Sunday sermon

Sometimes I carry around blogposts in my mind for a long time before I actually write them. This one was fermenting a few months ago, but instead I published one about attending religious ceremonies in my role as an MP, which touched on similar themes, about how to show respect for others’ beliefs without compromising one’s own atheism.

The recent row prompted by Baroness Warsi’s trip to the Vatican has set me off again though, with her saying “My fear is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies… At its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant.” The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, then chipped in along the same lines: “It looks as though the Christian voice is being silenced and I am worried by the dangers of creeping secularism.”

In a piece in today’s Independent [NB this was written on Wednesday 15th] Peter Popham develops this theme: “What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The materialist Utopianism of the Communists and Nazis is to blame for all the worst atrocities of the past century. Dawkins may appear to make sense, but it is incredible that we should be ready to pay serious attention to a prophet whose message is the same as those whose schemes led to the hells of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the Khmer Rouge.” [At which point I interrupt politely and say, ahem, what was that Nazi Kinder Kuche Kirche all about then?]

Popham continues: “The secularists never tire of pointing out that that religious belief has led to committing of atrocious crimes, from the Inquisition to the Irish Troubles, and on to the Twin Towers. In that sense both believers and secularists are in the dock of history. But, stripped of fanaticism and self-righteousness, religious faith can do what secularism cannot: open doors on to areas of human experience – compassion, altruism, serenity, even enlightenment – which have no meaning for the secularists. The statement ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’ may be a canard, but genuinely non-egoistical behaviour is much more likely from those for whom the ego and its grasping needs do not define ultimate reality.”

I have no idea what foxholes have to do with anything, but he is basically saying that atheists aren’t compassionate, altruistic, serene or enlightened. In fact those concepts are meaningless to them. They have no idea what it is to feel compassion for another human being. It has “no meaning” for them. Which is not only nonsense, it’s quite offensive too. How would he feel if I said ‘you’re only doing that because you’re scared you won’t go to Heaven if you don’t?’

At my father’s funeral in November – in a tiny village in Ireland, with, it has to be said, more than a touch of Father Ted about the whole affair – the Catholic priest paid tribute to all the fundraising my father had done for local charities: sponsored bike rides, that sort of thing. He said ‘we didn’t see him much in church (he meant, we didn’t see him at all) but that was his own way of being a Christian” Well no it wasn’t. It was his way of being a good bloke. Doing good things for good causes is not a Christian act unless you do it because of your Christian beliefs. You can’t stake a claim to an atheist’s soul.

A much worse example of this was Mitt Romney’s family converting his atheist father-in-law to Mormonism after his death. How dare they do that? I guess they believed with great fervour and sincerity that he’d go to hell if they didn’t save him (is that what Mormons believe?). They may have convinced themselves it’s what he would really have wanted, ignoring everything he’d ever said on the subject. Or they could have argued that, seeing as he considered religion to be a load of mumbo jumbo, why would he be so bothered about being on the receiving end of prayers that meant nothing to him? It’s for their benefit, not his.

I wrestle with this issue when it comes to funerals. Are they primarily for the people left behind? If those people find religion a great comfort, is a bit selfish of the deceased to deny them this? My grandmother died last year too, in the summer. She was a devoted Catholic; she’d been going to mass at the church where her funeral was heard every week – probably several times a week – since she moved to England more than 60 years ago, and did lots of charitable work there. Sick children from Chernobyl staying at her home, all sorts of things. She once followed Lord Sainsbury around the supermarket asking why he wouldn’t give his unsold sandwiches away to the homeless.

I was asked to do a Bible reading at the service, which my father thought was hilarious; he spent the rest of the day going on about me being a born preacher, up in my pulpit. But I did it because I was asked, and she’d have liked me to do it, and I didn’t really know how to say no. (Word of explanation here: I don’t know the Irish side of my family very well. If it was the English side it would have been easy: eulogy, yes; Bible reading, no).

When it came to my father’s funeral I was determined that I was going to refuse this time, if asked. He hadn’t wanted a religious service. There were actually three: one for receiving the body at the church the night before; the funeral itself; and another one at the crematorium in Dublin. The request, however, was sprung on me literally seconds before the body arrived, by people who’d seen me do it with ease at my grandmother’s funeral a few months earlier. How could I get into a debate there and then, as the music was starting to play, about wanting to respect his wishes? About being the one person who acknowledged his atheism, and the importance of it to him, in the midst of all this fervent Catholicism? It had been enough of a shock for them to discover he had a daughter they didn’t know about, without outing myself as a heretic too. Even though he was one.

So I chose one of the two readings proferred on the grounds that it was that bit from the Bible used in the Byrds ‘Turn Turn Turn’ and he liked the Byrds and it only had one mention of God, right at the end. But I felt like I’d rather let him down.

Going back to the Romney family (and you can find the story on, would they have done the same if the father-in-law had been a Catholic, or as one religion to another, would they have felt a greater need to respect his views? I suspect that believers see atheism as the absence of something, as a blankness, a void – and therefore feel that they can fill that void with their own beliefs, and that it shouldn’t matter to the atheist because they’re not displacing anything of value. How can believing in nothing be important to someone?

My suspicion is borne out by Popham choosing to quote from Straw Dogs, by the English philosopher John Gray. “Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers. To deny the existence of God is to accept the categories of monotherism… Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians’ God is still a Christian world. Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.”

I disagree. I say that the blankness, the void, came first. They have chosen to fill it, not us to empty it. We are not defined by what we don’t believe, but by the way we behave. If people do believe, if that’s what gives them comfort, then fine. But those of who think that secular values and basic human decency are enough to guide us through life, then let us do it.

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  • Matt Jefferies  On February 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I agree completely, but presumably u meant monotheism not monotherism (which is Thatcherite economics with a lisp!)

  • nilsinela boray (@northernheckler)  On February 19, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    My Mum had a similar experience when my Grandma died. Although baptised & confirmed CofE she’s never considered herself a Christian since then. She grew Dahlia’s & Chrysanthemums on a semi-professional hobby basis, & gave quite a lot via a church going friend to the local parish church for Harvest Festival, & other events. It helped to boost sales, the church looked nice, and she knew the vicar quite well.

    When her Mum died he asked her what arrangements she wanted in church for the funeral (tbh he was well within bounds here – a parishioner married in the church, and previously communicant – it’s his duty to ask) She politely let him know that we weren’t churchgoers and would be sticking to crematorium only. He then offered the church free of charge, with him officiating. She explained that she was no longer a Christian, and didn’t want that.

    He said that it was quite alright that she didn’t consider herself a Christian, as he could see through her good works (ie. giving flowers to the church as a loss leading advertising strategy) that she was a good Christian at heart.

    She started to firm up her resistance “No – I’m not a Christian and that’s not what I want”

    “But I’m not offering this because you’re a Christian, I’m offering it because you are my friend” She eventually relented. He just didn’t get it, and she wasn’t enough of a militant secularist to turn round and tell him where to stick it.

    I find in general most atheists are very tolerant of other people’s right to believe mumbo jumbo.

    • Quietzaple  On February 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      Lack of respect isn’t helpful, is it?

  • Quietzaple  On February 19, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Re Foxholes:

    I think he intended to suggest that close to death many resume their hope for God, and others their belief.

  • Marx Harris  On February 22, 2012 at 8:13 am

    An excellent and considered piece. Your blogs impress me much more than your loyalist voting when Labour were in power *smiles*. I have since been shuttled into Bristol West so you are no longer my MP. What a shame!

  • Sam Cronin  On February 22, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I agree with Gray. Why is it necessary to deny something so strongly if you feel it has no meaning?

    In the absence of faith surely religion just becomes harmless tradition? Something that, if it provides solace to others at a time of grief, I see no reason not to indulge.

    If you are so satisfied that there’s nothing especially significant about a verse from the bible then why be so reluctant to read it? I don’t mean to say you are wrong to feel that way, just wonder why you feel so strongly about it.

    And on the Mitt Romney thing, I don’t really understand how anybody can convert you to anything after you are dead, so who cares what his family say he was or is, or whatever.

  • Steven J. Oram  On March 3, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Was that the Christian voice collaborating with police and bailiffs to unceremoniously eject the Occupy protesters at midnight recently? Regarding Popham – he seems to be confusing religion with spirituality, or living philosophy as I like to think of it, which is about realising our humanity.

    “Existentialism is about being a saint without God, being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society.” ~ Anita Brookner

  • Jesús  On March 18, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    “Unbelief today should begin by questioning not religion but secular faith. A type of atheism that refused to revere humanity would be a genuine advance”.
    John Gray, ‘The Silence of Animals’.

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