2007, a bad year for God squadders

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 21/12/07):

Nothing better measures the retreat of religion in our postmodern society than the diminished intensity of the war over Christmas.

This fight — waged for decades by a dwindling band of religious insurgents against a prevailing secularist consensus — used to be fought with a real passion. People actually once got quite upset about saucy Christmas cards or television schedules that omitted even a hint of religion between the comedy classics and the game shows.

Now it just amounts to a few feeble skirmishes, a couple of barmy Christians railing outside the shopping malls, while everybody else gets on with their daily worship at the shrines of the modern trinity: shopping, eating and drinking.

The Christmas war, in fact, is rapidly acquiring the status of historical curiosity. In a few years’ time, we’ll have to stage re-enactments, like those Civil War buffs who gather in soggy fields:

“Look, George. Those people over there with the lanterns and the hymn books actually used to believe in the whole Christmas Story.”

“Wow. They look so real. What was the Christmas Story, Mum?”

The retreat continues, despite the best efforts of the Anglicans to keep making concessions to disbelieving modernity, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did again this week with his observation that we were obliged to treat the Christmas Story really as just a legend. Like Alfred and the burnt cakes, I suppose.

Christmas closes another year that has been pretty brutal on the God squadders, a year in which the swelling tide of unbelief crashed further through the structures of our cultural architecture.

If you measure intelligent sentiment by book-reading habits alone, then atheism was a big winner in 2007. Richard Dawkins continued to wave an angry Darwinian fist in the faces of carol singers (before, it turns out, rather oddly, lining up with them for a quick rendition of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen) with his exposure of the God Delusion. He was joined by Christopher Hitchens, whose God is Not Great will be filling many Christmas stockings.

But the atheists didn’t confine their advances to the rather narrow field of non-fiction for grown-ups. Seizing on the old Jesuit principle of getting them while their young, Philip Pullman went Hollywood this year with the Dark Materials trilogy.

Mr Pullman, knowing a commercial opportunity when he saw one, described Catholics who objected to the adaptation of his books, which feature as the principal villain a thinly disguised Papacy, as “nitwits”.

This seems to be wanting to have your polemical cake and eating it. You can hardly blame Catholics for feeling a bit defensive. He told an interviewer a few years ago that the main purpose in writing his books was to undermine belief in God. Now belief in God may be increasingly optional these days for the more lukewarm leaders of Anglicanism but it is still pretty much a prerequisite for Catholics.

As ever, though, when it comes to discrediting religion, the efforts of atheist polemicists and fantasists were no match for the behaviour of believers themselves.

A certain brand of fanatical Islam continues to lead the world in advertising the deep unpleasantness of religion as it can be practised — whether submitting rape victims in Saudi Arabia to the lash or threatening the same against aberrant teddy bear teachers in Sudan, all in the name of God.

The unprepossessing brand of exclusive evangelicalism followed in some parts of America ( the “I’m Saved, You’re Not” approach to salvation) has never been far from the headlines this year and is also very effective in turning people away from religion.

But this year also seemed to produce the most unlikely addition to the ranks of the unbelievers. In September we learnt that Mother Teresa, even while she was saving millions of souls in Calcutta, was apparently losing her own. Her posthumously published autobiography, Come Be My Light, much of it in the form of anguished letters to priests and others, recounted how the Blessed Teresa (she was beatified in 2003) had endured what theologians call a long, dark night of the soul. She repeatedly expressed the most excruciating of doubts about the existence of God and the faith to which she had dedicated her life.

The reaction to the book was predictable. She was denounced as a fraud and a hypocrite by some, welcomed posthumously into the ranks of the unbelievers by others. Few bothered to read through to the end and discover that Teresa recovered her faith before she died in 1997.

That someone as self-evidently devout as Mother Teresa could have been tormented for so long by such doubts should not be read as confirmation that the atheists have got it right. The lesson of Mother Teresa’s long, dark night of the soul is precisely the opposite, in fact. That faith, by its very nature, entails doubt. If we could be really, truly certain, about the existence of God, what, really, would be the point of it all?

It is the Christmas Story, or legend if you will, as much as anything we believe, that underlines this essential tension between faith and doubt.

You’d have thought (and certainly the pre-Christians did) that the Son of God, when He chose, would enter the world in a way that would leave no doubt who He was or that He existed.

But He chose instead to come in a way that ensured just about the maximum room for doubt; merely another barely noticed nativity in the most miserable of circumstances. If you were lucky enough to be one of those shepherds on the hills around Bethlehem who got the news from the angelic host, or one of the wise men who followed that star, you were lucky. No long, dark night of the soul for you. Instead, just one brilliant flash of celestial light and the secret of the universe was revealed.

But for the rest of us, forced to ponder the complexity of our existence and the competing implausibilities of faith and unbelief, that was surely the point of the manger, the stable, the ox and the ass. That God would choose to come among us in such a way is so strange, so inexplicable, so unbelievable, it compels us to believe.