Archives for posts with tag: Atheism

Ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, I am finally getting round to a post I have been planning for some time.
I initially set out to read all the Booker Prize longlist, but had only managed six before the shortlist was announced. Of these six, only one made it to the shortlist, which was Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

I had not been tempted to read this particular book from Toibin before, despite the fact that I have read many of his earlier works, and loved them. Perhaps my strong atheistic leaning put me off. I mentioned the book and its underlying theme to my teenage daughter. Her immediate reaction was ‘what a clever idea’.

A slim book, the page length of The Testament of Mary is deceptive. This is not a quick read. There is much to consider in every paragraph, in every sentence of the single chapter story. Mary’s voice and thoughts guide us through the narrative, which is predominantly one of loss and suffering as she mourns the life and death of her son.

“…I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I have no further need for tears.”

Very much the story of a mother’s loss and unrelenting grief, which is the book is indeed a clever and surprising take on the ‘traditional’ story of Mary, of her son, and of his death on the cross. I have no idea whether Toibin intended the book to have religious undertones or not.

For this atheist, I found it deeply moving as a lingering and insightful narrative about the humanness of suffering.

“It was a strange period during which I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time – time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own mind and thoughts and secret feelings.”

CQ

I have often believed, particularly at difficult times in my life, that my atheism may limit the potential for community in my world.

Thus, when I heard of the newly formed Sunday Assembly, a monthly meeting of atheists or the ‘godless’, I was intrigued.

Today I made the second of such get-togethers, in a (disused I think, and badly in need of repair, but beautiful too) church in North London. The church setting appears to affront some atheists – tweets that followed from the first meet included one that compared atheists in a church with Jewish people in a concentration camp… I do understand this sentiment, but I also think that churches can be places of beauty and of peace, which I can appreciate and benefit from, aside from the religious connotations.

There are two main people behind the concept of the Sunday Assembly, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, both stand-up comedians, and both charismatic and entertaining, and very funny. Pippa is also a musician and singer, and leads the small band that provides the music during the Assembly.

I queued to get into the church, which became full to overflowing with people of all ages, including children. The atmosphere is not serious, but also not flippant, despite the humour and laughter and upbeat music and singing.

The motto for the Assembly is:

Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More

I like this theme.

Today focused on the wonder element, and the guest speaker was a physicist, Harry Cliff, from the Science Museum, Cambridge and CERN, who seduced us into wondering about matter, anti-matter, and The Big Bang. Powerful stuff, and he was great, clearly hugely bright and clever (and only 27 years old), but also succeeded in making difficult concepts accessible. He did make me think, and wonder…

Sanderson ended with a few words on wonder, and how a capacity for retaining the ability to wonder in our lives might just enrich it. Too often worrying interferes with wondering, and it is difficult to align both in our lives.

Singing is not my thing, and it made me cringe a little, in a queasy quasi-evangelical way.

But I like the idea behind the Sunday Assembly concept.

I will go again.

As I write, I am listening to Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service on 6 Music…

CQ

I spoke in my last post, on Christopher Hitchen’s posthumous Mortality, of how the diagnosis of cancer abruptly and immediately catapults one from the Kingdom of the well to that of the ill. Hitchen’s widow, Carol Blue, refers to this in the Afterword:

‘We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.’

Dennis Potter came to mind when I read this. In his last interview, with Melvyn Bragg two months before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, Potter spoke about the ‘nowness’ of his life. Since the realisation that he had incurable cancer, his ability to see, and live, the present tense had become a celebration, a truly wondrous thing. As a result, he experienced a newly found serenity, and a true appreciation of life’s beauty, whilst at the same time also noting more acutely what is most trivial and most important, although the distinction did not seem so relevant any more.

Hitchen’s widow mentions fear. The writer himself briefly alludes to Philip Larkin and his poem Aubade (Faber, Collected Poems, 2003, ps. 190-191), a piece that overtly addresses the fear of dying:

‘…Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.’

Referring again to Potter, during the interview the playwright discussed our innate fear of death, despite the fact that only humans, of all the animal species, know with absolute certainty that we will die. Larkin deals with this fear head on in Aubade:

‘…The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing, more terrible, nothing more true.’

In Mortality, Hitchens reveals how he dealt with the fact of being ‘mortally sick’ with both a ‘modicum of stoicism’ and a great interest in the ‘business of survival’, which often necessitated existing in ‘a double frame of mind’. Inevitably, Hitchens discusses religion. Being ‘mortally sick’ did not weaken his atheism. With some irony, he shares the following:

‘What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.’

And:

‘If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist.’

On a more serious note, Hitchens concludes:

‘the religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible.’

Although not an atheist, Potter had a similar view on religion, that of a phenomenon that too often reflects man’s fear of death. Its very notion held no interest for him, even when faced with imminent mortality.

Although not fearful, Hitchens did feel cheated. He had much more to do, much more to read and to write. That very need, to achieve, at least partly, what had to be done and said, became a driving force for Hitchens, as it had also done for Potter.

For Hitchens, there were times, particularly in the throes of pain and the side-effects of very aggressive treatment, when he wondered whether, with the knowledge of the agony endured, he would go through it again. Possibly not, he concluded.

He chose to ‘do’ death in the active sense, all the time nurturing ‘that little flame of curiosity and defiance’.

As his readers, we benefit from this ‘doing’.

CQ