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Varieties of irreligious experience

I was listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 today and heard a discussion between Bishop Richard Harries, Dr Farhan Nizami, and Prof. Peter Atkins, an atheist, on the subject of religious influence on British life and politics. Atkins emerged as a "strong" atheist, in the Richard Dawkins mould. Religious people, he said, believe in silly outdated things and attempt to impose their ideas on others.

This reminded me of something I've often noticed: atheists are of more than one kind. People such as Atkins, Dawkins, and Jonathan Miller generally take the line that religion is simply irrational and incomprehensible and holds no kind of interest for them.

There is however another variety of atheism, represented for example by Marghanita Laski and Iris Murdoch. Atheists in this category find religion deeply interesting even though they reject its premise of the existence of God. Both Murdoch and Laski wrote extensively about religion and Laski's book is to be one of the best secular discussions of mystical and ecstatic experience that I have come across.

I think that simply to dismiss religion as irrational in the way that some atheists do is to miss the point. Although religion involves believing in things that seem to me incomprehensible and incredible, I think it is a mistake to focus too narrowly on questions of belief. In many ways, religion is more like an art form, and religious experience is an aesthetic experience. It is no accident that some of the greatest examples of Western art were inspired by religion.

You cannot argue people out of either their religious opinions or their artistic responses, and for the same reason.


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