And I suppose it needs to be said at the outset that while not a Christian I am open to suggestion about all sorts of more or less batty phenomena that are usually lumped (to my mind often quite wrongly) under the omnibus banner of 'spiritual', and that I have great respect for other people's religious beliefs and practices right up to the point where they begin to impinge on me but not, however, a nanometre further. If other people wish to be Christians then I am not going to lift a finger to stop them and I am happy to admire newborns in mangers and sing any carol you put the sheet music for under my nose. Just don't ask me to kneel down.
The religious hatreds currently circulating the globe, as they have of course always done, are utterly foreign to my own experience of personal feeling. I have no idea where this intensity and density of religious fervour comes from, although a year's blog-reading has given me some sad-making notions about how it too often manifests itself: a desperate, unvoiced, driven desire to signal one's allegiance to a tribe, and to give one a conduit for the venting of unformed, unacknowledged hatred and rage.
Anyway, there I was in the car last week, driving around as I usually do an awful lot this time of year and listening to the radio, which is something I almost never do unless I'm in the car, and there was Robyn Williams interviewing Richard Dawkins about his recent book The God Delusion.
Williams is a sublime interviewer of his peers, and his peers are relatively few. Unlike interviewers who have no particular store of knowledge and experience other than that of journalism itself, Williams is not a shark; he is not a thinker-up of headlines; he is not someone who gets a bunch of lowly, unsung
Like, I think, most other people, I have a couple of friends in whose company you somehow find yourself rising above your usual conversational standard: saying more interesting things, and saying them better, than you thought you were capable of. Which of course makes you very enthusiastic about the conversation. This seemed to be happening in the Williams/Dawkins conversation. Dawkins kept saying in a surprised sort of way 'Oh, that's a very good question, isn't it, I'll have to think some more about that.'
But even more than this lovely dynamic, which is what makes any live interview really take off no matter what the situation -- I speak as a veteran of many writers' festivals -- what surprised me about the interview was something I hadn't really realised until I heard Dawkins speak.
For radio is a medium through which great intimacy is possible. The only thing available to you about the person speaking is her or his voice, and the voice thereby takes on great importance. As one knows from phone calls, you can often identify and conjure up the entire physical presence of a person the minute s/he speaks, even if it's just some kind of pre-verbal vocalisation, an indrawn breath or an 'um' or 'ah'. Voices are as potent as perfume in this regard.
Voice is also the thing that always alerts me, in the absence of any other obvious sign, to someone's mental state. When a voice sounds odd to me -- a buzz, a drone, a monotone -- then what one beloved ex-boss of mine used to call the 'maddie antenna' quivers like that retriever's tail in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. And as soon as Dawkins began to speak I thought Oh my God, he sounds like a Dalek. I mentally plotted him somewhere along the Asperger's spectrum. The phrase 'lack of affect' came to mind.
His voice has a sort of metallic, sawing, plangent edge, its effect reminiscent of paper cuts and fingernails on blackboards. Yet is not in itself an ugly voice, that isn't what I mean; its timbre, in fact, is rather unusually pure and clear. It's the voice of a brilliantly played brass instrument. A trumpet, say. A trumpet of an evangelical, military and/or annunciatory kind, of the kind that summons souls on the Day of Judgement, orders Adam and Eve out of Paradise, or announces sternly to the Virgin Mary that she's pregnant with the son of God and there's not a damn thing she can do about it.
And it was deeply ironic, I thought, that a man so loudly, insistently and unreservedly determined to pour scorn on any manner of theist, on spirituality of any kind, should adopt so successfully the Biblical modes of denunciation and command: the mode of evangelists and angels, or vengeful gods of any stamp. The mode of a bossy, overbearing, single-minded bully.