Confessions of an unbeliever

I’m rather proud of the way I have restrained myself from writing about Baroness Warsi, the Muslim peer – and, sharp intake of breath, Conservative party chairman – who made a complete arsi of herself in the Vatican by prattling on about the growing danger of militant secularism. I know that when I first heard about her comments, I could feel the heat gathering under my collar, but decided to let it dissipate a bit first.

Having calmed down, I now feel able to offer a more carefully considered, thoughtful and balanced view. Stupid, stupid, stupid woman.

“For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant,” she says. “Aggressive secularism is being imposed by stealth.”

Aside from the positively Pythonesque idea of an aggressive secularist movement imposing itself by stealth on the unsuspecting population (imagine the Terry Gilliam animation), the accusation of intolerance by a Muslim, speaking to a predominantly Catholic audience in the Vatican, has a priceless, to-die-for irony about it. In that sense – and only in that sense – it was worth hearing.

Presumably, the tolerance of such notoriously secular states as the Netherlands and the US – in spite of your Palins, Romneys and Santorums – is a thing of the collective imagination. Now that it's been outed, the oppressive yoke of secularism can be thrown off, and we can expect a return to the fine practices of beneficent, intolerant religions, in the form of amputations, stonings-to-death and burnings-at-the-stake (not things of the imagination). That, after all, is what the majority of people have been wanting all along, but have been too cowed to say so by this wicked, secular tyranny.

It might be the case that we secularists have deserved it. The trouble with the whole debate about atheism is that it has become so stridently Dawkins-flavoured. As I understand it – and cheerfully practise it – atheism is a personal point of view, an unbelief that doesn’t seek to recruit. If you want your god, go right ahead: just please don’t seek to impose it on me or – more importantly – anyone else. Unlike Richard Dawkins, I don’t see the need to try to disabuse believers, even if I think their fervour is misplaced.

One of my many problems with religion is that it’s never enough, as a participant, merely to believe in a god, or God. I am also required to worship one. And that’s where I come particularly unstuck: the idea of worshipping the concept of something, failing its actual, tangible existence, I find at best comical, at worst stupid and in the middle, humiliating. That’s not to confuse ritual with worship – in fact, I quite get ritual and in many ways, don’t mind it. There’s ritual in the way we do lots of things: when I shave, there is a ritualistic quality to what I do and the way I do it. Church rituals, such as taking communion (insertion of wafer into mouth, wafer sticking to top of mouth, sip of wine much too early in the day, but unsticking wafer, soft mumblings of a form of words that could just as easily have been written by Edward Lear – what’s not to like?), have little impact on me, as long as it’s not mistaken for worship.

I suppose I’m not sure that I’ve ever really worshipped – I mean properly worshipped – anyone, or anything. If I was a football fanatic, maybe I’d have worshipped Eric Cantona, but the key word there is fanatic, not worship: that’s what fanatics do, isn’t it? Maybe some people worship the domestic goddess that Nigella Lawson is supposed to be. Fourteen year old girls worshipped Paul McCartney in the early sixties and certainly would have built shrines to Him in their bedrooms. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt the need.

No, proper worship requires people in fancy dress leading a congregation of some sort. With the act of worship comes the corollary of prayer, in which the deal is: I worship you and in return, you grant me a wish or two. Prayer is OK, just about: I guess everyone prays, just a little and hopefully quietly, that their lottery numbers will come up. But otherwise, worship, praise and various other fawning religious practices aimed at securing a comfortable place in the afterlife seem to me to be abundantly ridiculous.

Which brings me back to the fatuous Baroness Warsi. She’s a mate of David Cameron. He endorsed what she said in the Vatican. Before him, there was Tony Blair, an evangelising Catholic convert. It’s enough to send me off to the recruiting booth of the mechanised wing of the Militant Secularist.

Off with their heads, I say. They’re not using them, after all.

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