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Blind Faith

For most of my adult life, I’ve maintained the half hope, half belief that the world moves slowly towards greater enlightenment, towards greater readiness to act according to reason rather than habit and prejudice, and that more people are more willing to tolerate difference and respect the other. I’ve known that there would be reverses along the road, but I’ve told myself that, overall, ‘the direction of travel’, to use a current political cliché, is positive.

That half hope, half belief has left me. Or perhaps I should correct myself and say that although the half belief has gone, I must cling to the half hope, as an article of faith, in the face of the ignorant and destructive certainties propagated by many of the world’s leaders, whether political or religious, and of the populist movements which drift ever closer towards mob violence. Extreme perversions of some of the world’s major religions justify murder, routinely. Big sections of populations in rich countries, with supposedly advanced education systems, are deceived by liars and braggarts whom they have elected, or who have gained power by more autocratic means. It astonishes me that these gullible groups often believe that the liars and braggarts have been elevated to greatness by the will of God. My astonishment is that of a 68-year-old man doing his best to hold on to reason, to continue to hope. But walking down Victoria Street in London the other day, I was reminded of a moment when a part of my 13-year-old mind was still in the grip of fear of the other, provoking behaviour which another part of that mind knew to be absurd.

I’ve written elsewhere that I was brought up in evangelical Protestant circles. The leaders of the church our family attended were quite sure that the particular version of the Christian religion practised there was the only correct interpretation of the faith, the only one guaranteed to lead to bliss, to ‘eternal life’ in heaven after death. Adherence not only to all other religions, but even to most other varieties of Christianity, would condemn billions of unfortunate misguided people to everlasting damnation. When my brothers and I were young, our parents accepted this severe and exclusive dogmatism without question.

One Sunday when I was eleven, sitting in church in the family pew listening to the vicar elaborating as usual on this set of received truths, I had a private revelation. What, I wondered, if these truths, which I had understood up to that point as embracing and explaining the whole of human history, indeed the whole of universal history since the creation, in fact constituted merely one of many understandings, each of them limited in time, place and culture, which had been proposed, developed and challenged since humans gained consciousness? I hasten to say that my revelation did not arrive equipped with the vocabulary of the last sentence. It came in visual form. Beforehand, I had vaguely seen the faith as an enormous envelope, or perhaps a shopping bag, in which the whole of the universe, including our planet and its population, was contained. Suddenly, the universe, including our planet and its population throughout history, became the container rather than the contained. In that container were countless things, physical and metaphysical, including the words which the vicar was speaking at that moment and the faith which generated those words.

Leaving the church, I knew that there was no question of my joyfully announcing to my parents, or to the wider world, the epiphany with which I had just been favoured. It would cause too much unpleasantness. So, for several years thereafter, I maintained a diplomatic silence on the matter, until the confidence of adolescence caused me — at first cautiously, later more boldly — to break cover. But brainwashing — a crude word, but that is what it was — in childhood is not so easily rinsed away.

In the first of the two secondary schools I attended, I joined the school’s scout troop. Each Easter and summer holiday, we travelled in lorries or on trains to distant parts of the kingdom, often to north Wales, to spend a week or a fortnight in conditions of extreme discomfort. But these were occasional outings. Week by week in suburban south-east London, activities were devised to test our spirit and sense of initiative. Generally, I enjoyed these adventures very much. Sometimes we would be given enough money to travel the three stops on the railway line up to Victoria station, carrying with us an A-Z street guide and a piece of paper on which was a list of ten questions relating to places in the city. One afternoon the questions included: What are the names of two of the paintings by Van Gogh in the National Gallery? Who is the woman whose death is commemorated by a statue near St Martin-in-the-Fields? In such-and-such an antiquarian bookshop in Cecil Court, what is the publication date of such-and-such an eighteenth-century volume? And… How many steps are there up the tower of Westminster Cathedral? On the train, I double-checked. Not Westminster Abbey, which I had already visited more than once. Westminster Cathedral, which — despite the enlightenment which had entered one part of my mind a couple of years previously — was, in the understanding of the other part, the English headquarters of an interpretation of Christianity whose benighted followers were heading towards hell. As the train drew into Victoria, I knew that this one enquiry would require more courage than I had usually been called upon to display.

For some boy scouts, the solution to the problem would have been easy: simply draw a blank on that question, saying that the cathedral had been briefly closed for some reason, or that no one had been able to supply the answer. Lie. This was not an option for a child so completely imbued with a sense of duty. I must attempt the ordeal.

I went to the other places first. ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘Van Gogh’s Chair’. Edith Cavell. 1768. And several other successes. In fact, as I walked back down Whitehall, round Westminster Square and into Victoria Street, I had all the answers but one. I turned left down a narrow street, looked up at the forbidding building, and climbed the stairs to the entrance. My heart was beating and my hands were wet. What kinds of abomination would I discover inside?

The first thing that struck me was the darkness. The physical gloom immediately confirmed my fear that I was indeed in a place of spiritual darkness. Some illumination was provided by an altar on which were hundreds of lit white candles, rooted in a shapeless waxy accretion of former candles hanging down towards the floor. (We had been taught not to use the very word ‘altar’, but ‘Holy Table’, for that item of church furniture. Christ’s agony on Calvary had been the only sacrifice justifying the use of the word ‘altar’.) I pressed on.

Silent figures passed, paying me no heed. There was no written information I could see about any tower, let alone about how many steps it had. Notices told me of forthcoming masses, requested prayers for the dead, and described missionary work in Africa. I would have to speak to someone.

A tall man was standing with his back to me. I approached. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘could you tell me…?’ He turned round and looked down at me. To be precise, I should say that he turned round and lowered his kindly face towards me, in which, instead of eyes, were two empty eye sockets.

I ran. I am ashamed of the action now, of the hurt I might have caused him, although, being blind, perhaps he didn’t realise that his questioner had precipitately fled. I ran as fast as I could, out of the cathedral, down the steps, along the narrow street, into Victoria Street, and I didn’t stop until I was across the road from the station. Arriving back at school, I handed in the paper. There were nine correct answers. ‘What about the cathedral tower?’ asked the scout master. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I couldn’t find that out.’ Which was, in a way, true. The whole nonsensical collection of lies I had absorbed about another branch of the Christian religion was concentrated and objectified in that man’s blindness: his ugly deformation stood, in the unlit part of my mind, for that of his faith.

I make expiation — or I hope I do — in writing this.