Martin Rowson just doesn’t buy the ideology that comes with God. Even a personal appearance by the Almighty wouldn’t do the trick, he says
The syphilitic atheist German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose career in philosophy came to a sudden halt when he couldn’t stop himself cuddling a carthorse outside St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, believed the death of God was an enormity from which mankind could only recover by willing itself to stand in God’s place. I don’t quite see it like that.
Despite the best efforts of warring religions to stake a claim to a universalist monopoly, each one of them has always been part of a teeming multitude of rival ideologies, which include the kind of atheism I believe in and the kind Richard Dawkins subscribes to. In the frequently mad marketplace of ideologies, an ecology operates, so religions come and go, mutate, adapt or become extinct.
I’ve come to believe in the rightness of my ideology for all sorts of different reasons. And although I thoroughly endorse my son Fred’s and his friend Rory’s rather brilliant comment, ‘Saying atheism is a religion is like saying that bald is a hair colour’, I square my belief in atheism with any contradictions the use of the word ‘belief’ might suggest by believing religion is merely an ideology too, although one that has a dimension mine doesn’t.
That’s where I part company with the scientific secularists, who seem to base their atheism solely on the weight of verifiable empirical evidence, which can always be countered, and always is, by the argument that they’ve failed to factor in faith, just because they can’t pin it down in the agar dish. That doesn’t bother me because I don’t believe in God, not because I can’t but because I don’t want to.
I believe you should deal with the political dimensions of religion in political ways, whether it’s over faith schools or Creationism or demanding special laws or special treatment denied to other equally sincerely or passionately held opinions, or any of the other aspects of religion’s totalitarian imperative to control us and our lives. By and large, that political struggle is being lost by the religionists, and their current ferocity is, to a large extent, proof of the fragility of both their arguments and their position, and belief, in the strictly spiritual sense, doesn’t come into it.
That division between the two possible meanings of the word belief is probably a false one anyway. Although we assume that belief in God implies an entirely different magnitude of belief than belief in, say, the policies of the Liberal Democrats, I think essentially they’re the same and have come to have different meanings over the centuries simply because the monopolists running the rival religions told us they did.
No religion has ever had a global monopoly and despite all the attempts to ensure brand loyalty (promise of paradise, forced conversion, death for apostates, torturing and burning heretics and so on), each one has existed in a marketplace. That’s why hell is filled with demons who were once the gods of neighbouring tribes in Bronze Age Judea, placed there by the devotees of Yahweh as he muscled in on their territory to increase his market share.
That’s probably why St Paul was so proscriptive about homosexuality, even though the man who inspired the religion Paul subverted and corrupted never said a single thing on the subject, despite all the opportunities available to his editors at a later date: it was to mark Christianity apart from the sexual tolerance of Hellenic paganism and the widespread acceptance in the ancient world of sodomy as a mark of priestly otherness and mystification.
And that’s why, even if God now came down in fiery splendour and proved beyond question his, her, its or their existence, I still wouldn’t believe in him, her, it or them, because I’m unconvinced by the spiel and I don’t like the way his, her, its or their brand takes a previous contingency from thousands of years ago and concretes it into certainty. I don’t like the threats, the taunts, the patronising assumption to unchanging and unyielding rectitude and infallibility. In short, I don’t buy the ideology.
And that’s something else which divides my kind of atheism from Richard Dawkins’s. He’s on record, as a good empiricist, as saying that if the existence of God was verifiably proved to him to his satisfaction, he would be compelled, because of his respect for science, to believe in him, her, it or them. He hasn’t said whether or not that means he’ll consequently worship God, and Christopher Hitchens has kept schtum on the whole subject. However, it’s just possible that if he ever were confronted with God, Hitchens would eat him, but obviously in an entirely nonsacramental way.
Without question many people will pick holes in what I’ve said. They’ll argue religion’s political success and domination of a lot of the history of humanity we can ever know about proves, or at least suggests, God’s sponsorship, and the crimes committed in his, her, its or their name are yet further evidence of humanity’s massive shortcomings in comparison to God.
They’ll also say the shallowness and apparent emptiness of the lives of people living in post-religious societies proves we need something like God to make sense of our lives, even though a main part of my argument is that that’s why we invented God in the first place and, anyway, that vacuity is less to do with the absence of God and more to do with the presence of the crass kind of consumerism with which governments have bribed us to buy our obedience and good behaviour.
And other people will say I’ve failed to take account of the levels of doubt many serious and thoughtful religionists wrestle with throughout their earthly lives, though I still don’t get why the existence of God should be the focus of their doubts, rather than his, her, its or their non-existence. And yet other people will say, with all sincerity, and equally sincere concern for my ultimate well-being, that my arrogance and my ‘fundamentalism’ are not only as bad as the religionists’, but will also cut me off from the possibility of life after death and everlasting bliss.
Well, I don’t really care. I may be certain in my rejection of God, or rather in my refusal to accept the notion of him, her, it or them, along with all the concomitant baggage. But I’m not prepared to pay the price of forcing agreement on other people, beyond simply adding my voice to the beautiful Babel of human disagreement, which, like religion or keeping pets, helps define us as human. As to heaven, I’m with the great English irrationalist and absenteeist musician Syd Barrett, who, days before he died in the summer of 2006, was asked by his sister what he thought about God and the afterlife. ‘Do you know,’ he’s reported to have replied, ‘it never occurred to me.’
© 2008 Martin Rowson. This Is An Edited Extract From The Dog Allusion By Martin Rowson, Published This Week By Vintage Originals At £6.99.