Along the precipice: visions of atheism in London

About the author
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

"One wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice." (Francis Bacon)

An enterprising plan to display an atheist message on the side of sixty of London's red buses from January 2009 suggests that, if there is a God, she has a rather wicked sense of humour. The advertisement, which is sponsored by donors who include the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins, reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The idea may have struck more of a chord before the world's financial convulsions, when the popular Zeitgeist included indulging the extravagances of a consumer economy sustained by unlimited credit, than at a time when people are very worried about basic monetary security. It is in such a time, after all, that the search for faith and transcendent meaning often flourishes; when the easy comforts of a society whose only pursuit is of "enjoyment" can begin to seem hollow.  

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Continuum, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)

"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)

"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)
In any event, there is nothing original or provocative about that banal agnostic slogan. It has been the credo of our western consumerist societies since the 1960s. A "probably" non-existent God has been banished from the public square and confined to increasingly empty churches in the company of a few deluded pious souls, leaving a large part of society to make merry (and money) with a sense of glorious liberation from the repressive effects of religion.

For the followers of a new and more ruthless deity have been building their temples in this society's midst. The fervour of their worship is familiar: a horde of over-excited, gesticulating men (like most religions, this one is dominated by men), shouting their prayers and petitions at the great glowing icons above them, placing their faith in the random and unpredictable whims of the gods, offering human sacrifices when necessary and creating a cult of secrecy so dense that the rest of us failed to see what they were up to until their creed had insinuated itself into so many institutions - governments and political processes, workplaces, schools and universities, shops, even homes and families.

What is the name of this all-powerful, all-controlling God? It may have once been called Mammon, but most today know it as The Market, and his followers (this God is most certainly male) are called CEOs and hedge-fund managers and oligarchs and traders. The Market dictates, responds, demands, even suffers (it is common to hear broadcasters use phrases such as the markets have "endured a brutal week"); and its minions and worshippers - politicians, bankers and taxpayers alike - do its bidding.

The power of this God would make "The Market probably doesn't exist" a more challenging slogan for London's buses to carry. But if anyone in the city wants to know what it would be like if God does not exist, they should take one of those buses to Tate Britain to view the exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon. For this artist, there is no "probably" about it: God has been destroyed by the nihilistic horrors of 20th-century human behaviour, and the artist - recognising perhaps that people so often prefer the escapist route of consoling delusions - feels compelled to express the true face of a world without God.

A world inside out

Francis Bacon had an authoritarian Catholic father who expelled him from the family home on discovering the teenager wearing his mother's dresses. The remnants of this discarded Catholicism litter Bacon's art, like so much debris washed up by Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith. Bacon's many sources of inspiration included Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altar, though he turns Grünewald's vision inside out, forcing our gaze beyond its message of redemption and healing, to confront us with the mangled meat that we are: savage and savaged beasts in a God-less world.

Grünewald intended the graphic torment of the crucified Christ to be a symbol of hope for the dying patients who knelt before it in the hospital chapel of St Anthony's monastery in Isenheim; but Bacon's crucified and monstrous bodies have the opposite intention, that of destroying any lingering trace of faith in a benevolent deity, a rational or redeemable humanity or a better hereafter.

This is the artist who once said: "I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason."

Bacon's paintings from the 1940s to the mid-1960s reveal his genius at its terrifying and relentless best. Life is mirrored in the art - the genocidal landscape of 20th-century history is gorged upon and spat out onto canvases in which paint and image, form and matter, congeal in visceral gloops of despair. In Head II (1949), a bestial shape oozes out of paint as thick and coarse as elephant-hide - is it winning or losing the struggle to take form against the suffocating sludge of primal matter? Why does it matter, if God is dead?  A series of early 1950s images inspired by Velásquez's Pope Innocent X howl from their entrapment in the dissolving and encroaching abyss. They look like popes should look, if there is no God.
Also in openDemocracy on matters of faith and unbelief:

Michael Walsh, "The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (19 September 2006)

Yves Gingras, "Science and mysticism: a tainted embrace" (17 August 2007)

Mark Vernon, "The bad faith of the secular age" (15 November 2007)

Keith Kahn-Harris, "How to talk about things we know nothing about" (21 February 2008)

John Casey, "Rediscovering traditionalism" (24 September 2008)

Then there are the paintings titled Man in Blue, also from the early 1950s. What astonishing serendipity that this exhibition appears in London at this time, with Bacon's tormented gaze seeing through the gloss and glaze of the City the faceless creatures trapped in its bureaucracies and institutions. His 1955 painting of a chimpanzee echoes the bestiality of his suited businessmen. We are animals, all of us: in the Darwinian fight some dissolve back into flesh and non-being even before they are formed, while others succeed at the business of becoming stronger beasts and get briefly ahead of the pack. But there is no God, so what's the point? Life is shit, and then we die.

This is what atheism looks like, to those who have eyes to see. This is what it feels like, to suffer without hope, to have the courage and the truthfulness to live in fidelity to a vision of Darwinian despair about the human condition. Like the master of Grünewald, Bacon sought to exploit the connection between the suffering human body and its artistic representation by dissolving the space of mediation between the two. He once said that he wanted his art to appeal directly to the nervous system, bypassing the process of interpretation and the search for meaning. In the Isenheim Altar, the fusion of body and art becomes a sign of incarnational hope, of flesh redeemed through the incarnate Word. In Bacon's repeated studies of crucifixion it becomes a sign of vicious and futile barbarity, of meaning devoured by the all-consuming flesh.

An act of defiance

Yet the paradox remains that the power of all great art - however nihilistic its message - depends upon the human capacity for transcendence. There are agnostic thinkers such as Peter Fuller and George Steiner who argue that only what Fuller called "a wager on transcendence" makes great art possible at all. In the obsession to represent, to create images which transcend the grip of the animal mind in order to explore a shared meaning and a common vision, Bacon must contradict the message he communicates. However much he resisted any attempt to find meaning in his art, its very existence depends upon the fact that humans are a meaning-making species - creative animals with a capacity for transcendence, imagination and linguistic and artistic expressiveness, all of which marks us out from the other life-forms with which we share the planet.

The howl of protest against the torment of the flesh is in itself an act of defiance against the void: a refusal to succumb to the nihilism that would render us mute and meaningless in the face of our human capacity for suffering and violence. We cannot short-circuit the quest for meaning which makes art possible, and within that possibility lingers the haunting question of what lies beyond the here and now, beyond the meat and the muck of our bodily selves.

There is a transition in Bacon's later works, so that by the 1980s the assault upon our senses becomes filtered through something less visceral and raw. The paint is less textured, the fusion of form and content yielding to a more stylised approach in which the dismembered and grotesque bodies have lost the pathos, the despair and vulnerability of the earlier work. There is a subtle shift from great art to something more akin to poster-painting. It is as if the artist's mourning and raging against the death of God has moved towards a reconciliation with the seductive message of modern consumerism: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

But the earlier work's insistence that God is dead makes it as theological in its meaning as all those great works of Christian art which inspired Bacon; a negation, after all, acquires its meaning from that which it negates and that which it refuses. The early crucifixion themes, for example, shock with the absence of God and the consequent dissolution of the humanist enterprise. Bacon once said: "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime."

A cosmic wager

But that snail's trail is a divine trail as well as a human one - because for nearly 2,000 years the western understanding of the human was inseparable from the western understanding of God. The mutual imaging between the human and the divine lingers in the recognition that the snail's trail of an abandoned humanity is also that of an abandoned divinity. In a later work, Triptych (1976), a chalice and a host are shown amidst the figures; though here they are empty symbols, suggesting a rebellious gesture more worthy of the so-called new atheists than the tortured anti-theological profundity of the earlier work.

Bacon may have been a nihilist, but like Nietzsche, he recognised that the death of God also signalled the death of the familiar, common-sense concept of the human. This is an atheism which is altogether different from the banal and bourgeois atheism emanating from the (predominantly) white male intelligentsia of little England. This atheism is rooted in a bewildering confidence - for it lacks foundation either in the Darwinian materialism to which it is wedded, or in the human capacity for rationality and progress to which it appeals. Intelligent atheism, like intelligent religion, offers few consolations if the challenges it poses to human knowledge, values and reasoning are taken seriously.

For some of us, faith is a positioning of our lives upon a fulcrum of possibility, challenging us to live with the unanswerability of the questions it poses and the doubts it accommodates. Such an outlook may find the mourning rituals for a dead God meaningful in themselves, and more worthy of time and attention than the kind of banal satisfaction promoted on the London buses. Whatever we mean by that word "God", there is inspiration and mystery to be discovered in the legacy which Christianity has bequeathed to our understanding of the world - in its music, art and architecture, in its Masses and devotions, in the compassionate and selfless endeavours of those who work in hospitals and refugee-camps around the world, witnessing to the existential possibility of a human world rooted in reconciling hope rather than competitive nihilism.

But for those who cannot take that wager on belief, atheism is a persuasive and respectable alternative. Go then to the Francis Bacon exhibition, and see what it entails. For Bacon shows the real thing, the savage beast that we are, suggesting that Martin Heidegger may have been right after all: only a God can save us now.