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The Metafizzical Essays of
Nicholas Hancock

Published by The British Hancock Society
by arrangement with the author.

Copyright  ©  2008 Nicholas Hancock.  Permission  is granted  to  distribute  in  any  medium, commercial or non-commercial, provided author attribution and copyright notices remain intact.



All sorts of benefits are claimed for religion by believers. Without it, they say, we would lose the spiritual dimension, the comfort of knowing we shall never die and the therapeutic or placebo effect of prayer and conviction on health as on our sense of wellbeing, along with the deterrent effect it is conjectured to have over immoral behaviour. As Pascal said, these claims are valid even if belief is unfounded.
     When in November 2006 scientists met for a ‘Beyond Belief’ conference at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, another, more sentimental assertion was made by Nobel laureate and atheist Stephen Weinberg on behalf of religion. Although impatient to see an end to its tyranny, he said, ‘I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time.’
     First, the spiritual dimension. What does this mean apart from empty rhetoric? Along with the physical, we have the metaphysical ‘seen through a glass darkly’. It’s beyond digestion and defecation and yet with them, among them. Transcending desire, it may be likened to a sense of being-at-home in the cosmos. As T S Eliot put it,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is [. . .]¹

     Certainly you can find it in the liturgies of the world’s religions: I remember as a child experiencing a delicate aural titillation when I heard our old Anglican priest muttering: ‘Jesus took bread, . . . and blessed it, . . . and brake it, . . . and gave it to his disciples, . . . and said, Take, eat; . . .this is my body.’ It was particularly Canon Merrick’s long, significant pauses that – do I dare say it? - elated me. For some years this was to be my Sunday aunt.
     But it’s by no means true that the spiritual is exclusively available to the church-, mosque-, synagogue- or temple-goer. Somewhat later in life in a cane thicket by the River Wylye I stood transfixed by a sensory experience that was paradoxically metaphysical. All it took was the sound of the water beside me, the smell of sedges and ivy blanketing the elms on the other side and the cool body of the wind nuzzling my face – no incense and no prayers.
     Poetry can be a source of spirituality, as can music and architecture. It is plain nonsense to say that religion is a requirement for experiencing it: the spiritual on the one hand and a belief in god on the other are not now and never have been synonymous. That liturgy or prayer can provide similar feelings in no way means that I must believe in order to enjoy them.
     And now for immortality. Where on earth or in heaven is the consolation to be derived from a belief that your life can never be quenched? If a two-hour lecture has me wriggling in my seat, how am I going to face eternity? Why is it, I wonder, that people want to go on for ever and ever? Apart from its implausibility, the very idea of it is enough to cause nightmares. At seventy-four, I’m still enjoying life, but I’ve heard all the Christmas carols too many times to wish to continue hearing them forever.
     As for the placebo effect, this has to be the strongest of religion’s arguments. Not strong enough, though, to convince me. Personally I prefer good diet and a reasonable lifestyle to a reliance on the voodoo of my credulity.
     Morality? We’ve heard religion²
is the last bulwark against immorality. Believing, we are constantly told, that Big Father’s compound eye is forever watching us keeps us from doing what comes most naturally to us – abominations. The argument is legless. What institutions have caused the most mayhem, torture, massacres and murders? – Religious ones of course. Muslim suicide-bombers, Catholic auto da fes, Mormon killings . . . Let article 2 of the constitution of the San Jose Chinese Alliance Church speak for the intolerance of all religion:

Belief in God the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit; in the verbal inspiration of the Holy Scriptures as originally given; in the vicarious atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ; in the eternal salvation of all who believe in Him and the eternal punishment of all who reject Him.³

       The history of immorality is largely a history of religion.

     Therefore, I propose amitacide
4 or the killing of our crazy old aunt. We should do it humanely by means of strangulation or throat-cutting, assuring her that it’s for her own good as well as for ours.

¹Burnt Norton, The Four Quartets
² I’m well aware of my use of the singular, but the babelisation of religion
is for another essay.
³ My italics naturally.
4 Aunt-killing. It could also be materteracide, depending on whether it was
your father’s or your mother’s sister