I’ve tried to put this into words a couple or three times before, always talking about why I’m an Atheist, and never with any great deal of success. Partly that’s because the socio-political aspects are so often stated by so many people (most of them much better writers than me, to boot) that it’s hard to really say anything new, but also partly, I think, because I never became an atheist. Apart from a brief period in my early teens of wondering vaguely, and I have to say rather casually, whether there might be some form of deist ‘first-cause’ sort of god, I’ve been an atheist all my life. It’s kinda hard to do a deconversion story without the deconversion! The question for me is, rather, how did I become an Atheist with a capital ‘A’? You know, strident, shrill; a nasty horrible persecutor of Christians and all that jazz. The answer—or this attempt at it—is likely to be a bit rambling, I’m afraid.
Let’s start with Santa.
I can’t actually recall believing in Santa. As far back as I remember, he seemed like a shared joke between my parents and I. Their pretence seemed knowingly transparent, and I went along with it as part of what I assumed was the joke. I’ve no idea if they realised that’s the way I saw it, but it’s how it looked from my perspective.
I also don’t remember ever not being able to read, and as with most kids, ‘reading,’ to me, meant ‘stories.’ Fiction, and lots of it.
Thirdly, to round off what we might call my early scepticism, I also remember being exposed to Bible stories for the first time (in Caen primary school, Braunton, Devon, if you’re interested). It’s not that I ever, to my recollection, thought they were silly or illogical as stories. I just didn’t think they were supposed to be real. I’d already come across the idea of fables, via Æsop (read to me by my mum I should imagine. I doubt I was advanced enough to be reading them for myself), and knew them to be basically fiction. Anyway, the Biblical tales were mostly presented as fables, and though it was explained to us that such tales had morals, the fiction side of things was much more weighted in my mind than moralising. They really didn’t do much for me, though Jonah and the whale was diverting for a while, until the frankly boring whale inexplicably failed to converse with Jonah. Æsop would’ve made it much more interesting!
Anyway—before this turns into misty-eyed nostalgia—I quite simply thought of the Bible stories as just the same kind of in-joke between teachers and kids that Santa was between my parents and I. After all, miracles and magic and all that stuff, was stories! No one would actually believe them, surely. And to be frank, that’s how it still seems to me, to this day. I really don’t understand at a gut level (intellectually, yes: ‘give me the child until he is seven,’ and all that, but not at a gut level) how an even slightly educated adult can possibly see all that talk of invisible all-powerful beings, their angel attendants and so forth as anything but ‘made-up stuff.’ But then, I can’t in all honesty claim to have seen through it myself, given that my earliest memories of it are of not even realising it was meant to be real. You could say I was too simplistically-minded to be gullible.
Sometime between then and the age of about nine, it must have occurred to me that some people actually believed the tales, because I can remember being quite shocked at my grandfather’s hurt expression when I mentioned him surely not believing in ‘God and all that.’ Not that my grandparents were that religious, mind—they weren’t regular churchgoers, even. What shocked me was that I had formed an assumption (I think it was a case of what writers often call ‘the arrogance of youth’) that only, erm… people of lesser intelligence, shall we say, would believe such things. And believer or not, Granddad was most certainly not of lesser intelligence. Ruminations on which fact, I suppose, were what led to my brief half-hearted flirtation with deism, a few years later. Fortunately, I also discovered other, much more interesting kinds of flirtation, and the semi-mystical bullshit really didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Fast-forward past girls, beer, music, beer, books, beer and bikes, (I like beer, okay?) to about three years ago. Well, not quite straight past. I formed a few vague opinions, over those years, about religion in politics, the unfairness of tax-breaks for churches and so forth, but hadn’t really connected them all together. And anyway, religion mostly seemed irrelevant to modern life. It was a dying institution that few people, I thought, really took seriously or paid much attention to. American readers may be looking goggle-eyed at that last sentence, but I can assure you that that’s the way it actually appeared in this country for most of my life. And apart from as regards the middle-eastern theocracies and near-theocracies and the Catholic scandals, it still does, to most people—with the exception of right-wing tabloid scare-stories about brown people Muslims. Even if they notice the religion, it’s seen as secondary to the politics, not—as seems to be becoming more and more common—as a major cause of the policies. That’s changing, though, even if most folks haven’t consciously noticed yet. Even many ostensibly anti-U.N. American right-wing religious lobbying bodies are going global, and the smaller but just as crazy fringe over here is following suit, and also copying the more aggressive style of their American cousins. But I seem to have jumped to reasons for, rather than the growth of, my Atheism…
Which, apart from those few gradually-formed half thought-out opinions, was actually quite sudden. A ‘road to Damascus’ moment I could say. (I’ve always thought casting Dorothy Lamour as Saul/Paul was the bravest decision in cinematic history.)
One night I was sat at the computer, googling trivia for a quiz I was writing. Faced with a lack of ideas and an empty Google search-box, I glanced around the room for inspiration, and my eyes fell upon an X-Files DVD. That’ll do, I thought, and I searched for some info on David Duchovny. (I wonder what I’d be doing now if I’d googled Gillian Anderson…) Well it turns out a friend of his is an apostate from the church of Scientology, which led me to a video of an interview with the man in question (I don’t remember his name) talking about his experiences with the church. I got interested (I’ve always felt a little irrationally ashamed that an author of ‘my’ genre should have started that abomination), and dug into Google a little deeper, which led to me reading blogs, news stories and comments boards that inevitably also dealt with other aspects of woo and the crazier edges of religion in general. Whereupon it dawned on me, over a few hours, just how much fundamentalist Christianity is taking hold of the U.S. political arena in particular, but also making inroads, as I said earlier, into many other supposedly post-Christian countries.
I find it hard to describe how all that felt. Talk about a paradigm shift! It was almost as if I’d stepped into some badly-written alternative-universe novel, where the Enlightenment never happened but they somehow still managed to build modern technology. Fourteenth century opinions spewed, often semi-literately, onto a twenty-first century internet message board. I have a hard enough time, as I said, truly understanding the beliefs of a mild religionist, in virgin births, gods, and so on. The thought that any more than a few uneducated inhabitants of the extreme fringes of society, let alone politicians on the national stage, could actually believe in a literal 6,000-year-old earth, or a talking snake (I’ve grown out of Æsop) or Noah’s flood, or… well, you get the idea—it still knocks me for six. I know they do; for I’ve talked to people who eventually managed to escape into realism. Deep down, though, there’s a part of me that whispers, when I read or hear the speech of Young Earth Creationists and the like, “They’re lying. No one could be that crazy. I don’t know why they are, but they have to be lying.” It’s 2012, for Pete’s sake! We’re supposed to be flying round in bloody air-cars and wearing awful tin-foil coveralls whilst listening to synthesised music with a naff 70s disco-rhythm, not constantly rehashing the trial of Giordano Bruno. But back to my Damascene revelation…
I spent the entirety of the following weekend glued to the computer, bookmarking more blogposts, videos and news-stories than I could possibly read in a lifetime, skimming this, reading that in full; and all in a kind of horrified fascination, along with thoughts of ‘how could I have not known this?’ And I’m still there. Still staring in shock and incredulity at what still appear to be medieval peasants trying to force medieval religious views into the modern political arena. The scary thing is that they’re managing; and in a world of nuclear weapons, anthropogenic global warming, overpopulation and depleting resources, when I say ‘scary,’ I really do mean it’s the stuff of nightmares.
I just wish I could wake up.