Throughout my childhood, I remember having many issues with the concept of belief in the supernatural. I was fascinated by it, as are most children with a good imagination, but I could never quite bring myself to actually believe any of it at face value.
I had a friend who lived near me, we were friends since we were babies and pretty much grew up together. We’d play all sorts of things, dress-ups and playing shops were some of our favourites. One day, my friend told me that she’d ‘adopted’ a fairy. I think another friend of hers had told her about fairies, and she really seemed to believe (or certainly acted like she did) that she had a little invisible being living in her doll house. She had a name and a personality, and we talked about what she looked like and even went so far as to put water in the miniature bathtub and put little seed pods from flowers in the little kitchen as ‘food’. After a little while, my friend ‘gave’ me a fairy of my very own to take care of. I had my own doll house, so I was entirely qualified to take care of her and we continued to play this game for a number of months.
All through these games, I had severe doubts. I remember distinct confusion as to whether or not my friend actually believed she had a fairy living in her doll house. I remember the little songs and ‘spells’ and… ‘prayers’ we made up to supposedly communicate with these creatures and thinking, deep down, that it was all a little silly. Fun, I supposed, but I never got the sense that any of it was real. I don’t remember if I ever asked my friend whether or not she really believed it.
This same feeling hit me at school. I attended a private Anglican girls’ school. As entrenched in the school as religion was, it was relegated to a few relatively innocuous areas and didn’t seem to interfere with education in any meaningful way. In fact, I heard that one of my biology teachers was actually a creationist who didn’t believe in evolution at all. He still managed to give us a comprehensive understanding of the subject without any references to religion at all. Even our religious classes were focused on comparitive religion and spirituality, at least in high school.
We did, however have to attend chapel once a week, which was universally disliked even by the religious students. We had a few chaplains, all women, and most were quite nice and approachable. In the latest years of my schooling, we were faced with a horrible woman who had a rather nasty superiority complex and sniffy, condescending attitude. She also wasn’t terribly shy about telling students they were going to hell whenever her conscience was rattled even the slightest bit. We did, regretfully, turn this into a bit of a game and chapel became a time for coming up with the most creative and ironic ways that the chaplain would be… removed. Some favourites were being crushed by the giant crucifix on the back wall, impaled on one of the gigantic brass candlesticks or torn apart by the ivy growing into the windows. Thinking back on it now is distasteful to say the least, but we were kids and those were our thoughts.
A less horrible thing we did to make chapel less irritating was to scratch out letters on the paper hymn books that were given out. The best one was the book that read ‘St Michael and all angels and Perth College breaking bread together’ or something similar. We managed to make as many as we could read ‘St Michael and all Perth College in bed together’. Much more amusing.
I had numerous moments during my school days when I remember having a small revelation of thought in regard to religion. One was connected to the earlier fairy anecdote – that I really couldn’t fathom that people actually believed any of the claims that religions made, that they must be play-acting like I did when I was little. That was when I was 12. Ever since then, I kept making little baby-leaps of logic and formed the idea that religion was a sort of guide-rail to nowhere that people kept hanging on to for various reasons. We were all told to hang on to this rail and keep sliding along it until we reached some unknown destination, whilst ignoring the gorgeous countryside with multitudes of paths leading in all directions to all sorts of cool places. I thought of myself as having let go of that rail, and that I was free to look at the world as it was form many different perspectives. I always liked that little metaphor, as simplistic as it is to me now.
As I grew older, I grew to detest the religious and spiritual focus at school and at home – my parents were never hugely religious (to start with) but they did force my brother and I to attend church once a year at christmas until I flat-out refused after spending the entire service seething and almost in tears with anger at being forced to endure it against my will. They tried, but I don’t think either of us ever had to go again! Thus, I was an atheist from childhood due in part to a good solid science education, but more predominantly to knowing that ‘playing pretend’ was just that.