Magazine article The Spectator

Writing God Off

Magazine article The Spectator

Writing God Off

Article excerpt

Is it a rule that British novelists have to take a simplistic anti-religious position? Is it a precondition for entering the Booker Prize or something? It is a central part of our literary culture.

Many of our major novelists and critics have in recent years come forward to attack religion; to insist that its claims are straightforwardly false. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Christopher Hitchens are some of those auditioning for the part of the boy, or girl, who calls the emperor naked. I am surprised that such intelligent people do not show a little more caution, a little more trepidation in approaching this subject.

Religion is complicated. Even if you reject it you ought to admit this. But these writers fail to see anything deep or difficult in religion: it is simply wrong. They seem to commend a stance of adolescent indignation: it's all a load of rubbish.

Martin Amis provides the starkest evidence of this. A few years ago he recounted that he became an atheist at the age of 12, dismissing religion as 'an affront to common sense . . . it seemed an open-and-shut case'.

Surely he then grew up and realised that things were less simple? Well, he has now humbly downgraded himself from atheist to agnostic, but the matter is still essentially simple in his eyes: 'Belief is otiose; reality is sufficiently awesome as it stands', every religion is 'a massive agglutination of stock responses, of clichés, of inherited and unexamined formulations'. It is therefore the opposite of art, which dares to tell the truth about the complex world.

The thing to remember about Amis is that his chief influence besides Nabokov is Mick Jagger. He tries to look like him in the early jacket shots: sexy and mean. He has tried to import the rock swagger into the world of letters, and this attitude is a key factor in his hostility to religion.

Ian McEwan is a subtler literary atheist. He does not often express his opinion directly, but soon after September 11 he was moved to write that religious belief now seemed to him more objectionable than ever. His critique of faith is expressed in his work. The protagonist of his latest novel, Saturday, is a rich liberal rationalist who is baffled that a mediaeval worldview haunts the edge of his safe, humane existence (more of this character shortly). McEwan has never tried to depict a character with religious faith, except the dangerously deluded stalker in Enduring Love. In his world, religious faith is a pathological condition that threatens us normal people.

Among critics, the atheist-in-chief is of course Christopher Hitchens. Hearing his tough-talking atheism is like being back at school, where there was always some guy in a trenchcoat muttering about his hatred for religion. He has recently said that he wakes up every day angry that religion still exists. In one of his books, Letters to a Young Contrarian, he declares that 'atheist' is too weak to describe him: he is an 'antitheist'. He believes that 'the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful. Reviewing the false claims of religion I do not wish, as some sentimental materialists affect to wish, that they were true. I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case.' In the same book he admits that 'many exemplary people have been sustained by their faith'. He refers to Dr Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But he wonders whether their faith is so important: dare we claim that 'without such faith they would not have opposed racism or Nazism? I think I have a higher opinion of both men than to say that of them. It may have helped them to employ religious rhetoric, and it certainly aided them in gaining a following.' This is funnily thick. It shows no attempt to understand these two men. And how offensive both would find it. …

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