I OFTEN think that the best and most influential writer on Anglican theology since C. S. Lewis was Terry Pratchett, even though he was an atheist. Obviously, he had a much greater impact than anyone who wrote as a Christian, or even as a programmatic atheist. But the millions of people who bought his books were also introduced to a profoundly English Anglican sense of the world as a cosmic battleground between evil and decency.
Decency rather than good. He’s brutal about the people who believe that they are good, and some of them are truly horrible fanatics. His heroes are simply trying to do their best, but this invariably involves loving most, at least, of their neighbours. On the other hand, he has some really frightening portraits of evil as privation — most notably, I think, Teatime, in Hogfather.
And then there are the cats. The elves, who are among his wickedest — which is to say most unfeeling — creations, have a way of looking at the world which is shared with earthly cats: “A look that a microbe might encounter if it could see up from the bottom end of the microscope. It said: You are nothing. It said: You are flawed, you have no value. It said: You are animal. It said: Perhaps you may be a pet, or perhaps you may be a quarry. It said: And the choice is not yours.”
A feline pantocrator would be a prospect more frightening even than the angry God of the Old Testament. No cat would explain why it had clawed you, or what you might do in future to avoid being clawed again. This is why it is hard to credit the story that The Times reported as the most significant religious news of the week: a study from the United States suggesting that atheists were more likely to be pet owners than regular churchgoers.
The difference — 0.58 of a pet — was apparently made up entirely of cats. Other pets were evenly distributed across the theological spectrum, but cats are much more likely to be owned by people who don’t go to church.
According to the author of the study, Professor Samuel Perry, of the University of Oklahoma, the explanation lies in the sociable aspects of pet-owning: “We own pets because we love their company and the special interaction they provide for us. In some ways, pets are actually substitutes for human interaction. . . People who are heavily connected to a church or faith community already have plenty of social interaction.”
This would make more sense if the animals preferred by atheists were dogs, i.e. pack animals. Cat social interaction is much less frequent and predictable. On second thoughts, perhaps that is the answer. Psychologists tell us that intermittent reinforcement is much more effective in getting people to repeat behaviour than something that just works. That is one reason that gambling is addictive.
The Times gave over a front-page column and a leader to this problem, and was rewarded with a letter about the Revd Robert Hawker, the 19th-century Vicar of Morwenstow who was supposedly accompanied by his nine cats when taking services. I don’t believe this for a moment. How could you get nine cats to agree about anything? On the off-chance that the story is true, though, the General Synod should invoke his supernatural aid before every difficult discussion.
ANNE ATKINS had an article rather in Pratchett’s spirit in The Daily Telegraph about the Revd Jonathan Fletcher (News, 3 January), whom she had known when he was a curate in Cambridge: “Charismatic; tall, dark, handsome; with a personality so powerful I instantly wanted him to like and approve of me. He didn’t. (Approve . . . though it’s possible he liked me.) Not being an Evangelical — nor male, nor public-school educated — I could never have counted for much.
”Jonathan was domineering, forceful, misogynistic. But he could also be generous, fun, inspirational. More to the point, he preached the Christian faith, promoted holy living, encouraged others. How could someone of sincere convictions and high moral standards make his friends strip naked before thrashing them?. . .
”There is no proportion, no simple common sense here. It became more important to punish young men for masturbation (what could matter less?) than to nurture confidence, encourage kindness, rejoice when they fell in love or succeeded in their careers. . . And nothing outside the Church mattered: no brain surgeon or violinist would win people to Heaven.”
AND so back to The Times, which had an illuminating obituary of Lord Williams of Elvel, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s stepfather.
He was, in his youth, an accomplished cricketer, a successful merchant banker, and, later, a feared head of the Prices and Incomes Board and a widely admired biographer. If his later life was a failure, as the obituarist implied, this was because he had only a seat in the Lords, and not the Cabinet post that he thought he had been promised by Tony Blair. It’s a glimpse of the standards against which, one assumes, the Archbishop measures himself.