»  National Review Online

August 6th, 2002

  March of the Godless


Did you read about the Godless Americans March onWashington being organized for this coming November? The nation's atheists, agnostics and skeptics plan to make their presence felt in the way made traditional by blacks, feminists, homosexualists and gun-hating Moms.

Now, before proceeding, I should like to register a complaint about the name of this event. In common with several of those preceding it, it is not really a "march on Washington" at all. Nobody nowadays has the time, energy or will to actually march on Washington from Denver, Dubuque or Dallas, tramping a thousand miles of highway to bring their message to the capital. What actually happens is, you hop on a plane, show up at the Washington Monument at some appointed time, then shuffle down the Mall for half an hour in company with several thousand other people of the same race, opinion or inclination. It's a march in Washington, not a march on.

This quibble aside, what are we to think of this great gathering of the godless? Personally, I'll be staying away. Not because I mind these unbelievers, or wish them any ill, but because the whole anti-God business is all so wearily familiar to me. By the time I left home to go out into the world, I'd had my fill of godlessness. I grew up in England, where in spite of (or, depending on who you speak to, because of) there being an established church, there is very little religion; and my family had no religion at all.

My father was in fact a militant atheist. He wasn't just indifferent to religion, as the great majority of English people are (and as my mother was): he hated it, with a passion. He would initiate conversations with perfect strangers by saying: "Isn't it obvious that all the world's ills are caused by religion?"  At Easter, when the TV news always had a clip of the Pope blessing the crowds in St. Peter's Square, Dad would rise up from his armchair, shake his fist at the screen, and yell:  "You bloody fools!"

I am not sure what the foundation of this antipathy was. One version current in the family was that it sprang from disillusion at the actions of his own father. Granddad Derbyshire had been a heavy drinker. (Dad:  "He used to drink a bottle of whisky a day. He drank till the blood spurted out of his ears.") This eventually made Grandad ill, and the doctor told him that if he didn't quit drinking, he'd die. Grandad thereupon quit, cold turkey, and took up church-going by way of compensation. I think Dad saw him as having been driven into the arms of the Church by fear of death, and despised him for his cowardice. In any case, Dad had turned against the whole idea of religion early in life, and never turned back.

Fortunately for my spiritual development, there was another aspect of Dad's character that was very typically English: he never gave a moment's thought to what his children were doing when they were out of his sight. I went to state schools, which at that time operated under a deal struck between the government and the Church of England, according to which every school day started with "an act of worship," and religious instruction was a compulsory part of the syllabus (it was, in fact, the only compulsory subject). My secondary school had a traditionalist headmaster who took these obligations very seriously. We had a 30-minute Anglican service every morning of the school year: a hymn, a reading from scripture, prayers, and, if the head thought it was called for, a brief sermon.

If my father had been more attentive to his responsibilities as a propagator of the atheistical creed, or non-creed, I should have had to sit out these ceremonies in the chemistry lab, along with the school's tiny contingents of Catholics and Jews. (This was before England embarked on this exciting recent project of incorporating itself into the House of Islam via unrestricted immigration.) At that point in the morning, however, Dad's complete attention was given over to the Daily Mirror crossword puzzle. So from ages 11 to 18, in the least religious nation in the Western world, entirely at public expense, I got a thorough exposure to the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and Hymns Ancient and Modern.

I can therefore claim that by the time I settled into my own ideas about religion, I had been exceptionally well exposed to both sides of the matter. I had heard the arguments for atheism repeated several hundred times over; and I had also got a sound instruction in Christian belief and liturgy, having attended around 1,500 acts of worship — 30 years' worth for the average weekly church-goer. That instruction, acting on a congenitally unworldly temperament, and fortified by the natural desire that every healthy teenager has to vex his parents, was sufficient to make me a Christian — though, I am sorry to say, not a very devout or observant one.

That's how it is with religion. The religious instinct is obviously a part of human nature: found in all times and places, but, like other components of the human personality — like patience, optimism, pugnacity, or the ability to play chess — stronger in some than in others, and entirely absent in many. The rest is accomplished, or not, by "nurture": the accidents of parentage, education, community and national character.

In the United States it all works out to a peculiar result. Religion is stronger here than it is in any other First World nation, but so is atheism. God is honored here more than in any other free country, and He is also hated here more than anywhere else. Two of the most striking things about this country, to a foreigner, are the breadth of religious belief, and the number of people you meet who are angrily, bitterly anti-religious. There are angry atheists in other countries, of course, as the example of Derb Senior illustrates; but I have never met so many as I have met over here. The dominant mood in England — and in Europe, too, I think — is indifference. Nobody much cares about religion. In the U.S. pretty much everybody cares, one way or the other.

I find this bracing. It adds a dimension to public life that other countries don't much have. The abortion issue, for example, is a tremendous national topic here. In the other two countries whose politics I know well, England and China, it is insignificant. China is a dictatorship with a rigorous population policy, including forced abortions and much social pressure to abort when pregnancy occurs without the approval of the authorities. Those policies are unpopular and widely resented; but the morality of voluntary abortion is not an issue at all. People have a utilitarian approach. If a woman wants to have an abortion, she has one, and nobody thinks anything of it.

In England the abortion issue played out mainly as being about social class. There were laws against abortion up to the late 1960s. Then people started to notice that women who could afford a safe abortion could get one very easily, while poor working-class girls were at the mercy of back-street practitioners. Once the unfairness of this had sunk in to the national consciousness, the laws were changed. Religion hardly came into it. I suppose the Church of England had an opinion on the matter, but I couldn't tell you what it was, and I am sure that 99 out of 100 Englishmen at the time could not have, either.

Similarly with school prayer. Having very little organized religion at all, and an atheistic state dogma, the matter does not arise in China. England still has an established church, and the laws requiring that daily act of worship are still on the books, though "widely flouted," according to the church. A devout school principal can hold a service every morning if he feels like it, though few seem to bother any more. Here in the States there is a continuous national debate on this topic, breaking out into heated argument every year or two, whenever some punctilious atheist parent decides to make a nuisance of himself.

This is, as I said, bracing. Outside the sphere of religion, it is difficult for most of us to get a firm grip on the big questions, the questions that have agitated mortals since Achilles moped in his tent before Troy:  "How shall we live?"  and "Why must we die?"  These matters, dealing with the foundations of morality and the place of human life in the grand scheme of things, color political issues here in the U.S.A., and so are constantly discussed and debated. This gives a depth and gravity to national political discourse that in other countries, I think, is mainly lacking. Now that I have acclimatized myself to this aspect of American public life, in fact, I find myself thinking, when I read newspapers and magazines from England, that there is something frivolous and shallow about the way matters are presented over there. (And China, where they are not spoken of in public at all, seems a very dark place.)

With these considerations in mind, I extend my best wishes to the march of the godless this fall. I hope they will make a good loud noise with their doctrines, which I am all too familiar with; and I hope we believers will make a loud noise back at them. Let us reflect with satisfaction, as we hurl our arguments to and fro, that this is the one country in the world where the First Things are still taken seriously. Not so seriously that we have set one dogma in the seat of power, and allow it to harass and kill unbelievers; but seriously enough that before big policy decisions are made, we want to hear them argued from a point of view that believes there is more to morality than mere expedience, more to human life than the slaking of brute appetites, and more things in the universe than cold stones and spiritless lumps of flesh.