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Alf McCreary: 'I was influenced by Rev Soper, who spoke on Sundays at Hyde Park Corner... the Christian Socialist tradition still has a profound impact on my ethics and values'

In conversation with Professor Sir George Bain

By Alf McCreary

Professor Sir George Bain was born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada. His mother, Margaret Bamford, was brought up in Belfast and his great-grandmother ran Pat's Bar in the city's Sailortown from 1890 to 1918. His father, George Alexander Bain, came from Alloa in Scotland and later worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

George Bain has had a distinguished academic career and his senior posts include chair of the Warwick Business School, principal of the London Business School and president and vice-chancellor of Queen's University Belfast from 1998 to 2004.

He has led significant fundraising campaigns and is a former chair of the Lyric Theatre's development trust, former executive chairman of the board of the Ulster Orchestra and former chairman of the Keeper's Council of the Robinson Library in Armagh. He has been awarded many prizes, including 12 honorary doctorates, and was knighted in 2001.

He is married to Gwynneth and has two grown-up children from a previous marriage and four granddaughters. His recreations include genealogy, Western riding, piano playing and ice-skating.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. I started attending Sunday School when I was about four and continued until I was about 15 or 16. I taught Sunday School for a couple of years after that. Until I was about 15, I was intending to train to become a minister in the United Church of Canada, which was a merger in 1925 of the Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

There was a close link between my faith and my politics - democratic socialism. The leading socialist politicians in Canada, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, between the 1930s and 1970s - JS Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles - were all Protestant ministers, in the social gospel tradition.

I was also much influenced by the Rev (later Lord) Donald Soper, who spoke most Sundays at Hyde Park Corner and toured Canada when I was a teenager.

Although I am no longer a Christian, the Christian Socialist tradition that I was brought up in still has a profound influence on my ethics and values.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith? Or a gnawing doubt about your faith?

A. I gave up believing, because I could no longer accept many of the key Christian concepts, such as the virgin birth, an afterlife, the Holy Trinity, the sanctity of the Bible.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God and, if so, why?

A. Not since I was very young. Since I don't believe in God, I find it difficult to be angry with him.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?

A. No, since I do not belong to any Church. If I did, however, I would be ashamed of the way some religions treat gays and women.

I think that the Irish Presbyterian Church's stance on LGBT people is wrong and very unChristian.

Is not everybody - LGBT people included - made in God's image?

And, if they are believers, do they not deserve God's love?

I agree with George Orwell that the worst advertisement for Christianity and socialism are its adherents.

Q. Are you afraid of death? Or are you able to look beyond death?

A. No, I am not afraid. I will be 80 next February.

I revise my will every few years. And I have just completed 'Last Orders', guidelines as to how I want my secular memorial service to be conducted and my personal possessions to be distributed.

While I would like to live a few more years to complete various projects I am working on and to see my grandchildren grow up, I have no wish to live beyond the point when I no longer enjoy the best of health.

Moreover, the current state of the world makes it much easier for me to depart it.

For those who are afraid of death, I recommend Seneca: How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, a short book republished recently by Princeton University Press.

Q. Are you worried at all about hell?

A. No.

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?

A. No. And since my body will be cremated, God would have trouble resurrecting me.

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A. I am an atheist, not an agnostic, but I am not an aggressive, or campaigning, atheist, like Richard Dawkins. I can think of no more useless activity than trying to convert people to atheism.

If people get comfort from their religion, who am I to tell them to give it up? Tolerance is what is required of both atheists and believers.

Two of my four granddaughters, aged five and two, are being raised in the Catholic faith.

They will decide when they are older whether they wish to continue with their faith.

And, if they do not, they will be acting more rationally than those who reject a faith without having first examined it.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. Yes. I think comparative religions is a most interesting and valuable subject and should be taught in schools, instead of the traditional RE, faith-based courses.

Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. I think the mission of Churches varies by denomination and even by parish, so for me I find this a difficult question to answer.

Q. Why are so many people now turning their back on organised religion?

A. No doubt, many reasons - including higher levels of education, lack of relevance to some of the key political and social questions of the day and scandalous behaviour by the clergy of some faiths.

Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?

A. On balance, hindered. My wife Gwynneth and I have lived here for 20 years and have greatly enjoyed it, but we are disappointed that the promise of the Good Friday Agreement, which is a less sectarian society, has not been delivered.

We are perhaps more divided today, though more peaceful, than we were a few years ago.

Q. What is your favourite film, music and book?

A. My favourite film is The Grapes of Wrath based on John Steinbeck's novel. It tells the story of the drought-ridden prairies of North America, where I was born in 1939 at the end of the Great Depression.

My favourite music is classical. It's stood the test of time and I've been playing it on the piano since I was seven. I also like hymns, military music and folk as they are used to mobilise people to achieve objectives.

I don't have a favourite book. As an academic, who has been reading and writing books for many decades, I love books in the plural.

Q. And finally, do you have any regrets?

A. Yes. That I did not accomplish more in the last 80 years.

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