You gotta have faith – or get angry with God
A beautifully written atheist’s story is marred by invective
Braying born-again atheist: Tony Philpott seems blind to the good that religion has done. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty
The Irish psyche is very much defined by a loss of faith these days. We have come a long way from the 1943 speech in which Éamon de Valera said that “the Ireland we dreamed of would be . . . the home of a people living the life that God desires”, most recently electing a president who is more likely to quote Marx than Christ and believes the Constitution should contain a more inclusive definition of the deity. We even have a Taoiseach who told a pope to go to hell. Or, at least, told him to stop meddling in the affairs of the State. We are free at last. So say atheists.
Tony Philpott’s memoir, Faithless: A Journey Out of Religion With Stops for Light Refreshment Along the Way, gives us his tilt on this tale. It is a fascinating book, fabulously funny at times but undermined by the author’s tendency to hector nonatheists and nail Catholics to the cross of their beliefs.
Let’s look at what is good about the book. As a scriptwriter whose credits include the TV series Taggart, Philpott has a great ear for dialogue. He also writes beautifully – when not indulging in invective – and movingly about his childhood during the 1950s in Crumlin. Many of his peers may not like to see the area described as a “sprawling cement embarrassment on the south side of a city that disowned it like a boisterous, uncouth relative”, but Philpott’s recollections of his first love are universal. He was so besotted by “Theresa” after seeing her at Mass one Sunday that he “plotted a duplicate” of a scene from The Quiet Man, that “beautiful moment when John Wayne scoops some holy water from a church font, holds the water in the hollow of his hands and offers it to a shy and demure Maureen O’ Hara.” All this is wonderful stuff.
The same is true of most of Philpott’s memories, which are peppered through the book, and often used as a launch pad for a discussion about religion. His knowledge of the subject is remarkable for an atheist, and it often brings to mind the line “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Either way, in a section from the chapter “Religion and Women – Or, on the Eighth Day, God Created Shopping”, it is hard to deny what he says, even if Philpott’s use of the phrase “divine imperative” contradicts his premise that the deity is “man made”: “Throughout history women have been under a divine imperative to submit, reproduce and disengage from human discourse. Lie down, have babies, shut up. Be obedient in all these things and we might let you dance at an Irish crossroads. Chauvinism and misogyny were brothers in arms in the Bible and their primacy in masculine behaviour didn’t just rob women of a role, it deprived mankind of a contrasting intellectual dimension. Had femininity not been excluded from cultural, political and creative expression, the world would be a different place.”