I come unstuck whenever I visit a synagogue or church. Is that all there is to faith? Saying thanks until you start to choke on the word?

Sin is the natural response to not knowing what to do next

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The Independent Online

I reckon I was about 18 when I discovered despondent hedonism. It was listening to Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” that did it. If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s bring out the booze and keep dancing.

As a philosophy of life it has much to recommend it. If nothing else it solves the problem, at the heart of monotheism, of what to do next. God created us, now what? Are we just to go on saying thank you? If that’s all there is to religion...

The Peggy Lee song came back to me, sacrilegiously you might think, during a performance of Haydn’s Creation in the Great Hall of University College School, London, this week. It was a half-amateur, half-professional affair, though it was the amateur half – the UCS Centenary Choir – that attracted me. It’s one of the great joys of Christmas in this country that there’s a mass or oratorio being performed somewhere just about every day. And precisely because the choirs are amateur they can be relied on to perform with a marvellous verve. The UCS Haydn was no exception. But were they too thinking, as the concert finished, that they’d glimpsed sublimity and now what?

Haydn’s Creation begins wonderfully. Darkness broods upon the deep. For a moment we want the universe to stay that way, without form or clatter, undisturbed, uncreated. It is described as chaos, but this is less boisterous than chaos. The spirit of God suddenly moving on the face of the waters is thus unwelcome – an ominous intrusion of divine vandalism – until the orchestra responds explosively to his call for light and we realise that it is better to be alive, even if it’s noisy, than to be unborn.

Everything is now thrilling as God busies himself dividing light from darkness, dispelling spirits whose malignancy hadn’t bothered us previously, filling the heavens and inundating those parts of earth destined to be seas. Rain falls, hail, “the light and flaky snow”, and in an exquisite aria the angel Raphael hymns the “softly purling rivers” and the “limpid brook”.

Reader, whatever you do or don’t believe, these first days of creation are lovely, no matter that no poet has yet been created to describe them. Sometimes undescription is good too. But try telling God that. No sooner has he formed the beasts – the nimble stag, the sinuous worm, the flexible tiger – than he begins to ask himself if this is all there is. What he’s missing is praise. A being who will “God’s power admire”. Enter Homo sapiens.

Knowing what we know now, we should have said no then. But the offer was too good to resist: a life of “incessant bliss” partnered, if you’re the man, by a woman of “softly smiling virgin looks” or, if you’re the woman – O lucky virgin, you! – by a man who’ll be your guide at “every step”. But disillusion sets in at once. With nothing to do but extol God’s virtues in language that evokes Chief Sitting Bull’s – “Him celebrate, him magnify!” – Adam and Eve fall to asking if that’s all there is.


This is where I come unstuck whenever I visit a synagogue or a church. The him celebrating. Is that all there is to faith? Saying thanks until you start to choke on the word? The advantage I enjoy over Adam and Eve is that I can walk out and find some booze. They, bored to within an inch of their lives, have to get themselves expelled.

Sin is the natural response to not knowing what to do next, a confession that the grandeur you were promised hasn’t eventuated. Smart religions build sin in, so that you will feel your dereliction is in fact another form of faith. I read Graham Greene avidly as a boy, fascinated by the idea that the worse you behaved the holier you were. Now I realise that this is one of religion’s solutions to the problem of its inherent tedium.

Another is terrorism. Rather than capitulate to despondent hedonism, let’s blow somebody’s brains out. The great advantage such extremism enjoys over the soul-searching Western liberalism to which we haltingly subscribe is the promise it holds out to its would-be adherents that they won’t ever be left asking what next.

We, the children of Creation, remain locked in the paradigm of enticement and disappointment. Bathos is in our bones. We know no “softly smiling virgin” awaits us in Paradise when we have killed our hostages. Yet somehow that knowledge leaves us weak instead of strong.

Is it because we fear we cannot offer the young anything like as good a time as Isis can? Are we secretly envious of those who aren’t wondering if that is all there is? Is that why, in our descriptions of ourselves, we act as their recruiting agents?

The gunman who held up the Lindt café in Sydney has been described as a “lone wolf”. Reader, there is no such thing. A man may act alone but no one thinks alone. In the melange of ideologies he expressed before he killed was much he would have found simply by reading the papers we write. If you oppose the West, we will induct you into the hows and whys of hating us, because no one hates the West more than the West hates itself. If you want to make a bomb to blow us up, we will show you how to do it online.

Careless talk costs lives, but we welcome its dissemination on the internet as the very emblem of our liberty. Though we know we are a lethal species, we forbid invigilation of our menace. To the exhausted liberal who believes in nothing, this at least remains an article of faith: the freedom to say what you like, when you like, where you like. And whoever warns of danger is a fear-monger.

Soon, this faith too will pall and we will ask if that is all there is. Only by then there won’t even be a “that”.