Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Gentle Atheism

When I arrived in Iraq as a National Serviceman in 1955, I was a practising Methodist. Back home I had attended Chapel three times on a Sunday as well as on a variety of other occasions, for instance as secretary of its Christian Endeavour.

Some of the lay preachers were ethical socialists and I remember being deeply moved by the socialist content of a sermon by the leading Methodist Minister, Donald Soper who eventually I was to come across on a regular basis in the pages of Tribune. I also lived in a solid Labour and Mining area, with some of the Methodist lay preacher’s being local Labour Councillors.

But there was probably no great depth to my Christianity for my Chapel attendance was mainly a social and communal activity. I was, therefore, pretty ill-equipped for the culture shock I experienced in viewing the lives of the people in Basra and Baghdad. I felt that I was in the midst of extensive areas of poverty and exploitation.

The question which came to my mind was how could an all loving, all perfect and all knowing creator permit such conditions to exist? I had no idea that this was a perennial philosophical question, nor that it would come to form part of my later studies and teachings at University.

In the forces, I never rose above the rank of Leading Aircraftsman and I only ever found one person to discuss my religious problems with. Corporal Murphy had “atheist” on his locker where we had to designate our religion. He was an ex-Catholic who thankfully introduced me to the works of James Joyce.

I was based in Basra and a local bookseller was also helpful. Not only could I order books from him, but he sold English books and had a handsome supply of Rationalist Press Association(RPA) titles such as “Let the People Think” and “Men Without Gods”. When I heard the Anglican Minister in Basra preach a sermon against the evil influence of such books, the ideas they expressed became even more appealing to me.

Unfortunately, both my bookseller and the Anglican Minister would today be stopped in their tracks by Islamic extremists.. But to my shame the religious ideas I never came in contact with 50 years ago were those of Islam. This is in part a reflection on the absence of any form of educational facilities at our small RAF Movements Unit.

New converts to a belief (or to a non-belief) are likely to become a little strident in its advocacy. So I let people back home know of my newly found lack of faith through a letter I sent to a local newspaper. I used my home address. There was then to be no doubt locally as to who I was and the RAF were unlikely to find out.( I still had “Methodist” above my locker and was disturbed about the problems my friend told me he had in changing his designation. - but it was a tough RAF Catholic Priest he had to deal with.)

My newspaper letter is now quite quaint. The Durham Chronicle gave it the heading
“Atheist’s Views of Premium Bonds”. These were just being introduced. I quoted from George Bernard Shaw and was keen to show that Atheists as well as Christians could have prickly moral principles in opposition to any State operated form of gambling. This puritan streak is still with me in my opposition to State sanctioned Casinos, although I now care little about Premium Bonds.

But I soon stopped my new form of preaching. This was partly because the Methodists I had grown up with (including my mother) were kindly people and not ranters. I had come to disagree with a key to their beliefs, but did not see the Christians I knew as an alien force. My newspaper letter had done enough to show I was no longer fully with them.

Added to this was an experience I had soon after I was demobbed. I went to a meeting of the South London Ethical Society to hear a talk on Nietzsche by Archibald Robertson. He was a member of the Communist Party and I had read some of his books in Basra, as published by the RPA. But the whole set-up made me feel that I was back into a form of Chapel. The final straw was when they passed around what looked like hymn books and we sang to the glory of reason. I decided that I had left one church and was not about to enter another.

In fact, as an M.P. I went to Civic Services and as an old man I keep going to funerals. I always join fully in the singing of hymns to the glory of God, more than I would ever be able to muster to the glory of Reason.

It seems to me that there is plenty of scope for dialogue between those who share similar moral and political values, irrespective of their differing approaches to religion and amongst religions. Indeed the dialogue should go much wider. I spent a considerable amount of my time as an M.P. in Northern Ireland discussing its problems with people right across the political and sectarian divides. No one ever asked me whether I was a Catholic, a Protestant or neither. Which is just as it should be.

As I type this I can look out onto the Baptist Church next door, where since retiring I have addressed Dronfield Churches Together on “Making Poverty History”. I don’t know if they knew that I am an atheist. For it should not matter, for there was considerable unity on the subject matter. If their religious feelings draw them into such campaigns, then that seems to me to be to the credit of their views - even if I don’t share them.

Oliver Kamm reminds us that the late Sidney Hook had something important to say on these matters in his book “The Quest for Being” (1961). In that it is possible to appreciate the nobler feelings some achieve through their religion, without then falling for the bedrock of their doctrines. Kamm also contrasts Hook’s approach with that of Richard Dawkins in his latest book “The God Delusion”. It is one thing for Dawkins to argue that religion is false, but it becomes sanctimonious for him to argue that religion in itself is a main source of oppression. It is theocratic movements (not religions as such) that have displayed such totalitarian tendencies - as did Stalinism. The fact that Stalinism was godless, doesn’t thereby turn other non-believers into his kin.

There is, for instance, a stark contrast between a Reverend Martin Luther King drawing from his religious values to help bring about an end to segregated schools and on the other hand creationists using their religious interpretations to try to undermine scientific investigations in schools.


Harry Barnes said...

Thanks. There is a persistent need to tackle dogmatic and fundamentalist ideas. These are stronger than ever in religious areas, were fundamentalism often seeks special potections and the suppression of critical ideas and practices. I, therefore, dislike all forms of faith schools. And would at least expect them to be required to seriously provide avenues to investigate challenging sets of ideas. It is, in fact, to their advantage to do this. For as John Stuart Mill pointed out, a person who knows only their own side of the case knows little of that.

Tom Freeman said...

Dead right Harry.
“It seems to me that there is plenty of scope for dialogue between those who share similar moral and political values, irrespective of their differing approaches to religion and amongst religions.”
To be maybe a wee bit melodramatic, I think this scope is what peaceful civilisation depends on.

Harry Barnes said...

On Richard Dawkin's position in "The God Delusion", I have just come across a first rate review in the New Scientist on 7 October
by Mary Midgley entitled "Imagine There's No Heaven". It is well worth religous believers and humanists alike reading what she has to say.

Will Parbury said...

Your quite right Harry that post was of interest.