IT’S AS wrong to lump all atheists together as it is to associate all Muslims with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or all Jews with Zionism. There are 50 shades of godlessness. The community includes dour and humorless dogmatists such as Richard Dawkins and genial chaps like Stephen Fry. True, there are some who will have been hurt by Fry’s recent description of God as a maniacal monster. But he’d been sorely provoked by Gay Byrne.
Another thing in Fry’s favor is that he gives the lie to the rote-learned answer once expected of us, at risk of a rap on the knuckles from a ruler, when Sister Xavier paused in her patrolling of the passage between the desks and snapped, “Where is God?”
“As he is God, he is everywhere,” we’d chorus. Fry may not be literally everywhere, but he is everywhere on television, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which these days amounts to much the same thing. Which, in turn, reminds me of the wider role of the Derry Diocesan Catechism in propelling me on to the atheist path.
“Who created you and placed you in this world?””God.”
“Why did God create you?”
“To know him and love him and serve him, and by that means to gain everlasting life.”
“How many persons are there in God?”
“There are three persons in God.”
“Are there, then, three gods?”
“No, there is but one God.”
“How is this explained?”
“It is a mystery.”
I was well into my teens before it occurred to me that this was so ridiculous, they’d insulted us by demanding we believe it. And there was a litany of other implausibilities to contend with. I couldn’t get my head around the resurrection. Or Communion. Many in positions of authority in the Catholic Church seem to have managed to forget that it was taught within living memory that it was literally true–no question of metaphor–that “the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ” was contained in the Communion wafer. The “Real Presence.” Another mystery.
What finally put the kibosh on it for me was being told from the pulpit at the boys’ retreat that the mandatory punishment of taking ourselves pleasurably in hand was to roast in hell forever.
And then there was the fundamental matter of whether there was a God at all. If he (it was always “he”) existed by definition beyond the range of human rationality, how could his presence be apprehended by human beings? As to how his non-existence could be proven–Bertrand Russell’s postulate of a tiny teapot in endless orbit around the sun (go on, disprove it)–seemed to me then as now a convincing riposte. Dawkins, I see, has taken to using the teapot analogy without attribution. The circular banality of Aquinas’ “proofs” also deserves mention.
THE QUESTION which immediately arises, but which isn’t faced by celebrity atheists such as Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett is not whether God exists, but how intelligent people can have come to believe that he exists. The self-regard and shallowness of mind of the “New Atheists” is indicated in the fact that it seems not to occur to them that there is a conundrum here, and in the adoption by some of “Bright” as a collective noun. If they are “brights” on account of their atheism, religious believers must be dimwits, which it is evident many are not.
This strain of atheism argues by omission that wrongs done in the name of religion are done because of religion–that hostility to the West in Arab and other countries, for example, is an expression, not of the conditions of life of the people of the region, but of Islamic ideas inimical to Western freedoms. Thus, a claimed commitment to freedom can fuel and excuse murderous assault on indigenous people resentful of a western presence and support for oppressive dictators and appropriation of regional resources.
Taking this approach to Ireland, Hitchens, when asked whether religious difference explained the Troubles, replied that during his stint as a reporter in Belfast, “I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that a group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.” Matter of fact, other than in most exceptional circumstances, a congregation coming from a church would frighten nobody with a minimal knowledge of Belfast. It’s the boyos who haven’t darkened the door for decades you would have reason to feel nervous about.
Religion is a distorted reflection of social relations, emanating from the material world, to be eradicated only by transformation of the circumstances of life. If Stephen Fry has encouraged rumination along these lines, he, and Gay Byrne for provoking him, has done the country a considerable favor.
First published at the Irish Times.