There is a joke, loved by Flaubert, of the atheist who is out fishing with his believing friend. The atheist casts his net and draws up a stone on which is carved, "I do not exist. Signed God." And the atheist exclaims, "What did I tell you!" I can't be the only person who sometimes finds himself trapped in that structural contradiction.
Like many raised in a religious household, I often find myself caught in a painful, if comic paradox whereby I am involved in an angry relationship with the very God whose existence I am supposed to deny.
Contradictory this kind of non-believing might at times be, but those contradictions feed, perhaps constitute, its brand of militancy; it is because God cannot be entirely banished that one is forced to keep on complaining, rather than merely finalize one's elegies.
This is the kind of atheism that Dostoevsky was interested in, the kind that stands on the ladder just one rung below belief. For me, though, the gap between those top two rungs was always quite large.
I was brought up in a Christian environment that had retained more than a memory of nineteenth-century evangelicalism. It was not fundamentalist, not literalist: my father taught zoology at Durham University, and got ordained in his fifties, without registering any apparent clash between his theological and his scientific beliefs.
But the house I grew up in was scriptural, with an emphasis placed on the Gospels and on Jesus's revolutionary challenge to Nicodemus: you must be born anew, of the spirit rather than the flesh; you must change your life.
Ordinary language was saturated with religiosity. A happy occurrence was a "blessing" or was "providential." My relationship with my first girlfriend was "unedifying." An untidy bedroom was evidence of "poor stewardship." I was encouraged not to wish people good luck, this being rather secular.
The word I heard most often of course was "faith," since none of the other words could have functioned without it. I was fascinated when from time to time my parents would discuss, in hushed tones, an acquaintance who had "lost his faith." The phrase, so solemnly unsheathed, seemed to point to unimaginable wildernesses.
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