When it comes to the crunch, even in a supposedly secular culture, thoughts of God and heaven refuse to go away, says Neil Glover
I once heard Richard Dawkins pray. It wasn’t one of those formal graces that he says before dinner at New College Oxford, but a heartfelt prayer to God in a moment of distress.
I’m not alone in this. Thousands of people who were listening to Dawkins on Radio 4, when he was attacking people who called themselves Christians but didn’t know the name of the first book of the New Testament, would have heard him too.
He was confronted by Church of England priest Giles Fraser, who challenged him to give the full title of his own bible, Darwin’s Origin of the Species. This was when Professor Dawkins resorted to prayer. The liturgy went something like this:
Priest: Richard, if I was to ask you the full title of the Origin of the Species, I am sure you could tell me that.
Dawkins: Yes, I could.
Priest: Go on then!
Dawkins: The Origin of the Species with… uh. Oh God … On the Origin of the Species … uh….
I wasn’t particularly surprised that the world’s most famous Darwinist couldn’t remember a book title when ambushed on an early morning radio show. I was shocked, though, that when the world’s most famous atheist found himself in a spot of minor public bother, his instinct was to utter “Oh God”.
I draw attention to this not to score cheap points against Dawkins, but rather to suggest that even Richard Dawkins can’t get rid of God. Even he, when he is in trouble, uses the language of God, arguably because somewhere deep within him, he is reaching out to a higher power beyond himself.
It is impossible to build an anti-contamination chamber that successfully keeps out God from our lives. This is something the new atheists keep failing to do: Christopher Hitchens admitted he wouldn’t mind being surprised by heaven when he died and Sam Harris has admitted to being intrigued by the evidence for reincarnation. Professor Brian Cox ended his incredible TV series Wonders of the Solar System by saying that the quest to discover the existence of aliens was the most profound and important question humanity faced. This question only acquires that importance if he wasn’t really thinking about Martians, Wookies and extra-terrestrial microbes but was actually referring to God.
It seems that we live in a world where, despite the sharpest, angriest, most unrelenting of arguments, it is impossible to keep out God. Thoughts of God, angels and heaven keep creeping back in, no matter our most strident attempts to keep them at bay.
Roadside flowers contain messages to the lost: “I know you are watching us” and “You are in a better place now.” Scotland has produced a Wimbledon champion (let those who discount miracles come to terms with that one) who ends his matches by pointing up to the sky. The Millennial generation is prone to encountering the shocks and wonders of this world with the three letters “OMG”. Look at IMDB’s top 10 movies, and every single one of them could be classed as a work of theology (for the top three, the clues is in the title: Shawshank Redemption; and Godfathers I and II).
In the 2011 census almost 180,000 people said their religion was Jedi, and over 60,000 said Heavy Metal. Perhaps this was a protest vote, or perhaps this was people still wanting to believe in something, refusing to shut out the possibility that the universe is more than a chance gathering of a few trillion particles.
The Church, at its best, is a place where such possibilities are entertained and the deepest questions asked. This week the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly meets to consider our Church’s future. We will revisit our most painful questions. We will also celebrate the Church and its people, and dream about its future.
I was recently hearing about the regeneration of one of the most impoverished areas in the centre of Glasgow. The planners met over many years. They wanted roads, housing, shops, and parks. They also wanted a church. In a post-Christian Scotland, where we get married in hotels and humanist celebrants conduct increasing numbers of funerals, people still wanted their community to have a church. Not a church where entry depends on knowing the books of the New Testament, but where people can gather and be welcomed as themselves; where food is eaten (some of it consecrated) and heavy metal fans, Jedi knights and sceptical biologists can consider the possibility that even in our darkest moments, we are not alone. That is the kind of Church I will be dreaming of this week.
• Rev Neil Glover is a Church of Scotland minister. See also www.churchofscotland.org.uk