Thursday 29 September 2016

Ian O'Doherty: I'm not a believer, so why do I tap the radiator three times?

Published 15/12/2012 | 06:00

Okay, let's start at the start, as they say: My name is Ian and I am an atheist.

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Well, that may be true, but it's not necessarily accurate.

Because one of the things I've found most irritating in the last few years is that the more self-professed atheists are mobilised, the more inclined towards a rigid atheist orthodoxy they become.

For instance, I've been harangued by non-believers for my support for America and Israel and my profound disgust at the removal of traditional Christmas objects in public life – such as cribs and mangers in hospitals or other public buildings.

No, just as I decided that the Catholic Church wasn't for me when I was, oh, I'd say about nine or 10, I equally don't want to be associated with or necessarily defined by


No, I simply don't believe in a God. Nor do I believe in an afterlife. Nor do I believe in fairies, angels or demons. And I don't like the taste of Marmite or ginger, either. But I am not going to start forming a club to give out about them.

I'm simply one of those guys (or one of those guys who is simple, depending on your point of view) who believes what he can see – evidence is everything and if somebody showed me direct evidence of the existence of a supreme being, then I would start to believe.

Until that extremely unlikely occasion, however, I am happy to go about my day knowing that I will live and then I will die and then I simply won't exist, I will have vanished from the universe, remembered – if that – only by friends and family.

So, if I am so supremely, smugly rationalist, why the Hell am I so bloody superstitious?

Honestly? I haven't a bloody clue.

But I've noticed that as I've got older I seem to have developed a series of increasingly stubborn tics and habits that cannot, must not, will not be disobeyed.

For someone who likes to think of themselves as a logical, sensible person, this is rather disconcerting.

Take this morning, for instance.

Once out of the shower and dressed, I had to go back into the bathroom and tap the radiator three times.

In fact, any time I pass that bloody radiator it has to be tapped three times.

It doesn't make any sense and I am well aware of that.

Other traits, such as refusing to look at the computer when I turn it on because I'm afraid it won't work if I do, might seem like a mild form of OCD.

But what is obsessive compulsive behaviour if not the modern, rational explanation for what we call 'superstition'?

There are quite simply some things I have to do and some things I simply cannot.

If I'm walking on a city street with a female friend, I have to walk on the outside. I knew one woman who thought the idea was ludicrous and archaic ("I'm not some helpless damsel you have to protect from the road," she sniffed).

But I knew in my heart that if I didn't walk on the outside then something terrible could, and probably would, happen to her.

This is all rather embarrassing for someone like me, who likes to debunk myths.

I've gone to psychic shows and called them out on their 'cold reading' techniques.

In fact, the shyster Colin Fry once threatened to sue me when I pointed out the obvious tricks he was playing on a vulnerable audience.

That was about six years ago and I'm still waiting for Colin's solicitor's letter, by the way. Maybe it got lost in the post.

Likewise with that damned foolish trend for angels and all the expensive rubbish that goes along with them.

After all, when you see the glut of authors of books about angels turning up on telly and talking obvious nonsense and, frankly, contemptible drivel then you have to wonder about the sanity of these people.

Until you remember the money these authors are making from selling their snake-oil charms to morons – and then it all suddenly makes some sense.

And yet I still won't walk on a crack in the pavement or across the lid of a drain on the path.

If I do that, the weird part of my brain whispers, then all my money (such as it is) will disappear from my bank account; one of my dogs will get hurt or worse; and generally Very Bad Things will happen.

But as I've become more aware of this strange little foible, I've discovered that I am not alone.

I noticed, for instance, that when driving, every time my wife changes gear she waits five seconds then taps the top of the gear stick four times.

When I pointed this out to her she simply snorted: "No I don't"... and then promptly did it again a few minutes later.

Similarly, a friend of mine simply will not allow the round system to be broken when a group of us are out having a drink.

The system, he points out angrily, will break down if the order is not kept in sync.

Now, he knows that the 'system' will not break down if someone buys a drink out of turn, but there's still a part of him that – the irrational beating the rational – thinks maybe everything could come crashing down if the system isn't obeyed.

I suppose you could say that for every non-believer, the God-shaped hole in their heart needs to be filled with something because, as humans, we have an innate urge to impose some semblance of order on a disordered universe.

Or maybe we're all just a little bit daft.

You choose.

Interestingly, when I was talking about this piece to my boss yesterday, he simply said: "Well, I'll keep my fingers crossed that it'll be good."

You see?

I guess we all have a touch of it. . .

Irish Independent

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