issue 155 | January 1986
issue 155 | January 1986
Confessions of an atheist
IN 1981 I wrote to the Bishop of Birmingham to resign my Orders and became an atheist. Not a dogmatic atheist proclaiming that there is no God (how could I know that?), but a straightforward atheist confessing that I do not believe in God. In one way or another I suppose I had been preparing for that decision since first becoming an Anglican priest nearly three decades earlier.
'One thing is obvious', the confirming Bishop had said then, 'if there is a God, he is the most important thing there is.' I thought that was obvious too - and I still do. It was that glimpse of the obvious, which I saw for the first time at Cambridge, that drove me step by step into the Anglican priesthood. Treating God as anything other than the most important thing in life was hypocrisy, I reasoned. And whatever else, I did not want to be a hypocrite.
But even at Cambridge the 'if' of God's existence was a problem. If you are asked to treat him as the most important thing there is, you have to find a reason for believing in him. We had argued about this at school and some familiar reasons were dredged up. How could anything have got started without him? Was it likely that everything could work together so happily by accident? How else could one explain Jesus' resurrection?
When I began to study theology, I soon learned that none of these ideas really settled the matter. So I decided to quench my doubts by going to the College Chaplain's Open Evening one Thursday. I sat quietly in a corner. After a few minutes an extraordinarily confident young man opened the conversation with the very question I wanted answered. 'Tell me, Bishop', said he, 'why do you believe in God?'. 'Well', replied the Bishop with equal confidence, 'I suppose every Christian would agree on the answer to that question: we believe because of our experience'.
That was not the answer I wanted to hear. The Church in my experience was an association of good people, and the power of the tradition was strong. But a constant element of the religious life as I had known it was a total absence of experience. I had prayed as faithfully as most schoolboys, I suppose, and I had kept going to Communion longer than many. But talking to God was like talking into a telephone with no one at the other end. I had read of people experiencing God in flashes of light or in marvellous sunsets or sermons, but none of this had ever come my way. Now if every Christian would agree they believe in God because of experience, the plain corollary was that I was not a Christian at all. A second, almost equally unpleasing, corollary was that this was my fault and was due to sin.
I was soon to discover for myself a distinction which it took years to put into words: one might experience the presence of God, but one might also experience the action of God. My doubts were quickly put away by my conversion to the religion of the Christian Union (CU). And CU members did not wait about hoping to feel God's presence - they were too involved in God's action.
There were prayer meetings in which God was asked to do specific things, and thanked for them when they happened. We were expected to do embarrassing things like trying to convert our friends. And you felt marvellous when you overcame every natural instinct and did what the Lord said.
'Trust and obey,' we would sing, 'For there's no other way to be happy with Jesus but to trust and obey.' Once the last speaker at a conference told us of a man to whom the Lord spoke in a railway carriage, telling him to ask his neighbour if he had been saved. At first he was afraid, but finally he gave in and spoke - the neighbour was converted and became a great missionary.
Now I was going home in a train. But fortunately the carriage was full and the Lord told me that it would cause great embarrassment if I asked the man by me if he had been saved. But in time the carriage emptied, until at last there was only one man left. I knew that I must speak - but what on earth should I say? Then to my amazement the man said to me, 'Are you a member of the CU?' He'd been a member himself for 20 years. Well, I had trusted and I would have obeyed. But God foresaw my weakness and did not require the act. So I came to experience the action of God behind the scenes of everyday life.
It is easy to laugh at this simple religion. But however genuine the faith, that does not make it sensible. This kind of divine action makes God a manipulator, stage-managing our lives, so that we do things we are not really responsible for. And he chooses favourites; helping, healing, enabling, granting this petition over that. If God gets a man to sit in a particular railway-carriage for my benefit, why doesn't he get the pilot to notice the ice on the wings before a plane crash? What can we say then about a God who is known and understood by his actions? Of course we can always carry on, and talk about God's inscrutable wisdom. But does that seem sensible when hundreds of thousands are starving in the Sahel?
Not to me. So if the God who is experienced in action makes no sense and we don't ourselves experience God's presence, what reason can we offer for giving our lives to the most important thing there is? Shall we go back to the old arguments - creation and resurrection? They seem a bit trite in these days of genetic engineering and atomic physics.
Surely the honest thing, I felt, was to give the whole thing up. It is not pleasant to leave the home of a lifetime and one's friends - and the comradeship one shares in the Church. But if you have no conviction of God, you are better of looking the bloody truth in the eye than deceiving yourself and other people.
It is well known that confession is good for the soul and in my case for the body too. The plagues of arthritis and iritis which had been with me for the seven years of my hesitation were gone within two months. But it is not just for the peace of mind that I commend the move to the readers. It is (to end with another glimpse of the obvious) that it is best for us to follow what we think is true.
Michael Goulder teaches in the Extra-Mural Department of Birmingham University, UK.
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