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.”
Amen to that. In the same chapter, however, Philpott lets slip a telling aside. After relating the tale of Lilith – as told in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, a Judaic document – who, rather than Eve, was said to be Adam’s wife, and who defied God by saying she would not “be below” Adam, then “joined a hoard of screaming female demons” and “came back for revenge”, he adds, “as you do”.
As one does? Not everybody is fired by a bitch goddess desire for revenge, but Philpott often comes across like a latter-day Lilith, raging at God and irredeemably vengeful.
At first, citing the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel and stating, “That’s how God created the Irish language”, and then suggesting that the deity “was directly responsible for countless secondary schoolers failing their Leaving Certificate exam”, is funny.
But the joke gets tiresome, particularly when Philpott describes Irish as “a language that sounds like a throat full of phlegm being expelled up a gullet blocked by jagged shards of gravel” and says that Peig left “countless Irish students wondering why the turgid hag hadn’t thrown herself on to the jagged Blasket rocks and spared us all having to wade through her glutinous memoir.” It’s all schoolyard humour, in fact.
Likewise, Irish politicians are accused of “lying through their teeth” or “talking through their arses”, which is a populist but fundamentally untrue view. So too, one suspects, is Phillpot’s claim that Pope Francis is unlikely to welcome a face-to-face debate with the radical Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann. And the claim that the Catholic Church always “had a visceral mistrust of human intelligence”, lest any inquiry lead to the conclusion that “Papal pronouncements were as valid as the ravings of an elk-skinned Shaman ranting to this Neanderthal congregation in a prehistoric cave”, is an insult to all theologians.
It’s also a cheap line, like many in this book. Even Philpott’s parents, described as “Pavlovian Catholics”, aren’t spared.
People with other beliefs fare no better. A New Age “spiritual” woman is said to be, “gullible, naive and smug in her ignorance”. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and soul.
All of which leads us to Philpott’s core assertion that “fear fertilised the embryonic idea of God” and “remains the glue that has held an entire dogmatic edifice together for 2,000 years”.
It also could be said, as it has been by Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, that we humans created religion and art at the same time and that both embody our craving for transcendence.
Sadly, as with so many braying born-again atheists, Tony Philpott seems blind to the good that religion has done. This, in the end, is the the undoing of his memoir.
Joe Jackson is an author, interviewer and broadcaster. His latest book, Bono: Soul Searching and Uncensored, is available from joejacksonjournalist.com and Amazon