I recently saw a TV ad for the box set of the glorious Father Ted – an excerpt in which Father Dougal expresses incredulity at a sect that preaches that God will end the world and judge everybody. Father Ted, with some embarrassment puts him right. ‘That’s us’, he says – ‘that’s Christianity’. Dougal’s confusion is understandable. These days, the Church generally likes to emphasise the Christian God of Love. Many Christians like to gloss over the viciousness of the Old Testament Jehovah, and claim that Jesus ended all that, calling God Father, and practising charity and benevolence all round. But that isn’t what has sustained the Church in all its mad incarnations over the centuries. It is the God of Judgment; of Heaven and Hell; of Damnation into utter darkness and fire of those who do not believe, that has been preached from the pulpit for two millennia, and has traditionally been the means by which an uneducated laity have been kept in line. This is certainly consistent with the God of the Old Testament – but it is equally true of the New Testament as well (as we should expect, since presumably God’s nature is unchangeable). In more recent times, with the resurgence of fundamentalist, eschatological religion, this aspect has become predominant again for many Christians. Their belief is that we are living at the end of time as prophesied in various Biblical texts and the Christian’s duty is to aid the processes of history to bring this about.
I am not the only one to find this very scary. The late, great Christopher Hitchens was frightened too. When asked why he felt it necessary, actively to promote his atheism, rather than just quietly to get on with his life, he would reply in similar terms. Like me, he feared people who seem to prefer death over life; eternity over today; submission and acceptance rather than positive action. Like Father Dougal, he saw this as nothing less than a ‘sick death cult’ – the very opposite to the picture of Christianity that many would have us believe. Perhaps it is the spirit of the age. Freud at one time proposed that all human beings have some sort of death wish. I have no idea whether this has any basis in fact. But I do see evidence all around me of doomsday thinking and even a desire among some for an end to it all. Specifically, I (and others) detect almost a sense of glee emanating from extreme environmentalists and global warming apostles, a sense of moral self-satisfaction. ‘See’, they seem to be saying to the rest of us, ‘what has resulted from your heedless pursuit of material improvement. Now you are going to get your just deserts’. This smug finger wagging feels uncomfortably similar to other fingers wagging from other pulpits. This planet was never a Garden of Eden and the future lies not with a retreat to that fictional utopia, nor in fatalistic expectation of divine intervention to the same purpose. The answer to ecological challenge is more science, not less. The answer to eschatological idiocy is rational rebuttal. Hitchens was right: we atheists need to be vocal and unremitting in the cause of sanity and life.