For some time, I’ve considered myself to be an atheist, and have happily talked about this fact in polite society. In truth, I’ve never been that bothered about the principle of a set of (religious) rules to guide life, my experiences of church and religion in my childhood years being neither uplifting or off-putting. I suppose my atheism dates back to reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion,’ which kind of put a stamp on how I felt about it, if I had to feel anything, and in the intervening years, I’ve felt comforted by the knowledge that many of those in the public eye that I’m drawn to or enjoy are also non-believers or proclaimed atheists.
Of course, this also has the effect of confirming ones beliefs rather than challenging them, but I have become concerned that Dawkins’ approach to the subject is as extreme as some of the religious fundamentalists and fanatics that he purports to object to – I suppose I find aggressive atheism as offensive in it’s preachy, fixed and unwavering opinions as aggressive theism. In a changing world, nothing can be more certain than uncertainty – I’m repelled by the idea that aggressive theists and atheists can be so certain. I’ve also been concerned, in the back of my mind, that atheism overlooks to some extent spirituality, which I do believe in, even though it is no more tangible than the existence of a deity.
This internal struggle in my own mind came to a head recently whilst reading one of two books I’d received for my birthday in June. I’ve enjoyed watching and listening to David Mitchell – comedian, not novelist – for some time, particularly his posh bloke posturing against archetypal northern bloke Lee Mack on Would I Lie to You? His autobiographical book, ’Back Story,’ designed also to relieve his back pain, is a lively and meandering read. As well as dismissing the Mitchell/Mack jousting as an act (in real life, both will favour Carluccios over Pizza Hut), he declares that he is agnostic, not atheist, because whilst he does not believe in a God, he can’t prove one doesn’t exist either. The problem I’ve always had with agnosticism is that it appears to be indifference, but I have some sympathy with Mitchell’s position, enough to question my own atheism.
The second of the two birthday books was Michael Foley’s ‘Embracing the Ordinary’ which I’d been drawn to because it sought to champion the everyday; I’ve been attempting to bring attention to the mundane but wondrous and intimate detail all around us in the series of photo images I’ve been working on over the last two years, London Letters. I anticipated a fairly light read, but Foley’s book has been challenging, drawing principally on the work of Marcel Proust and James Joyce, neither of whom I have read or am likely to read, and throwing in a lot of neuroscience for good measure.
However, in a well written 15 or so pages, Foley talks of the current Western viewpoint of a single supreme being having created the universe from nothing and the acceptance of the scriptures as fact (along with the infallibility of the Pope in the Catholic religion) as 19th century interpretations that have become embedded today. This is distant from the way in which people would have used religious teaching used in the times before then – it was never a being, but ‘being’; process, meditation, epiphany. Our contemporary mistake, he believes, is to consider the position as it is today as the position it has always been, which is not correct. He further also argues that recent decades have eroded mystery and meaning in favour of materialism, which in itself has given rise to fundamentalism, which claims to be based upon authentic tradition.
Foley himself was an atheist, but struggled with a ‘God-shaped hole’ in his life. He’s tossing this around in his own mind (and why not; he clearly believes Alison Gopnik’s assertion that successful theorising is as good as a sexual high) and is moving towards an interpretation of life’s meaning. For him, this means seeking to appreciate the here and now through his own Holy Trinity of the ‘imaginative, comic and spiritual’ that is found in the apparently mundane and meaningless everyday that surrounds us, and that most of us take absolutely for granted. It’s another position I have sympathy with.
And so, with the same will to (ahem) toss, and the same certainty in uncertainty, I battle my God-shaped hole, searching for my own position on that stuff we can never know. Whilst I need to finish ‘Embracing the Ordinary’ (and, I think, learn from it) next up is Karen Armstrong’s, ‘The Case for God‘. Never has something that I thought meant so little meant so much.