|.. church goer.
But to the stop digressing. There are a number of things that we humans
all seem to need, being the peculiar species that we are. Two of them
are your common or garden atheist may miss out on. One of these is
communal singing which is generally thought of as being physically
and mentally ‘a good thing’. I don’t know many good
atheistic songs – maybe Richard Dawkins author of “The
God Delusion” should get around to it.
However I would maintain that there is nothing as endearing as belting
out the words to some Victorian lyrics set to a simple tune. There
are a lot of them, over 636 in Hymns Ancient and Modern. Brother Michael,
who was once the saintly Head Chorister of Christchurch Cathedral
and blessed with a clear boy soprano voice, may disagree but it is
damned cathartic to sing with unreasonable enthusiasm and embarrass
Still firmly embedded in my brain are stirring hymns like …..
From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down the golden sand;
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.
This hymn which uses an old ballad tune, “T’was when the
seas were roaring”, was written in about twenty minutes by Reginal
Heber in 1819, and contains the delightful line “Though every
prospect pleases, and only man is vile?”. Delightful as I am
not sure that I can really see the point of the question mark. By
the 21st Century we can be pretty sure that man is vile.
So, yes, churches are one of the few places left for communal singing
where you don’t have to rehearse and practise. Of course every
Church of England church is awash with timidity and middle class embarrassment
at any sign of vocal enthusiasm; the world would definitely end with
a whimper if it wasn’t for the choirs sensibly put in place
to drown out the out of tune whimpers of the congregation.
So I think that atheists should be allowed into sing. They would be
enthusiastic but could probably leave before the collection plate
was handed around.
The other thing, of course, is that some of the most glorious music
has been written for religious celebration. I am quite happy to go
into any religious building to listen to a Mozart Mass, or even a
work by that most Catholic of composers Olivier Messiaen.
One other reason that an atheist might wander into the nearest parish
church, mosque or synagogue is the existence of a virtuous, contemplative
spaces that places of worship can provide. You might want to call
it a need for mindfulness or meditation but in a world super-saturated
with noise and garish images the quiet of an old, slightly dusty building
surrounded by the resting dead is an almost unique place for thoughtfulness
While the great Cathedrals resound to the clatter, gossip and calls
of tours guides, where the altars are surrounded by people taking
selfies whilst the ancient ceremonies are still in progress, the small
parish churches stand rather empty. Well emptier, as the twice a year
crowd dwindles in the small outposts of Australian civilisation, those
villages and country towns that used to be the backbone of the bush
While the charismatic, evangelical churches and fringe faiths seem
to prosper in inverse proportion to the shallowness of their philosophy,
the dear old Church of England, as an example, declines in numerical
support. The sparsely filled pews are dotted with silver hair, threadbare
Sunday best and the last of the blue rinses. The wonderful colonial
hymns, patronising the less fortunate races, no longer thunder out
through the open doors across the sunburnt plains. By the time they
reach ‘Afric’s sunny fountains and golden sands’
they are only the faintest of whispers.
The congregations thin through death and the emigration of the young
people to the city with its smoky delights, and neon trees laden with
forbidden fruit. Many parishes are seen as too lacking in support
and the churches are deconsecrated becoming restaurants and architects
offices. The building is not lost as a building but the heart has
So, if nothing else, we should see them, visit them, and use them,
before they become faded images in scrapbooks. Even if you aren’t