There are both honourable and dishonourable reasons for being an atheist. Fr O’Malley, walking into the local pub after Mass, spotted Paddy hunched over a pint of Guinness. Paddy realising that he hand been spotted decided to get in the first word. “O Father,” he said, “you’ll not be seeing me in Church anymore, I’m an atheist.” To which Fr O’Malley responded:“An atheist, Paddy, an atheist? You are no atheist, you are just a fat, lazy slob too idle to get up in the morning to go to Mass.”


The friend for little children

Many of the unbelievers that I encounter find it difficult to believe, it seems to me, not because of idleness, but because they have never, ever been encouraged, to grow up and mature in belief, have never, ever been guided into creative ways to move beyond childish conceptions of God, or urged to wrestle with inadequate notions of God. They have never learned to argue God, think through God, and so to know and experience God in ways that allow him to be, in part at least, an adequate answer to evil, innocent suffering, death, tragedy and so on.


So the god rejected, not believed in, denied or mocked by many, though not all atheists, is usually not God at all, but rather an imaginary god whom mature Christians left behind with their childhood.


A lovely god, certainly. No nursery should be without such a god. Just as no nursery should be without Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle Duck or Rupert Bear, God.........the Friend for little children,

                                                             above the bright, blue sky,

                                                             the Friend who never changes,

                                                             whose love will never die.....


The friend for little children above the bright blue sky, is the first few lines of a children’s hymn, that we used to sing when I was little. It is one that encapsulates for me the whole problem, because I can remember as a young man listening to snatches of the memorial service that was held for 116 school children suffocated to death in the Aberfan disaster in Wales. That hymn was sung during the service....


                                                             There’s a friend for little children.....


It horrified me. What sort of a friend is that? I thought, 116 children killed, who moments before they were killed had been singing, apparently, “All things bright and beautiful...”


                                                             A friend for little children?

          Some friend.

                                                             Above the bright blue sky,

come off it, endless space, galaxies, an expanding universe above the bright blue sky, perhaps, but a friend for little children! Come off it indeed!


Neaum the pseudo intellectual

And yet, having said all that, and whenever I find myself arguing like this, I cannot help thinking, “what a stuck-up, pseudo intellectual you sound, Andrew, old fruit. You reckon you’ve got God taped, do you? You’ve mastered a more sophisticated portrait of him have you? But is the God you’ve pinched from the intellectuals any more real or compelling than the God of your infancy and childhood? Are you a better disciple now than ever you were when a little boy, because of your more sophisticated view of God? I doubt it!


For the God of my childhood, was indeed God, and love him I really did, and he me.


It is a bit like the parents of one’s infancy and youth. Just because we saw them then as all wise and all knowing, as indestructible rocks upon which to cling securely through any storm, and only later learned of their fallibility and sometimes their downright silliness, does not mean that they were in anyway unreal, or not good parents, or that they didn’t love us, or that our relationship with them was worthless.


As we grow older we see our parents and teachers more for who they really are or were. As not having been the repositories of all wisdom, but actually the repositories of both wisdom and foolishness, as being clever but also stupid, good but also bad and so our relationship is forced to mature, change and develop. This doesn’t negate the earlier relationship, which, if it was genuinely loving, was still beautiful and in essence of God.


So too surely our relationship with God. Our view and understanding of God when young might have been naive, simplistic, unsophisticated, but if it was an authentically and reciprocally loving relationship, it was good, and of great benefit to us.


Spying shadows of eternity

Henry Vaughan, a sophisticated 17th century poet, looked back with deep, deep longing to his infancy as the time when his love of God was more intense and more real than at any other time in his life, saying at the beginning of his wonderful poem “The Retreat”:

                                                             Happy those early days! when I

                                                             Shined in my angel-infancy,


                                                             When yet I had not walked above

                                                             A mile or two from my first love,

                                                             And looking back—at that short space—

                                                             Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

                                                             When on some gilded cloud, or flower,

                                                             My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

                                                             And in those weaker glories spy

                                                             Some shadows of eternity;


The reason I remain able to believe, has to do, in part, and without doubt to being brought up in a household where God was argued, talked, questioned, wrestled with and even denied.


But far, far more, because the God of my nursery, the friend of little children, above the bright blue sky, was fair dinkum, and the love ascribed to him was lived by those who brought me up, was mediated to me, and shown to be real and beautiful and life-enhancing by them.


So much so that I too, like Henry Vaughan look back on my childhood faith and God, not with condescension or with sophisticated scorn, but with deep, deep longing, for it was indeed the period of my life

                                                             When yet I had not walked above

                                                             A mile or two from my first love,

                                                             And looking back—at that short space—

                                                             Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

                                                             When on some gilded cloud, or flower,

                                                             My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

                                                             And in those weaker glories spy

                                                             Some shadows of eternity;


Elegy for a childhood friend

I deeply mourn the loss of that untroubled, unquestioned loving friend, solace and God, I really do. Not at all dissimilarly from a wonderful new poet I discovered only a few weeks ago who mourns a childhood friend, not God, in the following lovely elegy for a little boy called Brendon Gallacher


                                        He was seven and I was six, my Brendon Gallacher.

                                         He was Irish and I was Scottish, my Brendon Gallacher.

                                         His father was in prison; he was a cat burglar.

                                         My father was a Communist Party full-time worker.

                                         He had six brothers and I had one, my Brendon Gallacher.


                                        He would hold my hand and take me by the river

                                         where we’d talk all about his family being poor.

                                         He’d get his mum out of Glasgow when he got older.

                                         A wee holiday some place nice. Some place far.

                                         I’d tell my mum about my Brendon Gallacher.


                                         How his mum drank and his daddy was a cat burglar.

                                         And she’d say, ‘Why not have him round to dinner?’

                                         No, no, I’d say, he’s got big holes in his trousers.

                                         I like meeting him by the burn in the open air.

                                         Then one day after we’d been friends for two years,


                                         one day when it was pouring and I was indoors,

                                         my mum says to me, ‘I was talking to Mrs Moir

                                         who lives next door to your Brendon Gallacher.

                                         Didn’t you say his address was 24 Novar?

                                         She says there are no Gallachers at 24 Novar.


                                         There never have been any Gallachers next door.’

                                         And he died then, my Brendon Gallacher,

                                         flat out on my bedroom floor, his spiky hair,

                                         his impish grin, his funny, flapping ear.

                                         Oh Brendon. Oh my Brendon Gallacher. (Jackie Kay)