Last week I told about my conversation with Standish Wanhope, my table mate at the opening dinner of a conference, who had pushed his atheism so aggressively throughout the meal.
At the closing dinner he was strangely different. Perhaps it was because the conference was finished, and he no longer had to mark his territory. Perhaps it was because he had already had a few glasses of wine. Perhaps it was because the geography of the table brought more people into the conversation. Perhaps it was because at this final dinner I was joined by my wife, who can talk with anyone in the universe, though she prefers not to be quoted in blogs, and I respect her wishes.
At first Standish was engrossed with a different group at the table, but when he overheard someone in our own covey say something about religion, he turned away from them and joined us. With characteristic directness, he asked us our religious affiliations. We told him. He settled himself into the covey and exclaimed “I’m very religious.”
This hardly squared with his protestations of atheism during the opening dinner, and I was more than a little surprised. His speech changed too, acquiring a mellow and teacherly quality. He told us that during his boyhood he had belonged to one of the old-line Protestant denominations, of which he had fond memories. He had fallen away in his teens, he said, because he couldn’t find a reason to believe in God.
The statement seemed strange to me. “If you need a reason to believe that God is real, then shouldn’t you also need one to believe that He isn’t? Why is the burden of proof on the theist?”
“I don’t say that I know God doesn’t exist,” he answered. “I’m not an atheist, I’m an agnostic.”
I responded, “But aren’t you an atheist in practice? Although you claim not to know whether God exists, you base your life on the assumption that He doesn't."
He accused me of not carefully listening. “I don’t assume that God exists or that He doesn’t exist. Between belief in God and disbelief in God, I’m neutral.”
That didn’t seem right. “I understand that you view yourself as neutral. I only suggest that you aren’t. Not really.”
“But I am. For all I know Christianity might be true, and for all I know it might be false. I have no information either way.”
“The difficulty with that line of reasoning is that it presupposes that Christianity is false,” I replied.
“How can not having any information whether Christianity is true presuppose that it isn’t true?”
“Because Christianity denies that you have no information bearing on the truth of its claims,” I suggested. St. Paul had argued that the problem isn’t that people are ignorant of God, but that they suppress their knowledge of His reality. So if Standish believed himself ignorant, he must think that at least this Christian claim is false.
Perhaps I had hit a nerve, or perhaps I was merely too persistent, for he promptly diverted the entire line of inquiry. “My lady friend and I have very deep conversations about political and religious subjects. It’s so important to be able to share your deepest concerns with someone.”
I’m sorry if the words seem made up; I’m quoting him as closely as I can. At any rate, the diversion succeeded, and conversation in our conversational clump meandered for a time. When at some point it meandered back to the question of what is true, again he diverted the stream.
“I have a deep, rich secular humanism.” His voice deepened, as though he were an actor on a stage. “I’m oh, so wonderfully satisfied with it.”
And then there was the point in the conversation when he asked, “What do you think of the new religious music? To me it’s just watered-down Simon and Garfunkel. Give me the fine old traditional hymns any day.”
I had to smile. You couldn’t not like Standish. At least you couldn’t not like this Standish. How the two of him fit together wasn’t clear, because this one contradicted everything the one at the opening dinner had insisted upon. He was like Penelope, unraveling at night what she had woven during the day.
“Where do you hear the new music?”
“Why, in churches.”
“So you visit churches sometimes.”
“Yes. But isn’t the new music awful?”
“I confess I’d find a steady diet of it difficult. What music do you prefer?”
“You know — the great old songs like ‘Rise Up, Ye Men of God.’”
“Yes, that one sticks to your ribs. What do you like about it?”
“It stirs you up. Makes you want to stand and be counted.”
“But for a cause in which you don’t believe.”
“I told you that I was religious.”
“I have a colleague like you. He’s an atheist, but calls himself an ‘aesthetic Episcopalian.’ He believes in the ritual, but not in the religion.”
“You aren’t understanding me,” he said. “Let me tell you something you would never guess. My elderly aunt is a person of deep faith. What a great lady. I still visit her sometimes. It’s a moving experience. When I’m with her and she speaks about the Lord, I say ‘I believe.’”
“But you don’t believe.”
“When I’m with her, I do.”
“Then why not when you’re not with her?”
“Because I have no rational basis for belief. It’s feelings. Feelings aren’t knowledge.”
“Like your feelings about the grand old Christian hymns.”
“Yes. I miss them terribly.” He told us he’d been thinking about joining a church choir. Or perhaps that he had already joined it; memory fades. I think he said he did sing with them sometimes.
“You would join a church choir without joining the Church?”
“Yes. Just to be able to sing them again.”
Just to be able to sing them. Just to be able to sing them as though they were true.
That was pretty much where the evening ended, but of course one can’t stop wondering.
I wondered why Standish had really walked away as a teenager; whether at some level, he knew that everything he had walked away from was really true; whether the religious feelings which disturbed the complacency of his would-be-atheism were the natural accompaniment to that knowledge.
Believers are said to have crises of faith. I think Standish, God bless him, was having a crisis of faithlessness.