Whatever | November 2009

Whatever | Militant atheism
Please, Prof Dawkins, can I be a quiet, passive atheist?


As a pacifist, and a coward, I’m really not looking for a fight. But argy bargy is brewing in the ideological playground, and rather than skulk off or adopt the scarf of the side most likely to emerge victorious, I propose we have a discussion first. What I’m actually saying is: I want to talk to you about God.

Does he/she/it exist, or not? That is the question at the heart of the 21st century’s most fashionable philosophical face-off – one that appears to have been artificially hotwired into life by a small but vocal group of deity-intolerant academics, writers and trendies, led by dashing evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, lapsed liberal and scourge of “the three great monotheisms” Christopher Hitchens and Jewish American author with issues Sam Harris. (I’d call them atheism’s cheerleaders were they not so palpably cheerless.)

Whether by accident or intelligent design, Not Believing In God has been elevated to a creed all of its own, with its own gospels – The God Delusion, The End Of Faith, God Is Not Great – and O-come-all-ye-faithless proverbs, plastered on the sides of 800 buses nationwide earlier this year (“There’s probably no God: stop worrying and enjoy your life”). The bus campaign, as inversely evangelical as any doorstepping Jehovah’s Witness, was funded by donations to the tune of £140,000 – a clear sign that the secular are taking up alms.

I should declare if not an interest, then certainly an anomaly: I don’t believe in God either. I sang O Jesus I Have Promised and learned cute Bible stories at school, but failed to make a meaningful metaphysical connection. At a base theological level, I’m with Dawkins. Bizarrely enough, I’ve even shared a variety bill with him: last Christmas’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, an evening of comedy, music and science curated by Robin Ince and New Humanist magazine. It was literally secularism as a bit of fun, like new toilet book The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.


My worry is the growing militancy of the atheist lobby, which is where me and it part company. As far as I see it, not doing something is by definition a passive activity. If anything, my lack of faith is an absence, a void, a missing jigsaw piece, not a soapbox from which to convert others to my non-cause. I don’t follow cricket either; but as long as cricket fans don’t come round my house and threaten me with bats, we can bump along without incident. I certainly don’t regard them as brainwashed numbskulls for their lifestyle choice. And yet, in The God Delusion, which I found compelling and repulsive in equal measure, Dawkins suggests that people “cling to religion” because “they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realise that non-belief is even an option.” In other words – idiots! – they’re too thick to be atheists. This is fighting talk.

I have no more affection for gay-hatin’, creationism-lovin’, suicide-bombin’ fundamentalists than you do – they give the Gods that go with them a bad name; the hardcore Morrissey fans of religion – but the “new atheists” can be just as actively belligerent and blind to reason, without spotting the irony. James Wood, writing in the New Yorker, asserted that the new atheism is “necessarily a kind of rival belief.” Christian theologian and author of The Dawkins Delusion Alister McGrath pictured Dawkins “preaching to his God-hating choirs … clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes and raise their hands high in adulation.”

In his bracing tract Straw Dogs, political philosopher John Gray hits upon something that helps decode the virulent fundamentalism of Dawkins and his disciples: that their battle is not against God as much as it is for Science. Gray writes that Science, which brooks no wimpy notions of doubt, now claims the authority once commanded by the Church: “It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers.”


There seems to be a significant and meaningful crossover between the anti-God lobby and the pro-Science lobby, as if a faith in one is antithetical to a faith in the other – which leaves the majority of Christians who use hair dryers, read weather forecasts and take Ibuprofen in a vast grey area. But Dawkins’ actual title at Oxford until 2008 was Professor for Public Understanding Of Science, a chair funded by a software executive and space tourist. Even his academic post had the whiff of propaganda about it.

I propose a splinter group for quiet, passive atheists. We will hold no meetings, write no books, seek no voice, just get on with not believing in God, peacefully, in the comfort of our own homes. If we had a slogan on a bus, which we don’t, it would be: “There’s probably no God; when does Marple start?”



You’re all across The Tree Of Life, right? Sixth film in almost 40 years from Hollywood’s most reclusive and slow-moving auteur Terrence Malick? The bloke who made Badlands, and then Days Of Heaven, and … yes, you could comfortably list all his films, although they’re not exactly on TV every week. The Tree Of Life, which is sort of about a family in 1950s Waco, Texas, and the damage done to the eldest of three sons by a disciplinarian father, but is also about the meaning of life, and the wonders of creation, and nature versus grace, and the existence of God, or not (actually there’s no “not” about it), and is so cleverly and deliberately designed to blow your mind, not all critics have succumbed and are calling it overlong and ponderous and even preachy and manipulative. Others, meanwhile, are calling it a masterpiece. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It feels both European and American. It might be a masterpiece. It’s certainly not a film that’s been focus-grouped into submission – unless of course there was originally a cut that was even longer, and even more ponderous, and even more theologically manipulative.

If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Darren Aronovsky’s The Fountain, and The Lovely Bones, and the selected works of Jean Luc Godard – especially his more recent works – you’re about halfway to getting the picture. Which is not my way of saying it’s the kind of film you have to be a real smarty-pants to “get”. You don’t. The bulk of it is a fairly standard domestic drama in a period setting, with horseplay and tellings-off and tending to the lawn and dinner-table tension among the God-fearing. The bits where the origin of species and our potentially apocalyptic vanishing point are explored in mostly wordless, visually resplendent style, you choose how much to take from them. There would be nothing wrong with just sitting back and enjoying the pictures. They are amazing pictures – geological, astronomical, microscopic, biological, aerial, evolutionary – the sort you might see in an amazing documentary, except there they would be contextualised and narrated and stacked in some sort of order. Here, Malick uses these images – many of them pre-existing – to kind of wander off, deep in thought. The most protracted section comes within the first half-hour, just when you think you might be getting the measure of The Tree Of Life (“Oh, it’s about Sean Penn, who’s in the present, looked troubled, remembering his childhood in the 1950s – I get where we’re going here, no matter how elliptically that’s happening!”), and it’s oddly jarring. But pleasurable.

I saw it this morning. It is quite an unusual way to start your Monday. I like being surprised. And I like being confused, to a degree. I like not quite knowing what’s going on before my eyes. The dialogue is so minimal, with most of the wording coming through impressionistic fragments of whispered narration, that you’re sometimes left scrabbling for detail. When a van drives through the neighbourhood spraying DDT and the kids dance about in the clouds of poison, you might ordinarly be expected to make a connection with this and, perhaps, a tragic event that we already know about. But it’s not that straightforward. The image might just be an image. Malick is creating a whole here, not a series of easily-digested parts. It’s how you feel at the end that counts.

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are well cast as the mum and dad, he all square-jawed and “Call me Sir” and ambitions thwarted but kept buttoned up beneath his starchy c0llars, and she all ethereal and saintly and pale, and Hunter McCracken is belieavable as the troubled adolescent tearaway, Jack, and these key performances (plus Sean Penn’s in the modern day, existentially crushed by skyscrapers) give ballast to what might otherwise be a collage of snapshots and memories and bad dreams. I wonder if they knew what was going on?

I emerged, blinking, into the sunlight of Soho feeling oddly reassured and uplifted. And I don’t believe in God. But it was that kind of experience, for me. I wouldn’t argue that hard with anybody who emerged feeling like they’d been prodded in the chest, or led up the garden path, or had 139 minutes of their life taken away by an old  sentimental man who has only made six films in 39 years. The Tree Of Life is not for all.

But it was for me.