Douglas Murray says that he stopped being an Anglican after analysing Muslim texts and deciding that no book — of any religion — could claim infallibility
Just over a year ago I told a lie. In print. In this magazine. I was one of those asked by The Spectator last Christmas whether I believed in the virgin birth. Since it had always seemed to me that if you believed in God a ‘pick and mix’ approach to the central tenets of the faith was pointless, I said ‘yes’. But in fact I felt ‘no’. It wasn’t that I had been wrestling over the doctrine of the incarnation, I simply felt that if I didn’t believe in the virgin birth, I would not believe in God. The truth is I didn’t and don’t. The guilt has been lingering since. This is my atheist mea culpa.
Many people hold on to belief as an unquestioned part of their make-up. They never have to confront the source of their belief, and as long as nothing actively pushes them into addressing it, they keep it as something which rarely does much harm and might actually do some good. I have been an Anglican since birth — and not just a cultural Anglican but at times (rarest of things) a real, worshipping, believing Anglican. Like a lot of believers, I knew that there were parts of my belief that wouldn’t stand up to analysis. But that was fine. I didn’t need to analyse them. I only lost faith when I was forced to.
Charles Darwin didn’t do for God. German biblical criticism did — the scholarship on lost texts, discoveries of added-to texts and edited texts. All pointed away from the initial starting-block of faith — that the texts transmitted immutable truths. Realising that ‘holy’ texts are, like most other things in life, the result of an accretion of human effort and human error is one of the most troubling discoveries any believer can make. I remember trying to read some of this scholarship when I was younger, and finding it so terrifying, so ground-shaking, that I put it off for another day.
But it found me via another route. Some years ago I started studying Islam. It didn’t take long to recognise the problems of that religion’s texts — the repetitions, contradictions and absurdities. Unlike Christianity, scholarship on these problems in Islam has barely begun. But they are manifest for anyone to see. For a holy book which in its opening lines boasts ‘that is the book, wherein is no doubt’, plenty of doubt emerges. Not least in recognising demonstrable plagiarisms from the Torah and the Christian Bible. If God spoke through an archangel to one illiterate tradesman in 7th-century Arabia, then — just for starters — why was he stealing material? Or was he just repeating himself?
Gradually, scepticism of the claims made by one religion was joined by scepticism of all such claims. Incredulity that anybody thought an archangel dictated a book to Mohammed produced a strange contradiction. I found myself still clinging to belief in Christianity. I was trying to believe — though rarely arguing — ‘Well, your guy didn’t hear voices: but I know a man who did.’ This last, shortest and sharpest, phase pulled down the whole thing. In the end Mohammed made me an atheist.
Though it was a supplementary realisation, the problems that these texts have caused cannot be avoided either. Where else does your real bona-fide bigot find his metier? Anyone can repress a woman, but you need ‘dictated’ scriptures to feel you’re really right in repressing her. In the same way, homophobes thrive everywhere. But you must feel you’ve got scripture on your side to come up with the tedious ‘Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’-style arguments instead of just recognising that some people are different to you.
Anyone can be a bigot. But divine bigots must count as the most intractable — the most infuriatingly impervious to reason. Besides — to a bibliophile, indeed bibliomaniac — the idea that there is any book ‘wherein is no doubt’ is insulting as well demonstrably untrue.
Even when I stopped believing I pretended I did, or said I did for a bit, for fear of the break in the dike. Like many people, the first thing that troubled me about leaving religion was fear of meaninglessness. Where would ethics come from? If nothing was revealed then surely everything would be relative — and that way lay nihilism. As it happens, it becomes clearer the more I look at it that religious texts are not only unnecessary to the ethical life. More often than believers like to admit, they are directly contrary to it.
Then there is the loss of the guiding hand. It is the one utterly irreplaceable aspect of belief. Without God, where is the enduring melody — the cantus firmus — of life? Alexander Herzen asked, ‘Where is the song before it is sung?’ It is impossible to replace the belief in a deity’s plans for you. Though less comforting, it is simply observably truer that there is no song before you sing it — no path before you tread it. You make the song as you sing it. You make the path as you tread it. It makes life more precarious, certainly — but just as the risk of falling is greater, so, likewise, is the possibility of soaring.
My final fear was one which I think a lot of Christians in this country feel, particularly as they see Islam re-emerging and gaining adherents in spite (or perhaps because) of its intransigence and intractability. It is, I suppose, a sense of cultural abandonment. We know how much of what we enjoy and relish comes through Christianity. Can we really go on without it? Doesn’t it leave our building without foundations? Slowly I discover that it doesn’t. I still can’t pass a country church or cathedral without going in. The texts are still essential to me. They are just (and ‘just’ hardly does the job here) no more divine than Shakespeare.
The question of how, without believing it, we transmit the good of our historical faith to another generation is certainly problematic. Perhaps like many Jewish people who rejoice in their identity but don’t believe in God we could be better — and franker — at being cultural Christians. I tried it this year, at my first atheist Christmas.
I went to church on Christmas morning, and went with my family to the carol service a few nights before. The readings were comforting not only because of their familiarity but because taken as great stories they still transmit, like all great literature, truths which you can live by. The momentousness and simplicity of Adam’s fall was as tragic and resonant to this atheist heart as it once was to the believing one.
Fundamentalist Islam challenges us politically. But tackling literalism of one kind with literalism of another doesn’t work. Complexity is harder to accept, but more evident to the eye. After long struggle, I find reason enough.
My first non-believing Christmas was different, certainly. Different — but, contrary to my fears, no shallower. Quite the opposite. Things this year seemed both more open and more possible. More fragile and more precious. It also struck me, in ways which are hard to explain — and the religious language cannot be avoided — that it was all, if anything, even more miraculous.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 3, 2009