Nietzsche reckoned on a number of things before, like so many politicians and celebrities prior and subsequent to him, he started believing his own press releases and began signing himself off as “Napoleon”. He famously said that God is dead, but also put forward the idea of the eternal recurrence: that all human experiences had happened before, and every sensation experience or trial we will go through is just a repeat of that which has occurred in the past.
I think there’s something in that. When I was in my early teens, the scope of our philosophical debate centred around that most tricky conundrum: Take That or East 17? The arguments raged, unsolved, in class 7H and across our year for many a month, and no resolution was ever achieved as to whether “Stay Another Day” top-trumped “Say You’ll Be There”. The battle lines were drawn and the troops, on both sides implacable and certain of their truth and the evidence behind it, would not be reconciled.
Later on, it was with the foxhunting which is a runner for the most tedious debate in politics, outside whether we should have an elected head of state, so I’m not going to précis the arguments here. John Mortimer once said that there were three distinct groups involved in the foxhunting hoedown: those who were passionately for it, those who were passionately against it, and those who passionately don’t give a damn. I was always relieved to fall firmly into the latter category, as I did over the Take That or East 17 conundrum, although I did buy “Deep” on cassette when I was about twelve. I had no idea what they were talking about.
Maybe it’s a condition of the end of modernity that these arguments and ones like them seem to come round with a more tedious regularity, or simply it’s the old adage that the years go faster as you age. Either way, it was with a great sigh that my comrades and I in the Don’t Give A Damn camp saw that the religion versus secularism debate was being wheeled out again with Polly Toynbee and Richard Dawkins on one side and the clerics and the Daily Telegraph editorial team on the other.
Guys, guys. Chillax. Seriously.
First of all, there seems to be a bit of confusion between the concepts of secularism and atheism. Secularism is a political movement, which contains those of all faiths and none, which holds that a public space should exist of absolute equality. That means a separation between church and state, keeping their rosaries off our ovaries, and generally ensuring that “faith” which is a private pursuit is allowed to encroach on, and restrict the liberties of, the public arena. Most liberals - whether they are Jewish, atheist, Christian, or Muslim – tend to be down with that.
But in this debate, as with all those previous to it, the concepts of secularism and atheism have become blurred. Atheism, by contrast, is a religious not a political movement, or at least an anti-religious movement that holds that God does not exist. It is also, in spite of the nutters that exist on the fringe of every religion who are held up as representative of the “threat” posed by those with faith, the prevailing orthodoxy in twenty-first century Britain. Atheists don’t believe in God, Christians do, and every so often somebody makes a comment about “aggressive secularism” and it all kicks off again. Somebody get the Archbish on the line and call Toynbee back from Tuscany, dammit! Fight, fight, fight!
It’s like being back at Chichester High School for Girls circa 1992, when one girl whopped another for saying that Robbie was hotter than the one with the douchebag beard from E17.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, God says to man that he refuses to prove that he exists, because proof denies faith, and without faith He is nothing. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how many bemused clerics Dawkins covers in spittle, or how many head-desk interfaces George Carey causes by his pronouncements, these two groups are never going to persuade each other. Faith exists beyond science and cannot be quantified, measured, or reasoned with. We all have faith of some sort, even in spite of the odds are that it’s misplaced. I mean, look at your relationship history for example, and all those who promised that they would love you forever. Point proved, and hankies all round, eh? But we’re human, we seem to be hard-wired to keep on believing. There’s always another who, this time, will be the “real thing”. Eternal recurrence, again.
Of course, in Hitchhiker's, the Babel Fish could not have existed by chance, which proved somebody must have created it. This, in turn, proved that God existed so, by his own logic, he didn’t. I spent many an hour wracking my brains when I was younger to identify a real-life Babel Fish – something that had been created not begotten – and, in spite of a vague feeling that the continued existence of Jimmy Carr might be proof of the Devil, I couldn’t.
Your move, science.
Until then, and until the religious can give the atheists faith, or the atheists can prove that faith is not "real", can we all just have some peace from this repetitive and circular debate?