Hugo Rifkind

An encounter with the God of niceness and biscuits

An encounter with the God of niceness and biscuits
Wotton Church in late autumn sun, North Downs, Surrey Hills, Surrey. View of the exterior view of the old parish church of St. John at Wotton.|Wotton Church in late autumn sun, North Downs, Surrey Hills, Surrey. View of the exterior view of the old paris
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I write this freshly back from a reactionary weekend in the Scottish Borders, where I was made a godfather in a christening and did not have to renounce Satan. Which was a relief.

It’s not that I have any objection to renouncing Satan per se. It’s not like we’re on speaking terms. It’s just that whenever I’ve heard new godparents do just that, in church, I wonder at the point. Surely Satan would be okay with you just lying about it. Isn’t that rather the point of Satan? ‘I can’t believe you fibbed in a church!’ the Prince of Lies would not say. You know? It just doesn’t seem like much of a failsafe.

Still, no Satanic renunciations for me. I just had to promise to raise my new godson, should it ever directly fall to me, as a Christian. This might sound an odd thing to pledge, given that I am, as a man called Brian once put it, a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, a Red Sea pedestrian, etc. But it’s really not something with which I have a problem. Other people’s religions pose no problem for me. I’m rather an Anglican agnostic rationalist Jewish disestablishmentarian, in this respect. Last weekend reminded me why.

This was nowhere in particular. I shan’t tell you exactly where, because of what follows, but there are glamorous bits of the Borders and this wasn’t one of them. My host was baptising his second son, just because round his way that’s what you do and it’s an excuse to have a party. The church was tiny, maybe twice the size of your living room, with a balcony upstairs. They were in the same place three years ago, for his eldest. On that occasion, the few guests crammed in upstairs noticed an old gent sitting with a friend off to one side, who on closer examination turned out to be the Duke of ­Edinburgh.

There’s no great finale to this story. As he left, I’m told he came across a friend of a friend holding her toddler’s arms in the carpark field, while he (the toddler; very much not the Duke of Edinburgh) did a poo around the back of what turned out to be the royal Range Rover, but that’s beside the point. The Duke, I gather, was staying somewhere nearby, and when he’s staying anywhere, and he’s free on a Sunday morning, he likes to drop in to the local church. Going to church is a thing he does. It’s also a thing some other people do, whether he’s there or not. Sometimes he goes and does it with them. It makes me feel warm to think of it.

I wonder if anybody has ever done a study of the extent to which atheism is an urban phenomenon. God didn’t seem a terribly big deal in that service. I mean, if you’d asked anybody, they probably would have said he was there every week, but only in the same way that the old lady from the cottage up the hill was. There’s nothing which prevents atheism from creating lovely little buildings to which the same (albeit dwindling) community of people go every week, and into which the husband of the Queen could quietly pop without anybody immediately texting Big Pictures. But it just doesn’t, does it?

Your urban atheist, I suspect, strips back religion to just the God bit, and that’s why they find it so inexplicably stupid. But that’s exactly the bit that the core religious aren’t concentrating on. This is why the very rational views of people like Richard Dawkins make some, like me, feel so terribly uncomfortable. He thinks he’s declaring war on suicide bombers, intolerance and female circumcision. But it comes across, to people who have nothing to do with these things, as a war against niceness, biscuits, and the quiet humility of everybody getting along.

•••

I was feeling quite politically reactionary, too. The night before I caught the train, I nipped into Millbank to speak to Newsnight Scotland about Alex Salmond’s appearance in front of the Leveson inquiry. And, literally while on air, my feelings about Scottish independence, which until then had been merely vague unease, hardened into concrete opposition. It’s a terrible idea.

Salmond himself gave an impressive performance, like he always does. His appearance, though, revived the great hubbub within the Scottish media about whether or not he once made a pact with Rupert Murdoch to support the BSkyB deal in exchange for the support of the Scottish Sun.

Without wanting to be overly rude, isn’t that the most parochial conspiracy theory you ever heard? Never mind how Rupert Murdoch does or doesn’t conduct himself with politicians. The BSkyB bid rested on Ofcom and, at the time, Vince Cable. Why would either of them have given a damn about Alex Salmond? ‘We don’t want to mess with Salmond!’ they totally wouldn’t have said. ‘For the Scottish Executive is a force to be reckoned with!’ No.

Within the bosom of Scottish politics, I accept it’s probably existentially difficult to grasp how little anybody else cares about anything you think about anything. On a wider British level, we probably do the same all the time; placing far too much emphasis, for example, on how much eurozone folk care about the views of David Cameron. But the spectre of Scotland slashing her horizons down so small suddenly struck me as particularly and irredeemably tragic. Like I said, it was a reactionary weekend.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.