Last Sunday, once again listening to the god-slot early morning Radio 4. The programme “Something Understood” discusses inner contradictions and it has an interview with my godfather, Richard Holloway, formerly Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of Scotland. Well, I say godfather as that’s what he was when I was being brought up, and these days I still find that’s just the easiest label by which to refer to him.
I do keep an ear open for news of Richard as I was always fond of him, and listened with fascination to his spats with organised religion, including widely reported incident when post-Lambeth he threw his mitre in the Thames in disgust over the ongoing rejection of – I can’t remember whether it was the church’s opposition to women bishops or gay marriage. The more I hear of his activities, the more I think that his spats with organised religion have gone beyond just an opposition to the organisations associated with religion, and that his spat is with faith and belief.
In this programme he’s discussing the turmoil he has experienced through his life in the Scottish episcopal church, including describing himself as sometimes atheist and sometimes theist. He describes the theist view that the existence of god gives a purpose and a meaning to his life. He finds this countered by an atheist realisation that the universe has no ultimate meaning, and his sense of futility that life by extension has no purpose and is without meaning.
I too came to a realisation many years ago that the universe has no ultimate purpose, that there is no meaning to anything. Though the lack of an overall plan for the world, does not mean that we have our own purpose in life. I work in the health service, and – contrary to what you may read in the Daily Fail – am part of a workforce that is dedicated to providing optimum healthcare to patients. Helping others is my purpose in life, that is what gives my life meaning. My further purpose is always to become better at what I do. I’m probably pretty average in my profession, and I can always improve in the care I offer. I constantly study so that I am finding new ways to improve the service I provide. To become better at helping others is always my purpose in life.
There may not be any god-given, spiritual or other supernaturally-drive purpose to life, but that is not to say our lives are without purpose. We make our own purpose by cooperating as a species, by being the social animal we are. For humanity in general, I would describe “purpose” as “enjoy yourself, don’t stamp on others as you go through life, and see if you can help others”. Or, “do unto others etc, and have some fun along the way”.
Richard also has a piece in the New Statesman this week. He acknowledges that if there is no god then all “revelation theology” comes only from human imagination, the use of story-telling as a means of describing the human condition and origins. He then says atheists are wrong to dismiss the bible / quran as myths and fairy tales, but instead that we should ask if they still speak for the human condition.
So, godfather, I must disagree with you. The pentateuch / old testament / new testament / quran are just fairy tales made up by fallible humans. They are filled with misogyny, genocide, violence and hatred. Perhaps that describes the human condition, but if it does then it describes what we must turn away from, not what we must emulate. The bible does not describe the triumph of good over evil; it describes the evil in our nature.
Richard also dismisses our dismissal of the circular reasoning inherent in all religious argument. Perhaps he dismisses this as there is no way to defend the argument. How do they know that the bible is the word of god? because it says so in the bible. A ridiculous argument that if presented without supporting evidence can simply be dismissed without supporting evidence.
So how did a staunch atheist like me come to have the former head of the anglican church in Scotland as a godfather? My late father was a priest in the episcopal church, and was the incumbent of a church in Glasgow. At the time that I was born he had Richard as a deacon for the parish, and so Richard was asked to be my godfather.