Earlier this month BBC4 ran a documentary “The Secret Life of Waves”, by documentary-maker David Malone. Apart from explaining the usual stuff about ocean waves, he went off into to a philosophical and spiritual dimension, comparing waves to life itself. I found this very moving. It was also nice to see that non-religious professionals are allowed to offer profound thoughts on spiritual matters. Normally as soon as you mention “spiritual”, assorted religious types start to gather like vultures around a carcass, all too often offering no more than empty dogma. Radio 4’s Thought for the Day doesn’t allow non-religious speakers.
When a wave breaks it disappears, but the water that carried it remains. The wave has a life – a beginning, a middle and an end, but no substance of itself. It is a manifestation of “energy”, although I find that an unhelpful word. This is all we really need to know about our own lives. The idea of an afterlife doesn’t really survive serious reflection. Mr Malone shows this by pointing out that our concept of heaven – an essentially static place – isn’t at all attractive.
I was brought up a Christian, but the idea of heaven and hell never convinced me. And I have found the idea of a God that intervenes in response to prayer, or sin or anything else, impossible too. I accept the scientific view of the universe, of its vastness and of our own origins through evolution. No heaven and hell; no divine intervention; no personal God. Christianity was built on these ideas. Without them the wave starts to break, just as an ocean wave breaks as it enters shallow water.
So why am I not an atheist? I mainly think and act like one, long since having abandoned membership of a church.
Well in the first place I associate atheism with a hard, evidence-based view of the world. This world has no room for mystery, as my brother Richard Green points out. It is of the nature of scientific evidence that there can only be enough to cover a small fraction of what we experience; do we simply pretend not to see the world beyond evidence? Atheists mock God as an “imaginary friend”, and yet their world requires quantities of a sort of negative imagination.
And the religious insights that attracted me to Christianity remain a powerful influence on me today. I still cannot think of the Sermon on the Mount without excitement - it's a flame that still burns bright - to invoke another transitory phenomenon. It is a crazy, defiant creed that tells you to renounce worldly wealth, turn the other cheek, accept humiliation and not be bound by the letter of the law but by its spirit. And there is so much more – it angers me that so many Christians seem to ignore what I see as the essence of Christian teaching.
And finally there is the wave of religious experience itself. It is quite something to stand in an ancient Church and feel continuity with it – or to read ancient scriptures after so many generations before have done so. It gives a sense of belonging. The wave may be breaking, but I can’t quite renounce it.