Clever people don’t believe in God. I learned that long ago, from a father who had been brought up Catholic and lapsed spectacularly, for excellent reasons. He was – and is still, I’m sure – an atheist with all the passion of a convert. It wasn’t enough that he should be atheist, he needed the world to be atheist with him. We visited a lot of cathedrals and churches when I was little, and at the entrance of every one, he would stand and shout, ‘Strike me down, God!’ and walk in with an air of triumph. It didn’t occur to me to ask what drew him to religious buildings, or what he was triumphing over if God didn’t exist. The church were wrong and he was right. There was no God, because it was manifestly impossible that there should be a God, and when he showed me a piece in a newspaper that argued that God was made of blotting paper soaked in minestrone soup, I laughed and then lived for years on his pride in my reaction. I was too clever to believe in God, and I non-believed as hard as I possibly could. Believing in God meant being told what to do. It meant having no ideas of your own. It meant despising people who went like sheep to church every Sunday; it meant wittily explaining to any adult who asked that if Hell contained all the things that God didn’t want me to do, then I couldn’t wait to go there.
Most of the very clever people I know are atheists. Some of them are strangers who write books; others are people I know and love deeply. Some of them are going to be very surprised if they read these posts, because my faith is not something I shout about. After a very public and distressing altercation, I don’t go to church any more – http://www.antoniahoneywell.com/a-cautionary-tale-for-justin-welby/comment-page-2/ – I’ve tried and failed to find one that marries my thirst for traditional hymns and sacred music and fancy copes and the rolling glories of the King James Bible with my support for equal marriage and feminism. I don’t have a sticker of a fish in my car and most of my conversation is about putting your PE kit in the wash, learning your scales and no you can’t miss orchestra this Saturday or indeed have a sleepover when you’ve been too ill for school all day and what on earth am I going to cook for dinner. I’m usually too tired to examine my own beliefs, let alone interfere with anyone else’s. And I don’t know anything. I don’t have answers. I only feel the comfort that a bedrock gives me.
You don’t have to believe in God to get joy from singing Jerusalem or the Harold Darke arrangement of In the Bleak Midwinter, or to be kind to strangers or to feel awe in Saint-Chappelle or to be overwhelmed by the Matisse chapel in Vence. And you don’t have to be an atheist to find organised religion utterly repellent. Atheism is concerned with people; so is faith. My faith, anyway. Faith in something that is fed by kindness, that gets greater and stronger with use; that heals and nurtures and mends. Faith in love. And you don’t have to believe in God to believe in love.
There’s just this: if every human being was loved by another human being, maybe I’d have stuck with atheism. If every child had just one person in their life who thought them as wonderful and joyous as I think my children; if every human being was valued equally by every other human being; if the structures mankind has put up for itself worked to encourage and support mankind in all its diverse and glorious beauty, then I’d be an atheist too.