Last week Julie Burchill wrote a piece for the Guardian that was ostensibly about her faith journey from atheism to her current Christian practice. I read it eagerly, always curious about other people's spiritual paths and how they compare to my own. But I started to get a little nervous in the first paragraph already when she declares she believes in the God of the Old Testament, the same oft-vengeful God that I personally have a lot of trouble with, being more of a fan of Jesus's subversive rule-breaking and ultimate message of love myself. And then she totally lost me when she talks about her conversion experience:
Once, of course, I was a teenage atheist; and it brings me no shame to say that, but it certainly makes me smile. I grew up, and stopped being an atheist, in my 20s, in the 1980s. But it was only when my parents died, within a year of each other at the turn of the century, that I became religious. I'm going to be a bit un-Christian here, but nothing makes me hoot, mock and retch like people who bleat that they stopped believing in God when their parents died. Don't get me wrong – if a parent buries a child and rails against God, I can see why. But to lose one's faith because of the death of a parent? That's what old people do, the swine, they die on you! And don't tell me about loving your parents – I loved mine just fine. I am an only child who, well into her early 20s, simply assumed that when the surviving parent kicked the bucket, I would quite cold-bloodedly top myself because life would be simply incomprehensible without them. But when my father died in 1999 and my mother in 2000, I stood in the same church twice in two years and felt the same sense of what I can best describe as joy as I watched the two coffins move away from me. While all around me wept, I was filled with the absolute certainty that they were on their way to a better place. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud, both times. Boy, with a nasty rep like mine, how great would that have come across to assembled friends and family.
Her implication that atheism is something you simply grow out of discounts the scores of thoughtful atheists I know who respect my faith as I respect their own beliefs. Sure, I get upset about the occasional kneejerk "all Christians are fundamentalist jerks" kind of comment, but I also understand where that's coming from. Burchill's antagonism toward atheism seems like the same kind of gross generalization and doesn't exhibit a whole lot of openness to complexity. And even though she calls herself a Christian, I don't think she actually mentions Christ once.
While I was doing my customary pre-breakfast blog-scroll this morning, a column by John Naughton in last week's Observer caught my eye. Naughton takes a recent article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic as his starting-point, a piece in which Carr worries out loud about his inability to focus for long on any given text, citing Google and the easy access to information on the Web in general as the root cause of his newfound ADD. I have to wonder if it isn't a matter of discipline, however. I am a bona fide internet junkie, spending several hours each day just surfing around, but I am able to turn off the computer from time to time for the purposes of giving a book or a film my full attention. Naughton also reminds us that when Tim Berners-Lee designed the Web the computer scientist had his own poor memory in mind and wanted to create something that would help. It's exactly the moments when I'm trying to remember an actor's previous work or a particular album title that I'm most grateful for that giant repository of data online. As for concern that the Web breeds poor memories among its users, Naughton looks to history:
But people have worried about this since... well... the Greeks. In the
Phaedrus, Socrates tells how the Egyptian god Theuth tried to sell his
invention - writing - to King Thamus as 'an accomplishment which will
improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have
discovered a sure receipt [recipe] for memory and wisdom.' To which the
shrewd old king replied that 'the discoverer of an art is not the best
judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practise it...
Those who acquire writing will cease to exercise their memory and
become forgetful... What you have discovered is a receipt for
recollection, not for memory.'
It's true that few of us can sing epic poems from memory anymore, but admittedly the pool of people who can appreciate Homer in the original Greek these days is small anyway. As humans we leave certain things behind as our technology changes, and new things take their place. We can remain selective about what works for us personally and what doesn't, and it's even fascinating to watch which new tools take hold while others never quite catch on. As a firm believer in the power of associative thinking I get excited when the Web encourages me to connect seemingly disparate topics, leading me down paths I would not have seen otherwise. And then I share my thoughts with you, and here we are.