Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Embarrassingly, I find myself on Tony Blair’s side on The Big Question

I heard a familiar voice on radio yesterday, but it took me a while to place it. Turned out to be Tony Blair (how quickly he fades from memory, leaving behind nothing but a grin!) 
“Call me Tony” was taking part in the Munk Debate on Religion, recorded in Toronto. His opponent was well-known atheist, contrarian, Trotskyist, Iraq War-supporter, toper, smoker and pal of Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, who’s dying of cancer. If I were a more compassionate type, I’d cite that last fact in mitigation, given that Hitchen’s arguments (during the brief segment I caught) were the sort you’d expect to hear from a bumptious Sixth Former appearing in his first inter-school debating competition. (Richard Dawkins is even more intellectually undistinguished on this subject.) 

I was too busy trying to identify Tony Blair to listen to what he was actually saying: I doubt it was rivetting. I’ve just tried to listen to the whole things properly on iPlayer, but pressed the pause button after just two minutes.

Arguments for and against religion have always struck me as infinitely tedious (or, if you prefer,  tedious about the infinite). Believing in God in the absence of concrete proof isn’t like believing in the existence of Australia despite never having been there. Australia either exists or it doesn’t, and proving its existence would be a simple enough matter – just fly there. Nor is it like believing in the existence of something one will never see – like atoms: I accept their existence without question because I don’t care whether they exist or not. 

The existence or otherwise of God (or “The Big Yin” as Billy Connolly once referred to Him - I still laugh when I hear the remark he ascribes to Jesus - “See you, Judas - you’re gettin’ on mah tits!”) well, God’s existence doesmatter to me, and that’s why, after a lifetime of tacking between atheism, agnosticism and various shades of belief, I simply decided one day (twelve years ago to be precise) to stop worrying about it and just believe – not for any intellectually defensible reason, or thanks to a moment of divine revelation, but simply because it felt right. The concept of God just made sense to me. One minute I had doubts – the next, I decided they were pointless. The state of belief added immeasurably to the richness and meaning of my life: disbelief instantly drained it of both.

Not a hard choice, really.

But the “journey” (dread word!) had begun five years earlier, following the birth of my son. I found myself wondering how I would respond in the unlikely event that he were ever to ask me what I believed in. I realized that, apart from an ingrained hostility to socialism in all its forms, I wouldn’t have had a clue how to respond. 

As always when confused, a period of fairly intense reading followed, starting with Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, followed by the French thinker Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Evelyn Underhill’s classic,Mysticism, her review of the history of the Christian mystical tradition, the Catholic priest Thomas Merton’s marvelously affecting spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain through various hippie classics – Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and Robert Pirsig’s spellbinding Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – into Dan Millman’s Sacred Warrior books and a bunch of other self-help works. (There were many others: until I started writing this post,  I hadn’t realised quite how seriously I took all this at the time.)

Finally, following a particularly rough patch when someone close to me died and I simultaneously found myself having to deal at work with someone whose behaviour the laws of libel preventing me from describing in any detail – let’s just say they reignited my interest in psychopathy – I decided to read the New Testament from cover to cover for the first time over one weekend. 

And immediately reread it just to make sure my somewhat fragile mental state hadn’t affected my critical faculties.

I simply decided to accept God’s existence at that point. (I recommend anyone who hasn’t already done so to give the New Testament a go – not because it will turn you into a believer - that’s your business - , but because it is so utterly fascinating, intellectually and emotionally.) I’ll admit to being helped in this decision by Jung, who, once he had discovered a patient had been raised a believer, saw it as his duty to lead them back to their faith, as this invariably made whatever had been causing them psychic pain vanish. Listening to lots of religious music had also probably helped soften me up, as had semi-regular worship at our local church: and, to be honest, I’d never been positively anti-religious. 

Much of the Old Testament is also deeply interesting – and contains much wonderful poetic writing – but, as far as I’m concerned, it has very little to do with Christianity: leaving fundamentalists aside , I doubt that the capricious, psychopathic deity depicted here, with his endless smitings and tests and punishments and his “Chosen People”,  is one that resonates with most Western Christians today. Even the Psalms – which contain some of the most beautiful poetry in our language – display some decidedly paranoid elements. And Ecclesiastes – utterly glorious though it is as literature – has almost nothing to do with religion. 

In fact, the Gods of the Old and New Testaments seem to have very little in common: I’d be content for the Old Testament to be expunged from Christian worship altogether – although, given its supreme importance to our civilization, I’d no more want it to disappear from our consciousness that I would the Iliad, the OdysseyParadise Lost or Shakespeare’s plays: remove the Old Testament and what’s left of our rickety old culture might just crash down around our ears.

Jesus may not have been born in a stable, and I’ll grant you that he may not have been sent amongst us by His Father to wipe the slate clean by taking our myriad sins on his own back in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. But whatever else He was, He was most certainly a stunningly brilliant thinker who saw deeply into the heart of mankind and identified what makes us happy and what makes us miserable – and tried to show us how to turn away from this world’s misery-inducing false gods (money, sex, power, fame, what have you) towards a single, indivisible, all-seeing God (the “imaginary friend in the sky” so often sneered at by atheists) who resides in all of us, and who, approached in a whole variety of ways, can provide a never-ending source of spiritual nourishment. As someone who has spent large parts of his life stuffing his face with food and drink and just about anything else ready to hand, the idea of being once and for all satedis an immensely appealing one. 

I have never tried to convince anyone to share my beliefs, partly because it’s a very personal matter, partly because I know how uncomfortable it makes people (after all, the majority of my friends are confirmed atheists) and partly because those beliefs would be very hard to describe. “Belief” here is probably the wrong word. I have faith – a flickering, pallid, underpowered version of it, to be sure – but faith nonetheless. 

Jesus changed the world by bringing us the news that we don’t have to go on doing things which hold out the promise of happiness, but never provide it – things like trying to shag everything that moves, pouring another bottle of hootch down your throat even when the pleasure of inebriation has long evaporated, stuffing yet another cream bun down your maw because that’s the one that’s finally going to satisfy your hunger, humiliating, torturing and slaughtering your defeated enemies (only symbolically in my case, I hasten to add), or even punctiliously and smugly observing every single letter of the religious law to protect yourself from blame or guilt.

Once I had decided to believe, I became aware of God’s presence almost everywhere – in family, friendship, art and nature, and in the decent, ordinary, extraordinary people who make up the congregation at my local church: even in myself, though He is seemingly well-hidden most of the time.

At the same time as I decided to believe, I also decided never to hide my belief: hence today’s “confession”.

In most ways, it hasn’t changed me – I’m still foul-mouthed, suspicious, cynical and often uncompassionate, and I probably break as many commandments as I did before, but my life is richer, I have known moments of great peace, and I know who to talk to when the chips are down. 

And it isn’t Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, that’s for sure!

And now I’ve got that off my chest, I promise all the atheists among you that I won’t be “doing religion” again for quite a while.


  1. RAMBLING SYD RUMPO19 October 2011 at 23:00

    A few years back, a hundred or so of us were invited back to our college for a fund-raiser. The college had laid on a talk to demonstrate that the tradition of research is being maintained.

    Two talks, in fact, given by two young lady graduate students.

    The first was a quite tall, gawky girl, stammering and nervous, spotty, with no attention paid to her clothes -- a proper academic. This diffident girl gave her talk haltingly and with not the slightest nod to modern presentational techniques, never once looking at the audience, reading from her notes and mumbling haltingly. And it was fascinating. It concerned Bishop Grosseteste (c.1175-1253) and a manual he had prepared for his clergy, how to combat alchemists and mountebanks who turned up in their livings selling cures for ailments. That was the church's job, for God's sake.

    The second was a fast-talking American, very pretty, very well-dressed, who started by thanking her sponsors, some pharmaceuticals company, and then gave us a whizzy talk about the three months she had spent in the Congo, collecting gorilla poo and, on really lucky days, the odd strand of gorilla hair, from a type of gorilla that only lives there and no-one has ever seen, including her, and the poo and the hair were jolly useful for DNA analysis.

    So who won? There was a power struggle, between the church and the alchemists/pharmaceutical companies. Who won the struggle?

    Financially, and in other ways, the alchemists. Little Miss sassy was brimming with confidence and energy and funds, while the demure one was apparently overcome and a bit helpless.

    I think that's the wrong answer. Spotty was wrestling with the etrnal mysteries of humanity and may actually have made the odd advance, who knows, she couldn't tell us, but it's a struggle in a worthy and an imperative cause. While -- and let's not beat about the bush or, indeed, the Congolese foothills -- the one with the pert boobs had been packed off to somewhere even harder to reach than Chipping Ongar to collect gorilla poo and put it in a machine that goes round very fast to no discernible end.

    God will not be mocked.

    (If this has anything to do with Scott's post that is nothing but an accident for which I apologise.)


    Click on the Rambling Syd link above, and you will be taken not to the Rumpo family history but to Bishop Grosseteste's. It has no relevance today, of course. It describes the response of a man appalled by directives from continental Europe and by the spineless acquiescence in them of the British political/clerical establishment of his day. This could never happen in our enlightened times.
    Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - 12:34 PM

  2. Archbishop Carey is quoted under the column Sense in this blog, pointing out that a lot of the things that are good about this country come from the church.

    Libraries and the academic tradition owe everything to the monasteries and nothing to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, for example.

    St Bartholomews Hospital, which kept my mother alive and enjoying life for 55 years more than was predicted when she was 15, was founded in 1123 by one of the Canons of St Paul's, and not by the Department of Health.

    The Rt Revd & Rt Hon The Lord Carey of Clifton ALCD BD MTh PhD continues this tradition as Chairman of the United Church Schools Trust, which persists in its fuddy-duddy old way to educate people.

    Somebody with a proper education could probably tell us how the church also influenced the development of the British legal system. And the monarchy. And the galleries and the museums. And how it patronised the arts, particularly music, in this country, as well as painting, sculpture and architecture.

    We're looking at a 1,000 year British tradition, at least, maybe a 2,000 year tradition. Which brings me to Ian Hislop's do-gooders series. The Victorians done good. But so did Brits before then, and after.

    And one of his examples of a Victorian do-gooder stuck in my obsessive-compulsive throat. "Charles Trevelyan ... battled to make the civil service a meritocracy", we heard in episode 1, followed by an interview with the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, normally known as "GOD", for reasons which escape me.

    Before Trevelyan, according to Hislop, senior posts in the Civil Service were given to the scions of the aristocracy. Consequently they were stupid and incompetent and that's not an efficient way to run a civil service. Thanks to Tevelyan, now, only the brightest members of our generation can get in. Cut to GOD looking meritocratic.


    We used to run an empire. Now we don't. Bring back the stupid and incompetent viscounts, I say. Stuffed to the gunnels with firsts and brains the size of the planet, what do we run now? With million people on the payroll, what is our greatest claim to fame? A national debt zooming past the trillion pound mark as we speak, one aircraft carrier with no aeroplanes, riots in the streets and Simon Hughes on TV looking constipated.

    In tis case, Ian, old fruit, nice try, but don't you think the Victorians done a bit bad?
    Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - 04:34 PM

  3. DM, I think it was in a book by the excellent Niall Ferguson (whose Irish-spelt name belies his Glasgow Protestant roots) that I learned that for many decades – before the civil service was turned into a meritocracy - the British ruled India with a civil service consisting of 2000 individuals. TWO THOUSAND! As you say, you wonder how they managed, given how stupid they were supposed to be. (Ferguson also pointed out that, during its late Victorian glory days, the Empire never actually made a net profit for this country, because it became so expensive to administer and protect – and ever since has brought Britain nothing but vilification. Maybe we should be demanding reparations from former colonies.)

    I try not to argue in support of the church as such – I’m not a big fan of institutions, on the whole – but I do agree that it has generally been A Very GOOD THING, especially in times of darkness, and that the cultural wealth it has brought us is inestimable. As for its good works, I personally think the State should do everything in can legitimately do to support the Anglican and Catholic churches: they underpin families, stands up for moral conduct, and – if our area is anything to go by – provides a genuine sense of community by looking after the destitute, visiting the sick, the infirm and the lonely, and generally spreading sweetness and light without demanding much, if anything, in return: our local Anglican church (very High) also adds immeasurably to our cultural life - annual art show, poetry readings, musical performances, and a massively successful annual literary festival. Strikes me it does nothing but good.

    But, of course, the state has appropriated all charitable endeavour, and sees the church as a threatening alternative source of moral teaching, the media loathes Christianity, our church leaders are as wet as a bank holiday Monday – and, as they’re now mostly lefties, they see it as their job to support left-leaning governments, not the other way round. Then, of course, multiculturalism would make it impossible for the state to support the traditional church – pagans and followers of the Jedi way would no doubt have to be given equal status.
    Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 04:29 PM

  4. Yesterday, I read your blog and comments and it gave me an idea. When I went to bed last night I prayed.. I asked God to look after our cricketers at the WACA and when [or if, inshallah] I woke up could England be 250 - 2 or Australia 250 - 8. Crickey, Australia were all out for 268!. You might be on to something. Is this what George Bush Sr called "the Damascus thing"/
    Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 07:20 PM

  5. And what did you think when you woke up this morning, Cricket Fan?
    Friday, December 17, 2010 - 10:35 AM

  6. Cricket Fan, the Lord was sending you a message - the same message he has been sending Mankind for the last two thousand years - pride cometh before a fall. Alternatively, he could be telling us: puteth not your faith in the England cricket team, for they are seriously pants.
    Friday, December 17, 2010 - 11:03 AM

  7. It would have been a more interesting debate if the BBC had asked God to appear to explain why he still believes in Tony Blair. After all, Tone is sufficiently in touch to have received regular on divine guidance during his time as PM, as his autohagiography points out. And he is sufficiently sure of his connections upstairs to have told the Pope, when he pointed out that non-Catholics should not take the sacrament at Mass, that he didn't think Jesus would have agreed.

    As a tolerant person myself, I hope that he gets comfort from his "Look at me I'm a Christian" version of your religion.
    Friday, December 17, 2010 - 11:05 AM