My first book of philosophy.
The first book of popular philosophy I read was Bertrand Russell's, Why I am not a Christian. It is still in print and remains one of the best summaries of why we should reject religious dogma. Russell's contemporary equivalents - Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling - are all writing in his shadow.
Not that they should be ignored. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is an exemplar of applied logic and ought, in my view, to be a standard text of any critical reasoning syllabus. Christopher Hitchen's God Is Not Great would be a strong contender for additional reading; his litany of the inhumane consequences of religion is as breathtaking as it is horrifying.
It, therefore, won't surprise you to learn I'm an atheist and have been since I read Russell's essay at the age of eighteen. I've never flirted with agnosticism because I'm not a fence-sitter, and in any case, it's largely atheism in disguise. For all my adult life I've held to this view and not been so much as mildly persuaded there's any evidence to the contrary.
Yet for all this, I've always been fascinated by some of the great themes of religion: what constitutes the good life, what gives it meaning, and how should we treat others? Much of the philosophy I studied was concerned with ethics and justice - not a far cry from the central concerns of many creeds. I share with many religions a reverence to the natural world and can feel awed at the enormity, the inexplicably of it all. In a way, I'd 'like' to be religious; to discover answers to these ultimate questions; to have a sense of purpose and a belief system that is simpler and more reassuring than the vagaries of humanism.
The problem is I can't bring myself to overlook what I see as religion's conflict with everyday reason. The literal beliefs of all the great monotheistic religions strike me as ludicrous and the modern interpretive versions as equally unconvincing and at times rather desperate attempts to maintain the faith. On the subject of which, I can't accept that 'faith' is in any way compatible with, or an acceptable alternative to, the logic we expect and exercise in almost every other aspect of our lives. I am in short, a post-Darwin rationalist.
I have other misgivings too, in particular the exalted status we give to religion in society. Last week's judgement that town councils should not begin their working sessions with prayers seems to me to be entirely right (imagine if we did this at the office). I have profound misgivings about the teaching of biblical stories in primary school and I cannot agree that religious education should be taught in a way that disavows criticism. Contemporary wisdom is that all beliefs should be respected - imagine taking that approach to physics! I could go on, but none of these are matters of faith.
It would also risk the impression that I'm hoping to convert you to my stance, which is truly not my aim. Rather I'm trying to explain why I feel as I do. To put into words why, when I see the Alpha Course advertised at our local church, I rail at its claim to be a genuine enquiry. To declare my incredulity at a friend who recently explained she'd not read The God Delusion because her faith made it irrelevant. To shed light on why, try as I might, I find it so difficult to understand those who are comfortable with faith.
And yet... a high percentage of the most interesting, caring, humanitarian people I know are religious. Many of my friends are either committed or deeply interested in matters of faith - our discussions are always challenging and engaging; I admire them for their enquiry if not their conclusions and certainly respect that they are seeking answers just as I always have. What's more I find their value set is almost invariably closer to mine than most secular others. For all Hitchens and Dawkins bemoan the historical consequences of religions, when you bring it down to an individual level it is seldom threatening. In general - fundamentalists and strident evangelicals aside - I rather like people who have faith.
What's more, the vast majority of my religious friends are highly intelligent - people who in other aspects of life are an inspiration and influence on my views. What is it, I often wonder, they see that I don't? What is it I am missing? I may have held my views since reading Russell's essay, but if they could only help me here, I'd be delighted to change. Perhaps surprisingly, it is their very faith which is my only chink of doubt on the entire God question.
Except, of course, the imperfections of personal logic, especially when applied by our self-interested and inadequate intellects - I'm well aware that the goal of objectivity is more of a dream than a realisable state. At its most slippery, rationality becomes rhetoric.
But for all this, I believe that reason is the best we have - to be applied by each of us, to the best of our ability, with humanity and generosity, but without compromise. Bertrand Russell was a long way from flawless, but the essence of his message remains true to me, and has shaped my thinking - albeit imperfectly - for all my adult life.