Stranded in the sea of compromise
That awkward moment when another atheist mistakes you for a believer.
This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.
It was, as I said to my partner on the way to the reception, a rather lovely wedding. Yes, the vicar had been a little strident but he’d kept his sermon short. And most of the small congregation had stayed in tune during the singing of “I Vow to Thee My Country” and “Bread of Heaven”. I could perhaps have done without the reverentially mumbled Lord’s Prayer near the end of the ceremony but then again it was pleasantly uplifting to leave the pretty church to the familiar sounds of “Sheep May Safely Graze”.
There was certainly a satisfied smile on my face as I took my seat at the long restaurant table reserved for the wedding guests. Not knowing anyone around me, I decided that my smile and sociability might best be lavished on the elderly man sitting opposite. “You’re the bridegroom’s father?” He nodded. “Lovely wedding, wasn’t it?” I essayed. “Such a pretty little church. And a nice informal vicar. No hellfire nonsense. And a jolly good sing-song.”
His blank expression never wavered as I rattled through the ceremony’s other attributes. Perhaps he was a little hard of hearing. I slightly raised my voice. “AND THE SERMON DIDN’T GO ON TOO LONG, DID IT? THAT’S ALWAYS A BLESSING, DON’T YOU THINK?”
His response was as brief as it was unexpected. “Too much Jesus,” he said, without changing his expression. “Too much Jesus for an atheist like me.”
I suddenly realised that I’d sailed too far out into the sea of compromise to now head straight back to shore. After my praise for the vicar and the hymns and the church, how could I now announce my own lifelong intolerance of Jesus talk? But even as I contemplated the route back to non-belief, I noticed that my companion had turned his attention elsewhere. A waiter had placed a steak before him and had been about to go on with the rest of his duties when my new friend had demanded that he stay where he was. “I asked for well-done,” he said. “You stay there while I check.” He then drove his knife into the neck of the meat and eyed the dark brown interior with an expression that was almost approving. “That’s fine,” he said, dismissing the waiter with a flap of his wrist.
During this I decided on a plan of conversational action. I would go back to that church ceremony and find a source of so far unexpressed dissatisfaction which could then lead naturally to my atheist credentials. I could start on that “Bread of Heaven” hymn. Why was it that Christians always had to demean themselves before God, announce their unworthiness and positively plead with the great Redeemer for some of that Bread of Heaven?
But even as I prepared to speak I noticed that the bridegroom’s father was pointing a finger at his steak while looking at me in a most triumphalist manner. “There you are,” he said. “Well-done. Not just well-done because the waiter says it’s well-done. But well-done empirically. You have to be empirical in this world. Test things for yourself. Not rely on what others tell you. That’s empiricism. The use of the senses.”
I now had another problem. Not only had I been taken for a believer, but it was also being assumed by the bridegroom’s father that because of this defect I was also incapable of acting reasonably, unable to jettison the illusions of blind faith for the certainties afforded by observation.
The day was saved by the very attractive young lady on my right. She’d picked up on the last part of the conversation. “Did I hear you say ‘empiricism’?” she asked. “I think I’m an empiricist but I don’t quite know what it means.”
It was all the excuse he needed. His face turned away from mine and stayed away for the rest of the meal. From time to time I heard words like “astrology” and “palmistry” and “Dawkins” pass across the table but it was clear that the happy couple felt no inclination to invite their conversation to be joined by someone they both by now believed to be a God-loving communion-taking miracle-believing hymn-singing old deist.
“Did you enjoy the service?” said the middle-aged lady on my left. “I always think there’s something special about being married in church. It means that you’ve taken your vows in the actual presence of God.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” I said, taking a knife to my seriously underdone steak.