Am I my brother’s reviewer? A word of explanation is needed here. Some of you may know that I have a brother, Christopher, who disagrees with me about almost everything.
Some of those who read his books and articles also know that I exist, though they often dislike me if so. But in general we inhabit separate worlds – in more ways than one.
He is of the Left, lives in the United States and recently became an American citizen. I am of the Right and, after some years in Russia and America, live in the heart of England. Occasionally we clash in public.
We disagreed about the Iraq War – he was for it, I was against it. Despite the occasional temptation, I have never reviewed any of his books until today.
But now, in God Is Not Great, he has written about religion itself, attacking it as a stupid delusion.
He reminds me rather more of the bearded Muslim sages of the Deoband Islamic university in India I met last year, than of the cool, thoughtful Anglicanism that we were both more or less brought up in.
For the purposes of this book, religion is identified as a fanatical certainty. No doubt there are plenty of zealots who suffer from this problem.
But it is obvious to anyone that vast numbers of believers in every faith are filled with doubt, and open to reason. The Church of England’s greatest martyr, Thomas Cranmer, was burned at the stake for changing his mind once too often.
The noblest thinker of that Church, Richard Hooker, enthroned reason, alongside tradition and scripture, as one of the governing principles of faith, and warned against crude literal use of the Bible to justify or prohibit any action.
Yet Christopher repeatedly asserts that believers "claim to know", not just to know, but to know everything. This simply is not true. Nor do we take the Bible literally.
I never imagined that scripture had the fact-checked authenticity of, say, an account in The New York Times – though as we know even that grand newspaper sometimes publishes made-up stories without realising it.
Did the Supper at Emmaus really take place? How I hope that it did, but I do not know that it did, in the way that I know a British soldier has recently been flown home dead from Basra or Helmand, or even in the way that I know that another such soldier will soon make the same sad journey.
Many decades have passed since I fancied the story of Adam and Eve was literal truth, if I ever did. Rather more recently I have realised the great warning against human arrogance that is contained in it, the serpent’s silky promise that if we reject the supposedly foolish, trivial restrictions imposed on us by an interfering, jealous nuisance of a God, then we shall be liberated.
As the serpent promises: "Ye shall be as gods." These may be the most important words in the whole Bible.
Take the enticing satanic advice, and you arrive, quite quickly, at revolutionary terror, at the invention of the atom bomb, at the torture chamber and the building of concentration camps for those unteachable morons who do not share your vision of a just world.
And also you arrive at the idea, embraced by Christopher, that by invading Iraq, you can make the world a better place.
I hesitated about mentioning this. Was it unfair, a jab below the belt? No.
Much of his book is devoted to claiming that religious impulse drives Man to do, or excuse, or support wicked and terrible things in the name of goodness.
Is this not a perfect description of the Iraq War, which he backed?
On the few occasions where Christopher is prepared to admit that religious people have done any good, he concludes that they did so in spite of their faith, not because of it.
He even suggests that the atheist Soviet tyranny was itself a form of religion.
You can’t win against this sort of circular absolutism.
Yet he has this absurdly backwards. Religious and unbelieving people have both done dreadful things, and the worst of them have committed their murders and their tortures in the belief that they were doing good.
Nothing is proved by either side in this argument, by pointing to the mountains of skulls piled up by evil atheists, and evil theists.
What they have in common is that they are human, and capable of the sin of pride. The practice of religion does not automatically prevent this, and nobody said it did.
It sometimes joins in with it, as Christopher points out.
But if there is a voice raised against such arrogant pride in the heedless modern world, it is usually a religious one, and the death camps and dungeons of dictators always contain their ration of the faithful who – at the cost of all they held dear in the world – have listened to their consciences even when the message was so unwelcome.
Perhaps they are just mad: I do not think so.
My claims, you see, are much milder than his. When I skulk in the pew of a nearly-empty church, repeating the lovely, poetic formulas of the Church of England, I do not imagine that I am saved for all eternity.
For all I know, Christopher is absolutely right – my prayers are pointless and a meaningless oblivion awaits. But if he is right, what a dispiriting, lowering truth it is.
Atheists like to claim they behave no worse than believers, and often better. I don’t deny it, in my case. It would be easy for almost anyone to have lived a more virtuous life than mine.
But why should atheists care, or use such terms as "good" and "virtue" anyway?