‘I married Isis on the fifth day of May’, so we went to Brighton last week to stay at the Hotel du Vin & Bistro, see Guy and Sophia, and take in a couple of gigs on the first day of the Literary Festival.
I will probably return on these pages to the readings by Simon Armitage and Edna O’Brien; suffice to say, here and now, that they were clever, witty and wholly engaging. The highlight for me, however, was the lecture by Alain de Bottin on Saturday afternoon.
De Bottin is an atheist, but an atheist atheist rather than an Anglican atheist, as I am. He was brought up in a wholly secular Jewish household, whereas I was born to Anglican parents and educated in Anglican schools, at each of which the day began (and often closed) with an Anglican ceremony.
I made up my own mind about the non-existence of God, but never lost my love of the music of Bach and Handel, the prose of the King James Bible, the paintings of … well, just about everyone until a couple of hundred years ago.
I take it all for granted. It is part of me. The playlist of my life includes the music, the literature, the art, the moral philosophy created by lovers of and believers in God.
For Alain de Bottin, however, it is new territory. He is an atheist because he was brought up by atheists to be an atheist, and even Christmas – the most un-religious ceremony of the religious calendar – was not celebrated in his household. It was only later, ‘looking for wisdom throughout his adult life’ – I am quoting from his lecture rather than his hugely enjoyable book – that he came, via literature and psychology, to religion as a potential source of the wisdom for which he searched.
He is right that the debate between secularists and deists is sterile and pointless: ‘God doesn’t exist. Let’s move on.’ Neither side will convince the other. But there is much that we can learn, if not from religion, from what is religious.
That is why I term myself an Anglican atheist. I love much of what is religious, and find comfort and solace in it, even if I find neither of those things in religion itself. I can be involved in religion without being religious. I can even find the spirituality in a building such as the church at Little Gidding, which I visited many years ago in search of the essence of TS Eliot (it wasn’t there, but something was), or in one of those majestic cathedrals, such as Lincoln, where I sang as a young chorister with an impure treble voice.
De Bottin quotes similar examples as he adopts his ‘cafeteria approach to religions’, cherry picking what he likes and doesn’t like from Christianity (primarily), Judaism and Islam. And though we come to religion from opposite ends of the spectrum – he from atheism, me to atheism – we have this in common:
That much that is religious is too beautiful and too complex to be left to the religious.
Today’s listening: Bach, St Matthew Passion. Sublime. Just don’t believe a word of it.