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 gawker.com), 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.