Christmas confessions of an unbeliever
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 December 2005)

Once I knew a poet who on principle celebrated no religious holidays. In childhood she had been forced to fake belief and she vowed never to forget that religion made her a liar. God, as usual, took the blame.

Mandatory Christianity was a curse. Ralph Allen, a great Canadian journalist, claimed that forcing soldiers to attend services during the Second World War (they called it Church Parade) produced legions of unbelievers. War was said to make men into believers -- "there are no atheists in foxholes," says the smug cliche -- but Allen thought danger meant less than the contempt men felt for officers who forced them to worship and fatuous clergymen who preached to captive audiences.

An executive who played a part in my life once confessed that as a young man he attended church every Sunday to fulfill his employer's expectations. As a result, he grew rich; but forever after he hated religion. It was a standing rebuke to his hypocrisy.

These pressures were so nightmarish that when society recoiled from religion we forgot everything it still had to tell us. A Catholic child remains a Catholic forever, it's often said, but those who leave the church sometimes hate it with a dark passion. Other churches produce similar effects. A girlfriend of mine, long ago, wouldn't hear a single word said in favour of religion, because she had spent her adolescence locked in Anglican conformity; yet she admitted, when pressed, that her only true experience of great music was her period of singing for a brilliant church choirmaster.

The blessing of a non-religious childhood is that you don't automatically despise religious teaching. I was saved from these resentments by parents who never went to church. My childhood Bible study consisted of harmless passages read out in the morning at my public school, a practice long since abandoned. In youth I spent a few years as an Anglo-Catholic (maybe I hoped to run into T.S. Eliot during after-Communion coffee); anyway, I know what it is to have faith go out like the tide.

This was before I revisited the Bible as an adult and studied some of it through the works of the Rev. Northrop Frye, the greatest English teacher of his time as well as a sceptical Methodist clergyman. He, along with a dozen great composers and several hundred painters and architects, most of whom died centuries ago, finally convinced me: We all lost something monumental and irreplaceable when most articulate Canadians became merely habitual churchgoers, militant secularists (that's me), fretful agnostics (me again), members of what Milton called "the Atheist crew," or adherents of that most dangerous of all sects, the Great Indifferent Masses.

It's only on days when religious tradition fills the air, such as Christmas and Hanukkah, that we unbelievers glimpse for a moment the emptiness left behind when a sense of the divine departed. Mark Steyn argued recently in the Spectator that even atheists should value the benefits of religious tradition, such as great art and music; a reader wrote to add that we shouldn't forget the distinctly Judaeo-Christian idea that all individuals matter as individuals. You can find that, of course, in the Bible, and it was the disappearance of the Bible from everyday life that truly impoverished us. Absent the Bible, we find it hard to explain our most basic ideas about virtue.

On Monday a Pennsylvania judge ruled that Christians can't smuggle creationism into high-school biology as "intelligent design." School boards wanting to retain certain Biblical knowledge will argue (like the author Bruce Feiler) for "an elective, non-sectarian high school Bible class," a form of comparative Bible study. Those who love the Bible would be pleased, but what about those who believe in non-Biblical religions? Won't they, too, want a hearing in public secular schools? And won't we also want children to study Islam, to understand Muslims and protect themselves (as well as most Muslims) from the crimes of jihad-prone radical Islamists?

Philip Larkin, a non-believer, wrote a great elegy for religion in his poem, Church Going. Visiting an old church, he wonders what will happen when no one comes any more. Will a few cathedrals be kept as museum exhibits? And who will be the last, the very last, who will seek this place for what it was, "A serious house on serious earth"? That's the key word. Absent the religious impulse by which our ancestors structured the world they left us, we share the guilty knowledge that our collective life grows steadily less serious and more shallow.

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