Crisis of faith

One midnight mass too many has darkened this atheist's view of Christianity.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • Crisis of faith

Although I do not believe in God, I have always had a great deal of respect for organised religions. Yes, the Dawkinistas tell us, religion is responsible for a great deal of wars, suffering and misery, waged over ridiculous aspects of doctrine. To us atheist rationalists, squabbles over the veracity of the doctrine of papal infallibility, the Virgin birth, or whether Jesus was indeed the Messiah, appear akin to the Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputian wars between the Big Endians and Little Endians: two tribes who fought bitter battles over whether an egg should be broken by its round or pointed end. In other words, organised religion seems an unholy alliance of the violent and the absurd.

At the same time, Christianity has been an immeasurably positive influence on Western civilisation. More than any other religion, Christianity adheres to the notion of the self. It is a belief in the self, in self-achievement, self-belief, self-responsibility and self-pursuit that is the cornerstone of civilisation – as Adam Smith pointed out. Barbarism is underpinned by a reliance on the herd, conformity, the inability to think new thoughts, to challenge the status quo, or to offend the contemporary guardians of morality. The Enlightenment owes a massive debt to Christian ethics and Christian heritage. Islam, too, with its emphasis on dignity, fortitude, self-discipline and self-respect, is something to be admired.

But religion is something we should grow out of. Yes, this is an old argument. But it is one that we don’t hear much these days, what with our current climate of postmodernist pessimism – which deems even atheist and Enlightenment values as bigoted, Eurocentric or possibly racist. In a Chestertonian vein, we may have surrendered a belief in traditional orthodoxies, but we have not surrendered a religious impulse. Westerners today believe in all sorts of mumbo-jumbo, from astrology, new-age pseudo-Celtic religions, Eastern mysticism, personal ‘guardian angels’ or, worst of all, a ‘general sense of spirituality’.

I have always maintained that believing in proper religions is better than adhering to incoherent, modern-day ersatz faiths. At least traditional religion offers a proper moral framework. Campaigners for universal suffrage, votes for women and the abolition of slavery were all driven by a deep Christian conviction that all men and women were created as equals. In this respect, Christianity is far more desirable than pseudo-faiths, which encourage not so much self-belief and self-responsibility, but self-obsession. They turn us into passive objects; Christianity encourages us to be active subjects.

At least, this is what I used to believe. It took just one Christian service too many to sully my view of my native religion. On Christmas Eve, to appease my mother, as I do every year, I attended midnight mass at a Roman Catholic church in Canterbury. The music was dreadful, the singing diabolical and the priest unspeakably boring and rambling. To see the multitude bowing and genuflecting before such an oaf really brought out the cantankerous atheist in me.

Perhaps I should stop reading all that Nietzsche, or maybe I came to the conclusion that all forms of superstition, traditional or not, are for cretins.

  • Kings of comedy

The late Bob Monkhouse was invariably described in his lifetime as ‘unctuous’, ‘oily’ and, above all, ‘smarmy’. He seemed to belong to a different age, with his orangey-tanned skin, cold professionalism and one-liner jokes about mothers-in-law. He was Britain’s answer to Bob Hope.

I always found Monkhouse quite amusing, and everyone who ever met him has remarked what a kind and charming fellow he was. He certainly did not deserve the vitriol that was habitually levelled at him by television critics.

This is not to say that I am an apologist for the ‘good old days’ of comedy. I have never understood the allure of Morecambe and Wise, Dad’s ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike’ Army was awful rubbish and Spike Milligan was perhaps the unfunniest man who ever lived. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was occasionally brilliant but frequently tedious, while anyone who grew up in the 1980s will lament that decade’s sorry televisual diet of Bread, Ever Decreasing Circles and – kill me now! – Terry and June.

At the same time, can one think of much good contemporary British comedy? The Simpsons, Frasier, Friends? They’re American. Alan Partridge has become a bore and even The Office Christmas special was a bit limp. Where is 2004’s answer to Peter Cook, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Blackadder, The Young Ones and, yes, the Two Ronnies?

Bob Monkhouse may have appeared a throwback to the dreary days of Variety, but he could deliver the lines – ‘they laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now’ – and most of all, he was a mean presenter of Family Fortunes.

  • Accidents happen

One of the things our post-Christian society will not appreciate is that accidents will happen. We still look for meaning when pointless tragedy occurs. We cannot accept that Princess Diana was killed in a traffic accident, or that trains will sometimes crash. We maintain instead that Diana was murdered by shadowy government agents or that rail bosses are guilty of manslaughter.

But bad things just will happen. Last year, according to the Department of Health, 51 people were bitten or crushed by reptiles, 369 were treated in hospitals after incidents involving lawnmowers and 3038 were injured as a result of ‘contact with a non-powered hand drill’. If we are to eradicate risk altogether, as our health’n’safety maniacs desire, should we not ban drills, lawnmowers and iguanas?

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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