Thoughts for Lent

Charles 3 Comments


Posted by Richard Rawlinson


“I’ve been to funerals where I was pretty sure the majority were atheists and they listened to the vicar say the deceased had gone to a better place and everyone’s toes curled. We can’t prove it’s not so but the chances that it is, are rather meagre. If they did believe you all meet up again in this big theme park in the sky why were they crying? How can you say you believe in the afterlife and weep at the finality of death?”  — Ian McEwan

Catholic Herald contributor Francis Philips suggests this is a rather banal response to the mystery of death and the hereafter. She does so by comparing the novelist’s words with those of Cistercian prior Christian de Chergé, who anticipated his own death at the hands of Algerian terrorists in 1994. Two years before his beheading, he wrote:



“I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down… For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.”

This profoundly Christian approach is the antithesis of dreary funerals, argues Phillips. ‘As for weeping at funerals, tears are part of life, of being human… Christian de Chergé’s family would also have wept – even as they believed their son was now united forever with God’. 


  1. Charles

    I think you and I are about to agree again, Richard, and I’m beginning to get worried….

    I’m a great fan of Ian McEwan, but his final question seems to me remarkably obtuse. I happen to agree with him that the chances of meeting up in the celestial saloon bar for a drink and a chat are as long as long can get, but it is daft to think that someone who believes in an afterlife would not be sad when someone they loved died . Against common sense. Emotionally tone deaf. Even a bereaved believer knows they have to face the rest of their lives without that person. Surely even a supreme rationalist knows that we are not entirely rational creatures? He must have read enough psychology to know that.

    McEwan also seems to assume that believers are never assailed by doubts. Why wouldn’t they be? Many unbelievers are.

    Perhaps the problem is that because atheists need to argue rationally against certain assumptions concerning the position of religious bodies in our society (you know the stuff – bishops in the Lords, “faith” schools etc) they may assume that rational argument works equally well in the sphere of individual belief.

    If I knew a believer who rejoiced that someone they loved had gone to heaven, and wasn’t in the least upset, I think I might be concerned for their emotional health and mental well-being.

    My answer, as an unbeliever, to McEwan’s question is: “Easily.”

  2. Charles

    The problem seems to be that all too common blight, the category error. The ‘finality of death’ is a problematic compound that’s at the heart of the debate about divergences of belief.

    People weep because earthly life comes to an end, whatever they may think about what comes next.

  3. Charles

    I too have enjoyed McEwan’s novels, notably Atonement. He lets himself down with this example of lazy atheism. Both sides need to move beyond the put-downs: a theist who compares all atheists with Stalin is as dumb as an atheist who generalises that religion produces terrorist murderers. Humans are flawed. Glad we agree, GM! However, I disagree atheism is more reasonable than theism. Faith is totally rational: the case for Christ being the Son of God is in fact far stronger than any claim he was deluded or a trickster.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>