“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him,” writes Julian Barnes in Nothing To Be Afraid Of. That could almost be the mission statement behind Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, a review copy of which made its way on to my Kindle (proof perhaps that God exists, and S/he likes me.). It is a fantastic, fantastic book that I would recommend to everyone, particularly, if, like me, you don’t have a faith, but often would quite like one.
My mother is an Anglican vicar, which all but guaranteed that I would grow up an atheist. I think there’s something about growing up ‘above the shop’ that makes you look twice at the merchandise.
For me, ‘conversion’ came in two parts. The first was reading Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass as an incredibly naive ten-year-old. The last in a fantastic trilogy about a war against a tyrannical God, which I somehow assumed would end in God being revealed to not being a bad guy after all – which I was sort of right about – at the end, God dies, the Kingdom of Heaven falls, the Land of the Dead is brought to an end, and instead we’re told to focus on building a ‘Republic of Heaven’ right here on Earth. I found this utterly terrifying.
How could there possibly be a happy ending where the good weren’t rewarded and reunited with their loved ones? Even worse, Lyra and Will, who have fallen in love, were separated and without an afterlife, could never be together again. I cried and cried over their last words to each other, which at the time I found impossibly sad. He tells her:
I will love you forever; whatever happens. Till I die and after I die, and when I find my way out of the land of the dead, I’ll drift about forever, all my atoms, till I find you again…
And she replies:
I’ll be looking for you, Will, every moment, every single moment. And when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you…We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams…And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight...
And I just remember feeling so utterly lost. Which is funny, because I now think that the above passages are some of the most beautiful in literature, and I really want them read at my funeral, if I have one [the way the world is going, I don't think we can rule out mass extinction].
Thereafter, Christianity and I were never quite the same, but it took a second shock, aged fourteen, this time courtesy of Christian rock.
Anything describing itself as ‘Christian’ anything is going to suck. No-one ever describes Handel or as ‘Christian classical’ or Gershwin as ‘Jewish opera’ because they’re both really good anyway. Are the tea and biscuits at the end of a church service ever described as ‘Christian tea and biscuits’? A band describing itself as ‘Christian’ has realised that there is no positive reason to listen to them, and is instead attempting to impose an obligation. At some social event where I was on Official Son duties, there was a Christian rock band playing. It sucked. It was so terrible, I could no longer believe in the existence of God. I am not joking. Somehow, hearing the Bible story mangled, tunelessly and artlessly by a pimply teen barely any older than myself, brought home how silly it all was.
The thing is, like Julian Barnes, I miss him. God, I mean, or at least the sense of a lefty-liberal Great Socialist in the Sky. That same sense of unease and despair that I felt the first time I read The Amber Spyglass is still there. Whenever a particularly strident atheist goes on about how people are just frightened of dying, I always want to ask: Aren’t you? Most unpleasant experiences – like rereading The Time Traveller’s Wife, say – I can avoid. But I am at some point going to die, and thereafter, continue being dead forever, and I can see no way of getting out of that and very little about the process to recommend it, apart from not having to read The Time Traveller’s Wife again. And it’s not just the inevitable dark that gives me the bejesus about there not being a Jesus. It’s that sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, of community, of public rituals of birth and death and everything in between.
And that’s the great achievement of Religion for Atheists, which I think might represent the end of British atheism’s unattractive punk rock era, as epitomised by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and towards its more mellowed out, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen era. What de Botton does wonderfully is essentially say that atheists need to start thinking about what we’re going to keep, because the fact we don’t have immortal souls doesn’t mean we have to be soulless. There are, of course, elements to disagree with, and if it has a fault, it’s in ignoring some of the wastage and frippery that organised religion can generate, and in neglecting the importance of building a republic of heaven right here and right now. His Temple for Atheists, it seems to me, is – and I’m aware that this word is strange in this context – a sinful waste of money in a city where many people can’t afford somewhere to live. But despite that, it remains a wonderfully intelligent, measured book about making a life without God, and one than everyone should read.