Preachings of the godless

Two Cheers For Secularism

August 21, 1998

Six Christians, four Jews, and three Muslims give only two cheers for secularism; they have some reservations. In varying degrees, all see secularism as a blessing and not necessarily in disguise. The Muslim contributors are devout but politically conservative men. They accept mosque-state separation but also adore Islam as a true religion of personal salvation. For them, the Prophet Muhammad was actually a mystic who accidentally founded a world empire. That is an original way of excusing his political delinquencies.

The four plangent Jewish contributors tell some of their best jokes at the expense of their God. Rabbi Sidney Brichto enjoys a laugh in a liberal synagogue with a fellow Jew who complains: "How can anyone believe in a God who actually does f- all?" The tradition of mocking God, the rabbi reassures him, is ancient. The Romans had also wondered why the Jewish God was helpless in the face of Roman power until the rabbis told them that their God was responsible solely for arranging Jewish marriages. These two jokes are blasphemous but the third one is pardonable: a Holocaust survivor tells Brichto of his need for God. "There has to be a God. With whom else could I be angry?" Frederic Raphael, an atheist of Jewish background, quips that he is unhappy to have a soul if that privilege is denied to his faithful dog. It is not clear whether the "dog of faith" is faithful to his master or to his creator.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger is angry with Jewish men. "Why does Judaism rate the patriarchs, a pretty appalling bunch of people, over the matriarchs?" But the matriarchs are no better. Sarah laughed at God's promises to her husband Abraham; and she evicted Hagar, Abraham's concubine, into the Arabian wilderness. Why should God like liberated women who are sceptical of his purposes? He disliked Eve from the start.

Rabbi Howard Cooper, an analytic psychotherapist in private practice, sees God as "that great novelist in the sky" whose healing fictions shall cure us; theology is really therapeutic mythology. Infantile needs are also adult needs. Cooper thinks that Philip Larkin was as wise as a prophet when he wrote: "They **** you up, your mum and dad." Cooper can prove it from the Torah: "the sins of the fathers are visited on the children to the third or fourth generation". For Cooper, Freud was the last of the Jewish prophets.

Modern Jews are angry at a God who no longer thwarts Gentile plots against his chosen people. In the past they complained that Yahweh was a power-mad dictator who meddled in their lives and terrorised them in the wilderness. We often hear that the god of Moses and his friends died in Auschwitz. But the ideals of secular reason and progress died there too. Many gods died at Auschwitz. Brichto counsels Jews to "continue to warm their hands at the fires of faith lit by the prophets". But only the ashes remain; the rabbi sits alone near the fire.

Among the Christians, Clifford Longley, a zealous Roman Catholic, is even more angry than the Jews. He laments that the Coronation, "once virtually an eighth sacrament", is now meaningless. The Church of England, he claims, represents not a religion but a national ideology. The Anglicans are nervous defenders of their own interests. The royal family, he continues, the Queen apart, is "morally average". He wants the Anglican Church disestablished. And he wants a written constitution. Secularism, he pontificates, is fatal to the British because the British, according to Longley, have always been an outstandingly religious nation. Even for this last dogma, Longley sees no need for producing any evidence.

Professor Peter Clarke and Bishop Anthony Russell are Christian sociologists who simply deny the alleged secularity of our age. Clarke describes the rise of several New Age religious movements. For example, we learn of David Berg's cult "Family of Love". Berg praises the "anti-systemites" and promises them salvation. Christ was scheduled to destroy the Anti-Christ in 1993. Bishop Russell notes that there are over 40,000 professional astrologers in France. He adds, innocent of the implications of his misguided triumphalism, that they outnumber the French clergy. The point of the evidence is that people are still interested in magic and the occult. But this shows that we are still superstitious, not that we are religious. The bishop thinks that the English prefer a "vicarious religion": people are comforted to know that there are others who still believe what they themselves dismiss as nonsense. He rejects the empty church as evidence of the spread of secularism. So, while nothing follows from an empty church in England, the bishop would be unhappy if we said the same of an empty tomb in Palestine.

Karen Armstrong and Bishop Richard Harries are united in their anger at the evil and suffering in a God-governed universe. God spares one child from leukaemia but he lets thousands die. Is he omnipotent or impotent? Armstrong has deserted the legion but the bishop has to hold the fort. Harries is the most religiously committed of the chosen six but he wants us to heed fully the secular voice. He quotes a soldier, asked to read the Bible, who kept on muttering: "God, isn't God a ****?" For the bishop, of course, God's "nature and name is love". But he accepts part of the godless accusation. Yes, religion has kept us immature and dependent: we were obedient, solemn, judgmental, frightened children. We need, as we grow up, compassion, courage and humour.

Compassion is a virtue but Harries's imitatio Christi, like that of every clergyman I have ever met, falls short of actually mixing with criminals and prostitutes. Harries finds consolation in high things such as art. He enlists Nietzsche: "Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth." But art can be ugly too. It need not affirm life.

John Mortimer, the playwright, has the last word. He embraces the message of the Sermon on the Mount but sees virtue as its own reward. Brought up by humanist parents, he tried desperately to believe but the vision eluded him. Now he is wiser and interested solely in life before death. The religious life, he observes, is "a kind of unpleasant obstacle race in which those who suffer man-made or natural cruelties qualify for a post-mortem reward". Mortimer's reward is on earth - in art and the beauty of nature. For all he cares, perhaps the fickle and adulterous Greek deities are in charge. He boasts that he is a leading member of The Atheists for Christ Brigade, loses the scent of his argument but manages nonetheless to tell some of his best jokes.

The unspoken Jewish and Christian reservation about secularism is rooted in a justified fear of paganism. Remember that secularism is only a kinder word for paganism. Are we heading for a more ruthless paganism in which power is its own reward? No one mentions Orwell, the prophet with honour in his native land. We have a capacity for evil in the name of God. That is an old truth. Orwell reminds us of the secular sources of hubris. Big Brother was neither a Pope nor an ayatollah. Admittedly, there is a barely concealed fascism in the iconoclasm of Abrahamic religion too. A jealous God loves us but he hates other gods. But his intolerance is partly redeemed by his mercy. Jung was undoubtedly too compassionate when he asked for the Devil to be included in the Trinity. It is enough to love one's enemies; we need not include them in our theology. The case for taking secularism into the core of religion overlooks the danger that paganism has set its heart on this temporary world and will inevitably one day preach a secular gospel: "The godless shall inherit the earth."

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Two Cheers For Secularism

Editor - Sidney Brichto and Richard Harries
ISBN - 1 899044 16 7
Publisher - Pilkington Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 152

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