Before I recorded the Unbelievable show with Richard Morgan, broadcast last Saturday, Richard asked me to tell him how I came to be an atheist. Here is my story as emailed to him:
I think I’ve always been an atheist.
What happened was that over a period of time, in my teens, I came to accept that I was an atheist. It was kind of C. S. Lewis in reverse, I think.
When I was about 6 or 7 at primary school one of the other pupils died. I didn’t know him, but when the announcement was made in assembly the next day, I remember thinking: “So he’s in Heaven now….” and that thought produced a very peculiar feeling. Of course, I may be projecting onto my infant self, but I now think that I was experiencing the dissonance of trying to reconcile what I thought I believed (God, Heaven, Angels etc) with what I actually believed (yeah, nice story).
But everyone I knew just took it as given that God existed, that Jesus was his son, that when we died we would go to Heaven if we’d been good or Hell if we’d been bad (the doctrine of justification by faith was not something that I think anyone in my circle was familiar with).
I heard a vox pop radio broadcast (about a year or so after my “that’s so weird!” reaction to my fellow pupil going to Heaven) on what people thought about the after-life. One of the “pops” said he thought it was all rubbish. I asked my mother how he could think that when Jesus had talked about Heaven and Hell. She said that the man didn’t believe in God or Jesus. That was a shock. I had had literally no idea that the belief was up for discussion.
My grandmother was a devout Catholic and my mother had been brought up as a Catholic but left the church when she married my father. We were all brought up as C of E.
We lived in S. Africa for a year when I was 10 & I was sent to a convent school (day only – not boarding). I found this very exotic and exciting. The Hail Mary – a previously unknown prayer, the genuflecting, the rosaries etc.
Back in the UK (aged 11) my mother decided to give the Catholic Church another try & I enthusiastically went along with her, converted & was baptised (& eventually confirmed).
There were several advantages to this:
1. No more RE lessons. In fact I was abruptly removed mid-lesson from my last one, on the message getting through that I was now Catholic. This was gratifyingly dramatic.
2. The sense that now I was intriguingly different (one of a group of about a dozen in the whole school who was Catholic)
3. Special assemblies in the staff dining room on Fridays (the rest of the week we attended the usual school assemblies, but still the Friday separate assemblies cultivated my sense of being in some way above the rest of the crowd.)
There were also some disadvantages.
1. Having never been much of a church-goer, my mother was now a regular and of course I had to go too. I hated going to Mass. It was so boring. And physically painful too, until one got used to the long periods of kneeling. I was sustained by a sense of moral superiority over others, who were not going off to Mass and were therefore my inferiors, but not much else to cheer me up.
2. Although there were no more school RE lessons, once a week we were supposed to go during the lunch hour to Catholic RE. A priest would take the lesson which was invariably dull. A recurrent theme was the evidence of God’s existence and the First Cause Argument was usually relied on. I didn’t see any fault with the FCA. In fact I thought it was unanswerable. But at the same time, for something which was so unanswerable it was strangely unpersuasive. So when Fr – would say that the ink stain on that desk could not just have happened, that somebody had to have caused it, I assented with my head but remained full of doubt in my heart. (Maybe he was actually using the argument from contingency, which to this day I do not understand, so it would certainly have gone over my head back then.)
I was troubled during this time (in grammar school) by doubts about God and the afterlife – especially the afterlife which I particularly wanted to be true. God was only important as a guarantor of the after-life.
When the Gideon’s Bible Society came to the school and gave us each a copy of the New Testament I noticed in one of the appendices there was like a “trouble-shooter” guide for useful texts in trying times. One of them was for “When you are doubting”. I looked up the recommended verses, but they were of no help at all. (I seem to recall that they had something to do with eggs, but I may be misrembering.)
So it went on until my mid-teens, when the edifice stopped creaking and started simply breaking apart.
The Pope came to Canterbury Cathedral and was allowed to celebrate an open air Mass in the grounds. Canterbury is where I lived. Well, you’d have thought the world was going to end from the reactions of some Protestants. Leafletting, protests – it was an eventful time to be a Catholic in Canterbury.
The extent of the alarm felt by the protesting Protestants made me think. Even if they were right, surely God wouldn’t punish anyone for making an honest mistake? Even if that mistake was not believing in him at all, that ought to to call down punishment? A person might very much want to believe, but just find that they couldn’t. (I believed I believed. I hoped I believed. I told myself I believed. But it was all very effortful and so I felt acutely the injustice of being punished for non-belief.)
But the notion that nothing was off-limits made me move away from Catholic claims of certainty, claims to be the “only true church.”
I became a sort of religious post-modernist, a pantheist: “God is everywhere, man. There are just infinite paths to find him. They’re all equally true….”
I’ve always enjoyed reading things I disagreed with so when I saw Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian” in the local library, I thought I’d give it a go. Even if I didn’t believe in the Christian God anymore, there was, of course, no answer to the First Cause Argument, so get out of that one, Russell. It was turtles all the way down. There was still a God and I still had a Heaven to go to.
Except the FCA turned out to be rubbish and a puff of sceptical wind blew it away.
My belief in my belief remained for a while balancing precariously on the cliff edge of my unwillingness to let it go, but eventually I had to get up from my knees (CS Lewis in reverse) and confess that there was no God, no afterlife, nothing.
And it wasn’t so bad! Because underneath it all, that’s what I’d always thought anyway. It was better to face it than to stick my fingers in my ears and sing “La la la God! La la la Heaven!” every time I thought about death.
I think I was about 16.