As a child, it never occurred to me to doubt the existence of god. I’m not sure I even realised it was optional. When I was ten, after my mother’s remarriage, we started to attend my stepfather’s church, in which he was (and is) a very active member. This church is well known in Edinburgh for being ‘charismatic’ and ‘evangelical’, by which I mean that the organ had been dispensed with in favour of guitars and there was a lot of swaying and clapping of hands. They were very into the alpha course.
Every summer, the church would organise a retreat at a large house somewhere in the country for a week of prayer and bible study, and my older sisters and I were always taken along. The worst of these was when I was 12; that was the memorable year when the ‘Holy Spirit’ was sweeping through the land (or at least through the evangelical churches). For a week I was stuck in a remote house in the highlands of Scotland while everyone around me was filled with the holy spirit and started swaying, shaking, falling down and speaking in tongues. I spent most of the week hiding.
Around this time, I started to read a lot of old myths – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic and so on. It occurred to me that those people who had worshiped Isis thought they were right just as sincerely as I did about Jesus. And once I’d acknowledged that question, what about Muslims or Hindus? I asked my stepfather – how did we know that we were right? He told me that it was just a matter of faith (which was honest of him), and I accepted that answer. And I believed in god – but not unquestioningly. I had doubts. I saw so many contradictions in the world, so many things that didn’t make sense thought the lens of faith. But I ignored the contradictions and assumed I just didn’t understand. Perhaps we needed god to set off the big bang, I wondered. And perhaps he nudged evolution along.
Ultimately, what saved me was science. It never occurred to me to doubt that evolution is true and I never really believed that creationists existed until the horrifying day when I discovered that my mother and eldest sister (both highly educated, otherwise intelligent women) are creationists.
And one day, I finally caved to my doubts and actually considered a question that had been hanging around at the edge of my consciousness for years. It’s accepted among most Christians that humans are the only human beings to have souls. Dogs, cats, horses, goldfish – nothing. Chimps, nothing. We assume the Australopithecines had no soul. So what about Homo habilis? Or Homo erectus? No. So when had the soul appeared? Which individual was the first Homo sapiens and had the first soul? Of course, I knew that was a ridiculous question. But it had to be asked, because if there was no soul, there could be no afterlife. No heaven, or hell. And if there was no afterlife, there was no god, and it was all an invention of people who were afraid of death, and so convinced themselves that they would live forever.
Of course, that wasn’t all, and it look me a while to completely let go of my faith, but it’s gone now. I miss it sometimes. The idea that there is an omnipotent being out there who loves you and will do anything for you is incredibly comforting. But I’ll take what I have now – the ability to see and appreciate the world as it actually is and nothing more – over a lie any day.