When I walk past a Church of England church I read the orders of service to try and ascertain if if its ministers ever used the King James Bible or the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. There was a time when if that was the case I might consider going to a service, for the familiar music and liturgy, for the pleasure of hearing 400 year old poetry and largely Victorian songs (and the certainty that there would no guitars, tambourines, New English or phonytonyish vicars in jeans). The poetry is as rich and potent as Shakespeare, and like his verse, is echoed in the rhythms and cadences of all the canonical English poets from John Milton to Ted Hughes. I am soothed by the notion of sitting where others have sat before me, for centuries, here the words they heard in the order they heard them, and hearing also, in my mind's ear all the later echoes of those words in poems both sacred and profane. I can't go to churches any more now that my atheism is devout. I have to practise what I preach.
Prayers and hymns were the first real poems I ever heard (though I loved nursery rhymes of course) and in my CoE primary school I heard them three times a day, five days a week. There was assembly every morning with readings, hymns and prayers, a grace before dinner, and afternoon prayers before we left to go home. I liked the pattern these observances gave to the school day, liked the special atmosphere they generated, liked the stillness and solemnity. I loved the repetition of the ancient words and phrases, loved the fulsome, serious rhyming of the hymns. I loved school, generally; it was my sanctuary. And it was, apart from trivialities and distractions like music and movement, the sandpit and having to do sums, a place devoted to the acquisition of words.
The words of hymns and prayers and scripture have a special shape and colour and very unusual texture. In my mind's eye they are, somewhat predictably, in gothic script with illuminated capitals. The lettering is bold and dark and vivid, yet it floats on fragile, ancient paper, so all of its august richness can be blown away by one doubting modern breath. The pages disintegrate, yet the power of individual phrases in undiminished. "Glad that I live am I... amid the alien corn... immortal, invisible, God only wise... this is my body, this is blood... whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do... a garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed... earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone... yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me... above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by... he was eaten with worms and gave up the ghost... though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity..."
I wasn't an atheist at primary school. I was more a kind of agnostic. I owned, after all a book of Bible Stories. They were lovely stories, but someone, clearly, had made them up, just like all my other books of stories. This conviction was blurred somewhat when my mother showed me some Josephus and pointed out that there was some historical evidence for the existence of man called Jesus. There was always one biblical declaration that made perfect rational and metaphysical sense to me:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
I don't remember when, precisely, I first heard these words but I remember they seemed to articulate in a pleasingly ponderous and paradoxical way, something I had always known but had never realised I knew. I knew I knew words like 'ponderous' and 'paradoxical' and that knowing them would be a constant, inviolable, part of my interior resources; written in stone. I faithfully believed words were as magical and holy and potent as God would be if he actually existed. Hell of course, is illiteracy. And other people's awful spelling. If you don't believe me look at Myspace.
In the beginning was the word and so naturally in the end will be the word, too. Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live. Woman that is born of woman hath likewise but a short time to live; it just feels longer. When I am falling asleep reading there is a moment before I nod off when the letters start sliding and skipping about the page like they playing snakes and ladders, when the words jumble and dance and flicker into puns and jokes and nonsense. I hope that death will be like that, not the dozing off into my own dreams but sinking at last into theirs, into a safe and soothing sea of meaning suspended.
No other scriptural assertion ever rang as true to me. One son, even the only begotten one, never seemed like sufficient sacrifice for my sins, let alone everyone else's. And the death on the cross, for all Mel Gibson's bravehardon drooling over it, didn't seem to me, even as child, all that bad, compared to the agonising deaths so many people would have suffered at the time. The myths and parables and psalms were fascinating and compelling, though, and the notion that they were devised to somehow persuade me to be a better person is a lovely one. Alas they clearly do not work.
So I am an atheistic, though I remain culturally Christian, and unashamedly so. Kind-hearted people (the road to hell is paved with good intentions) sometimes try to persuade me to get in touch with my roots by attaching some significance to my mother's latent Jewishness or the fact that my father came from Mauritius. But temples and tropical heat are equally alien to me; I am much more at home in an English country churchyard. The first time I grew to understand that places can have a resonance, a significance beyond the present and intrinsic was on a school trip to St Michael's in Copford. I would have made a good agnostic. As I reached these years, and was confronted by the thought that I was probably closer now to the grave than the cradle, I might even have become more than agnostic. When you seem to have wasted years roughhewing your ends with a rusty razor it would be such a comfort to think that there was a divinity waiting in the wings to shape them. Or when you have proved to be all too unloveable it would be a consolation to think that Jesus loved you, and though you he doesn't quite want you for a sunbeam, he might consider soliciting your services as a proof-reader. It would offer such hope, above all the noise and pessism and dirt, beyond the images of young blood spilt over desks and books that the peace that passeth all understanding was waiting for you in the cathedral at the end of the road.
But it isn't, it can't be. Not while creationists refuse to go the way of the dinosaurs they dispute, nor po-faced killjoys protest against Jerry Spinger: The Opera, nor while a middle aged man with a firm voice but eyes that can't meet the camera, is interviewed expressing his relief that the priest who destroyed his childhood is finally being brought to book, nor when a doctor's finely honed brains are splattered across an abortion clinic's door. My childhood love of hymns and prayers now seems distant and absurd. When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old he was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold; he was not savage and bitter and wielding a placard saying 'god hates fags'. Surely those who fight the good fight now are those who oppose these ways of thinking, and must, therefore do all they can to resist the apparent charms and consolations of their source.
*earlier confessions here.