BMJ 14 March 1998 Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:870
I was reared as a Catholic, but long ago changed my beliefs. Heaven and hell, for instance; heaven seems nice but dull, and hell? Big black devils sticking red hot pokers up your arse for all eternity?
Attractive though it might sound, I couldn’t rationalise this, and, as G K Chesterton said, there is more virtue in honest doubt than in all the blind faith in Christendom (a loophole for unbelievers everywhere).
And why should this marvellous world be only a preliminary to some hypothetical afterlife? Like most enthusiastic atheists, I have all the passion of the convert. A sky washed to the clearest blue by a rain soft as an eager lover’s kiss, the laughter of children, the scent of a good malt, a rich bed, a bright fire. Can’t this world be loved and cared for just for its own sake? The religions that promote the concept of an afterlife are promoting a philosophy of despair that this incredibly beautiful and complex universe we live in isn’t good enough for us by itself, that we need something else to make it worth while.
It would be uncommonly difficult, of course, to explain this concept, this lack of religious affiliation, while being dragged shrieking out of my car by a gang of sectarian murderers, currently a risk for identifiable Catholics. Wherever two are three are gathered together in My Name, someone is in for a good kicking. Ulster specialises in blind faith, and I have a fatal identity label; Liam is the Irish for William, and instantly confirms my tribal affiliation.
So I try another protective device. When driving through a suspect area, I always leave my stethoscope sitting proudly on the front seat, in the hope that doctors will continue to be considered asexual non-combatants. We wear the cloak of our arcane profession wherever we go, and never has it been huddled around me more gladly than in Belfast at the current time.
But if I’m still unlucky, at least I’ll have the consolation of knowing how much my patients will miss me.
“Poor Dr Farrell, he was a great doctor, wasn’t he?” they’d say. “Now, who’s on duty this afternoon? Did he not leave a locum? I have a cold, and I want an antibiotic.”
Changing your mind, you see, is not de rigeur in Ulster, although we are not unique in this regard. You never see a panellist on questions and answers programmes sit back thoughtfully, and say, “Yes, you’re right, that’s a good point, it hadn’t occurred to me. OK, you’ve convinced me, I’m changing my mind.” It takes strength and wisdom to modify fixed views; weakness and prejudice to persist with them.
The Sufis tell of the mythical idiot savant, Nasruddin Khan, who was once asked his age.
“Fifty years old today,” he stated proudly.
Ten years later the same person again inquired about his age.
“Fifty years old,” said Nasruddin Khan stoutly. “No doubt about it.”
“But that’s what you told me 10 years ago,” said the surprised questioner.
Replied Nasruddin Khan, “I always stand by what I have said.”