»  Taki's Magazine

January 5th, 2011

  Loyalty to the Tribe


It's been over six years since I last attended a church service. I maintain a proper humility towards large questions about the universe and the place therein of human (or any other kind of, if there is any other kind of) self-awareness, but I am a functional atheist. It seems highly improbable to me that my personality, which has been known to undergo quite striking changes after four or five glasses of Old Crow, will pass intact through the much more demanding rigors of my physical annihilation. So here I am: no gods, no afterlife.

The matter can of course be argued, but it's been a decade or two since I heard an argument I hadn't heard before, so I am not much interested in disputation. I am settled in my opinions and fully expect to make it through my dwindling supply of days without further changes.

That "further" even needs some qualification. I suppose people convert into faith or lapse out of it. Well of course they do: there are innumerable instances, including some very famous ones. I don't at all feel that either thing ever happened to me, though. Setting aside the usual accumulations of experience and, one hopes, wisdom that come with a few decades of stumbling around in the world, I am as I was at twenty: skeptical, empirical, self-sufficient.

My occasional churchgoing was esthetic, sentimental, and tribal. I loved the liturgy of my church (Anglican) and the splendid old hymns; I got satisfaction from contemplating the continuity, both personal and historical, that I was plugged into when participating in a service. These are the hymns I sang as a child; these are the verses my ancestors heard parsons read on frosty Jacobean mornings in the country churches of Lancashire and Staffordshire; this is the creed that saw my civilization through the Dark Ages.

I never had any interest in theology. How many people do? Nor have I ever felt the least warmth towards Jesus of Nazareth. I am in complete accord with George Orwell's remark that "I like the Church of England better than Our Lord." Kingsley Amis's apostrophic poem to the Savior, "New Approach Needed," also had me nodding agreement when I first read it thirty or so years ago.

Should you revisit us,
Stay a little longer,
And get to know the place.
Experience hunger,
Madness, disease and war.
You heard about them, true,
The last time you came here;
It's different having them …

Overlaid on all that was a faint, cloudy hope that I might get something that other people seemed to be getting. "Knock, and it shall be opened unto you," said the gospel. I wasn't too clear about the actual technique of knocking, but at least I was in the right place. Nothing was ever opened unto me, though, and the hope faded. Other people, or a great many of them, just have some faculty I don't have. Spiritually, I am tone deaf.

It was the Creed that killed off my church-going. Not the "We believe in one God …" part. There might be such an entity, I supposed; and in any case that "we" diluted the affirmation and lightened the burden of doubt, spreading both out among the congregation. What got to me was the part about "he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary …"

Did he? So at some actual moment in historical time, at some actual place on the earth's surface, an invisible sky spirit ("he came down from heaven") impregnated a human female? Not only (it seemed to me) was there no evidence for such a thing, it was hard to see how there could be any.

I tackled an acquaintance, a man of the cloth — though Russian Orthodox, not Anglican — on the empirical point. He: "Why, we have Mary's word for it. The Mother of God could hardly be lying to us, could she?" Uh … Sometimes the clergy are not very helpful.

All that remains of my marriage of convenience — or habit, sentimentality, and civilizational solidarity — with Christianity is the monthly diocesan newsletter, which they still send me. I never used to bother with it much when attending church; yet very oddly, I now read the whole thing with a sort of anthropological fascination. Here is a report from St. Cuthbert's church in the nearby town of Selden:

An interesting annual event is the Blessing of Automobiles. As in annual blessing of fleets in seashore communities, the blessing of automobiles involves prayer for the safety of the drivers. Additionally it raises the profile of St. Cuthbert's …

I was once shown a book — one of the gospels, it was — that had belonged to St. Cuthbert. The saint died in a.d. 687 after a life devoted to God's service. The book survived somehow, ending up in the library of Stoneyhurst College, in the north of England. I was teaching at a school nearby, and accompanied a rugby team to play at Stoneyhurst. They gave me a dinner and showed me round the library.

A book, a gospel, nearly (at that time) 1,300 years old. How many books were there in England in the seventh century? Now they are blessing automobiles in the guy's name, on a continent he never dreamed of.

Continuities; civilizational foundations; personal recollections. Did I fret too much about the Creed? I was an Anglican, after all. They don't insist on your actually believing anything. Sir Martin Rees, a British astronomer, told Richard Dawkins that he attended church "as an unbelieving Anglican … out of loyalty to the tribe." That's my tribe too. Perhaps I'll drop in at St. John's one Sunday.