The Last Priest – Guardian review

Good heavens – some decent atheist drama

Non-believers these days seem so zealous and shrill. Fortunately, two plays deal the subject in a sympathetic and balanced way.

The prospect of an evening of pro-atheist drama does not normally fill me with joy. Although a fervent non-believer myself, I find advocates of godlessness are more often than not a shrill bunch of didactic zealots. But last night, for the second time this year, my fears were gloriously unrealised.

There seems to be something about producing compelling theatre which forces people with otherwise very strong views to both humanise their opponents and show the flaws in their own position. The Last Priest, which had its press showing at London’s King’s Head yesterday, dealt as much, or more, with the ties of love and friendship than matters of doctrine. True, the atheist priest, Jean Meslier is portrayed as both intellectually right and morally upright, but the only character not willingly living a lie was the devout housekeeper Delphine, and even the obviously hypocritical priest Fr Claude Butler was portrayed with sympathy and compassion.

In On Religion, which ran at the Soho Theatre at the turn of the year, philosopher AC Grayling and director Mick Gordon were actually brave enough to make the ardent atheist the least sympathetic character in the play. Grayling says that he did this because he didn’t want to load the dice, and he trusted the audience to see that the right view does not always have the most likeable of advocates. I thought it also had a quite different effect: the complex emotional interactions between the characters seemed to be a demonstration of the fact that as long as dangerous extremes of belief are avoided, the love and understanding we show each other is more important to living a good human life than the beliefs we intellectual subscribe to.

Grayling admits that he originally thought the play would show that the atheism v religion battle was no contest, but he quickly realised that to make a good drama, you need more balance and shades of grey. The Last Priest’s writer David Walter Hall made a similar point when I congratulated him on creating such a humane work out of material that could so easily have become a secular sermon. “That’s the difference between the synopsis I was given and the play I eventually wrote,” he replied.

What a contrast these plays make with much of the recent atheist non-fiction, which continues to be produced at an unprecedented rate. Devoid of concrete portrayals of human life, they drift towards the abstract, where believers are left as poor, deluded fools and atheists appear no more than dried-out, heartless rationalists. These works fail to convince for precisely the same reasons that On Religion and The Last Priest do: if you are going to change the values that people live their lives by, you need to show a sympathetic understanding of how they actually live them now.

Julian Baggini