On occasion I’ve described myself, both glibly and half-seriously, as a ‘High Church pagan atheist’.
I grew up in a fairly standard CofE environment (one parent a staunch believer, the other a staunch unbeliever) and am pretty familiar with it still. I love old churches and their atmosphere, and sometimes the CofE seems like a sanctaury of sanity for its broadmindedness and Englishness. It never fails to amaze me that our culture has embraced Christianity at all, sometimes, and I always get a weird feeling when I see serried ranks of old ladies chanting about ‘Gilead’ or ‘Nazareth’ or ‘Bethel’ and so on. What these dry, middle eastern places mean to our verdant culture is a mystery to me – but I’m getting ahead of myself – but there’s a comfort in repetition, at least. I’ve no time for evangelical churches, on both philosophical and aesthetic grounds. If it’s gotta be church, it’s gotta be highish (though, er, not Catholic, thanks). I think the sonorous mystique of some Latin, a whiff of incense and a tone of seriousness have a lot to offer the soul.
If I were to believe in anything, the genius loci wins hands down for me. I think churches offer a contemplative balm which is truly valuable, but nothing compares to a walk in the woods or a stride across a moor or a leap across a stream or the surge of a hill. I’m absolutely with Wordsworth here: One impulse from a vernal wood May teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good, Than all the sages can. Our culture here is rooted in paganism, which in some sense feeds materialism, which is both good and bad – the middle eastern death cult of Christianity has been here for a long time, but has never really grabbed the nation’s soul, I think. Our churches inhabit sacred sites of yore, our Christmases hijack Yule. I bet more people have Christmas trees than go to church.
I can’t really bring myself to believe in any non-material consciousness. God in all His glorious manifestations reeks of us, not of heaven. He should shave with Ockham’s razor. And much as I love the idea of nymphs and fauns and dryads and fairies and elves, they too remain in the ideosphere for me. If you want an explanation of the world, rationalism is the only way forward.
High Church pagan atheist
But an explanation of the world isn’t the only thing we want. We want comfort, a sense of connectedness, of pattern and of meaning. I think the answer to this is metaphor, and life would be hideously impoverished without it. God is a metaphor (a ‘comforting fiction’ or ‘foma’, as Kurt Vonnegut has it) which is useful to many, many people. Greek gods and Druidic spirits are metaphors, too, to explain our own behaviour or the environment we find ourselves in. In many ways, I find polytheistic or pantheistic theologies a lot more sensible than the one-stop-shop of monotheism. But they are all different ways of telling stories through the long dark teatime of the soul. I think Don Cupitt’s take on Christianity is the right one, although I would never call myself a Christian: while I believe it offers people powerful metaphors, I think other views offer better metaphors.
And don’t get me started on Buddhism.