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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Essay: Agnostics, Atheists and Abstainers - a case for Avoidance

This essay develops a line of thought mentioned but not developed in my review of Francis Spufford's Unapologetic.

Teetotallers (sometimes called Total Abstainers) and Vegetarians are people who renounce something which they may well find attractive - in the case of alcoholics, too attractive. Though some vegetarians are repelled by the thought of eating dead animal flesh others - like Jonathan Saffran Foer - aren't. The smell of your barbecue wafting into their house triggers temptation not disgust.

I sometimes think of myself as abstaining from religion, both from belief and from practice. Some religious things I find repulsive but not all of them.

Start with practices. I won't attend an infant Christening. I think it's morally wrong - mildly abusive - to take your new born child and sign them straight up for something which ought to be a matter for considered choice.

I wouldn't attend the genital mutilation of an infant or a child, either, or a party to celebrate a mutilation. In fact, I think circumcisions - of both boys and girls - should be illegal. Children deserve state protection from such assaults on their bodies.

But I have always been willing to attend a church funeral service and, recently, I attended a church wedding. I wouldn't want either for myself but if other adults want such things, who am I to be the party pooper?

In terms of bodily mutilation, I am surprised when parents  want to pierce their infant children's ears. But since the result is reversible, I am not appalled by it in the way that a circumcision appalls me. I just think that babies and young children are such delightful creatures that I can't see why you would want to do anything other than take pleasure in them the way they are. They aren't toys and their bodies aren't yours. When a parent has to decide for their young child whether to allow (necessary or recommended) medical surgery, then I think they have a terrible decision to make.

What about Belief? My childhood experiences - I am talking about my mother - were of religious beliefs which were essentially punitive and which fed and watered eventually unbearable levels of guilt, anxiety,despair, melancholy. My mother's default state was to feel herself damned.

These were the kinds of belief into which it would have been easy to fall myself and from which I had - eventually - to make an effort to abstain. And I felt angry at the punitive religious culture, Victorian and Edwardian (my mother was born in 1907), which had burdened my mother for her whole life. The priests in black gowns who made it their business to induce such feelings in the vulnerable were to me loathsome creatures, monsters. They should be ostracised, put back in their boxes. The feelings have lasted a life time. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown sucked up to the Pope sufficiently for him to deign to visit Scotland and England and when all the political class - without a single honourable exception - sucked up to him at Westminster, I just felt fury. Who is this man? A prissy professor who has dedicated his life to making things uncomfortable for those in his church who have tried to make it more humane.

I recall an occasion when a very troubled young woman, who you would have found coarse and aggressive and who would never have set foot in a church, confided to me that every night she prayed for those she cared about and for those who had harmed her (and they had certainly harmed her). It was a moving confession. It simply did not occur to me to play the Village Atheist. On reflection, I might have hoped that one day her troubles might retreat to such a degree that she was freed from the need for  fervent prayer. But that's all. What she did alone at night before sleeping caused no harm in the world. What she did had a dignity; it was honourable. There is nothing honourable about the Pope.

Religious organisations cause harm in the world. If a good God did exist, he would not wish us to believe in him any more. His name has been invoked to justify far too many crimes. The history of Catholicism is a history of  callousness and inhumanity, continuing to this day. You are a young woman miscarrying in a Galway hospital bed, the baby is not even viable (17 weeks) but still they won't do anything to terminate the pregnancy. "This is a Catholic country" they tell her, with what degree of viciousness one can only imagine. And so she is left to die and in pain.

And so, by and large, one must abstain. Religion is unclean, contaminated perhaps not at source but certainly by history. I sometimes say to myself that what I practice is "Moral Unbelief" - it doesn't feel right to believe and, if possible, one should avoid religious belief.

The question, Does God Exist? is not very interesting.It can be left to the academics. If you feel that God exists, that seems to me an intelligible feeling and one not to be sneered at.  But Be Careful! There is a slippery slope which leads to that hospital ward in Galway. (Francis Spufford recognises the slippery slope and slides down with glee: it's the Leap of Faith, he cries, as he renounces the tab of E. (page 66) for the C. of E. )

This is why for me working to advance the secularisation of society is much more important than arguing the toss about God. And you will note that whilst the high clergy fulminate against "aggressive secularists" because secularism threatens the worldly power of the churches, they are often happy to cosy up to the atheists. They think that Richard Dawkins is really one of them and he occasionally obliges, as recently in supporting British Education Minister's Michael Gove's fantasy of a new copy of the King James Bible (signed by Michael Gove) in every school. Sorry, but No. The less organised religion in schools, the better for all our children.

As for Immortality, which is a separate question, I don't feel that I existed in any form before my birth and I don't feel that I will continue to exist in any form after my death. And I guess I don't want to feel otherwise, even though it could be nice to feel that bodily death is only a temporary interruption in one's everlasting life - except, of course, for the fact that there is always a Hell.

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