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Stealing a Book

December 4, 2012

Two distinct areas of my life recently intersected in a surprising way.

First, I’m in the middle of writing an ever-expanding piece (seven thousand words and counting) outlining a Wittgensteinian approach to the ongoing debate about science and religion. This grew out of the fact that I frequently found myself getting involved in online discussions where I’d typically be taking exception to comments by atheists despite the fact that I’m an atheist myself. It’s a tricky position to explain properly, especially on a forum like Twitter, so I thought it might be helpful to have a more considered account of my views that I could point to where necessary. (Actually, in writing the piece I’ve realised that I’m not so much expounding my views as discovering what they are.) So off I went. I sketched out a plan, started making notes, stumbled into difficulties, realised I’d have to do some background reading, realised I’d have to do some background reading on the background reading, realised that no mere essay could do justice to the issues, realised I’d need to set up a blog (this blog) to discuss things properly, and… well, five months later here I am. I hope to publish the piece in the early New Year, so watch this space.

The project is taking up most of my spare time and I don’t have much of that because I work forty hours a week in a warehouse, quality-assuring mobile phone repairs. It’s a grinding, low-paid job but I really don’t mind it; I’ve certainly done worse. Now, as you might expect, the warehouse is not exactly a hot-bed of intellectual debate. It’s a working-class place full of working-class talk: sport, cars, food, booze, drugs, sex, gossip, video games, pop music, TV and – above all – grumbles about work itself. Still, it can be surprising what you find there. For example, there’s a couple of shelves of books (just by the toilets) donated by staff for people to read during their break. In amongst the chic-lit and “dark romance” novels are books by Anthony Trollope, Moby Dick (in hardback) and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. How did they get there? What’s their back-story? It’s both sad and oddly appropriate that I’ll never know.

Anyway, a few months back, shortly after I’d started the Wittgenstein/religion project, I had a quick look at the “library” and was amazed to see a thick book called Christian Theology by Alister E McGrath. Talk about serendipity! Straight away I wanted to read it, but I knew it would be pointless trying to pick through it during my half-hour dinner break (besides – dinner break is for two things: eating and smoking). I wanted it for myself. So I left it there and checked on it from time to time to see if anyone seemed to be reading it. As far as I could tell, nobody was. And then last night after my shift (I work 2pm-10.30pm) I decided the time had finally come: I slipped the book into my carrier bag and took it home with me. Selfish, I know, but to compensate I shall donate my copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Karma!

The reason I mention all this is because of a curious turn my mind habitually took when I contemplated stealing the book. I was always struck by the thought “God wants me to have it”. Isn’t that a strange (yet perhaps not unusual) thing for an atheist to think? Now, it’s certainly true that I fastened upon the thought with a good deal of playfulness; I was far from being in earnest – indeed, I think it would be a pretty facile sort of Christian who would believe such a thing. And yet at the same time I’m not sure it would be accurate to say that I didn’t believe it either. Intellectually, I suppose not. But there was an emotional or psychological element in me that was by no means so sceptical. There was simply something too pleasing about the thought not to invite it to make itself comfortable once it had introduced itself. And anyway, in what sense can I say that I disbelieved it when I used it (in part, at least) to guide my actions? I’m almost inclined to say that I fastened upon the thought without either believing or disbelieving it. Is such a thing possible? Well, our minds are very subtle and strange sometimes.

Oh, and by the way: straight after thinking “God wants me to have this book” I’d always follow it up with: “Or maybe the Devil has set a trap for me”.

  1. I’m a Christian…but you might would find me refreshing…I scanned the above and I can’t yet respond to it but I’m certainly comfortable with it…and so I thought I’d follow you to keep me informed about the reasons for nonbelief….and when it speaks to me to take up the topic from a perspective that could maybe repair or dispel those things which wedged themselves between God and one of us. didn’t really mean to start this sentence out with ..find me refreshing…lol…but I just meant you obviously study up what you don’t believe and I’m the only Christian that I personally know on a one-on-level that knows and understands and is comfortable with attaching to the studies and philosophies of all opposing religions I mean, I am down there in the South…lol….by attaching, I mean engaging, not running from or turning away from and not being put off by the choices that others have made except to the degree in which we ar einstructed to respond to those who we feel are going to hell if they don’t change their ways. ok somehow this is turning into an essay and i ain ready yet. so i will tak to you more later i am tryign to get sett up. god Bless….lol.

    • Hi Abby, and thanks for the comment.

      It’s a tricky old subject, isn’t it? And that’s true whatever side of the fence you’re on. I hope to be exploring the issues in more detail in the coming months and would welcome your input. For now I’ll say this: I don’t think either atheism or belief is a matter of reasons, certainly not if you mean an argument or theory which ends with the statement “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist”. Also, although the topic interests me greatly I’m not at all concerned with making atheists out of believers or vice versa. However, there are certain lines of thought on both sides that I consider confused and facile. Exposing those is my real task.

      Anyway, pleased to meet you and hope to speak to you soon!

  2. wow….so much for me keeping up with your posts….how are ya?

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