How to be disagreeable

I love this. I want to hug it and kiss it and call it George. Go and watch it if you haven’t seen it already. It’s okay – I’ll wait.

See? Wasn’t that good?

D.J. Grothe cleverly sums up the reason why for so long I have been reluctant to call myself a sceptic. Sceptic, by the way – not skeptic. I’m British. You will prise my peculiar spelling habits from my cold, dead, teastained fingers.

I finally had to come out and say it because I write a lot about mediums and I felt like in the interests of fairness that I should admit that I do write with a certain degree of bias – I simply don’t believe you can talk to the dead. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in God. 

These are not extraordinary positions for me, or anything to shout about. I’m actually something of a hipster atheist – I was disbelieving in God long before it was cool. Atheism isn’t exotic or radical to me, not in the way it might be to someone reared in say, the Bible Belt of the USA – I’m a third generation atheist. I don’t feel the need to mention it unless someone asks me directly ‘Do you believe in God?’ because it doesn’t affect my life in any way.

Similarly, I don’t consider it a badge of rank or a qualification – it’s just the way things are for me. Always has been. This is not to say I haven’t thought about religion – I attended Church of England schools, sang the requisite horrible modern hymns and even played Mary in the nativity play – but whatever soulsearching I went through I always came back to my original position; I never felt the need for God.

Does that mean I’m better, braver, stronger or brighter than those who do need something to believe in? I don’t think so – we just have different ways of looking at the world. Besides, I didn’t become an atheist – I was born this way, baby. I was born without religion and raised – at least at home – without it. Does it mean, through sheer accident of birth and circumstances, that I’m superior to a cradle Catholic who was baptised, confirmed and confessed according to the sacraments of their church?

Well, you’d think it did, the way some atheists carry on.

I remember seeing an interview with Ayn Rand – Phil Donahoe, I think – sometime in the 1980s shortly before her death. I was appalled when the interviewer asked her about her atheism and tutted like a bossy old auntie when she said she didn’t believe in God.

“But when you look at the stars at night,” he said. “Don’t you look up and feel a sense of wonder?”

“No,” said Rand.

Both positions were moronic – Donahue for his assumption that God put the stars up there to make the sky look pretty, and Rand for her staggering intellectual laziness, but in that moment Ayn Rand – the atheist – came across as the bigger idiot of the two. How dull, how obstinate do you have to be to dismiss something as magnificent as a starry sky on one of those crisp, mirror-clear winter nights, simply because your intellectual opponents believe that their God had a hand in it?

This is the kind of smug laurel-squatting that D.J. Grothe describes as The Mensa Effect – and it gives us all a bad name, so bad that I’m reluctant to talk about my lack of religious beliefs. It’s also self-defeating, since nobody learned a single thing simply by sitting around wanking about how jolly clever they are. You learn by asking questions, by always being mindful of the huge volume of stuff you don’t know.

We’re all human – religious, non-religious, believer, sceptic – and as such we’re all likely to make mistakes. I could be completely wrong – there might be such a thing as a genuine medium. Somebody out there might be able to talk to the dead. The only reason I don’t believe that there is such a person out there is that all the ones I’ve encountered were probably frauds – from the third-rate hot-reading hacks to the tricksters who managed to take their secrets to the grave.

Ultimately scepticism is about keeping an open mind, and if you shut down the discussion because you are obviously smarter than that silly person who believes in the big magic fairy in the sky hurr hurr then you’ve pretty much fallen at the first fence. It’s also a really fucking terrible way to get people to listen to your point of view.

About five years ago I went up to Salisbury, to have a look at Stonehenge and the cathedral and all that. It’s a wonderful city, beautiful cathedral – and you should absolutely go if you haven’t already. The cathedral was relocated from the site of the old city, a sort of hill fort that rises like a sleeping dinosaur out of Salisbury Plain and rejoices in the resonant name of Old Sarum.

There’s not much up there at Old Sarum now, except for stones and views. The whole city of Salisbury had a sort of it’s-not-you-it’s-me discussion with the site when it realised there was more to be gained commercially from shunting the city and the cathedral down to the banks of the river Avon. This is one of the reasons why Salisbury Cathedral is one of the purest examples of Medieval gothic architecture in all of Europe – it went up very quickly and with very few later additions.

The chapter house also houses one of the original copies of the Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede by King John. You can look right down at his signature on the page and feel the obligatory chills at the sight of this incredible historical document – a brawl with the barons that ended up shaping the constitutions of several countries including our own. It is, in the words of Joe Biden, a big fucking deal.


The nave of Salisbury Cathedral

We were in the cathedral itself, near the choir and the tomb of one Lionel Woodville, when an elderly Anglican priest came up to say hello and ask if there was anything specific we wanted to look at? I was curious about Lionel – I was wondering if he was any relation to Queen Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the two princes in the tower. (He was her brother, as it turns out.) but the priest said he didn’t know. So we got talking about faith, as I suppose is appropriate for a cathedral. My other half admitted to believing in a vague wishy something while I sort of apologetically said I was more or less where I’d started in life – straight up secular humanist.

“I attended a humanist wedding only last week,” said the priest. “Really wasn’t that different to ceremonies I’ve performed – same principles, just without God.”

“More or less,” I said. “I have nothing against the notion of being nice to one another and everything Jesus said – I just don’t believe in God and I don’t think we go anywhere when we die.”

“Well,” he said. “I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Now, that’s how you do it.


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