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DEVOUT SCEPTICS

The Daily Telegraph, 26th July 2002

 

The idea for my recurring Radio 4 series 'Devout Sceptics' came to me some years ago when reading Sir Leslie Stephens's 'An Agnostic's Apology' (1931 ). The phrase is his. Irritated by organised religion, he nevertheless acknowledged the sense of the numinous and the longing for faith: 'We wish for spiritual food and are to be put off with these ancient mummeries of forgotten dogma.' Churchyard-creeper and god-botherer myself, I identified with his description of human kind as 'dimly discerning light enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt to describe the ultimate origin or end of our paths...'

Ever since, at the age of sixteen, I rejected the idea of God - believing that no God of Love could preside over a world so apparently lacking in that commodity - the longing for him/her/it has been like a guilty secret inside me, with no curtained confessional in which to whisper. When a bereavement left me bleak and bitter, I skulked around lighting candles for comfort yet hurling insults at a God I steadfastly denied. I envied the poet Francis Thompson his frenzied flight from the Hound of Heaven, since it seemed to me greatly preferable to be chased down the nights and down the days, rather than to wait plaintively for an approach, like a wallflower at a village hop.

Then, wherever I went I met people who felt the same confusion, and it proved a rich vein for radio discussion. In a past programme John Humphrys told me, 'There is another dimension in my daily life which I can't define to my intellectual satisfaction, but which causes me to wonder.' Clare Short said, 'God is the encapsulation of everything that is good, but humanity turned that into an old man with a beard because that was the only way they could imagine it.' She abandoned the rules of Catholicism, 'in order to preserve a sense of the sacred.' In private and public I kept talking to people who thought about the big questions of existence and morality, but rejected easy answers. You can be a communicant of the Church of England (like Mary Warnock for example) but still have grave doubts about what you are hearing. Devout Sceptics are seekers who won't trust the maps they have been given, but know there is a destination towards which to stumble. Even if it proves to be the place they began at, and (to invoke T.S. Eliot) they know it for the first time.

Why make such an effort? I suppose, as much as anything, for an explanation. Even if, given the evidence, the benevolence of a Christian God of Love seems unlikely, why should there not be a Creator, an Old Testament God of vengeance, whose word is law? In that case, what C.S.Lewis called 'the problem of pain' is no longer a surprise: we are born to sin and bound to be punished, in countless inventive ways - from the tumbling of skyscrapers and planes, through war, to the death of a child. Unlike most of my interviewees, I do not find it hard to imagine an implacable deity who grimly observes our weakness and wickedness, and refuses to 'forgive our foolish ways'.

Centuries of culture have provided images of God, but the awe goes back much further. Men and women 'invented' religion at the same time as they invented art, both perhaps an expression of primitive wonder at earthquake, wind and fire, and (the other side of the coin) the beneficence of food. The Greeks knew 'it' as 'unsearchable wisdom' or relentless Fate; Thomas Hardy visualised a careless providence or destiny which makes of the human show a laughing stock.

Not many of my interviewees had such a dark view of the universe and its possible Creator, exceptfamily perhaps Philip Pullman last year. Most, if not all, acknowledged the two great human needs behind the quest for God, or a sense of the divine: the need to transcend the self and the need to feel that there is 'more'. Why else long for the Other? When we talk about an escape from the self, this is not Calvinistic renunciation but rather that reaching-out towards a greater good which George Eliot (for example) identified as implacable duty, Most of my interviewees in four previous series would agree with her view ' that our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathise with individual suffering and individual joy.'

To survey the list of people who chose in the past to accept my invitation to be a 'devout sceptic' is to wonder at the range. Denis Healey, Prof. Sir Roger Penrose, Michael Eavis, Dr Jonathan Miller, Mary Warnock, John Cleese, Anita Roddick,Simon Russell Beale, George Melly, Clare Short, Edna O'Brien, Irma Kurz, John Humphrys, Melvyn Bragg, James Lovelock, Kate Adie, Prof. Igor Aleksander, Susie Orbach, Jeanette Winterson, Philip Pullman, Meera Syal, Tariq Ali, Sheila Hancock and Dr Dorothy Rowe. In that list Jeanette Winterson was the least sceptical, moving many listeners to tears with her final assertion that every morning she gives thanks to God for her life.

In the new series we have Joanna Trollope (British, 'born quietly into the Church of England), Isabel Allende (born a Catholic in Chile, now agnostic), Amy Tan (Chinese-American, once a Baptist), Pamela Stephenson (now a buddhist) Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, Lord Owen, Ben Okri, and the physicist Paul Davies, whose seminal book is called, 'The Mind of God'. What they all have in common is (to put it at its most simple) the conviction that there is more to existence than 'getting and spending', and the desire to wrestle with issues of free will and the existence of evil. After all, conversations about faith and doubt will range through the whole of human experience.

Avowed athiests like Dr Jonathan Miller, the psychotherapists Susie Orbach and Dr Dorothy Rowe, and jazz singer George Melly, who seemed at first to be beyond the category of the 'sceptic', proved to be unsatisfied with the purely secular. For such people (and Lord Healey was another) the divine or sublime - transcendence, if you like - can be found in music, poetry and painting. To quote John Humphrys again, 'The best music can lift you to a peak and you can't stay there, but that's what life is about'. For many people I speak to (on air and in private) the wonder of human love, especially for children, illuminates the universe, whilst the pain of loss leads naturally to questions of the immortality of the soul.

When I wrote in these pages last year of my joy in 'home' and confessed that I create little candle-lit shrines about the place, many readers 'confessed ' to me that they do the same. What is that about? Devout Sceptics Meera Syal, Sheila Hancock, Anita Roddick, and (forthcoming) Isabel Allende, told me that they have been drawn to many different faiths, and believe in taking what they wish from each and every one. John Cleese has spent a lifetime reading across the board and brought a daunting stack of books into the studio to quote from. Cynics despise this 'pick and mix' attitude to religion as the need for an insurance policy; a mixture of New-Agey' fluffiness with the hope for a visitation from a divine Man from the Pru. But who cares? I felt greatly liberated the day I realised there's nothing wrong with being comfortable in the hippy-chic coat of many colours.

What of science? Most people I meet are repelled by the arrogance of scientists, the shrill certainty of men like Richard Dawkins. As Professor Sir Christopher Frayling quips, 'There's things you are drawn to in extremis, and it 'aint 'A Brief History of Time'. Yet two of the most moving quotes in previous programmes came from distinguished scientists who (metaphorically speaking) bowed their heads before the ultimate Unknowable. The geophysiologist James Lovelock, whose 'Gaia Theory' has had so much influence on modern thinking about the environment, acknowledged the need for God, but said that for him it is fully satisfied by wonder at the natural world: 'It's an astonishingly wonderful universe and to quote that strange old atheist scientist Haldane, "The universe is not only mysterious, it's far more mysterious than you'll ever be able to imagine'.

In similar vein one of the most brilliant physicists in the world, Professor Sir Roger Penrose, concluded our discussion with this hesitant statement: 'I think the more we learn about the universe, the more point we see to it. I'm not sure how to fill that statement out, I just think when one uses the word"mystery" it implies there is somehow more going on that just the result of random occurrences - and I certainly don't believe it's just the result of random occurrences. I think there is....something ...whether one calls it a purpose in the ordinary sense of that word I don't know....But...there's something more there...Yes.'

The other week, at a dinner party, I sat next to a highly-intelligent barrister, who was militantly atheistic and dismissed my agnosticism with contempt. When I mildly suggested that conviction in the non-existence of God is as big a leap of faith as born-again Christianity, since we cannot prove there is no God, he described my point as 'fatuous'. Irritated, I said nothing, wondering why he was so emphatic and thinking that when a man doth protest that much, placing all his trust in science and logic, he should remember Freud: 'If one regards oneself as a sceptic, it is well from time to time to be sceptical about one's scepticism.'

To be fair to that man, a part of his evident rage against religion was fuelled by the events of September 11th. Many people since have expressed to me the view that religion is, as it always has been, responsible for the great ills of the world. That was certainly Philip Pullman's view, last summer, before the twin towers fell. Two of my interviewees in the new series make reference to those terrible events. Former-actress Pamela Stephenson, now a psychologist practising in Los Angeles, speaks of the terror and helpless felt by caregivers, from people like herself to rabbis and priests, 'people turning to them for answers and they didn't have any'. familyShe goes on: 'It was a chink in the universe, and there was no turning back.' For the best-selling international novelist Amy Tan, the message is not that all religion is harmful, but that 'We Americans have to look at the way we have attempted to impose our beliefs on the rest of the world' and that nobody should attempt to impose their beliefs on anybody else. For both those women, the problem lies within narrow-minded conviction. Is it just that the great world faiths are castigated, their essential philosophical strengths ignored, as a result of fundamentalism, corruption and political struggle? In the new series Isabel Allende describes them as 'all manifestations of the same need and probably the same God.'

In discussions for Radio 4 you often draw out simple statements that would probably be qualified were the person to be called on to write what they think. The slow steps towards explanations can be very moving - as when Allende expresses her joy in life, even after the death of her daughter Paula, and Joanna Trollope says, 'Forgiveness is the one thing that always goes on', despite the knocks she has experienced. Looking back I can pick out Clare Short, reflecting on the multiplicity of faiths in her constituency: 'I'm very moved by the religious, and I think it's wonderful and important that there are these spaces called churches where what is right and what is wrong are reflected upon; and where great, beautiful texts - that talk about the most profound human questions - are taught. I love and honour religion and I have my own version, like the idea of God is the quest for goodness.....'

Still a devout sceptic, still questing, still believing in that goodness, I know t these conversations can go on and on, because there is no greater subject. The sense of the numinous links more people than one might think, in this secular, sex-obsessed, and silly age - and it will go on taking me into churches, to meditate on the power of old stones, old faith, even when the organ is silent.

 

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