I am an atheist because I’ve seen hundreds of people die.
Around the time of my brother’s birth, my father decided that we should all start attending the CoE chapel on the local naval base (he was a retired naval officer) and within the year, my brother and my ten-year-old self were baptised. Some four years later I was confirmed, after being forced unwilling to confirmation classes. This class demanded a weekly essay on some biblical topic; deeply unfair, I felt, when I was the only one in the class who went to a highly academic school, and already had 4-5 hours of homework each night. I bought into the mythology, because adults were always right, or so my obedient self had been taught, but the essay was usually scribbled sitting in the back of the car on the way to class.
I think the chaplain knew.
On leaving school for university I fell in with a very catholic contingent, and here the first cracks really showed. They used condoms instead of the pill ‘because it’s easier for god to make a condom fail if he wants you to be pregnant’.
I found out that engaged couples had to attend a class where celibate, single men told them how to be married, because god says.
And confession magically erased any bad stuff you’d done, but didn’t really explain why you still needed a day of judgement.
And I began to see people die.
The first was an old man gasping his last with acute pulmonary oedema.
The next was a young cyclist.
A nine-year-old boy, of asthma.
A girl with cystic fibrosis.
A fifty year old woman with teenage children.
The list lengthened, and now I can no longer remember all their deaths, though some of them do stick in my memory.
What they had in common was…nothing other than death. Old people, young people. Children and babies. Sick and healthy. Deliberately or accidentally. Fighting all the way, welcoming it or simply giving in to the inevitable. Distressed or peaceful. Merchant bankers and newborn babies, elderly paraplegics and young athletes. Road accidents, cancer, lifelong disability, infections, heart disease, respiratory failure…I learned all the ways a human being can die.
Now at this point a religious person would be nodding sagely and deciding that I had got angry, and turned away from god. That I raged against him and his cruelties.
Have you ever seen someone die? One moment they’re there, a person, the sum of all the experiences they’ve ever had, a fantastic bundle of memories, desires and hope. And then it’s gone.
The match sputters out, the clockwork toy winds down, the tree falls to earth, and it’s over.
And it’s only in the last sixty years that we’ve really made a difference. Before that, we died like flies.
Were the people back then less deserving? Were they more evil? Were they less religious? I don’t think so. In fact, I know they weren’t. So why were they not deserving of all the things we have today? Why did two of my father’s siblings, twins, die before they were five years old of preventable childhood diseases and end up buried in Egypt in the 1930s? Why is every advance that humanity has made been paid for in blood, again and again and again?
No apologetics can explain the way the world simply is. No amount of hand-waving can hide the fact that the majority of humanity still suffers, much of it beyond our coddled imagining. I cannot compartmentalise this, for to do so would be to deny that suffering was real, to wave it away, salving my conscience with the lie that it was all for some hidden purpose. I am not willing to lie to myself and even less am I willing to lie to those around me.
I don’t have parables of how I do good in the world, or trite recitations of lifesaving heroics. I’ve saved lives, but that, to put it bluntly, is my job. There is no god to be pleaded with, bargained with; it is us, homo sapiens, who save each other’s lives, who offer comfort to the dying, who create and invent and build a better future for ourselves.
Send that mythological monster away. Your child died because there was nothing further human beings could do to save him, your sibling lived because human beings successfully pulled her back from the brink. And that effort belongs to all of us.
And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s enough.