Monday, 26 March 2012

My First Singing Chiffchaff of 2012

A Chiffchaff at Horsenden Hill in Perivale last year
Heard at 1.20pm today during a lunchtime 5k jog in the sunshine along the Grand Union Canal at Brentford.

Pretty much bang on schedule compared with recent years:

2011: Sunday, March 27 - London Wetland Centre, Barnes

2010: Sunday, March 28 - Thames path at Barnes

2009: Saturday, March 21 - London Wetland Centre, Barnes

2008: Saturday, April 5 - Wells, Norfolk

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Review of Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is the eloquently revolutionary antidote to the shrill, fundamentalist atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Where those Godless superstars paint every believer with the whacky brush of Creationism, Alain takes a much more sympathetic view of the value of religion in a secular world while steadfastly refusing to believe a single goddam word of it.

The reader of The God Delusion pictures Dawkins as a puce-faced dictator about to explode with rage at the sheer idiocy of anyone who dares to believe in such mumbo jumbo. Religion For Atheists, in contrast,  stimulates the reader to have a radical think about their own beliefs in an intellectual, liberal and really rather British way.

I took part in a Waterstones twinterview with Alain de Botton last month. I asked him where he thought morality came from if it wasn't from God.

He tweeted: "I think morality is innate, a response to the need to live together in communities. This doesn't preclude amorality."

But if morality is innate, isn't the need to search for a god to provide an answer to why we're here also part of our DNA?

"I don't think so. I have never felt this need myself. I am a thorough atheist in this regard."

But what if Alain's wrong? Wouldn't it be spiritually safer, at the very least, to go with Pascal's Wager; the philosophy that the existence of God cannot be proved through reason, but there is so much to be gained from belief, that a rational person should simply wager that He does exist?

His reponse: "I love Pascal's writing: it's concision and its pessimism. I myself haven't been drawn to the wager, as an atheist."

But to Alain, non-believers should not deny themselves the religious traditions that churchgoers enjoy (or endure, if you're one of my kids). Aside from football matches and rock concerts, for example, church is just about the only place in Britain where it's normal to sing with strangers.

He tweeted: "I love hymns and carols: like many an atheist, the rituals of religion are deeply charming: why should we be 'outside'."

But what to do about the kids? The parenting issue is a particular bete noir of Dawkins. He insists there is no such thing as a Christian child, only a child of Christian parents. I think it's one of the toughest dilemmas facing liberal mums and dads of kids approaching school age. You naturally want them to have the best possible start in life and therefore to go to the best possible schools. It just so happens that in many places the best state schools are faith schools. You also want your children to make up their own minds about religion; but how can they do that if they don't get an education where religion is taught properly?

So parents with faith backgrounds tend to rediscover their lapsed religion when it comes to filling out the school application forms. When it's a toss-up between Grange Hill or a free Greyfriars, a weekly trip to Mass and a monthly bible reading doesn't seem too high a price to pay.

But what would Alain do? He tweeted: "I prefer to bring them up as sympathetic to belief but not believers themselves. That's my angle."

His views on what modern education can learn from religious sermons about the soul are some of the most memorable parts of Religion for me. Alain argues that universities should be focusing more on how to live, love and die than how to track narrative themes in 19th Century Russian novels.

"A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department of Relationships, an Institute of Dying and Centre for Self Knowledge."

And as an English Literature graduate of the late 80s, I recognise all too well the description of the  "culturally well-informed but ethically confused arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives."

Another thing that believers have that atheists don't is a place to gather with others to profess their faith. Alain prompted a lot of raised eyebrows by proposing in his book a sort of church for the godless. But was he being serious?

"I was being totally playful, but it got out of hand. I am not planning any temple 'to atheism'."

And he also took issue with my tweeted suggestion that no secular building can match the moving, spiritual power of the world's greatest religious cathedrals, temples and mosques.

"Oh yes, for sure. The Houses of Parliament are rather stunning. Or Peter Zumthor's Baths at Vals, Switzerland."

Agreed. But they surely don't inspire awe in the way St Peter's Basilica or our own St Paul's Cathedral do. Perhaps the Taj Mahal mausoleum (semi-religious?) or the Treasury at Petra come closer.

The twinterview ended appropriately enough with me saying how much I enjoyed @alaindebotton's excellent  tweets. Everything from parenting to self-loathing is covered in regular treats of less than 140-characters. A favourite recent example: "Definition of a parent: an ordinary human whose significance you can't help but exaggerate: their evil, goodness, guilt etc." So where does he get his inspiration from?

"When it comes to tweets, nothing beats (Francois de) La Rochefoucauld, brilliant 17th century aphorist, a Twitterer before time."

That sort of easy-going erudition pretty much sums up why Religion For Atheists is such a good read. It's a fine-looking, black-and-white-picture-rich book with weighty, themed chapters divided into pithy, numbered paragraphs.

Most make you think; many make you smile at the same time - whether you believe in fairies at the bottom of our beautiful garden or not.