I can't pretend that I gave anything up this Lent, but I can at least endorse the self-denial of others. A couple of weeks ago, I was at a dinner party where a woman arrived late. Handed a glass by the host, she said: "Oh, I've given up wine for Lent. I'm still drinking beer, though. But I think I'll have water."
I found that charming in about five different ways, but mainly because of the unflustered boldness with which she admitted to being religious. Because I mean, this was a north London dinner party . . . I would never admit to any left-liberal social gathering that I sometimes go to church. I once let slip the fact to a moderately right-on friend, and he said, "I can't believe that anybody as sensible and sane as you would be stupid enough to do that", causing me to experience in microcosm what I think is called a roller-coaster of emotions.
I believe that one columnist on the liberal paper I read is a practising Christian, but I only discovered her allegiance when I saw her column in the Tablet. Christians are likely to be depicted in my paper's pages as zealots or people who inexplicably haven't caught up with the modern world. Meanwhile, its obituaries section offers a steady parade of Christians whose lives seem to have been lived entirely in the service of those less fortunate than themselves.
I think of the vicars I know, scurrying about from sick visit to charity event in their scuffed Doc Martens and modest estate cars. It's been a very long time indeed since the faith to which they cleave has been a catalyst for violence - not since the Enlightenment at the latest. Today, well, it strikes me that every time I see our parish vicar, I'm on my way to do something for myself (go to the pub, buy groceries) while he's off to do something for somebody else. What salary is he on? Fourteen grand a year? It's not much of a return for an Oxbridge degree. Does he deserve such flak from "progressives" earning five times that in the media? Why are they trying to put the poor bloke out of business? It's not as if he doesn't subscribe to the publications they write for. I know for a fact that he does.
To the average funky young columnist, Christians are as relevant as Cliff Richard, but where does that columnist think the philosophical roots of his own opinions lie? The left has forgotten that most of our leading reformers have been at the very least inspired by Christian faith: from William Wilberforce, the Chartists, Octavia Hill, Gladstone and Seebohm Rowntree to the Webbs, Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee . . . and Gordon Brown, whose Christianity is regarded as less suspect than Tony Blair's, but which must still be a great imponderable to the people who make their living from writing about him.
Most pundits are entirely cut off from his world-view, and I sense a kind of regret about that. Late last year, Hanif Kureishi wrote an article that I've seen echoed a dozen times since. His subject was Islamist terrorism, and the meat of his argument was that "the Thatcherite world failed to deliver, thus leaving a space which Islam can occupy". He wrote of "a nihilistic west disappearing into a whirlpool of narcissism, sentimentality and moral emptiness". He proposed no answer, of course, and many articles that I've read since identify the same malaise and tail off with the same poignant ellipsis.
There's a similar wistfulness to Oliver James's book Affluenza, in which he early on identifies religious belief as an antidote to the "virus". He recognises the sheer utility of faith. "One study of 860 young American adults showed [that] those with materialistic values, such as wanting money or prestige, were far less likely to be religious, and they were unhappier, drank and smoked more, and, in the case of the women, were at greater risk of eating disorders." Yet the book is not a Christian or religious apologia. God does not exist, after all. Richard Dawkins has proved this conclusively.
Dawkins does depress me, with his forensic approach. He is like an irritating, bright sixth-former intoxicated with his own iconoclasm - whereas I suppose he thinks of himself as the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes. If he is right (and I am trying to convince myself that he is not), the best I can hope for is to be like Dawkins himself: dapper, elegantly greying, well-off, recognised for my work, with a good media profile and, no doubt, a nice man. It's a thought that makes me feel very claustrophobic.
Andrew Martin's novel "The Lost Luggage Porter" will be published in paperback by Faber & Faber on 3 May