Even the least attentive of my readers may have formed the impression that I do not much like religion. By and large, they would be right. But such a statement needs qualification. It is only theology, of which Marxism-Leninism is a close relative, that I have no respect for. I am keenly interested in the history of religion, and in the sociology of religion. I was at one time a pupil of Bryan Wilson of All Souls, who specialised in the latter. Hence I should hate to be seen as competing with Professor Dawkins for the title of Atheist of the Century.
It seems to me that Dawkins prefers to be wilfully ignorant of the historical and sociological aspects of religion that I consider so important, and is content to argue the case for Atheism on what could be perceived as theological grounds. If Dawkins had been born not too many lifetimes ago, he might easily have been an Archbishop or even an Inquisitor-General. And so might I. We are the product of our age; and while putting forward a reasoned case is always to be encouraged, we need to temper our expression to avoid the suspicion of arrogance. Atheists cannot claim any sort of moral superiority. Twentieth Century history provides abundant evidence for that.
Late Nineteenth Century Russian revolutionaries, of whatever sect, were atheists for the very good reason that the Autocracy was conducted on the Byzantine principle of the unity of church and state. Get rid of one, and you get rid of the other. That principle dates back to Constantine the Great, who unified many of the competing religions of his day and placed himself at the head of the synthesized establishment. In Western Europe, the Church was separate from the various kingdoms that emerged from the dissolution of the poorer half of the Roman Empire. The Latin Church therefore evolved, under the leadership of some politically astute Bishops of Rome, to become an overarching international organisation independent of the usually competing kingdoms. So when Lenin took control of Russia, the Party replaced the Church, and the unification of Party and State was accepted as continuing normal practice. A devotion to Marxism-Leninism replaced devotion to Orthodox Christian theology as a condition of employment in important posts. Heretics were disposed of even more thoroughly than the Christians had ever imagined possible.
Readers are recommended to read Timothy Ware's lucid though propagandist The Orthodox Church. [As Father Kallistos Ware, he is one of very few clergymen to have visited my house. But that is another story.] He argues persuasively that where Orthodox Christianity differs from Latin Christianity, the Greeks are right and the Romans are wrong. Just to take an example: the filioque. That is, the insertion by the Romans of the words “and from the Son” into the Creed. This seems to have started as a transcription error in Spain, but when Constantinople protested, Rome dug its heels in and insisted on keeping it. That was the theological cause of the Great Schism of 1054. Anglican readers will note that Cranmer's Prayer Book retains the filioque, even though one might have expected that Protestant divines might have extended their critical eye over it. As for myself, I learned from Timothy Ware that my own prejudices are Latin rather than Greek, Protestant rather than Catholic, Anglican rather than Nonconformist. Yet I claim to be a total unbeliever. Such is the power of history; and this illustrates why it is so important that our citizens should be given a proper grounding in that subject. [I once attended an Orthodox service in Greece. I did not like it at all. The priest mumbles in an extinct form of Greek behind the iconostasis (icon screen). The congregation are expected to remain standing throughout. I do not like icons, either. They seem to me hideous and only useful for lighting fires with. Sorry, Father Kallistos.]
Once the Communist state collapsed, it did not take long for the Autocracy to be re-established under Putin. The Church has worked to recover its lost authority, and dissidents are hounded just as they used to be in the good old days. Compare the situation with Catholic Poland. Here the Church, being independent of the government, represented an alternative focus of loyalty to the Communist state. Attempts by the Communists to fight back, such as the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko by the secret police, only enhanced the standing of the Church. A fair comparison is the standing of the Church of Rome in Ireland during the English occupation.
Since in these essays I am trying to lay bare my soul (metaphorically, of course) I have to state that I am as comfortable with Anglicanism as with an old shoe. I remember being particularly enraged when I could not procure a copy of the King James Bible in Winchester Cathedral's bookshop. Eventually I got one in an independent bookshop in Witney. The King James Bible along with the works of Shakespeare are the foundations of modern English, the world's universal language. Anglicans of all people should have respected their heritage. Perhaps Anglicanism is to be seen as harmless. Every now and then a dispute arises, such as over the ordination of women, and some of the devout, after praying to Jesus to direct their actions along the paths of righteousness, stuff turds through bishops' letterboxes. But by and large the sting has gone out of that form of religion and it is as acceptable as any other English rigmarole that involves dressing up in funny clothes on particular days of the year and singing and getting drunk afterwards. By contrast, I have attended a Lutheran service in Germany. I was expecting it to be similar to an Anglican service, and indeed in some respects it was. But I came out with a very uneasy feeling. It took some time to work out why. I think it was the emphasis on Gehörsamkeit (obedience). It has been said (probably by an Irishman) that the English, being an amalgam of Normans and Anglo-Saxons, combine the arrogance and desire to command of the former with the resentment of authority of the latter. For that reason, governing the English requires special sensitivity. In Germany Luther had a stark choice: for or against the Peasants' Revolt of 1525. If For, he would have lost the support of the Elector of Saxony and probably his life and his movement; if Against, he had to preach obedience.
Just as Marx had his theory of Dialectical Materialism, in which the success of one type of economic activity effected the rise of the type that was going to supplant it, Auguste Comte propounded a theory of progress. In his view, there was an Age of Superstition, an Age of Religion, and, in his own day, an age of Science. Just as the evidence for Marx's idea, gained from North America, is discredited nowadays, so the evidence for Comte's, based on an interpretation of European history, has also come under criticism from modern scholars. The Romans, admittedly, had a religious sytem where more or less anything had an attendant spirit. There were household gods, the Lares and Penates; there were, as in Greece, naiads and dryads and oreads; there were things that go bump in the night that had to be placated. Later, the Romans adopted the Hellenic system that we are familiar with. The Hellenic system was perhaps the first religion to be constructed by committee. Classical historians can probably work out the occasion by matching the Olympian divinities with the tutelary deities of one of the succession of Leagues that the Athenian state cobbled together to further its trading ambitions. Then all the divinities got combined into one and our familiar religions were created. Then, at last:
“God said 'Let Newton be', and all was light”. - Pope.
The Eighteenth Century gave us the Scottish Enlightenment; the French Encyclopaedists; and the beginnings of modern chemistry and physics. Then came Darwin, Faraday, Clark Maxwell, and a profusion of great explorers of knowledge.
Newton, however, spent most of his efforts on Hermeticism, or what we might term “the occult”. Faraday was a member of a small and enthusiastic Christian sect. If you argue from Comte's general theory to individuals, you are quickly confounded. As the Romans said: Tot homines, tot sententiae. (“There are as many opinions as there are people”).
Hold on, though! Modern classicists would regard Comte's ideas of the Ancient World as simple minded. If one concentrates on Lucretius' De Natura Rerum, and singles out some of the known achievements of Alexandrians, such as measuring the circumference of the Earth and the distance of the moon, building a steam engine, drawing maps with correct measurement of longitude, and sailing all the way round Africa, a novel picture emerges. Simultaneously there were people who put out food to placate the wood nymphs, made sacrifices to Jupiter in the temple, and calculated the forthcoming eclipses. Sometimes these were the same people. Let us be reasonable. If you are counting out spoonfuls of tea in your teapot, and you say “And one for luck”, nobody really supposes that you are deliberately trying to placate the malevolent spirit Loki. If you attend a dear friend's church funeral service, and you thank the officiating clergyman for his generous and accurate summing up of your friend's life, you are not necessarily subscribing to the Nicene Creed. It would have been the same in classical times.
There were plenty of atheists among educated people in classical times. They would have regarded the gods as “metaphors for processes outside human jurisdiction” (my words). Socrates was executed for teaching atheism. But he was the victim of a surge of populism (Oh dear!) that was attributable to the fact that the Athenian democracy was being assailed by a powerful force from the East (Oh dear, Oh dear!) during a disease epidemic (Cough, splutter!). His case was not helped by the fact that his protégé and pupil Alcibiades, an aristocrat, had gone round Athens with a gang of hooligans mutilating the Herms and then escaped to Persia. (The Herms were oblong blocks of stone set up at street corners. They were surmounted with the head of Hermes and provided with a set of male genitals. They were meant to be good luck charms, thus representing “superstition” rather than “religion”.)
It might be a good idea to look at the Third Century AD. The Roman government was so discredited that the Emperorship was even put up for auction on one occasion. There was an economic collapse, there were barbarian incursions, farms and even cities were being abandoned. Should one be surprised that there were
Plusieurs religions semblables à la nôtre
Toutes escaladant le ciel. - Baudelaire Le Voyage
“Numerous religions similar to ours
All trying to take heaven by storm”.
People living nowadays in an increasing proportion of the world can expect to see their grandchildren, have access to clean water, uninterrupted food supplies, medical care based on the latest research, literacy, travel opportunities, and the expectation that human ingenuity will solve even the most pressing problems. Imagine a world where none of these thing applied. Good fortune was if your children outlived you. That was the environment in which a large number of death cults burgeoned, competing to offer their followers the largest slices of pie in the sky. The gods of the pantry were not much help if there was no food; the Olympian deities, metaphors for the unpredictabilities of life, were marginalised. That is the environment that gave rise to Christianity, not First Century AD Jewish politics.
Even so, a substantial core of sceptics remained. Evidence for this can be found in the funerary inscription:
N F F N S N C
Expanded, this means: Non Fui; Fui; Non Sum; Non Curo, or in English:
“I was not; I was; I am not; I couldn't give a monkey's.”
Modern historians have expressed reservations about the concept of “The Dark Ages”. They point to the superb jewellery of late British and early Anglo-Saxon England; to the development of the longboat; to the breeding of superior draught animals. But these are trifles compared with the loss of skills in surveying, construction, mathematics, natural science, literature, almost everything. The single event that dates the beginning of the Dark Ages is the murder of Hypatia and the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by a Christian mob in 415 AD. The nearest comparison in modern times would be if mobs, encouraged by demagogues, murdered all the dons in Oxford and Cambridge, burned down the libraries, and smashed up the research institutes. Even then, learning is dissipated round the world, whereas in those days it was concentrated.
It would be impossible for me to give a personal view of religion without mentioning Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), whom I still read with joy and amazement. I only wish my German was better. It is not that Nietzsche was right or wrong. He does not propound a consistent theory, and where he thinks he has (the “doctrine of eternal recurrence”) it is rubbish. His charm lies in the discovery of wonderful insights and questions raised, all in some of the best German that has ever been written. His father was a Lutheran pastor, but he must have come under the influence of David Strauss, whose notorious Das Leben Jesu was a study of the life of Jesus on purportedly rational principles. I suppose, though I am only guessing, that “The Man Who Killed God” in Also Sprach Zarathustra was Strauss. Nietzsche did not read English, so he was not familiar with the work of Hobbes or Hume. If he had been, he might have been less prepared to assert “I am dynamite”. It is possible that Nietzsche was the first person to realise that, if Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was correct, our own species must be in the process of evolving. His conclusions were perhaps bizarre. Because we are rational, we can decide to take control of our own evolution. We should live our lives in such a way as to bring about the Übermensch (translated by George Bernard Shaw as “Superman”, the subject of a forthcoming essay in this series if I live long enough).
Nietzsche's idea that “God is dead” led him to rethink the whole purpose of morality. The guiding principle of all life is “the Will to Power”. Nobility consists of exerting one's will over everything and everybody else. To achieve this, the superior man must submit himself to a process called Selbstüberwindung (self-overcoming). Unfortunately, there is a whiff of Nazism in this. Most probably he was thinking of the process of artistic creation; but there were those even during his lifetime who pursued Darwinism down some particularly foetid sewers. I am thinking of Herbert Spencer, whose “Social Darwinism” sought to elevate the exploitation of the poor by the rich into a moral principle. Or of course Hitler, who saw the world as a Darwinian struggle for supremacy between “races”. Nietzsche was not well served by his sister Elisabeth, who founded the original colony in Paraguay intended to breed the pure Aryan Race. When this collapsed, she came back to Germany and took control of her brother (now insane) and his archive. She lived long enough to tell Adolf Hitler that he was The Superman.
Nietzsche said that Christian morality is a slave morality. A slave does not wish to see the end of slavery; he wants to enslave others. That there may be some truth in that observation might be inferred from the history of the Bolshevik revolution. For myself, I do not believe that there is any such thing as Christian morality. There is simply morality. Religion has often been used to justify immoral actions. I do not believe that a Christian, on renouncing religion, will suddenly become an evildoer; nor do I believe that a convert will suddenly start loving his fellow man. I am rather inclined to the view that we can see morality through Darwinian eyes. Because our species functions through groups and their interaction, we prosper by calling those behaviours that promote our ability to rear children successfully “good” and those that are detrimental “bad”. But I do not wish to labour this point. It is too much like a “theory of everything” that ideologically minded Victorians would have wished to find, but which present-day people ought to be encouraged to be suspicious of.
I have been the grateful recipient of kindness from Christians, Moslems and Jews. In the Knesset, behind the President in huge relief so that it is permanently in front of the deputies, is a representation of an old man supporting a young man who is standing on one leg. It refers to a story where Hillel, one of the earliest Rabbis and in some accounts a teacher of Jesus Christ, is asked by a young man if he can expound the whole meaning of the Torah “while I stand on one leg”, hence “briefly”. Hillel replies: “You should love your neighbour as yourself”. Another rabbinical saying that is apposite is to be found in Matthew vii 20: “By their fruits ye shall know them”.
Personally, I try not to believe in anything. If it needs believing in, it must be wrong. Furthermore, some people have a personal interest in persuading other people to believe things. In my younger days, I delighted in Nietzsche's aphorism “Show me a more godless man than I am, and I will be his disciple”. But I started to have reservations when I learned that Churchill, who as Prime Minister had the duty of recommending ecclesiastical appointments to the sovereign, used to offend bishops by pretending that he knew they didn't believe what they preached and were only in it for the money. Much as I admired Churchill, it was not without reservations. Later, I was exposed to American tele-evangelists by my wife's stepmother. I was absolutely horrified. Those people were far more godless than I was: I would never dream of robbing poor believers in order to furnish myself with Rolls-Royces and prostitutes.
The last word, rightly, goes to my late wife Valerie, an unbeliever. While she lay dying in the hospice, she observed that the young clergyman who was employed as chaplain was finding it difficult to face a succession of dying people, most of whom did not believe in anything either. So she took it upon herself to encourage him, saying that the patients were grateful for his concern and that his human presence and conversation brightened their day. That is morality.