Atheism in Literature

The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories 1972
Doris Lessing

The Temptation of Jack Orkney 229

'He had Extreme Unction yesterday,' said Ellen.
'Oh,' said Jack. 'I didn't realize that Extreme Unction was part of his ...' He stopped, not wanting to hurt feelings. He believed both Ellen and Cedric [his sister & brother] to be religious.
'He got very High in the end,' said Cedric.
Ellen giggled. jack and Cedric looked inquiry. 'It sounded funny,' she said. 'You know, the young ones talk about getting high.'
Cedric's smile was wry; and Jack remembered there had been talk about his elder son, who had threatened to become addicted. What to? Jack could not remember: he would have to ask the girls.
'I suppose he wants a church service and to be buried?' asked Jack.
'Oh yes,' said Cedric. "I have got his will.'
'Of course, you would have.'
'Well, we'll just have to get through it all,' said Ellen. It occurred to Jack that this was what she probably said, or thought, about her own life: Well, I've just got to get through it. The

230 The Story of a Non-Marrying Man

thought surprised him: Ellen was pleasantly surprising him. Now he heard her say: 'Well, I suppose some people have to have religion.'
And now Jack looked at her in disbelief.
'Yes,' said Cedric, equally improbably, 'it must he a comfort for them, one can see that.' He laid small strong hands around his crossed knees and made the knuckles crack.
'Oh Cedric,' complained Ellen, as she had as a girl: this knuckle-cracking had been Cedric's way of expressing tension since he had been a small boy.
'Sorry,' said Cedric. He went on, letting his hands fall to his sides, and swing there, in a conscious effort towards relaxing himself. 'From time to time I take my pulse - as it were. Now that I am getting on for sixty one can expect the symptoms. Am I getting God? Am I still myself? Yes, no, doubtful? But so far, I can report an even keel, I am happy to say.'
'Oh, one can understand it,' said Ellen. 'God knows, one can understand it only too well. But I really would be ashamed...'
Both Ellen and Cedric were looking at him, to add his agreement - of which they were sure, of course. But he could not speak. He had made precisely the same joke a month ago, in a group of 'the Old Guard', about taking his pulse to find out if he had caught religion. And everyone had confessed to the same practice. To get God, after a lifetime of enlightened rationalism, would be the most shameful of capitulations.
Now his feelings were the same as those of members of a particularly exclusive Club on being forced to admit the lower classes; or the same as that Victorian bishop's who, travelling to some cannibal-land to baptize the converted, had been heard to say that he could wish that his Church admitted degrees of excellence in its material: he could not believe that his lifetime of impeccable service would weigh the same as that of these so recently benighted ones.
Besides, Jack was shocked: to hear these sentiments from Ellen, looking as she did, leading the life she did - she had no right to them! She sounded vulgar.
She was saying: 'Of course I do go to church sometimes to

The Temptation of Jack Orkney 231

please Freddy.' Her husband. 'But he seems to be losing fervour rather than gaining it, I am glad to say.'
'Yes,' said Cedric. 'I am afraid I have rather the same thing wit Muriel. We have compromised on Christmas and Easter She says it is bad for my image not to be a church-goer. Petersbank is a small place, you know, and the good people do like their lawyers and doctors to be pillars of society. But I find that sort of trimming repulsive and I tell her so.'
Again they waited for Jack; again he had to be silent. But surely by now they would take his opinions for granted? Why should they? If they could become atheist, then what might he not become? The next thing, they'll turn out to be socialists, he thought Surely all this godlessness must be a new development? He could have sworn that Ellen had been devout and Cedric correct towards a Church which - as far as Jack had been concerned - had been irritation, humiliation, tedium, throughout his childhood. Even now he could not think of the meaningless services, the Sunday school, the fatuity of the parsons, the social conformity that was associated with the Church, without feeling as if he had escaped from a sticky trap.
Ellen was saying: 'As for me, I am afraid I find it harder to believe as I get older. I mean, God, in this terrible world, with new horrors every minute. No, I am afraid it is all too much.'
'I quite agree,' said Cedric. 'The devil's more like it.'
'Yes,' said Jack, able to speak at last. 'Yes, that's about it, I'm afraid.' It was the best he could do. The room was now full of good feeling, and they would have begun to talk about their childhood if the bedroom door had not opened, and the Dean come out. The smile he had shed on the nurse was still on his healthy lips, and he now let it benefit the tree, while he raised his hand in what looked like a benediction. 'No, don't get up!' He was almost at once out of the other door, followed close by Mrs Markham.
The look the three now shared repudiated the Dean and all his works. ...

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