THIS may be the book I’ve been searching for, desperately, throughout most of my life. Like millions of others on this planet I’m an atheist who aches for spirituality. It can be a painful condition. Within me, reason is forever clashing with a hopeless, but endless, quest for meaning in an absurd universe.
Richard Holloway, the former Primus – or leader – of the Scottish Episcopal Church, may, however, have written a book which lays the first few paving stones on the path to finding some sort of spiritual meaning in a world in which God has long ago died.
I had my last flash of believing in God when I was about seven. My grandmother was ill and I remember kneeling and praying at the foot of my bed for her. But even then, as a child, I knew what I was doing was ridiculous. I wouldn’t have understood the words “interventionary God” in 1977, but I knew innately that there was no great being in the sky who was going to answer my prayers and make my grandmother better. Only science could do that.
My grandmother lost her own faith after the death of her husband, but she’d instilled in me a love for both the stories of the Bible and the poetry of it. By 12 I’d read the Bible from cover to cover. Reading it on your own – with no minister or priest to guide, or misguide, you – is perhaps the surest path to atheism. The biblical God is a monster, a Bronze Age psychopath, and the stories of the Bible are patently just that – stories. The Bible contains truth only in the way that a fairytale contains truth: there’s wisdom and teaching there, not history or fact.
The positive lesson I took from it was this: if Jesus really existed then he was one of the most remarkable humans to ever live and we should all try to live by his teachings. He was no God, just a great and wise human being.
To compound my problems with God, I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. If ever there was a recipe for knocking the God out of someone, coming of age in a religious civil war is it, I assure you. If I needed contemporary proof that religion caused pain, suffering and sadism throughout history, all I had to do was look around.
I spent my twenties sneering at and hating religion. By my thirties, as I found myself growing into fatherhood, I realised that while I still had contempt for religion and faith, the lack of meaning in my life – beyond the love of my children and family – was starting to trouble me.
By my forties I understood that while atheism is factually, historically, scientifically the only game in town, there’s something about the human mind that requires more than pure reason alone. Reason does not provide meaning. It merely explains.
Reason tells me God doesn’t exist. But then what? Shopping, spending, consumption, gyms, acquiring more money, ambition, work, aimless travel, TV as an analgesic for the soul … drink, drugs, food, sex, endless bitter and dark cynicism? What replaces God in a world where God is dead? What holds the centre together?
I’ve just turned 50, and, like most of the world amid the pandemic, my thoughts have been tinged with intimations of mortality these last few months. Then along comes this octogenarian from Glasgow called Richard Holloway and he offers a speck of hope.
This is no self-help book, incidentally. This isn’t New Age hokum, rather the working out of a man’s soul, if such a thing exists. It’s the story of Holloway’s intellectual life, its trials, its failings, and how he has come to find spiritual meaning free from the dictum of religion.
I struggle to define this book – Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe – beyond saying that it represents a first step toward a new form of spiritual thought. Holloway, once one of our nation’s leading religious figures, is now “a Christian without God”. He does not believe in the fairytales of religion – and he especially distrusts the “ruthless optimism” of priests and ministers, and the cost they have wrought to human happiness – but he holds the Christian message as close to his heart as any man or woman still wearing the cloth of God.
“I follow Jesus,” he says in closing his book, “etsi deus non daretur.” Or to translate the Latin, “as if God were not there”. Science has consigned God to the grave, but we can still live the ideals of Christianity without buying into the ludicrous myths of Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark.
What Holloway does most powerfully is dismiss certainty in all its forms – political as well as religious. People have died for certainties, and killed for certainties, whether its how a person prays or how much power a political party has. Today, those certainties are seen rightly as ghastly jokes, absurd crimes, like the war Jonathan Swift satirically imagined in Gulliver’s Travels which raged between those who opened their boiled egg from the bottom or the top.
We can be certain of nothing, Holloway tells us, but doubt and love. We’re surrounded by “ruthless optimists” on all sides politically – leavers, remainers, Yes, No, left, right – on it goes – others demanding we see the world through their eyes only. Holloway says to hell with that. Nobody knows anything when it comes to the decisions which shape the future – we’re all taking shots in the dark. What matters is that we acknowledge our limitations, take others into consideration when we make our choices and try to hold a sense of love in our hearts for every living creature.
Holloway speaks of “resolute irresolution”, the necessity of holding two opposing ideas in one’s head at the same moment – God may be dead but the message of the man called Christ matters. Most of all, he says, we must not “close our account with reality”. In other words, we must never shut our minds, and think we have found the answers because we haven’t and never will.
This is a gospel of love, and doubt, that everyone can practice – especially atheists. For that I’m truly grateful to Holloway for codifying what I’ve innately felt throughout my life. It’s brought a flicker of light into a darkened world. Holloway brings a message of spiritual hope for all – and for that, a few hundred years ago, this very wise and very kind man would have been burned to death at the stake. That makes him a hero in my eyes, and so and I say, God bless him.