BACK in October I got a ‘phone call from a member of Cowcliffe Methodist Church.
“I assume,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “from what you wrote on Saturday, that you’re an atheist.”
This was said, you understand, in a non-judgemental way. It was simply an enquiry, to which I replied that I had strong leanings in that direction.
Although my columns occasionally provoke comment, it’s not usual for readers to ring up and question me directly about their content, so I was intrigued.
But then all became clear. It transpired that the church member, Jill Lucas, was organising a ‘Question Time’ type evening with a panel of local people representing different beliefs.
Would I, she asked, be prepared to put the atheist view, to an audience made up of Christians from Cowcliffe and neighbouring churches?
She assured me that they were all very nice people and I would not be stoned for being an unbeliever – or words to that effect.
Now I like the idea of a challenge, even if experience has taught me that the reality can be a good deal more stressful than first imagined. But as the proposed date was five months away, in March 2011, I decided to be rash. This is because I’m one of those people who can assign future events to a mental compartment labelled ‘Something might happen before then.’
And so I said yes, why not. Much, I imagine, to Jill’s relief because she herself had taken on a challenge and had to find willing panellists.
Christmas came and went and at the beginning of this month I realised that Question Time was imminent. And nothing had happened that would get me out of it.
I asked my colleague John, a fervent atheist and confident speaker, if he would take to the podium if I came down with an attack of the vapours beforehand. He kindly agreed that he would.
But, when Friday dawned and I hadn’t developed crippling tonsillitis and the event hadn’t been cancelled due to bad weather (a bit late for snow, I thought, but I’m ever hopeful), I found myself seated next to a charming agnostic, a sincere Christian and an exceedingly articulate humanist.
We were each asked to define our beliefs – in my case, my non-beliefs – and then take questions from the chairman and audience.
I explained that I’d been brought up in a Christian household, with a Methodist lay preacher for a grandfather, but despite the best efforts of parents, pastors and vicars I failed to acquire a faith.
That’s not to say I don’t find the subject of religion fascinating and haven’t pondered the likelihood of there being a spirit in the sky, it’s just that I’ve never seen any hard evidence of the type of caring god that I was told exists.
In fact, whenever I drive past a church with the ‘God Loves You’ message pinned to the notice board, I feel a wave of cynicism.
Where was the loving god when millions were gassed by the Nazis? What about the babies hacked to death with machetes in Rwanda, the children in cancer wards or the countless thousands of innocent people displaced by civil war all over the world?
I could go on but I won’t because the answer to such questions is always that we were given free will.
And so when good things happen it’s because prayers have been answered and god is good but when bad things happen it’s because we’ve exercised free will.
A far simpler explanation, of course, is that religion is a man-made construct, developed to satisfy needy humans who want to explain the inexplicable. Our large brains have given us an evolutionary advantage over other animals but the downside is that we have self awareness and a need to know.
This week I watched Brian Cox attempt to explain the inexplicable in his programme Wonders of the Universe and I couldn’t help but think that our world is but an insignificant speck in a universe of such magnitude and complexity that even with our large brains we have no hope of ever understanding what it’s all about. But we can keep trying. And in the meantime we don’t have to attribute everything we don’t understand to a divinity.
An hour later I tuned in to the Bible’s Buried Secrets with Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who turns out to be a biblical scholar of the atheist persuasion. Her programme sought to establish that the bible-proclaimed monotheistic culture of the early Jews was actually a polytheistic culture based on Canaanite beliefs.
During her allotted hour she questioned other biblical scholars – of Jewish and Christian provenance – who brushed aside her arguments and put their own spin on bible quotations.
Despite repeatedly claiming that her discoveries would ‘shake biblical religions to their core’ she found that when a faith is deeply held, for whatever reason, it is difficult to shake.
And so it was last Friday evening.
“You were never going to convert anyone,” said the Man-in-Charge, when I returned home after my 60 minutes on the podium.
Of course, I knew before I set out that we’d have to agree to differ in the end because none of us can prove the truth of what we believe or don’t believe.
But I have learned that debating can be quite a fun way to spend a Friday evening.