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Confession of an atheist

I respect Christianity too much to believe in it

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

As soon as I moved beyond childhood pieties, I became a bigoted atheist. Like Richard Dawkins, I found it personally offensive that anyone could be so naive and stupid as to worship God. Over the years, that has softened. Although I cannot believe, I no longer think it absurd to do so. One has to respect Christopher Hitchens: no one has been so atheistically defiant in the face of death since Don Giovanni on his way to hell. Even so, the stridency of Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens reminds me of my own jeering adolescence.

It is worth remembering that a substantial majority of the cleverest people who ever lived have believed in a God. Anyone who thinks that there is progress in ideas is invited to justify that position, with reference to the 20th century.

Moreover, Christianity has almost irresistible attractions. It starts with the parable of Adam and Eve, who reject pet-hood in favour of human-hood and launch humanity on a Promethean mission. Before the end of Genesis, Father Abraham has refined that mission; the human race is no longer at war with its Creator. There follows the history of the Chosen People: more than a millennium of conflict, exile, backsliding, poetry, disaster, triumph — and more conflict. Yet throughout their troubles, that proud and stiff-necked people kept faith with monotheism and with Jehovah.

Then the climax: the Incarnation. A Virgin conceives, and a stable in Bethlehem becomes a still point in the turning world, for all time. So does a hill outside Jerusalem. Between the swaddling-clothes and the Cross, Christ offers mankind an impossible redemption. He challenges us to sublimate life into love. It cannot be. The Saviour is crucified. The Resurrection follows. But mankind is still nailed to the cross, of its history in a fallen world, a history best summarised in two words, ‘original sin’; a history which for most of those who have had to endure it has been a cry of pain. At best, salvation is a work in progress.


You do not have to believe in order to regard Christianity as the greatest story ever told. But there is an absolute barrier between belief and disbelief. I do not have faith, but I know what faith would mean. We unbelievers are entitled to regard the Bible as magnificent literature. More is demanded from the faithful. Yet these days, even some soi-disant Christians would claim that the miraculous elements of the New Testament are only metaphors. To me, that is agnostic slop. Faith is more than literature. Faith is an epiphany of abasement, ardour and rigour, in the hope of grace, redemption and joy. But there is an entrance fee. If you do not believe in the literal truth of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, you are not a Christian.

This is not to reject the beauty of holiness, nor its use as an aid to conversion. No one could deny that Christianity has been responsible for a profound intellectual, moral and artistic quickening. Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam: the greatest painters, architects and musicians have adorned Christianity with the garlands of genius. It would seem so easy to be swept along by this and to agree that beauty is truth. I have an anthology of paintings, cathedrals and music which almost persuade me to be a Christian. But that is the epiphanic fallacy: the notion that at a certain level of alpha plus, creativity transcends humanity. Buxtehude: good, yet no more than human; Bach — divine. This is merely an aesthetic version of the Schoolmen’s argument from design. It is not proof of the existence of God.

Grandeur may exalt men’s eyes to the heavens. More often, it is fear and suffering which send humanity stumbling along a humbler path, to mercy. Taken neat, the human condition needs a deal of stoicism. Timor mortis conturbat me; le dernier acte est sanglant; the cross of life exacts its toll in sweat and blood. The desire for a religion to bring comfort and meaning is deeply implanted in the human psyche.

So why do I still abstain? For two reasons: realism, and science. The urgency of need cannot of itself summon the necessary help into being, as bank managers have been telling their customers down the ages. Although science cannot prove that God does not exist, it does make the search vastly more complicated. Christianity has never recovered from the loss of medieval cosmology and the emergence of modern geology. Since then, intellectual Christianity has been in retreat: the sea of faith has been ebbing, to a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.

For Christians, the medieval cosmos worked. The earth was at the centre of the universe, as befitted its inhabitants, whose moral destiny was so crucial to their Creator’s preoccupations that He sacrificed His only begotten Son. The other, lesser, celestial objects were mere Christmas-tree decorations; the fossils, mere curios. Then came modern science. We know that the earth is billions of years older than the human race. It is a long way from: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ So why would God have taken so long? We also know that the universe is infinitely large. Once man’s centrality is dethroned, can God’s existence be far behind? I know: we see through a glass darkly. But for me, the leap of faith is far too great. It seems to me that every Christian must have a heroic faith, worthy of the Saints.

That said, most of my friends who do believe have settled down in the far-from-heroic gentleness of the Church of England. ‘Dearly beloved’ is one of the loveliest phrases in the language, as is ‘with my body I thee worship’ and many others from the Anglican liturgy. It remains to be seen whether that Church can survive the follies of its clergy for much longer. Suppressing the Prayerbook, replacing the Authorised Version with the pasteurised one and the Hymnal with the electric guitar, insulting the royal engagement: the Established Church may not be good at preaching the Gospel, but it does offer powerful evidence of diabolic possession. Yet I know Anglicans who still adhere to a worship and a Church that Nicholas Ferrar, George Herbert and Archdeacon Grantly would recognise. I envy their faith, especially as it seems to make relatively light demands on their conduct. My Christian acquaintances tend to take a mild, Rosicrucian approach to the Via Crucis.

So why not make Pascal’s wager? Because I do not think that one could arrive at belief via a heavenly hedge-fund position (nor did Pascal, when it came to his own faith). In San Luigi dei Franchese, in Rome, there hangs Caravaggio’s ‘Calling of St Matthew’. Matthew is sitting at a table with his merry tax-collecting chums. It looks as if someone is about to say: ‘What are we doing here, lads? The inns are open.’ Then Christ appears, in shadow, pointing at Matthew, beckoning him to follow.

Matthew’s face is a marvellous capture of transfiguration. In an instant, he moves from ‘Sorry, mate, you’ve got the wrong bloke’ to ‘Lord, thy will be done’. The painting is a study of the radical, implacable, transcendent otherness of Christian conversion. Faith ought to partake of some of that drama. Credo quia impossibile? I cannot get past the impossibile.


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