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Review: Out of the wilderness, towards a new mysticism

Jim Crace, winning author of the Whitbread novel of the year, found that the writing of `Quarantine' made him more respectful of God and beliefs, but, as he told Andrew G Marshall, he is no less of an atheist now than he ever was.

Jim Crace was brought up in an atheist household. His father, an old-fashioned trade union socialist, was strongly anti-religious to the point that neither he nor his brother were even christened, which was rare in the Forties. As a schoolboy the young Crace was "rather delighted" to be cut off from his friends during religious instruction and put with the Jews and the Muslims and the Turkish Cypriots.

"I was the only boy from my flats who went to the grammar school, so I felt socially isolated. Being an atheist was just another thing, like my Co-op jacket and taking the New Statesman rather than The Times, which set me aside from the other boys. It was not until my father died that I realised what it really meant to be an atheist and that left a very hollow feeling.

"My dad's only concern about his funeral was that his body should not cross a picket line! He had such a strong sense of right and wrong that Pontefract cakes were virtuous while liquorice allsorts were sinful. Brown corduroy slacks were all right but jeans were out. He was dismissive of anything pretentious, bourgeois or American.

"He had these self-imposed rules but his view of the world was very expansive. He was a very open-spirited man with great tolerance for the younger generation. He said that when he died he would not tolerate anybody saying any religious words over his grave. He didn't want any hymns, any music, any flowers and for sure he'd didn't want any priest!

"It was what he wanted so that was the rule we followed. It was a monstrous day. We had hired a hearse to go with the coffin. He was being buried by the Co-op, naturally, at the Enfield Cemetery. A very grey blustery day, we tried to joke in the car.

"Totally unprepared we went into the chapel to some piped organ music. Nobody said anything, nobody did anything and then suddenly the coffin went and he was cremated. It was such an inadequate way of burying him.

"With that bleak event came a realisation that whatever the rigours of one's beliefs - or lack of them - the importance of rites and ceremonial cannot be understated. "My father's funeral reduced a comfortable unthinking atheism into a void but it was filled and explained while I was writing Quarantine which is my dramatisation of Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness. Maybe I would have never come to this accommodation if I had not been addressing these very subjects in my book which gave me good cause to think about God and the natural world."

Crace wrote much of the book in his home on the Scilly Isles, spending hours walking the coastal paths and thinking.

"The scientist says we are bound to feel something by the sea because we know human life came from some fishlike creature in the ocean. The lapping motion of the waves enters your chest and your heart starts to beat at the same rate as the sea. Even though I believe these scientific explanations, I don't have them to the front of my heart when I am moved by listening to the sea.

"I now feel that atheists are the new mystics; you can enjoy greater transcendence not believing in God. Evolutionary theory is more mind-boggling with more reason to wonder at the beauty than seven day's creation. The mysteries of the universe are deepened by a recognition that the world is an inside job with complicated explanations rather than the simple idea that it is an outside one. "Even though I know love is a chemical event it does not stop me loving or being tender. Whatever the true factual explanations for the universe, we still have the ability as creatures to do beautiful and moving things. Death for me becomes a greater mystery if you do not believe in God. Religion reduces everything, but if you are a scientific atheist you are obliged to recognise the depth of human mystery. I've now started to seek a mysticism and transcendence of my own which is based on the natural world.

"Coming up to 52 I've found not a false accommodation between my aggressive scientific atheism and my natural tendency towards joy.

"My atheism has moved from something sad and inadequate, to where I take a great pleasure from landscapes, the natural world and science. I embarked on Quarantine expecting to write an atheist book. It was conceived as a confrontation between religion and science. I My expectation was that science would be the winner and religion would fail - destroying 2,000 years of Christianity. But it did not happen, the book had a view and a narrative of its own. It was naive of me to believe a work of fiction would do anything else."

`Quarantine' is published by Viking at pounds 16.99