On Being Faithless (2014)

Of all the jargon words that get thrown around in British political discourse, "faith" may be the one from which I feel most alienated. If you listen to politicians, "faith" seems to be a nebulous goodness, a state of mind that leads citizens to behave in certain convenient ways. The faithful perform charitable works, like running food banks or homeless shelters – great for reducing the departmental bottom line, or indeed for shifting the burden of dealing with the poor (not to mention the weak, the halt and the lame) from government altogether. The faithful lay down rules for their sexual relations and have prohibitions against socially problematic behaviour such as stealing things or (up to a point) being violent. In general, "faith" makes people much easier to govern – after all, they're already being governed by God, who has panoptical security cameras and already knows what's in everyone's browser history. No wonder politicans line up to praise it. If only everyone possessed this salutary quality!

None of this seems to have anything to do with the actual experience of faith, which I have been struggling to understand since I was first exposed to organised religion as a child. I'm not talking about the kind of religious adherence that's mainly a badge of belonging. Going to a holiday service or getting married in a church or temple is, for many people, no more than a way of asserting their identification with a tradition or their membership of a cultural group. For me, coming from a family that includes both devout Hindus and Anglican Christians, that kind of allegiance was never straightforward, and the assertion of a religious identity was left up to me. Belief would have to come, not as a comforting experience of group belonging, but as an individual choice. As a child, I waited for faith to make its necessity felt in my life. It never did. The plethora of contradictory rules and prohibitions in the major world religions appeared at best confusing, at worst absurd. Why did God care what I ate or how I dressed or who I slept with? Not everyone's book could be divinely inspired. Someone had to be mistaken.

Faith, as opposed to "faith", seems profound, disruptive and potentially terrifying. It is a leap into the dark, a surrender of will and judgment, an enormous risk. It is clearly an experience of great joy for some believers. Equally clearly, it opens others to the darkest and most atavistic impulses. For every person who is consoled or comforted by the belief that there is a God giving order and meaning to existence, another feels compelled to defend their unique truth against the unbeliever.

If one takes faith seriously, as I believe we must, then the idea of a "faith school" starts to seem bizarre. Critical thinking is anathema to faith. It is what one must relinquish, or transcend, in order to take the leap. The young British jihadis who are the object of so much public concern have gone to war for their faith. For them there is no question of comparison between religions, or understanding their belief as primarily a matter of cultural pride. They believe they have submitted to the will of God. This might be acceptable, even useful, to Britain's political class if their faith was neatly subordinated to nation: "defender of the faith" is, after all, a royal title, and until political correctness went mad, presumably "attacker of the faith" was, too. However, the transnational nature of the ummah will never be reconcilable to the post-Westphalian nation state, so we say they have been "radicalised", and their leap of faith has made them terrorists. This is the difference between faith and "faith". The first, for good or ill, radicalizes the believer. The second is a political jargon word for a set of behaviours and practices that enforce social cohesion, or, if you prefer, subordination to the agenda of the ruling class.

In our lazy, dishonest contemporary conversation about faith, the faithless, such as myself, are almost silent. We are usually used as a negative rhetorical marker, against which the faithful can measure their virtue. To those who value tradition, we are deracinated. For those who like their principles founded in some unshakeable transcendental truth, we are feckless and mutable. We are assumed to be morally dubious, too weak or spineless to stand up for anything very much at all. Certainly we are not worthy of "respect", which is the jargon word for what our political class offers religious or ethnic minorities in lieu of actual inclusion or equality. We are not invited on discussion programmes to describe how offended we feel that our cherished symbols are being mocked. We have no such symbols. Even if our numbers are large, we are rarely heard amid the hysterical yelling. Perhaps this is why the so-called "New Atheists" increasingly sound like a religious sect. It's the only way to get heard.

I have come to resent this characterisation. My lack of faith has, over the years, formed itself into an active ethical position. I don't have a sacred text, or beliefs that I wish to place beyond challenge or mockery. None of my positions are beyond argument. I will change them, if persuaded. My dislike of dogma and my respect (as opposed to "respect") for rational debate doesn't make me weak. Indeed, I hold that the very contingency of my positions are at the core of their ethical force. If you can't point to a line in a book, or the dictates of a religious hierarchy to justify your opinions, then you have to own them yourself. You are fully responsible, and that is, in its own way, as radical and disruptive as submitting to the will of the divine. I hold tolerance as a signal virtue, but my tolerance is not absolute, nor is it cowardly. I am not, for example, a pacifist, though I find the notion of a "just war" shabby and despicable. I believe that a secular state is the only way to guarantee freedom of conscience. If I were to run the British educational system, I would establish schools devoted to questioning orthodoxies, not necessarily because everything old or traditional is wrong (quite the opposite – things last for a reason, and often that reason is because they work) but because critical thinking seems to me at least as much of a civic virtue as faith, and we ought to value it, instead of doing it down.

I describe myself as an atheist, but I don't believe I have special access to a metaphysical truth about the world, or the lack of such a truth. It simply seems to me that the qualities of the divine that believers value – that it gives purposefulness to life, and renders our actions consequential and meaningful – don't require the existence of a transcendent creator. Occam's razor suggests that, unless God is necessary, he should probably be left out of the argument. Leading a decent, purposeful, virtuous life isn't the sole province of religious believers. It certainly has little to do with the dishwater notion of faith offered in our current political conversation.

This piece was published in The Guardian