‘Do you believe in God?’ says Thora.
I hesitate before I answer – not because I’m afraid of saying I’m an atheist, but more because I know how freighted the question is. Thora is ninety-five, in failing health, her world shrunk to the size of a pressure cushion, a riser-recliner, what light and life the carers bring in, and the occasional family visit. The degenerative changes to her spine are inoperable, as she wouldn’t survive the general anaesthetic. Her pain medication is at maximum stretch, providing temporary relief at best. Thora’s already told me she’s ‘ready to go’, and seems a little bewildered that the days still follow one after the other in an endless line without any prospect of release.
‘Well – it’s not that I don’t believe in God,’ I say, sounding as if I’m hedging my bets. ‘It’s more that I don’t believe in a literal interpretation of the bible – or any religious text, come to that. I think they’re stories people tell themselves to express how they feel about the world and give them a sense of meaning. They’re creation myths, really. Which is fine. But do I think heaven is this sunny place in the clouds with a big, judgy guy handing out justice? I don’t think so. I think all these stories are just a big hangover after we developed consciousness. We’ve kidded ourselves we’re the most important thing on Earth, and we can figure everything out, and we know what’s what, because we learned how to make a hammer and a fire and – I don’t know – a rocket to the moon. So we invent the Gods we think we deserve.’
‘So you don’t believe in God?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Aren’t you scared you’ll go to hell?’
‘No. I just don’t think it exists. There’s plenty to be scared of here on earth without worrying about a fiery pit.’
‘That’s what you say now.’
She shakes her head and bites her lip. I can tell her back’s troubling her again, but she’s had all her meds, so all I can offer her is a cup of tea.
When I come back she seems a little more settled.
‘Did you see that interview Stephen Fry gave?’ she says, putting the cup down. ‘On some chat show.’
‘Yes. I did see it. A few months back. On YouTube. He made some good points.’
‘He said something about an insect in a baby’s eye. And why would God do that.’
‘Yes. He was pretty emphatic.’
‘What do you think about that, then?’
‘I think he’s right. But I didn’t think he was angry at God. I think he was angry at people who take the bible at face value, in a simplistic, kind of fundamental way. And I don’t think it’s all that helpful, sometimes. Didn’t he say something about the Greeks being better at that sort of thing, because their Gods took into account human frailty? They didn’t try to force God into a corner, to make him this all-seeing, all-loving figure. Because it’s impossible. It just doesn’t square with all the injustice in the world, insects, earthquakes, cancer – you name it.’
‘Definitely back pain.’
‘Well,’ says Thora, picking up her tea. ‘You may have a point. Mind you, I should think God’s got a lot on his plate, what with one thing and another. I’m not surprised I might have slipped his mind.’