In childhood, I attended the Church of England with my mother and at that stage never thought to question my faith or the truth of Christian tenets. Not that I really understood them. I had vague notions of there being a God who was benevolent but wanted us to toe the line and of a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” who was particularly kind to children but still entertained his father’s stern notions of right and wrong. I often imagined both of them looking down at me disapprovingly.
In my teens, I became friends with a boy called Peter who was a member of a group then called the Plymouth Brethren. I eventually joined him at his church and made friends with the other members of the youth group. In fact, I there fell in love for the first time, which rendered the whole thing that much more significant.
It was here that I at last firmed up my ideas about the meaning of the Christian message. The Plymouth Brethren were quite definite about this: I, like the rest of mankind, was an irrevocable sinner and therefore doomed unless I accepted Jesus as my Saviour. I embraced this simple message (and Jesus) with joy and became ultra-religious. Well, if you can’t be ultra-religious in your teens, when can you be?
The Plymouth Brethren were lovely people, affectionate and tolerant, and I enjoyed my time with them but after a couple of years I began to tire of the whole thing. This coincided with my going away to university and the family moving away to another part of the country, so the break was inevitable and complete.
I was still religious when I went to university but my faith began to decline as it became irrelevant to the life I was leading: wider horizons reveal the inadequacies of narrow thinking. I cannot say at what moment I became an atheist: there was no sudden realization, no last straw snapping the camel’s back, just a slow ebbing away to nothing. At this stage I had no coherent arguments as to why I was no longer religious. Religion no longer meant anything to me, that was all.
Some years later, I gained two friends who had a big influence on my thinking. Both held religious beliefs, the one Christian, the other a DIY mix of Eastern mysticism. Intrigued by their, for me, novel ideas, I plunged into a study of religion and philosophy and became intrigued enough to pursue my studies for about 10 years. I even joined a Zen Buddhist beginners’ group for a few months.
This experience did two things for me: firstly, it provided me with a broad perspective on all the main religions and therefore some appreciation of religious beliefs and attitudes in general; secondly, it helped me formulate my ideas as to why I had rejected religion. In that sense, these two believers provided me with an unexpected boon.
These days, I am not “just an atheist”, I am a committed atheist. I know why I am one and what it means to me. I won’t bore you with my reasons and philosophy*; just take my word for it. I am not a militant atheist (in their way, militant atheists are as bad as militant religionists) but on the other hand, I do think that religion is pernicious and is one of the main obstacles to peace and human understanding.
Abuse in the name of religion is as bad as any other kind of abuse, no matter who the abuser is or what dignity and authority he gathers unto himself. “All power corrupts,” said Lord Acton, and that is as true of religious power as it is of other sorts of power. If people can keep their religion to themselves then, fine, we may be able to get on together, but if they insist on thrusting it onto others, coercing others to obey the tenets of their particular religion then, no, we will not get along together.
There do of course have to be rules if we are to live together as a community but these rules have to be drawn up with the mutual consent of all parties, not imposed by an individual in the name of a scripture or of some private revelation.
*I’ll reserve that for another day 🙂