Friday, December 23, 2011

I don't believe in God, so why is it that I don't want to be labelled an atheist?


A couple of weeks ago, a nurse stood beside my hospital bed with a pen and a clipboard. After the questions about allergies and next of kin came the one about religion. None, I said, when she asked which one. Her English was hesitant. "You are … what do you call it … an atheist, then? Shall I write that?" "Please just write 'none', or 'no religion'," I said.
I don't know why I jibbed at the word atheist. It may have been Jonathan Miller's argument that non-belief in God is a narrow and entirely negative self-description that ignores all the other things you might either believe in or not, from homeopathy through necromancy to the Gaia theory. As a definition it belongs to the same dull category as "non-driver" or "ex-smoker"; not driving or no longer smoking, just like not believing in God, is an inadequate guide to the self. There are so many richer and more positive ways, or so you hope, to summarise your behaviour and beliefs and what you might add up to when the counting is done.
But after the nurse left with her questionnaire, I wondered about other motives for denying a truth about myself. Had it to do with social cowardice, or some ridiculous notion of politeness on my part? Three other men shared my bay in the ward, and who knew what beliefs they held? "Atheism" has such a scorning ring to it. I wouldn't have wanted them to think (though, of course, they wouldn't have cared less) that, as I lay beside them, I was quietly cackling at their misplaced faith in the other life to come. As it turned out, two of them may have declared at least the name of such a faith to the nurse, because the next day a visitor came into the ward and made a beeline for their beds, and talked briefly and earnestly to each man in a low voice.
The men were originally from Mayo and Dublin (I wrote about Joseph last week), and I can say only that their visitor seemed like a missionary woman, or my idea of one. She had cropped grey hair, a blue cardigan and flat shoes, and she looked like someone who ate sparingly and cared for God very much.
This visit, too, had a consequence. A priest came next...