I don’t believe in God, but I miss him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”
Thus begins Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a compellingly readable book about ageing, mortality and the big questions: a book that is, oddly enough, entertaining. It doesn’t hurt that Barnes’ British childhood memories have a lot in common with my own: television was The Brains Trust, Armand and Michaela Denis, “David Attenborough panting through the undergrowth.” But, regardless of which set of memories we have in common, all over the world my contemporaries are arriving at the same stage: recognizing that the time remaining is finite. Many of us have no expectation of an afterlife. Do we need to make sense of the life lived, the wisdom acquired? Do we need to think about what happens after lights out?
There is more than the usual amount of debate for and against religious belief at present, with what’s at stake ranging from the life-threatening (the rise of religious fundamentalism that becomes a murderous hatred of others) to the minutiae of etiquette and hypersensitivity to perceived slights. In Britain, the U.S. and Canada, this time of year tends to bring out a lot of fretting about the dominant culture imposing Christmas on non-Christians and bureaucracies wishing everyone a sanitized Happy Holidays, believers holding forth on the “real meaning of Christmas,” others reminding us of the pagan origins of the tree and gift-giving, on and on.
This December in particular the death of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote and spoke passionately about his atheism, seems to have increased the number of words on the subject. He, of course, had a talent for the incisive summing up:
Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.
At least in historical terms, this doesn’t allow much room for argument. But in my lifetime I have seen a lot of good coming out of organized religion, in spite of its imperfections. A less hostile but, to me, less debatable statement from Hitch:
Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.
Barnes’ variation: “My agnostic and atheistic friends are indistinguishable from my professedly religious ones in honesty, generosity, integrity and fidelity — or their opposites.”
I have, I suppose, been a non-believer since I was 15. Suddenly, all the traditions in which I’d been brought up seemed so unlikely that it was a relief to drop it all — especially the idea of having continuing awareness for eternity, which was a terrifying concept that kept me awake in the middle of the night, dreaming of an endless whirling repetition of something unimaginable.
The things I have missed in my godless existence are the rather attractive trappings of sacredness: glorious hymn-singing, ancient churches, moral certainty, the poetry of the Bible, Jesuitical debates on fine questions of conscience. Pascal Mercier, in Night Train to Lisbon, describes a fine list of pros and cons:
REVERENCE AND LOATHING FOR THE WORD OF GOD
I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need their beauty and grandeur. I need them against the vulgarity of the world. … I want to let myself be wrapped in the austere coolness of the churches. I need their imperious silence. I need it against the witless bellowing of the barracks yard and the witty chatter of the yes-men …
But there is also another world I don’t want to live in: the world where the body and independent thought are disparaged, and the best things we can experience are denounced as sins …
I revere the word of God for I love its poetic force. I loathe the word of God for I hate its cruelty.
I have the same sort of mixed emotions, though Barnes provides a needed cold water dose of realism that cuts through all this sentimentality:
… my sense of morality is influenced by Christian teaching (or, more exactly, pre-Christian tribal behaviour codified by the religion); and the God I don’t believe in yet miss is naturally the Christian God of Western Europe and non-fundamentalist America … I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm … I realize that this God I am missing, this inspirer of artworks, will seem to some just as much an irrelevant self-indulgence as the much-claimed “own personal idea of God” … Further, if any God did exist, He might very well find such decorative celebration of His existence both trivial and vainglorious, a matter for divine indifference if not retribution. He might think Fra Angelico cutesy, and Gothic cathedrals blustering attempts to impress Him by a creation which had quite failed to guess how He preferred to be worshipped.
Barnes likes shades of grey. He has courtesy and a lightness of touch along with his inquiring mind and sense of humour. These qualities make him the ideal companion on this journey. He looks at many aspects of ageing and death as well as the afterlife question and brings personal anecdote into every facet of this one-way trip we’re all on. The book provides easily a year’s worth of topics for discussion among people of a certain age.