I was an opinionated and awkward teenager in his first term at university, alone in my bedsit on a cold wet November evening. I’d stolen my sister’s transistor radio from home, and in the absence of anything else to listen to, tuned into the BBC’s live commentary on the annual Remembrance Day service from the Royal Albert Hall. Not my cup of tea at all, you may think. Heavily pompous Anglican religion, a sanctimonious sermon, much sycophantic solemnity about the royalty present in force, synthetic mourning for the long dead soldiers of two world wars, much ado about king and country, abundant military claptrap, endless droning on from Mr Dimbleby. Dreary and dreadful. Yet that one broadcast changed my life.
Richard Dawkins has complained that to bring children up in the same religion as their parents amounts to “child abuse”. By that definition I was an abused child. I’d been raised a militant atheist, exactly what my father was. If the school debating society wanted to affirm the existence of God, I would be the principal opponent. My refusal to attend school assembly, a non-denominational act of Christian worship of the type known as a hymn sandwich, had almost led to my being expelled.
But something about that broadcast, and the event itself, was not synthetic at all. It was a plain statement that some things were worth dying for – were worth more than life itself. Some instinct told me that had to be true. But my materialistic, atheistic, logical positivist philosophy had no room for that idea. The heroic sacrifices being remembered in the Royal Albert Hall were, by that measure, meaningless – and worse than meaningless, criminal. But I could not bring myself to say so. I felt my atheistic certainties cracking under the pressure of this inexpressible feeling. Shakespeare’s word rang true, even in that cold bedroom. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
For the first time in my life, therefore, I had admitted to the validity of the God hypothesis – valid, meaning not absurd, not self-contradicting, not untenable by any reasonable mind. A hypothesis is something that might be true but which remains to be proved. Oddly, it did not occur to me that the incredible weight of the suffering that this Remembrance Service was remembrancing might be an argument against the very existence of a God. How could he allow such suffering if he could stop it? I found the answer in a crucifix – the divine paradox at the heart of Christianity. It posed more questions than it answered, which is why it attracted me, because they were good questions.
It took three more years before my dalliance with the God hypothesis solidified into faith – but never irrational faith, for I have always wanted reasons. But I am puzzled today as I was then, by the willingness of some people to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. And paradoxically, too, I find that the willingness of atheists to do so seems more truly altruistic than when the individuals concerned believe they must ultimately face some other judgement. Those for whom virtue is purely its own reward are the ones whose virtue is untainted by self interest. They are undeclared believers in something bigger than themselves, though they get angry if you tell them so.
“And bugles calling for them from sad shires” (Wilfred Owen). The Last Post moved me that November evening, even though I did know then that it was traditionally followed by the sounding of Reveille in order to admit the possibility of Resurrection. Nor do I now share the war poets’ angry conviction that the war was meaningless waste, and that "Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori" was, as Owen claimed, just that “Old Lie”. Those people died for an honourable cause. We stood by Belgium and by France, and not to have done so would have been disgraceful. But it still amazes me that we had it in us.