Gods, death, poppies, war


Week 28 of the column.

Being an atheist is a lonely old slog. Most people will cling to the belief that there is something out there watching over us, be it Jesus, Yaweh, Allah or whatever MechaGodzilla the Scientologists funnel their taxes towards. Few people will actually offer such a bleak world view as the true atheist – that there is nothing else out there, no higher power, and we are all alone. Of course, you don’t sell it to people in quite such a bleak way – you say that you believe people are innately good, that all religions were just an extension of that goodness, an extension that ultimately got corrupted by the power-hungry, in much the same way the leaking extension you got built during the Celtic Tiger got corrupted by lazy builders and pyrite.

Us devout atheists are few and far between, but what makes it even more isolating is the fact that we don’t have the structures of religion. There are no parish tea dances, no community hall bingo, no festive services. But in the broader sense I’ve wondered that the hell I’m going to do when I die. Being freed from the strictures of Catholic rites is great, but we still need some sort of ritual – I can’t just get stuffed into a recycling bin and turned into Soylent Green, or have my ashes chucked into a landfill. How will we say goodbye when we know there is no journey to the other side? Do we have a sacred decommissioning of our Facebook profile, a ritualised restoration of factory settings on our iPhone, or one final Instagram shot of our bespoke artisanal funeral buffet? Or just have Siri conduct a service, while Alexa paraphrases Mary Elizabeth Frye for the eulogy:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I was cryogenically frozen, it wasn’t cheap,

So the money I owe you all I will have to keep.

The hardest part of being an atheist has been dealing with loss. The absence of an afterlife isn’t just hard to come to terms with for yourself, but for your loved ones. Since my father’s passing I have been crushed by grief, as I know that he is gone and I will never see him again. I’ve spent much of the last 12 months breaking down at inopportune moments – I meet people in work who knew him and they tell me how much they liked him, and I break down. I find an old letter from him to my mum written in the 1970s in which he promises not to drink and drive (apparently it was all the rage back then) and I break down. My son points to a photo of my father and asks me who he is, and I break down. It has been a year when I occasionally thought I was going to have some sort of breakdown, as I try to make sense of it all – this life, all our lives, and the fact that we all die. The dormant Catholic in me still sees November as the month to think on all these things, to remember all the souls no longer in existence, and the supreme importance of trying to follow the one commandment shared by all religions – try not to be a total jackass.

Speaking of remembrance and jackasses – it’s poppy season again in the UK, a time for flag-waving jingoism of the highest order, when the atrocities of war and sacrifice of the fallen is completely overshadowed by an orgy of imperialism. Where’s your poppy mate, don’t you honour our brave boys, spit on the flag is it mate, do you want to bring back Hitler, is that it? No more can UK TV presenters or sports stars quietly think about war and honour, they need to stick the biggest poppies they can find on their lapel or they are deemed to hate freedom.

I have a distant relative who fought in the First World War, Colonel Jim Fitzmaurice, and of his experience he wrote: “Dead German, British and French soldiers lay about in every conceivable position and condition—here and there a dead horse, a broken field gun. I had never seen a dead man before. I looked again at those dead soldiers — I looked at the poor dumb beasts — dead with their poor glassy eyes turned to the heavens. It was impossible to think. I decided that a very serious job had to be done, that I had better stop thinking and get along with my own particular portion of this big job — C’est la guerre.”

He was 17 when he fought in the Somme. I wonder what he would think of the obsessive poppy-watching in the UK, whereby every weatherman and celebrity chat show guest has to wear a big red poppy or be torn apart by the media; what would he say to the rising nationalism, of the UK’s plan to remove themselves from the European project? After the war Fitzmaurice made aviation history by making the first east to west Atlantic flight, which he managed with two Germans. Even though he fought in the Great War, he understood that divisions make us weaker. The poppy has become that most awful thing – a virtue signal, a way of telling people you care, whether you actually do or not. It’s like an analog hashtag, or the words of the gauche bore who feels the need to tell you about their many donations to charity. It seems a tragedy that there is a sense of relief when Armistice Day has passed, and we no longer have to endure shallow displays of remembrance.

In terms of overcoming divisions, you have to admire the gumption of the three Alliance TDs who are riding out to North Korea to try and find a resolution to the secret state’s nuclear Mexican stand-off with America. Of the three, Waterford TD John Halligan should be best placed to find some common ground with Kim Jong Un as they both have sentient hair, complete lack of belief in god, and experience dealing with difficult characters (Shane Ross and Trump, respectively). If nothing else, this could be the greatest episode of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly never made, and sher if it stops us all from dying in the Third World War, isn’t that much better than fixing the roads?


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