Faith and the lack of it

I will think my life has been worthwhile if I can demonstrate to the end that it's perfectly possible to handle a terminal illness with a positive spirit, without requiring any belief in any god. There is no reason whatsoever why an unbeliever should fear to die.

Deep-rootedly and from the heart, I am an atheist and proud of it. It's logically undeniable to me that any God who had the power to have created all that is good in the universe would also have the power to put an end to all that is bad. If God exists he has created a Frankenstein as far as I'm concerned and certainly doesn't deserve to be worshipped.

Particularly obnoxious to my thinking, and a root of a great deal of the evil in this world, is the "thou shalt worship no other god but me" line, which of course is fundamental to both the Christian and Islamic faiths.

Some might wonder whether I am an atheist because I was brought up in an environment without religion. On the contrary. My father was a clergyman. I became an atheist when, at the age of around seven, I asked him "If God made the world, who made God?" His answer: "Shut up, you talk too much."

I am a humanist as well as an atheist. My mother asks: "How do you define humanism, Jos? My dictionary says that it’s “belief in the goodness and high potential of human nature rather than in religious or transcendental values.”" She says: I might have been ready to accept this if I hadn’t lived through two world wars and a century of appalling dictatorships and the aggression of the present power house in U.S.A. Please, please reassure me!"

To which I reply: As definition I think I might go for "belief in the potential for goodness of human nature". Which gets around the point that obviously human nature isn't currently altogether good and that never will all individuals realise their potential for goodness. As for the second half of the dictionary definition, one of the completely obscure early C19 working-class radical atheists who I studied in my days as an academic social historian - and who were often most forthright - wrote the following couplet:

"Fools and priests seek future worlds of bliss
The wise and good find happiness in this".

The humour and positive spirit which I have been so impressed by with so many people on the chemo suite has nothing to do with whether or not they have a religious faith. It's a demonstration of what I mean by humanism - the potential for goodness which human nature possesses.

I have strongly Buddhistical tendencies, but wouldn't wish to call myself a Buddhist - why should I want to field a whole set of questions which are completely irrelevant to me, such as "Buddhists believe in the reincarnation of the spirit, don't they?" I don't give a toss about such things.

And yet being an atheist doesn't strike me as in the least bit incompatible with the notion of having a soul. Not that I would want to define what I meant by this, beyond talking vaguely about a sense of unity and one-ness with nature, and a sense of something within me that is more than just my physical body. Nor does my atheism make me averse to the odd bit of mystical thinking, especially with regard to Highlow and yew trees.

I found myself thinking a lot about faith during the first two rounds of chemo - I had a strong desire to appeal to a higher power, but who can an atheist pray to? I kept on wanting to say things like "God willing" when I don't believe in God. I see myself as part of nature, a speck in the universe, whatever happens to me the birds will sing tomorrow. This for me is enough of a faith, enough of a philosophy to enable me to come to terms with death. But nonetheless, I found myself wishing I could comfortably appeal to something I could personalise.

I came up with Oker Boker to fill the gap. Which was and still is good for a laugh. But when the chemo was over and had failed to significantly diminish the size of the mass, I lost the intense desire for a higher power to appeal to. Perhaps this was because I no longer felt that my body was in the hands of external agencies, mysterious in their workings and outside my control or understanding.

I now feel completely settled in my humanist atheism. I no longer have any wish to debate matters of religion. I expect my beliefs to be respected and accepted - just as a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew has every right to expect that they will be allowed to face death without those around them mounting a challenge on their belief system.

And so it will continue to the end that it's Highlow and the yew trees who I talk to, who I take as representing or encapsulating the whole natural world. I sleep with a piece of yew tree in my hand. I feel a need to acknowledge in some way the amazing amount of joy which I get out of life, and the yew trees and Highlow meet that need perfectly fine.

Postscript November 2005

I've concluded that the title of this piece of writing is misleading - I become increasingly aware that I'm far from lacking in faith. It remains unshakably the case that I have absolutely no faith in anything which I would want to call God. I wish that people - even people who have had the good sense to reject organised religion - weren't so inclined to use the word "God" to describe their object of faith. God can never be liberated from the ridiculous connotations of a man in the sky which the concept has carried with it ever since it was invented.

Pope says in his Essay on Man (1733):
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

God to my way of thinking is a completely unnecessary, man-made layer in the scheme of things, so I would say:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and Nature the soul.

In other words, what I have faith in is my one-ness with nature. I have faith that the more I can attune myself to this one-ness, the stronger I will be. These days I don't just talk to Highlow and the yew trees, I talk to my body as well. Acknowledging its remarkable strength and fortitude in the face of this cancer, recognising its capacity, if I listen to it, to guide me wisely in how I live my life.


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