JGB appears in the religious slot in the Sunday Telegraph, 20 March 1994.

All praise and glory to the mind of man

Me and My God: J. G. Ballard talks to Frances Welch

The novelist J. G. Ballard confidently dismisses any notion of a hereafter: "I assume there's no after-life on the same basis that I assume the world is not balanced on the back of a giant tortoise."

As he discusses religion, Ballard occasionally slaps the arm of his chair and gasps at his inability to encapsulate some religion-related polemic in words. His sense of wonder is not directed at God, but at the human consciousness that created Him. "Imagine our forebears as they stumbled about the primeval landscape 100,000 years ago," he enthuses.

"The first glimmers of human consciousness began to emerge and, with that, awareness of the self and, with that, the awareness of death. This galvanised the central nervous system into the huge conceptual leap which we call religious belief. It is the greatest poetic and imaginative leap ever made... I mean, one can't imagine a goldfish being capable of such a conceptual leap."

As an atheist, does he not feel he is missing out on something? "I suppose if one could regard the religions of the world as great poetry, I could then believe in God, in the sense that I believe in Captain Ahab and his white whale..." He gasps, "I mean why, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, should human beings believe there is a deity presiding over this material world?"

Ballard's modest, peeling semi-detached house in Shepperton gives every indication that he is as little enamoured of the material world as he is of God. Despite the half a million pounds he is reputed to have made through his best-selling novel, "Empire of the Sun", he lives in monk-like penury, with threadbare sofas, and a rusting car sitting in the overgrown front garden.

His disillusion with God began when he was a child in pre-war Shanghai. He was alarmed by the religious ravings of his Russian governess and depressed by a superfluity of worship at the Cathedral School. "The governess used to say she heard God speak, but I soon realised it was just the thunder," he chuckles throatily. "At school the Church of England iconography -- prayers, sermons, organ voluntaries -- hung over our lives like a headache. Years later, when I went to King's College, Cambridge, as a student, I couldn't bring myself to set foot in the chapel.

"The headmaster of the school was a C of E clergyman. He was a sadist and would, without doubt, be behind bars today. He's dead now, thank God," Ballard smiles. "I hope he's suffering the same torments of Hell he put the small boys through."

His parents were non-practising Anglicans. He believes his father to have been an atheist. At the age of five Ballard himself embraced atheism. "Going to school I would see small coffins decorated with paper flowers by the wayside. If there was a God he wasn't presiding over the streets of Shanghai."

The atrocities he witnessed during the war and the sudden death, years later, of his young wife, merely reinforced his atheism. "My experience confirmed to me that we live in a godless world," he concludes shortly. "But that said, I'm extremely interested in religion. There's been scarcely a single society which has not had religious convictions built into its constitution.

"I see religion as a key to all sorts of mysteries that surround the human consciousness. One of the reasons I became a writer - particularly an imaginative writer - was that I felt the imagination was one way of understanding the mysterious nature of the universe."

The idea of an approaching death poses no threat to his atheism. "The self I now occupy will be obliterated. It's a daunting prospect, but not daunting enough for me to create a trapdoor through which I can swing to safety."

"They say there are no atheists on a sinking ship," I persevere.

"I don't believe that," he replies with conviction. "I've heard of people crying for their mothers at the moment of death, but never for father... with a capital F."