Perhaps I am flattering myself but I do not regard myself as a complete idiot. By temperament, at least on one side of it, I am critical, not to say cynical. A devoted Catholic, I am well aware that the Church has been, by some way, the most evil institution on earth. Even Auschwitz pales in comparison, you might feel, with burning people alive in the name of the gentle lamb of God. Nor is it just in remote historical times that the Church has so damaged mankind. I am no Marxist. But can John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger really have turned a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses that occurred during the Cold War in South America? They appear to have done so. Perhaps they were gently chiding the dictators behind the scenes. But imagine the torrents of denunciation that would have poured forth if it had been atheistic Communists torturing and murdering Catholics, instead of Catholics doing it to other Catholics whom they were branding as Communists.
Yet for all this I am still a committed Catholic, and you may well feel like adding ‘hypocrite’ to that. I understand the point, but I would rebut it as unfair because there is far more to the Church than bad popes. For me it is a great treasure in my life. My relationship with the Lord Jesus, nourished I passionately feel by my Catholic faith, is my deepest joy and most enthralling inspiration. To atheists that will sound the most absurd superstition. But then atheists, in my experience, are very ready to hand out condescending denunciations over subjects they know little about. It certainly feels like romantic love, but that seems to have been the experience of Christian mystics down the ages. The possibility cannot be evaded, however, that, personally meaningful to me as it is, it is a delusion, no more than a sublimation of the sex drive or a malfunction of the temporal lobe in the brain. I can’t prove that it isn’t. But then you can’t prove anything that is personally worthwhile in life. I can’t prove that the Moonlight Sonata is beautiful or that sailing solo round the world in a small yacht isn’t just a huge waste of time and effort. Many people would think it was, but not the person who did it. When people say ‘why do you go to Wagner operas when you could be watching Big Brother?’ I am left speechless. What man passionately in love with a woman pays attention to some busybody who, not knowing her or nothing of her, says ‘I should be careful if I were you. How do you know she is not a gold digger who has already poisoned ten husbands?’. You don’t. But then you never can be absolutely sure in personal matters. Life isn’t like that. It’s about following stars and jumping into deep ends.
I am, however, much encouraged by the ludicrousness of the idea of prayer which most atheists seem to have, a flail with which they jeeringly assault believers. Prayer, it is clear to them, is asking a little man inside your head to stop it raining on the day of the church garden party. Still, you can hardly blame them, for that is the idea many religious believers have as well. ‘I didn’t know whether to change my car insurance or not so I prayed to the Holy Spirit’. You can hardly blame atheists for the scornful and condescending denunciations. But at least pious simpletons aren’t ridiculing the whole idea of prayer. You would have thought that people who do ridicule would at least have had a bit of a dip into the vast mystical literatures of both east and west. They have rarely done so. At least, you’d have thought, it might have been a good idea to find out what the countless deluded fools and charlatans who have practised mystical contemplation, during so many different times and in so many forms in so many different cultures, thought they were up to. ‘Why should we waste time doing that? It’s all nonsense anyway’. Or consider David Hume’s rejection of the soul. When I look inside myself, he tells us, I do not find a self, but only experiences of hot and cold, happiness and sadness, hunger and thirst. Hume never seems to have considered that perhaps the soul cannot be pinned down in that way. It’s like going out into the garden and saying, all I can see are trees and shrubs and stones and flowers, it just proves I’m not here.
Compare this with the vast multitudes of Hindu mystics who have been practising just this ‘when I look inside myself’ for 5000 years. In no way dependent on revelation, as those of the Christian mystic are, their enquiries are as objective and experimental and strictly disciplined as any scientific undertaking. The major difference is that their enquiries are into the internal rather than the external sphere. ‘That’s just poetry and illusion’. They haven’t found the quotidian ego that we are usually pleased to call ‘the self’ either. But what they have found exceeds Hume’s observations as quantum physics outruns counting on an abacus. They have not just discovered feelings of hot and cold and happiness and sadness but, so they consistently say, nonduality, advaita, a total union with being, not a self but the self itself. Their degree of peer review, as one might call it, is extraordinary. Again and again they have come back with the same report, the same experience which, they say, it is totally beyond the capacity of language to express. All they can say is ‘it is both true and untrue to say that the self is annihilated in the all’. How like the contradictions of quantum physics that sounds. We live in a world not of sticks and stones and this and that, but of great mysteries.
If atheists want to deny themselves what for me is so great a source of meaning and happiness, as it has been for so many down the ages, then that is their choice. But stop being so evangelical about it. Just get on with your godless lives and keep quiet about it and stop attacking religion. If you want to maintain that prayer is no more than asking a little man inside your head to stop it raining on the day of the church garden party, then find some evidence for it. Spend years practising contemplative prayer, reading St John of the Cross and St Teresa and the Sufi mystics, and maybe Thomas Merton and Abhishiktananda’s Saccidananda, and discover for yourself how meaningless it all is. ‘What’s the point? It’s all nonsense anyway’.