BBC World Service Talk
B.B.C. World Service December, 1985
In these six short broadcasts I want to describe a journey. I was brought up in a nominally Christian family, and as a child I took what little religion I learned from my mother and other people seriously enough. But a little later, when I went to a large boarding school, I began to find the religion taught there almost completely at odds with the things I learned in other lessons: evolutionary theory, science, history and so on. Moreover, while our masters spoke of love and forgiveness in the school chapel, they beat us for the slightest fault as soon as we got outside the chapel doors. As a result of all this – and also as a result of the discovery of the classical works of some of the old Victorian sceptics – Winwood Read’s Martyrdom of Man was one of them – and of some splendidly honest non-Christian writers like Bertrand Russell, at the age of about seventeen I because an atheist.
In doing so, I felt that I had emerged from a dim, smoke-filled room, stale and drab and airless, into a bright and bracing world, blue and salty with the smell of sea breezes and as full of light as a summer sky. I was exhilarated by my decision to reject all religion as superstitious rubbish, and I was convinced that it was an intellectual decision taken on purely rational grounds – and so to a certain extent it was. But in retrospect I realise that I rejected the version of Christianity, which I had hitherto accepted, because I could reject, too, some of the unnecessarily restrictive rules and conventions which went with it together with those people – school masters and others – who had forced them on me. In other words my intellectual decision was also a vehicle for revolt against much else.
On leaving school, I went to an art school with a scholarship and became an artist. I was blissfully happy and nothing disturbed my atheist paradise. But on two occasions something happened to me which did not fit in very well with my materialist outlook and beliefs. I have time to describe only one of them. I was in a ramshackle old train near London one glorious summer evening, alone in a carriage by myself, rattling through the suburbs, when the evening took on a depth and breathless splendour which was quite unexpected with the sky fainting away from pale blue to lemon. The landscape was filled with a stillness which invaded me like smoke, the trees heavy and dark in hanging gardens running down to the railway line, while the houses glowed as if they were in paintings by Bonnard or Van Gogh. I did not dare move lest I should shatter the vision, rupture the membrane enclosing the moment of time as a drop of water encloses a bubble of light. I was conscious of myself, too, as I had never been before, of my life within me, the depth and dynamo hum of it in the darkness of the blood; and with all this I was sure that I was within a hair’s breadth of understanding the meaning of my own existence and that of the universe around me. But I was not.
Everyone has such experiences from time to time, perhaps when listening to music or looking at the night sky or when someone they love dies. Arthur Koestler has likened them to falling through a trap door from the plane of everyday trivial living on to what he has called the tragic plane of existence; then everything looks more real than ever before, as if a veil had fallen from our eyes, and we are seeing the real world for the first time. Things are disclosed to us at such moments which may change our lives, though of course this doesn’t always happen. But we should be foolish, I think, to write such moments off as mere emotional lapses from good sense and of no significance. On the contrary, nearly all great scientific discoveries and break-throughs have been born at such moments, as indeed have most great artistic triumphs. Art, science, and religion are united at least in this, their dependence for creative leaps upon such moments of disclosure.