I don’t actually know why I am an Atheist. I know why obviously, but I can’t remember what specific event caused me to fall into my views. Some people can pinpoint the moment they broke (or joined) with religion, but for me I suppose it was more a gradual erosion.
I talk as though I was once religious and lost the faith. Actually, although I would’ve called myself a Christian, I wasn’t a very good one. Unlike most Christians I’ve since met, I didn’t love God… I was absolutely bollocking terrified of him. From the age of around nine through to twelve, I spent most of my time thinking about Hell, and every little transgression – nothing particularly untoward in a pre-teen child (and I was a good boy you’ll be surprised to hear) – caused me no end of anguish. The first time I masturbated, I remember thinking afterward “Well that’s it… you’ve definitely blown it now. One way ticket. Hell and damnation.”
As I got older, the fear faded. My religious beliefs became more amorphous and secular, like a religious pic-and-mix. For a while, I believed that if you did good in the world and died you went to a ‘heaven’, if you committed evil you were reincarnated; like a video game continue, you had another go at life to see if you could get it right. I still had a fascination with Jesus, and I deliberately kept a postcard of him on my wall and would ‘ask’ him for advice. I even went to the trouble of making sure none of my new rock’n’roll posters were positioned higher than he was. But eventually he came down as well, tossed into a shoebox. I suppose it is at that point, aged around fifteen or sixteen, that my Atheism begins.
I’ve never found the label helpful, and neither am I keen to embrace it. For one thing, I think most Atheists would agree that it’s misleading to group people together into a part of society who Do Not Believe In God as though they’ve made a conscious choice. I would counter that a much larger pool of society Do Not Believe That They Can Fly, but that’s not a belief that’s just knowledge – all the evidence points to a fact; if one ascends to a multi-storey car park, and then jumps whilst flapping their arms, the outcome is going to be disastrous. I think it is Atheists precise lack of belief and their penchant for hard, nailed fact that makes them want to stand out. They want to say ‘We are the normal ones… you’ve got the funny ideas.’ The burden of proof, they (correctly) argue, should lie with those stating the ‘fact’ whilst flying in the face of astronomy, as well as geological and evolutionary evidence.
This is part of another reason why I shy away from the Atheist tag. To be Atheist is apparently to be lacking in creativity and narrow-minded, according to many that I have spoken to in the past. One person admitted they were surprised to hear that I was a writer. Ignoring the misuse of ‘narrow-minded’ (which is someone who deliberately ignores fact to pursue their own opinion) there is something of the Charles Babbage about Atheism sometimes – correcting a piece of poetry because the metaphor wasn’t scientifically precise. It’s important to mention Science here because it is the popular argument that Science Doesn’t Know Everything. It doesn’t. It knows its limitations and it is willing to change when the evidence throws up something new. If Science were a religion, it would’ve allowed women to be bishops, gays to be wed and condoms to be distributed to the parts of HIV-affected Africa years ago.
Unlike some militant Atheists I have time for faith in the world. I don’t want to obliterate all religions. A world without religious belief would be a far less colourful and vibrant place. Religion is often hoisted high into the branches of a tree and beaten with sticks from people who misunderstand a religious issue from a cultural one. There are certain things that perhaps it is answerable to, but too often the real evil lies behind a person, or people, or an aspect of a particular culture or society which somehow gets absorbed as a ‘religious’ matter when there is no mention of it anywhere in the holy texts. Religion too often has been and continues to be used to subjugate – women, people of different backgrounds, etc etc. Whether it is allowing a woman to die on the operating table because of a refusal to abort a baby that would kill her, or beheading a man who is just trying to provide your country with food and fresh water, these things are unbelievably abhorrant crimes committed in the name of religion.
I think it is a fantastic thing to be able to channel faith. But I cannot help being pro-choice on a variety of matters, and I shy away (sometimes run away) from anyone who decides that their faith should dictate how someone else lives, or how they should use their body. I am pro-choice when it comes to the usual religious hot potatoes of contraception, abortion, marriage. If you want to do it ok, if you don’t fine, but do not impose yourself on anyone else’s liberties. It still confuses me how anyone can come up with counter arguments against this (seemingly) very basic piece of human decency. It is so obvious, I feel like an idiot for mentioning it.
I get an inkling of what it is to feel religious ‘faith’ and ‘love’, but it is by proxy rather than directly through me. I adore churches and cathedrals, as buildings, and I think they are monuments to sheer faith. When I go into a cathedral and I look up I don’t see God; I see impossibly high columns and carvings, made with the most rudimentary of tools and placed in situ by brave people with basic technology and no safety harnesses to catch them if they fall. To climb so high to place a piece of limestone at the top of an arch without all the modern fail-safes we have today must’ve taken more than courage. It took faith, a belief that what they were doing was good and that, when finished, this building would be a pilgrimage site for their fellow believers.
I do believe in an afterlife, but it is perhaps a bit more macabre than ascending up to heaven or being presented before God’s love. Life after death for me isn’t celestial, it’s biological – worms, bacteria, the very things that caused life to exist in the first place. We are all products of the very things that we wipe away with our bottles of perfumed disinfectant. I still find that a positive thing. Life goes on, even in the most extraordinary circumstances. Just as a fallen tree becomes a haven for a million different things, so the body in the ground does the same.
I am cheating a bit though. When I die, I wish to be cremated, although I suppose the ash at least will make the ground fertile. I want no religious texts at all during my service, just songs that reflected my personality (if anyone wants to write a song called ‘What A Bloody Wanker’, you’d be doing me a really big favour.) Then I want to be scattered in a particular place that I have always loved, so that I’ll always be there. Obviously, I won’t be ‘there’ at all, but it makes no difference to me. I suppose that is a faith in a way, a faith in connection with a piece of geography, a landscape carved from glaciers in the dim and distant past. A connection with something that isn’t really there, except in my own mind.
In answer to the original question… I don’t know why I’m an Atheist.
I just… am.