Martin Bright has been the Political Editor of The New Statesman since 2005. Before that he worked for nine years at The Observer, first as Education Correspondent and latterly as Home Affairs Editor. Martin lived in Paris from 1990 to 1993, where he became fascinated by the colonial history of North Africa. He then returned to London to pursue this interest at the School of Oriental and African Studies, taking a masters degree in the modern history of north Africa and south Asia. More recently he has covered the rise of radical Islam in Britain. In 2006 the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange published his pamphlet When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries, which discusses the Labour government's relationship with Islamist groups at home and abroad. Below, Martin has thoughts about religious faith.
Martin Bright with some readings on religion
During the festive season, my thoughts turn to matters spiritual - or is it sentimental? I have often wanted to give myself up to the comfort of religious faith, but have never quite managed it. I can't make myself believe in God, however hard I try. Ultimately, something in me finds the idea of surrender to a higher power demeaning to my humanity.
But there are times I have wished it were possible to believe. During a visit to Syria in 2000, there were several experiences that seemed designed to put me in close proximity to the divine. I thought, perhaps, listening to the Lord's Prayer being read in Aramaic in a church in the mountain town of Maloula might do the trick. It is one of the last places on earth where the language of Jesus is still spoken. But no. Nothing.
Nothing, either, at the tomb of John the Baptist in the Great Mosque of Damascus or the first-century synagogue of Dura Europos, transported in all its strange multicoloured, syncretic beauty to Syria's national museum.
As a child I remember entering a west-country church while taking a break from watching my father play cricket on one endless summer day and being struck dumb by a Vaughan-Williams choral work. But it was the music I cried to, not the religious content. The same was true when, as an 11-year-old 'treble', I took part in a choir tour of northern Germany singing Vivaldi's 'Gloria' and Britten's 'Missa Brevis'. I was moved, but not by God.
In December 1989, I even had the privilege of hearing a service in St Nicholas Church, Leipzig, during one of the Monday demonstrations that greeted the collapse of Communism. But it was the human solidarity, not the faith that really got to me.
And yet I remain fascinated by religion. I do not dismiss it out of hand, as has been so fashionable in 2007 - though I have been hugely cheered this year by the success of Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great and Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, because, like many atheists, I have felt somewhat embattled in recent years. But I'm yet to be convinced that such secular militancy is a strategy that will do anything other than feed the poison of religious totalitarianism.
I am reading The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, selected and with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. So far I have only dipped, but I am hugely enjoying George Eliot's attack on the evangelical divine Dr Cumming.
Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.Published in 1855, the words might just as easily apply to the pernicious and equally mediocre Islamist 'divines' such as Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed, who have used their smattering of learning to such devastating effect in Britain .
Hitchens dedicates his selection to Primo Levi, probably the most courageous atheist writer of the 20th century. His 1986 book, The Drowned and the Saved, was published in paperback just as I left university. It had the most profound effect on me, as it must on anyone who reads the work of the great Italian humanist. Hitchens chooses one of my favourite passages to open The Portable Atheist. It concerns Levi's refusal to give in to the solace of prayer even when going through the process of selection in Auschwitz in October 1944. It is the one moment when he nearly asks for God's help but decides that 'a prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? And from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable.'
I should perhaps have chosen The Drowned and the Saved for this exercise, as it is the book which springs to mind when I think of the writing which has affected me most in my life.
But I am also reading Nicholas Mosley's Hopeful Monsters at the moment. I have only just started the novel, which is set in the political ferment of inter-war Berlin, but I am already gripped. I have been meaning to read it for some time as I was so overwhelmed by Mosley's recent book, Inventing God, which I described in the Observer as 'a contender for the first great novel of the 21st century'. (The full review is here.) Is it because Mosley is the son of Sir Oswald that we have never been able to celebrate him as one of our finest novelists?
Inventing God is an old-fashioned novel of ideas, musing on our present predicament with the rise of the Islamist extreme right. At one point, an intelligence operative describes this as akin to an environmental disaster:
Something like mad cow disease? That's what's going to land on us you know. Mad fundamentalist disease. One man with a bag of chemicals like a poisoned udder.The title of Mosley's novel is taken form Voltaire's maxim that if God didn't exist it would have been necessary to invent him. However, having invented him, Mosley seems to ask, should we celebrate God as the greatest expression of man's imagination or one of its worst, like war or totalitarianism?
I wrote in January 2003:
Mosley challenges the complacency of Western commentators who believe that religious extremism can be dismissed as an irrational aberration. It is increasingly dangerous to treat God as a fiction from a pre-industrial age when he is a deadly reality for those prepared to kill themselves and others in the fight against atheistic Western imperialism.Nearly five years on I still believe Inventing God provides us with a uniquely subtle fictional examination of the horror we are living through.