John Roughan: Atheism scary in its sheer conceit

The most thought-provoking essay I have read over the summer so far appeared on this page one day last week.

Ernie Barrington, a retired teacher, wondered why it was that in a predominantly secular society like ours people running for election never deny the possibility of a higher power.

"Prime Ministers and leaders of opposition, if they are non-religious, are still apt to say they are 'agnostic'," he wrote.

He looked forward to the time when a public figure says, "I don't believe in the existence of God. I am an atheist."

This set many others thinking too and some of many letters on the subject have appeared in the paper since. But none of them, nor a subsequent article by Bishop Richard Randerson, dean of the Auckland Anglican Cathedral, has hit on the reason, to my mind, why Mr Barrington will be looking forward for a long time.

Atheism is scary, as is religious dogma in someone who wants to be entrusted with power. But atheism is more scary, I suspect, in its sheer conceit.

Many years ago on a guided tour of the Soviet Union I remarked on a Western-style cathedral in Riga.

The Baltic republics had never been converted to the eastern orthodoxy of the rest of the Russian empire.

My guide immediately stopped the car and cheerfully asked if I would like to look inside.

I followed him up the steps and through the doors where I stopped abruptly but he didn't.

There were people in the pews. There was a service going on. I did what I think the vast majority of people, religious or not, would do.

But he didn't. He swept up the aisle with the pleased air of a safari guide who has had the good luck to bring you to a water hole and find a harmless herd using it.

He was practically at the altar rail before he looked around. The beam on his face turned to blank surprise as it registered I was not at his shoulder.

He came back to tell me it was quite OK to walk about. And it was true, the people at prayer had not visibly stirred at the intrusion. Clearly they were used to it.

He made another foray forward and this time when he looked back to see me still rooted to the floor he realised it was no-go.

Returning to the car he was not at all embarrassed.

"I am a communist," he said as though I'd asked for an explanation. He said it with a trace of antagonism. He was simply telling me that whatever I had seen in there was totally invisible to him.

What I had seen, of course, was the human effort to connect with something more wondrous and magnificent than the human mind.

I do not know whether any such thing exists but I am in awe of the attempt to connect with it and respect the spirituality of the exercise.

Oddly enough I suspect Mr Barrington does too. I am fairly certain if he had been in my shoes in that Riga cathedral he'd have acted exactly as I did. I'm fairly certain because he has made the mental effort and decided there is nothing greater than human science. But he has had to contemplate the possibility.

The difference between us and that Russian guide was that the Russian's social conditioning had given him no spiritual experience whatsoever.

A church service was no more sacred to him than a sport he didn't follow or a folk custom he found quaint.

Mr Barrington said he looks forward "to a time when we no longer default to religion in many of our social and public ceremonies".

Starting Parliament each day with a Christian prayer was, he thought, "very presumptuous". The national anthem needed revision, and funerals were the end.

He said, "It grates when a relative or friend who was an avowed atheist is given a Christian ceremony by a well-meaning relative."

He wants non-belief accorded the same respect as religion in public life.

Bishop Randerson, who wrote that he too is an agnostic when it comes to the existence of a supreme being, offered Mr Barrington respect for what he does believe rather than what he doesn't.

An atheist, the bishop decided, believes in human wellbeing but does not source that commitment to a religion.

They were better described as humanists, he said, and in that sense they were deserving of respect.

The bishop also noted, happily, that the parliamentary prayer is under review, as is the nature of prayer at Anzac Day services.

"As a church leader I feel uncomfortable leading prayers in public that have an exclusively Christian ending, thus excluding people of other faiths."

It should not fall to an unbeliever to say this but, God help us. This country's religious heritage is Christian; people of other faiths know it. They do not feel excluded when our ceremonies reflect our heritage.

They probably worry, as I do, that if we dilute that identity into some arid catch-all we lose a little more of our society's spiritual roots.

Possibly politicians who fear to declare themselves atheist, understand that better than today's church leaders do.

It is a tragedy the modern church has been divested of much of its ancient splendour.

Political leaders understand, I think, that though we are as secular as Mr Barrington says - most people don't admire or even like religion and turn away from its display - we find atheism just as repellent.

Atheism, humanism, rationalism, call it what you like, is a conviction that offers nothing beyond the reach of human knowledge, when their plainly are such things. Not just the obvious: the boggling infinity of the universe and its density that suggests matter we still cannot see. Or the apparently random behaviour of subatomic particles that comprises everything we see. Quantum physics sounds like metaphysics to me.

Our very brain remains largely unexplained. How do thoughts happen? Physically, what is going on in there? How do neurons compose a symphony? What makes us love?

I like mysteries in existence. I'm not religious about it but there are things I sense spiritually, for want of a better word. I want to be awed by infinite possibilities.

A politician who admitted he or she was an atheist would be denying these possibilities. Worse, they would be declaring a fearful conceit that no power is beyond them.

I think the answer to Mr Barrington's question is right there.

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