God goes after Richard Dawkins

The Word Made Flesh

At the Writers and Readers week in Wellington there were two schools of thought on Richard Dawkins. My taxi driver said, 'I don't like him. The way he goes on. It's like he's founded a new religion.' I made non-committal noises. I was firmly in the other camp: the happy-clappy one. The one that raises its hands and says, 'Thank God for Richard Dawkins.'

 As a child, I took a dim view of Christianity. I brushed past God occasionally, found Him deeply suspect and his followers a drag. At school in England I endured Communion, warbling the hymns while the priest, in his party hat and spangled robes, swung his smoking handbag at the altar boys. It was high church Anglican, it was Holy Mary mother of God; it was gold paint and candles and knick-knacks. Somewhere in this camp rigmarole lay the explanation for the universe. It looked gaudy and shifty to me. It looked unsatisfactory, fraudulent and very possibly corrupt.

'For example,' my driver went on. 'I went to a beautiful powhiri. And it came to me. What Dawkins leaves out is the spiritual element.'
I roused myself. 'He leaves that out. You don't say. I've often wondered about that word. Spirituality. What does it mean? What does it even think it means? Last time I went to a powhiri it was excruciating. It was a barrage of praying. Why do they have to pray to the Christian God? And what's so Maori about it?'
That night, after the Random House party, I walked back to the hotel, enjoying the screaming wind, the blasts of rain. The room was high up on Oriental Parade and I left the window open to enjoy the literary weather (such raging tempest, such foundering shriek of gale). At midnight a waft of fire and brimstone drifted through the air. Smoke, I thought. Braunias is near.
He was to chair my 'Hour With' session, and in the morning he rang. 'Where are you?' he asked. I smelled smoke again. 'Go out on your balcony,' I suggested, and there was Steve, suave and Satanic on the balcony next door.
That afternoon it grew dark and the air stilled. Something massive hit the side of the hotel. I rushed to the balcony. God had entered Wellington and was trying to find Dawkins. God was head-down between the buildings, clawing with his great hands, trying to ferret that atheist fucker out. The wind made a frightening roar, horizontal rain lashed, the harbour was suddenly boiling with waves. Jesus, I thought, rolling up my sheaf of notes. I had fifteen minutes to walk to the theatre. I knew I was in Wellington, but wasn't this a bit extreme?
I watched someone blown over in the street. I went out in it. One minute later, my umbrella was mangled sticks and tattered cloth. A large tree branch blew by, and another. I was drenched and could barely stand. I kept saying, 'God. Jesus Christ. God.'
It wasn't normal, it turned out. It was a storm so violent it made next day's front page news. I revelled in it. It was marvellous. For their collaboration in theatrics I gave Wellington and God five stars.
That night I roved out with my chairman, into the sodden capital. We had a good dinner. We drank in two excellent bars. We talked about Richard Dawkins. I told Steve about the ex-priest I met in Cork, who said that the Catholic church's anti-condom campaigns have caused a genocide of Aids victims. And about the Irish solicitor who described a woman client, driven to Cork to plead for help against a priest who'd said she must submit to an eighth pregnancy that would kill her.
I read about a study: in psychological testing, people who've bought virtuous 'Green' products are more likely, afterwards, to act dishonestly. (There's a related aphorism: 'The only sure outcome of altruism is self-righteousness.') Humans are primitive, and virtuousness creates a sense of entitlement, it seems, which leads to bad behaviour. This rings true for religion as well. Some of the worst sinning I've witnessed, in the form of cheating, lying, avarice and disloyalty, has been by Christians. (I observe this in a loving way. In a spiritual way. And entirely for their own good.)
I flew out of Wellington, full of praise. The plane, I imagined, would be hurled towards Auckland as soon as its wheels left the ground. On board, the blonde flight attendant from the naked safety video bobbed eerily in the aisle. She's done this to me before, turning up in person, and miming along to her own image. She's used to the laughs it gets. It's her party trick: appearing in the flesh, when you thought she wasn't real.

First Published in Metro Magazine NZ