The story is told of a little boy, terrified as the bombs rained down, who was told by his mother that if he believed in Jesus everything would be OK. His nanny, the Prussian Fräulein who brought him up, gave him a beautiful carved knife that made him feel safer than his prayers ever did.
Established churches are presiding over the greatest haemorrhage of congregants for hundreds of years. The Pope is retreating into his Jesuit cave, secure in infallibility and the authority of two thousand years. Welby, the well-intentioned, primus inter pares, is presiding over an Anglicanism riven with schism and dithering, slithering into indecision because nobody can agree whether queer is sinful or women bishops are a Good Thing.
And yet, there is a willingness to believe. Modern churches with lights and bands, spectacle and motivational speakers are mushrooming. Outfits like Hillsong put on an annual event which may be more attractive to a modern worshipper. It’s spectacular, inclusive and youthful. And yet, the numbers of non-aligned, the unbelievers, the dazed, confused or indifferent, continue to rise because in the clamour for our attention, there are precious few still, small voices.
Atheists seem to be the flavour of the decade, indeed, so far, of the millennium. Faithfulness in its original meaning sounds quaint and stiff, like Victorian moustaches.
Our celebrity culture has no room for faithful people, especially Christians; only Islam appears to enjoy that privilege in our brave, new, postmodern world. In 1966, Time magazine shocked its readers with a cover that asked whether God was dead. Henry Luce, the media influencer par excellence, the man who shaped what America read and the owner of the magazine which dared to print such blasphemy, died soon after. Was there a hidden message? But Luce was a devout Christian and a great believer in the Almighty, unlike the late Christopher Hitchens, whose favourite targets were priests, Mother Teresa and God, a Christian God whose followers turned the other cheek, so Hitch could slap that one as well. I wondered if his antipathy had something to do with the fact that his mother entered into a suicide pact with a defrocked clergyman and Hitchens blamed God for the loss. The Hitch had comparatively little to say against Allah or indeed Mohammed because he knew the latter’s followers didn’t take kindly to cheap remarks against him, consequently he tended to keep his powder dry, reserving his grapeshot for softer, less totalitarian targets, with a few notable and quite delicious exceptions.
Hitchens despised Christmas celebrations, describing them as ‘the collectivisation of gaiety’ and ‘compulsory bad taste’, a view with which I have to admit to having some element of sympathy. In the social constructivist’s view, these days atheism gets you in through the front door whereas Christianity is reserved for the tradesman’s entrance. Hitch hated the ‘confessional drool’ that families mailed to each other, especially all those simple people who believe in love, forgiveness and angels from the realms of glory.
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an atheist who is, I have to admit, hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes across as quintessentially British and even if you foam with rage at some of his opinions, they are usually presented with a quite charmingly reasoned diffidence. He’s an expert at Socratic questioning – a useful skill when debating against people who don’t really know what they are talking about. The first modern to go atheist and announce that God had truly fallen off His perch was Friedrich Nietzsche, who later on “lost his reason”, I think it was described as. In fact, he lost all grip on reality and trotted willingly into the fruitcake zone, from which he was never to emerge. Given his views on the press and mass culture leading to conformity, mediocrity and the decline of the human species, whatever would he have made of the Kardashians?
What of the others; John Stuart Mill, Voltaire…so many. Even Freud and Picasso, both quite crappy human beings if history is to be believed, were atheists, as were French fries like Michel Foucault – not the pendulum guy, the one who died of AIDS – H.G. Wells. James Joyce and Philip Roth. One thing all these talented writers and thinkers supposedly had in common, apart from their disbelief in the Almighty, was great physical ugliness. That being so, I myself should be down there among the catamites and the howling. What a cheap shot that was.
But, we continue to ask certainty of ourselves in an increasingly uncertain world. The bedrock of belief has shifted to be replaced with a quicksand of situational ethics. The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich wrote that to believe that God is active at all times, being ‘out there’ somewhere, dwelling in a special place and being affected by events, is a shallow supposition: ‘Literalism deprives God of his ultimacy.’ That’s where ‘there is no God’, the cry from the heart of those who have lost a loved one, comes from and also the weary old chestnut that you need God in order to be good. No, you don’t. God is what makes us understand the difference between good and evil, to paraphrase C S Lewis who understood better than almost anyone else the value of myth.
Charles Darwin – what irony as the father of all the confusion – said he believed in God. Most really intelligent people hold to some kind of belief in God, or are at least prepared to entertain the possibility of His existence, as have most world leaders in the past. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ he called the proposition self-evident. It was a very Christian thing to say because not all men are created equal. What he really meant was that they have equal rights under God, and it is only a Christian God that ensures that such rights can be protected. As we watch what radical Islam is doing to its adherents, how it has cheapened life to the extent that people drive into traffic, attack armed men with knives or volunteer to blow themselves up in order to get rice and virgins, then compare that to Christianity. The idea of the preciousness and equal worth of every human being is largely rooted in the life and work of the Nazarene whose birth is celebrated by unbelievers too. Have a very happy Christmas, defend the faith and, if necessary, carry a knife.