspiring discoveries.
As for the fanatics – religious or secular – history suggests they succeed only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be defeated by our own irrational fear. For every fanatic there are countless ordinary, decent people who believe in their own version of a benevolent God and wish no harm to anyone. Many of them regard it as their duty to try to make the world a better place. It is too easy to blame the evils of the world on belief in God. In the end, if we make a mess of things, we shall have ourselves to blame – not religion and not God. After all, he doesn’t exist. Does he?
© John Humphrys 2007