I remember the day I stopped believing in God. I was ten years old and it was in school assembly. It was generally acknowledged that if you opened your eyes while praying, God flew out of the nearest window. That was why it was so important that everyone should shut his eyes. If I opened my eyes suddenly, I thought, I might just be quick enough to catch a glimpse of the departing deity.
What I actually saw was the headmaster with one eye shut and the other open, sweeping the assembly like a CCTV camera avant la lettre. With childish finality, I decided both that God did not exist, and that those who claimed to believe that he did were liars and hypocrites.
Over the years, my attitude to religion has changed, without my having recovered any kind of belief in God. The best and most devoted people I have ever met were Catholic nuns. Religious belief is seldom accompanied by the inflamed egotism that is so marked and deeply unattractive a phenomenon in our post-religious society. Although the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are said to have given man a more accurate appreciation of his true place in nature, in fact they have rendered him not so much anthropocentric as individually self-centred.
And why not? If this life is all that you have, why let anything stand in the way of its enjoyment? Most of us self-importantly imagine that the world and all its contrivances were made expressly for us and our convenience.
Far from being humiliating, the humility of the religious person is deeply consolatory. The secularist is often embittered by the inevitable dissatisfactions of human existence, which are so much at variance with his infinite expectations; by contrast, the religious person appears to have a mature understanding and acceptance of disappointment and limitation. He is not like a child who is continually having his toys snatched from his hand.
Moreover, the religious idea of compassion is greatly superior, both morally and practically, to the secular one. The secular person believes that compassion is due to the victim by virtue of what he has suffered; the religious person believes that compassion is due to everyone, by virtue of his humanity. For the secular person, man is born good and is made bad by his circumstances. The religious person believes man is born with original sin, and is therefore imperfectible on this earth; he can nevertheless strive for the good by obedience to God.
The secularist divides humanity into two: the victims and the victimisers. The religious person sees mankind as fundamentally one.
The secularist view is illustrated in a document that I was reading recently from the Royal College of Psychiatrists on domestic violence. The perpetrator of such violence, says the document (in my view rightly), should be encouraged “to take responsibility for his behaviour”, while on the other hand victims “require validation of their experiences and an empathic, non-judgemental response”. Here is the doctrine of the Immaculate Victim, contrasted in Manichaean fashion with the perpetrator, and who is not as fully human as the perpetrator because she (it is usually, though not always, she) has no independence of action. This is both condescending and contemptuous.
In fact, a very high proportion of the increasing numbers of victims of domestic violence have taken extremely foolish decisions that all too predictably ended in their victimisation. This is not to excuse such violence – it cannot be excused, and in my view should be punished much more rigorously than it is; but the truth is that victims often wilfully ignore the signs that they know full well to be there. They fail to learn from experience; they are insouciant in their choice of sexual partner and as dishonest in the excuses they make for the perpetrator as he is himself.
Failing to point this out is not only untruthful, but hinders the process of learning from experience. It implies that what happens to people descends from the sky, and that therefore they need a vast apparatus to protect them from harm. By implication, it issues a false promissory note that people can be protected from the consequences of their own foolish choices and conduct.
The secularist de-moralises the world, thus increasing the vulnerability of potential victims and, not coincidentally, their need for a professional apparatus of protection, which is and always will be ineffective, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt and corrupting.
If a person is not a victim pure and simple, the secularist feels he is owed no compassion. A person who is to blame for his own situation should not darken the secularist’s door again: therefore, the secularist is obliged to pretend, with all the rationalisation available to modern intellectuals, that people who get themselves into a terrible mess – for example, drug addicts – are not to blame for their situation. But this does them no good at all; in fact it is a great disservice to them.
The religious person, by contrast, is unembarrassed by the moral failings that lead people to act self-destructively because that is precisely what he knows man has been like since the expulsion from Eden. Because he knows that man is weak, and has no need to disguise his failings, either from himself or from others, he can be honest in a way that the secularist finds impossible.
Though I am not religious, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion. That is the ambiguity of the Enlightenment.
Theodore Dalrymple is a prison doctor