Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Gin in the Tonic

I outed myself as an atheist in front of a group of Muslim students recently. These are men who have never entertained the smallest doubt as to the existence of God and which people and practices He favours and deplores. Each of these blokes is a believer of the kind characterised by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.

‘I pity you. Really,’ said Nouri, shaking his head at my folly.


He had no answer. He just stretched his lips, raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

‘Who made you?’ Hacen asked keenly, as if raising a pressing point I might not have considered. ’Who is decide when you will born, and when you will die?’

‘Look, by using the word ‘who’, you are assuming that…’

‘Who is decide your fat?’ Nouri shot at me, pleased to have found another avenue of attack.

Fate. By using the word ‘who’, you are assu…’

‘There is one scientist Egyptian who he work at NASA,’ Hamid interupted. ‘He looks in the space, and then he believe the God. He cannot don’t believe the God, when he look in the space. He say…’ - and here, Hamid adopted a tone of awe-struck reverence – ‘he say, ‘if I cannot believe the God,’ - his voice was a hoarse whisper now – ‘if I cannot believe the God, I cannot believe myself.’ Hand on heart, eyes aflame, he held my gaze as silence fell on the room and a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds.

What a load of cock, I almost said, failing utterly to sense the presence of the numinous the way Hamid obviously did. (I made up the bit about the clouds.) What a bloody fatuous statement. It obviously spoke to the other blokes in the room, but if it has any meaning, I’m Donald Ducked if I can see it.

What in fact I did was congratulate Hamid, as I knew he felt reluctant to discuss such matters in English, and I thought he’d acquitted himself pretty well. I realised I was coming very close to alienating the group by calling their beliefs into question, and suggested a break. This is a university, I mused, glumly. We are supposed to deal in ideas, and here I am, censoring myself to keep the customers sweet.


We don’t seem to meet much, the numinous and me. There’s a distinct lack of awe in me. Christianity utterly fails to induce it. I empathise with Temple Grandin when, in An Anthropologist on Mars, she and Oliver Sacks are viewing the Rocky Mountains and he asks her if she does not feel a sense of their sublimity.

‘They’re pretty, yes. Sublime, I don’t know.’ When I pressed her, she said she was puzzled by such words and had spent much time with a dictionary, trying to understand them. She had looked up 'sublime', 'mysterious' 'numinous' and 'awe', but they all seemed to be defined in terms of one another.

I can count the times I have felt deeply moved, and they are not numerous. I remember being staggered by the sight of a wooded hillside in Liguria, the pine trees ablaze with fireflies, and by the astounding landscape at Delphi on my one visit there in the depths of winter when the tourists were few. I am always moved, briefly, by the sight of the theatre at Epidaurus before a performance, usually more so than by the performance itself. Three years back, Tavener’s Song for Athene reduced me to a blubbering wreck every time I played it. It was so unbearably poignant that I kept on playing it to cure myself of it, homeopathically. The most ecstatic experiences I have known were all sexual, but alas, those pleasures be stale and forsaken. So generally speaking, I seem to be pretty much immune to wonder. The best bit of that visit to Delphi was the handful of tourists who had managed to drag themselves there out of season. A bunch of disgruntled elderly American ladies complained that gold jewellery was not as cheap at Delphi as in Yugoslavia, and seemed not to notice much else. An Italian school master with a troupe of school kids was discoursing learnedly on the function of the Delphi theatre. Every evening, he told them, doppo la passegiata, after the evening stroll, people would mosey on up to see if they might catch a good Aristophanes before dinner. I remember all that idiocy more clearly than the brief moments of beauty.

On the train home yesterday afternoon I looked out at the woods and fields in the torrential rain and remembered during the mid-eighties being dragged through similar countryside around Linton by my then boyfriend. He was a farmer’s son and I was a dyed-in-the-wool townie, trudging behind him through chuckling mud that sucked the wholly inappropriate shoes off my feet as if it thought I was feeding it. Richard would point to birds that I couldn’t see, and warn that they were endangered, while I would assure him that I would quickly learn to live without them. I was hard to impress. One wet day, we came to a plantation of fir trees. In the gloom there lay a dead hare. I stood a long time looking into the receding darkness behind the little corpse, and sensed something intelligent in there, watching. I never mentioned this to Richard, who would have howled with derision at such sentimentality, but after that I’d go for walks on my own when he was out, so I could feel the watchful presence without him constantly pointing out Lords and Ladies, diseased Dutch Elms and tree-crawlers. This Thing was knowing, mocking. It didn’t trust humans very much, but I liked it and went out on my walks to court it a bit.

Of course, although it did feel quite independent of me then, I created this little god myself, in mine own image, as all gods are created. Even as a teenage Christer I had sensed there was a spirit in me that did not desire to worship or grovel for forgiveness, no deity had any right to expect me to, and no real deity would be insecure enough to need me to. It is ironic and deflationary, this spirit, and it scorns seriousness and piety. It’s the salt on life’s chips, the lemon juice on man’s fish, and the gin in the sublunary tonic. It would never be obedient to Jesus or submit to Allah, and it loathes their sugar-coated cruelty and charmless pomposity.

Nouri has learned the phrase ‘we must stop playing God’, and these days he works it into every essay he writes, as it lends itself to all the stock themes of advanced level EFL essays: euthanasia, climate change, genetic modification, IVF, that sort of thing. I agree with him, but for reasons it would take weeks for him to understand, and even then he would be shocked all over again at my impiety. So, along with so many other potential excursions, we won’t go there.


Bo said...

Splendid stuff. The line about the sublunary gin was one of the best sentences I've ever read.

Vilges Suola said...


Mediterranean kiwi said...

in the frontistirio, religion was considered a taboo subject (along with politics and sex), so we couldn't talk about them in the class; my MA students also mainly come from very religious backgrounds, and this idea is reflected in their essays too; coupled with their grammar etc errors, they sometiems come out sounding like uneducated fundamentalists

Vilges Suola said...

I remember that religion and politics were forbidden contractually as subjects for discussion when I was at a frontistirio in Kavala back in 85. I got objections from the police when I wanted to state my religion on my residence permit as Buddhist. I should have said 'satanist' and observed the reaction.

Sarah said...

Travelling in Indonesia as a lone female in the 90s I got familiar with a litany of questions, usually starting with "Where is your husband?" or "Are you married?" (a negative to this one often elicited "Would you like to marry an Indonesian?" if the questioner was male and within 30 years either side of my own age) followed invariably by "What is your religion?" I varied between saying I was Catholic (which is culturally and tribally accurate) or saying that I had no religion. This answer often caused a gasp and the horrified question "Are you... a communist?" Nope and I'm not Chinese either.

Vilges Suola said...

I get shocked reactions from Arab men when I say I am not married. Whether they make the right conclusion or not I don't know. I suspect not, or their respect for me would evaporate.

Holly said...

A lovely, well-written post. It must be religion week in the blogosphere. Sorry for using the word "blogosphere" but I also wrote about religion this week.

Fionnchú said...

I've been cornered too, by family, students, friends. As my beliefs or their lack seem to vary according to my mood, I am haunted by Jesus' spiteful warning that He'd vomit the lukewarm out of His mouth.

Apropos, moments before reading your post, I drafted a review of a forthcoming book by Michael Krasny: "Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest." It will come out in five weeks, so keep an eye open for my review when it's published out there in cyberia.

And, keep the other eye open for wonderful moments as you tell us here. I've missed your posts lately. But I forget-- you get a real summer holiday, am I right?

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks everyone for your comments and leads. Summer holiday? Stuff of fantasy! No, we have the pre-sessional course running now, twenty odd classes of twenty odd students each, so it's bedlam. I get a couple of busman's holidays in Greece before Xmas, change as good as a rest, I hope.

Anonymous said...

What a dizzyingly consummate piece of writing. I am deeply envious of your writing skill, but also happily smug that I can revel in it as and when I please, FREE!!!!

Vilges Suola said...

Thank you! So glad you like it. You've made my evening!


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