It is probably rather arrogant of me not only to steal the lovely Bertie’s title, but also to disfigure it in this way. I do so partly to highlight a significant difference in the way that I want to think about this compared with how Bertrand Russell does. I am not, and have never been, interested in the arguments provided by natural theology, other than as entertaining philosophical puzzles, which interest me now in precisely the same ways that they did while I still professed to believe in God. So far as I am concerned arguments of this nature have absolutely no bearing on the question of religious faith, and to reduce one’s faith to an issue of whether or not one accepts an argument from intelligent design, or a complex ontological proof, cheapens the very idea of faith. Moral arguments for believing in God are a rather different beast, and I think that they can hold some sway for some people, although as I shall explain they turn out to have extremely different consequences for my own outlook. I cannot provide you with a reason why I am not a Christian, in the sense of giving a justification. What I am more interested in is a range of ideas that can be captured by better by the word ‘how’: I want to talk about the respects in which I am not a Christian (because there are other respects in which I almost certainly am) and I want to talk about the possibility of life after God, and the change in the way that I live in the world that came about with my acknowledgement that I no longer held this particular form of religious faith.
I have meant to write this for ages, especially as various people have asked me questions about it that I could not properly answer on the hoof, but I have started thinking about this more as lent goes on, and as we are getting increasingly close to Holy Week, a time of significant reflection and contemplation for many Christians, and also for myself. As I go on, I would like to try to articulate why and how Holy Week, and other dates in the Christian religious calendar, are important to me.
But to begin with, I would like to talk about when I ‘was’ a Christian. I grew up in an Anglican household that was at the same time very devout and very liberal. Religious faith was taken seriously, not just on a Sunday, but as something that should inform and flow through one’s whole life and actions. It was a way of shaping one’s life that allowed one to live well, not a list of propositions that one should be able to reel off. But while this was expansive and all-encompassing, it was not dogmatic. For example, the words of the Bible were there to be discussed, interpreted and debated, and similarly their very role and purpose were subject to similar discussion. Through this interpretation and discussion of religious texts, we were also encouraged to contemplate and consider day to day life through the lens of faith, in such a way that the discursive-interpretative elements were inseparable from the idea that faith should be a practical matter of how one should live, as well as a statement of belief. Thus vision, imagination, thought and action could not be regarded as separable parts of life, and nor could the sacred and the everyday. The vicar of my old church, Ben De La Mare (nephew, I think, of Walter – some relation in any case) was a very big fan of George Herbert, and this poem of his, made into a hymn, always sticks in my mind:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:
Not rudely, as a beast,
To runne into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav’n espie.
All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.
I am saying all this in response to some rather contradictory criticisms that are levelled at Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular. It is said that Christianity (and often religious faith in general) is a dogmatic practice that encourages us to live unreflective lives, and interferes with everything we do, leading us to be slavish individuals with little or no autonomy. It is also said (often by the same people) that Anglicanism is perhaps a more forgivable flavour of Christianity since its practitioners don’t take it all that seriously. This is not true, although either statement is probably true of some Christians, just as it analogous things can be true of some atheists.
Another aspect of a religious upbringing for many people is the fact that right from the start of one’s life, one finds oneself in the middle of an extended community. The baptism of infants has often been a cause of dispute in the church. Some people maintain that it is wrong to baptise a child into a faith when that child is far too young to have any comprehension of what that faith involves. There are no Christian babies, just as there are no vegetarian babies, or Anarcho-Capitalist babies. There are merely the babies of Christians, vegetarians and anarcho-capitalists. This is true. But for my parents baptism was not to do with indoctrinating a child into a certain religious ideology, but rather to welcome them into a community which in turn affirms its intention to protect and care for that child as they grow into an adult who is capable of making their own choices.
Some people reading may regard this as sinister, as the ‘initiation’ of an innocent child into a community based on a set of values that they may not otherwise have chosen. I think what this view misses is that we are inevitably surrounded by a whole background of ways of life, structures of thought and so on. We cannot and should not raise children in a value-free bubble and somehow expect them to emerge one day as rational adults with the capacity to consider what they want to believe. Forming frameworks of belief against a background of pre-existing thought is how we operate. In order to have a view, one must be standing somewhere in the first place.
The church in which I grew up was a diverse community in terms of age, social background and political belief. It was a community of very different people who had to figure out how to get along together and make decisions, sometimes harmoniously, and often not. This was a tremendous element of my childhood and teens, standing in very strong contrast to the relatively isolated experience that many children have of primarily engaging with siblings and one or two adults, with wider family and friends playing a more distant role. There was a closeness and regularity of contact that made strong impressions, and many of the people with whom I grew up are people who I still regard in some way as family, even though many of us now have wildly divergent ideas and beliefs.
My experience of religion was not always so positive. At one point in my teens I explored pathways that were rather more evangelical, and often rather more dogmatic. The freedom of discussion to which I had become accustomed was something that was somewhat frowned on, and there was an emphasis on uniformity of belief and behaviour. I attended one large meeting in a big theatre, where people gave religious ‘testimony’ about how they had been ‘saved’. Many of these people told stories about how Christ had rescued them from a life of prostitution or drug abuse, or brought them back from the brink of suicide. This was also a meeting where people became supposedly possessed with the holy spirit, falling to the floor and speaking in tongues, and where people’s ailments were miraculously ‘healed’. The pressure to conform, to feel that one too had been saved, was immense and almost overpowering. I became, during this time in my life, increasingly worried about how vulnerable people might be unwittingly lured from one dangerous dependency to another. These forms of Christianity are very much the minority in this country, although that is unfortunately not the case the world over.
Nonetheless, I do not have, and have never had, any objection to religion as such. I recognise that many terrible things are done in the name of religion, but by and large I think that these are generally terrible things that would be done in the name of something. People with twisted, sadistic or violent outlooks on the world are not first and foremost religious – first and foremost they are arseholes. The important question is how they live, not which creed they ascribe to, if any.
So how come I ended up where I am now? I think the simplest answer is that on some level I never did believe. As even a very small child I had the big angsty fear of death. Not of dying, or of being punished by God, or anything like that, but the fear of what I could not help but hold to be a certainty: that one day I would not exist to be the subject of any experiences. I knew at the time that this was incompatible with what I thought that I believed, but I could not get around the certainty that there was nothing after death. I could also not get around the certainty that this was a dreadful seeming impossibility. The only way that I could deal with it, and which only came to me after several years of sleepless nights, was to tell myself something along the lines of: ‘Liz, you are ten years old, you are not nearly wise or clever enough yet to think about these things. There is no hurry, come back to it when you are a grownup’. That worked at the time, although twenty years on with an undergraduate degree involving philosophy, theology and anthropology, and two postgraduate degrees in philosophy, one dealing explicitly with death, I am not sure I am really any better at dealing with it.
Another place where the non-belief crept in was probably with my incorrigible instinctive empiricism. When I started to have my doubts about Santa Claus, I carried out a test on my parents. Just as we went to put the note up the chimney, I asked them to stop so that I could add an extra secret item which would just be between me and Santa. They were not allowed to see it. My poor parents begged and pleaded with me, despite my attempts at stubborn refusal, to let them see the amended note. Eventually I relented because I couldn’t bear to see them so obviously distressed. The evidence was thus circumstantial, and did not provide a watertight proof, but I decided I would rather settle for that than see my parents upset. As with many children, I connected this to the question about God, but concluded that the difference was that my parents probably actually believed in God, and I was pretty sure that they did not believe in Santa. This was a good reason to hold back on rejecting God’s existence. My parents were and are very bright people, and probably more likely to be right about things than I was. Nonetheless, it did move me in the direction of a somewhat tentative agnosticism, one that I generally shelved at the back of my mind, again until I was better equipped to wrestle with these questions.
Even with the aforementioned studies in philosophy, theology and anthropology, I was not ready to acknowledge my lack of religious faith until I was around 23 and starting out on my PhD, although I had been gradually coming around to it for a very long time. It was not that I was unsure. Being unsure about something, I had realised, should not stop one from expressing a view on it. Otherwise philosophers would hardly be able to get up in the morning, and would probably pretty much just sit around in their pants all day. Rather, it was a question of everything that would have to follow from admitting this to myself. Once I was open with myself about this, I was afraid that the bottom would drop out of my world. So much of my life was unconsciously structured around a set of religious beliefs, that I wondered how it would be possible to make any kind of sense of anything without having my Christianity to cling on to.
Nonetheless, I eventually took the plunge and started calmly telling people who happened to raise such things and ask such questions that I did not believe in God. Strangely, nothing happened, at least not immediately. I had underestimated how much the restructuring had already started to take place subconsciously, probably over the course of at least a decade. New pathways had started to form that made life in some way possible. Things carried on as normal, and the world did not seem to end.
Christmas came and went, and I realised that all my life it had been much more about family, kindness, generosity and good humour in the cold winter days than it had been about the birth of Christ. I had feared that Christmas would be a crisis point, and for it to pass by in its typically good-humoured way was a great relief.
Easter had always been something that had crept up on me. While there had been that reflective period during Lent, life pretty much went on as normal until suddenly it was Easter day and the miracle of it hit me by surprise every year. While in this country we usually think of Christmas as the big festival, Easter is really the big deal. Christ’s death and resurrection is after all in many ways the foundation of it all. As usual, Easter burst in on me by surprise, and it was a terrible shock.
In the morning, Jamie brought me some chocolate eggs. I took one look at them and burst into tears. I very suddenly felt the full force of what wasn’t there, as if I were about to implode. The gaudily decorated pointless chocolate shell with nothing beneath the surface seemed so dreadfully apt. For most of the morning and afternoon I was inconsolable. God had died and he wasn’t going to rise again.
Jamie suggested that we should go for a walk to try and help me take my mind off things. I didn’t much see the point in that, or really in anything at all, but I decided that I might just as well do that as anything else. The day was rather like today has been, with golden spring sunshine but just a hint of a chill in the breeze. We climbed the green hill out of the village up to the high fields where the sheep graze and you can see for miles in all directions, with Durham City, Gateshead and the edge of Sunderland all barely visible on the brow of each horizon.
It was lambing season, and suddenly I caught sight of a newborn lamb, still slightly clumsy and trying to figure out how its body worked, skipping haphazardly and playing on the bright grass. What happened is hard to describe, but it is probably the closest and the furthest I have been to/from a religious experience. I was suddenly looking at a lamb without the Lamb of God, without new life being symbolic of the resurrection, without this world being a dull shadow of a brighter world beyond my experience. The colours suddenly seemed more vibrant, the breeze hit my skin with greater force, the ground under my feet felt solid and the world what what it is, and it was beautiful. I will always carry that moment with me.
This was a non-theistic Road to Damascus, but it was importantly a very Christian one. The experience would not have made any sense without the lamb on the green hill without a city wall. The very terms in which my non-Christianity is framed are Christian ones. The same is very much true of my approach to moral philosophy, which is significantly shaped by the early experience of the good life, based on reflection, and situated within a community. I cannot, for example, truly understand philosophers who treat morality as something that can be conveniently bracketed off until one encounters a specifically ‘moral’ situation in which a difficult dilemma has to be solved (typically involving a runaway train, a bizarre hostage situation, or a fat man wedged in the mouth of a cave).
So there are ways in which my view of morality is shaped by the particular Christian roots that I came from. But in other ways I have discovered a sort of moral development (although not an explicitly philosophical one) that has come out of the growth that has unfolded away from those roots. A lot of it was there, although I didn’t see it at the time, in the vision of the lamb on the hilltop. It comes from an awareness of the world as it is. I do not mean a world that is stripped of personally specific symbolism and significance. That was certainly not the case in that instance, and I do not think it is even possible. What I mean (in broadly phenomenological terms) is the world ‘as it is’ ‘for me’. An experience of the unmediated direct importance of things, understood and loved for their own sake, not for the sake of their place in a grand scheme or structure of beliefs. They matter to me because they simply do, as they are presented to me in my immediate experience of them.
This is a little like one of Karl Marx’s criticisms of religion. Marx thought that religion alienated people from each other, while creating a false sense of a relationship that was actually mediated through a higher power (This is in his ‘On the Jewish Question’ if you are interested). I have no desire to make such claims about religion, since it goes against many of the ways in which I have seen many religious people lead their lives, I can only talk about that being how it was for me. I certainly think that some Christian schools of thought (you can see this particularly in the thought of St Francis of Assisi) are less subject to this than others.
And there is a serious danger for anyone who thinks that a rejection of religion is a rejection of metaphors and symbols that frame the way that we see the world. To think this is to lay oneself open to the danger of embracing new dangerous ones, and unconsciously drawing on the old ones in unreflective and potentially harmful ways.
I think that we should not feel too afraid of the ways in which our religious heritage (and yes Atheists, you have a religious heritage) can help us to frame our thoughts and give meaning to the world that we each inhabit.
Yesterday I went to an exhibition in Norwich’s Catholic Cathedral about the Turin Shroud, which included one of the few full-sized accurate replicas. Some parts of the exhibition consisted of earnest billboards explaining how the ‘scientific evidence’ was consistent with the image on the shroud being created by a flash of light that occurred at the moment of resurrection. I found that a bit unnerving, getting the impression that Christians should not really be cheapening themselves with appeals of that kind. What I did find deeply moving was a detailed section on the methods of crucifixion used during Roman times and subsequently. It brought to mind the dreadful, fleshy, human brutality that Christ and others were subjected to, the reality of human cruelty. Friday 6th April is Good Friday, the day that commemorates Christ’s torture and slow death by crucifixion. It strikes me as a particularly salient day for people from a Christian cultural background to reflect on the fact that we still live in a world where people are subjected to appalling torture and death, often for no other reason than the expression of views that are taken to be politically dangerous:
‘And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Matthew 25: 40