I’ve known from a very young age that I am an atheist. My primary school was a standard white, middle-class suburban one; whilst it did not exclude anyone on the grounds of race or religion, the fact was that there just weren’t any non-white, non-middle-class kids in the area. As such, as I’m sure was and still is the case in many English schools, we chanted the Lord’s Prayer in morning assembly, sang hymns twice a week and thanked-the-Lord-for-our-good-dinner-amen every lunchtime.
Being a good kid and not inclined to extreme acts of defiance, I joined in like everyone else. I even enjoyed singing the hymns (as a side note, my partner was shocked to hear me belting out a rendition of “When A Knight Won His Spurs” in the shower just the other day) – not because I felt any religious attachment to them, but because I’ve always loved a good old sing-song. At the same time, my parents sent my sisters and I to the local Sunday School every week; not because they were devout Christian themselves (although they do declare a flimsy belief in God, probably because they went through the same school system a generation earlier and never thought to question it), but because it was just what the parents in the area did to get the kids out of the house for a couple of hours. I liked going to Sunday School and always had great fun making posters with glitter and glue in the musty, dusty old church hall. I knew all the stories and the songs, but even as a young child I viewed them as I viewed other childish entertainments like fairy tales, pop music and Disney movies – gentle, non-threatening and utterly fabricated.
In fact, just last Christmas, at the age of twenty-four, I went with my mother to the midnight service at the local church on Christmas Eve. My mother felt like she should (it’s the only time of year she goes, save for the odd wedding or funeral), and I’d had a couple of gin and tonics and wanted to sing some Christmas carols for nostalgia. When I sat quietly facing forward during prayers, my mother prodded me indignantly and lamented the day she decided not to get me christened – she’s convinced it’s all her fault I’m a heathen.
Once at secondary school, which in my case was a comprehensive, no emphasis was placed on the Christian faith or any other, and it was here that I developed a real interest in religious education. Due to the fact that my school was not a designated “faith” school, I was taught about religion from a purely objective standpoint. We had open discussions about the differing views of each religious group on subjects such as sex, abortion and divorce. I remember even at the time being rather concerned about the boy who’s Christian parents requested his exclusion from these lessons, presumably on the grounds that he should only be taught their own perspective on such important social matters. I considered asking my own parents to demand my exclusion from Maths on the basis that I would never need trigonometry in the real world but decided my case probably wouldn’t be considered. This type of schooling did not make me anti-religious or have any bad feeling towards people of faith; rather, it opened my eyes to the very diverse and culturally-mixed society we live in.
My experiences of Christian teachings
I appreciate that this article has thus-far concentrated on my experiences of Christian teachings, but I submit that this is only because that was, and still is, the prominent religion I grew up with exposure to. By my own choice, I had a similar experience at the age of seventeen when I befriended someone in the Buddhist faith. Being interested in religion from an academic point of view, I was intrigued by the teachings of this particular faith and began to admire what I felt was the sound moral guidance it was able to provide without resorting to a belief in an all-seeing deity, as many theistic religions do.
I went with a group of friends to a Buddhist retreat – a noble cause, it was intended as a fully self-sustained community where every participant was involved in the running of the campsite, taking turns at preparing food, cleaning and ground maintenance. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even on one occasion taking part in a group meditation session which I will admit did give me an enormous sense of well-being, some might say even spirituality, as I lay on the grass beside my tent and became overwhelmed by the beauty and immensity of the warm August night sky.
Even today, I still feel that there are some aspects of Buddhist practice which are beneficial to one’s state of mind – just as there are in many other religions. What prevented me from succumbing to the whole kit and caboodle of Buddhism was, and I hate to say it, the sheer single-mindedness and hypocrisy I witnessed, with some internal amusement, at that retreat. I was somewhat aggravated at the loud gong outside the tent at six o’clock each morning, signaling morning mediation. It’s okay, I was told, you don’t have to partake – but no-one mentioned the disapproving stares I would receive from my neighboring campers when I politely declined, or the tuts of disgust when I watched a session with interest from the sidelines rather than join in. I had to bite my tongue when, at a morning breakfast meeting, one father attempted to quiet his excitable little boy, who couldn’t have been aged more than about five, with the words, “How do you ever propose to become a Zen priest, my son, if you do not have patience?”. Honestly, if a kid of that age has ever proposed anything of the sort, he is either an outright genius, or he has been brainwashed by his vegetarian parents. I began to question what the difference was between these people and the parents of the lad I was at school with who wasn’t allowed to study religious education.
My Buddhist friend, who had been convinced that I was coming around to her way of thinking, caught me alone and asked me what I thought of the retreat. I enthusiastically discussed my likes and dislikes about the whole event, and was dismayed to realize that she was disappointed. What she had failed to understand was that I wasn’t unhappy or disillusioned, I hadn’t “lost faith”; I had come on the retreat to experience the faith from the inside and make an informed decision as to whether I wanted it to be my path for the rest of my life. I simply established that it wasn’t – just as my education in Christianity and the other major religions established that they weren’t for me either. I bore no ill-feeling, and I got out of the retreat exactly what I wanted and needed.
The Problem with Religious People
The problem is, many religious people cannot, or will not, look at their faith objectively, and as such succumb to totally blind and frankly nonsensical beliefs without question.
Within any given religion, open debate and logical questioning are at best dismissed and at worst vehemently forbidden, which is never a path to greater unity and understanding between people. We all live and die here so I really can’t understand why we don’t just get used to it; there is nothing to fear except those who would prefer to blow themselves up than accept reality. I don’t claim to have a greatly scientific mind and see no point in arguing for and against the very existence of God – even when faced with such an undeniable fact as Darwinism, most theists (certainly Christians) put an end to any argument by simply saying “God did it” – so you might as well bang your head against a brick wall.
I, on the other hand, am an atheist because I have used my own reasoning to come to a logical conclusion and as such, I’m quite content that when I die I’m off to nowhere other than a hole in the soil. Have one for me in your afterlife, won’t you?