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Aug 24 2012

Why I am an atheist – Matthew Pocock

It is difficult to explain why I am an atheist without starting at the beginning. I was born in the mid-70s in rural Oxfordshire, England. My parents where Born Again Christians of the ‘burn your Beetles records’ variety, and believed with all the passion and transparency of youth that they where blessed and anointed to do the Lord’s work. They met at a Christian youth event and that has set the tenner for the rest of their lives together. Needless to say, my siblings and I where raised to treat Jesus as the other member of our family, albeit an invisible and all-powerful one. Jesus was firstly the saviour of our family, and only then the saviour of our church, country and the world. It was an intensely personal faith. Our parents believed in strict parenting. Child-rearing and the training of working dogs could be accomplished using essentially the same approach, although children seemed to have longer memories and where better at dissembling than hounds, and while the dog got a newspaper on the nose, we got the cane. It was enough to know that we had done wrong; there was little need to explain why. They loved us dearly (and still do), but I felt we always came a distant third behind Jesus and my parents to each other, in that order.

From a young age, I had an inquiring and scientific mind. My favourite program during the week where Tomorrow’s World and Dr Who, and Sunday mornings before Church where spent watching Open University programs sandwiched between the Dungeon’s & Dragons cartoons and Thunder cats – surely one of the more eccentric scheduling choices brought to us by the BBC, but it meant I was introduced to relational database design and combinatorial chemistry at a formative age. By the time I was working my way though Secondary School, I was beginning to distinguish between things that we knew because they surely just must be true (Jesus had saved me from my sins, my parents would live for ever, presents will appear at Christmas) and things we knew because we had found out (what happens to dead pigeons, how many teeth a dog has, whether grass was a flowering plant). I can remember several times in my childhood where these two kinds of knowledge where at loggerheads. While playing on the lawn, I found structures on the grass that resembled flowers, but very small and not very colourful. Over the next few weeks, in the bits of the lawn that escaped the mower I watched these become the seed-heads, but I got short-thrift when I asked my parents about grass flowers. I guess they had never really thought about it before, but I was left in no doubt that grass is not a flow, and that received knowledge must trump whatever untrustworthy ideas I may have come up with. On another occasion, after watching a lot of nature programs about space, I told my father that the sun was a star. This did not go down well. Genesis says, “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.” Gen 1:16. How could the Sun be a star if it was not created as one of “the stars also”, but distinctly as one of the “two great lights”? This clash between faith-based and empiric knowledge began a process that wouldn’t fully ripen until I was in my early twenties.

By now, our family had fallen into a fairly regular routine. My parents where for ever ‘Church Planting’. This meant severing ties with all the people we knew before, making new friends and acquaintances with which to form a church, and then later on voluntarily (or perhaps with a bit of a push) leaving again as they where ‘called on’. While we had not moved house since I was 1 year old, we never kept the same social circle for more than a handful of years, as each time we changed congregation or planted another one, there was a mutual ostracisation of us from the past community. A similar pattern emerged with my parent’s closest friends, even if they where not involved. Invariably they where also the parents of our best friends. They would get on fine for a year or two, and then over some point of theology or ethics have a falling out. We children would be forbidden to see each other, and again we’d have our social life transplanted without ever moving home. We where also moved between schools more often than was strictly required, again wrenching us from those key friendship ties. Effectively, we experienced all the transience of Army Brats, and lived through a succession of broken families.

Throughout all of this, the one constant was that we, as a family, where doing Jesus’ work. Whatever Satan threw at us, however badly churches and people where corrupted, we where anointed and appointed by Jesus. Looking back on it, some of the church situations we left where not pretty, with people in authority abusing their position. Even now, when yet again the same cycle repeats, my parents are shocked to find a pastor arranging marriages or diverting church funds.

We where raised in an environment where laying-on-of-hands and casting-out-demons was a part of every-day life, and each time someone was shown to be a charlatan, our parents would be the first to decry the deceit, but come the next week, also the first to put their faith in the new holy man. After all, Satan is the arch-deceiver, and each of these individuals are counterfeiting true miracles. You can’t have a counterfeit without an original. Every unmasking of a magician posing as a miracle worker further strengthened their faith that those who either had not yet been unmasked, or were personally deluded that they had a healing gift was the genuine article.

Over time, I became aware of the credulity required. You needed a huge reservoir of faith to believe in things when lauded examples where constantly being exposed as frauds. Your personal relationship with Jesus had to be very strong if disagreement over minor points of theology could mean breaking off a friendship that had lasted years. I was asking myself if this approach to life really was healthy, and if it was necessary.

Throughout school I had an aptitude for maths and science, and was an abject failure at arts and languages. During A’levels I wasn’t sure if I should go into physics or biology, but ended up studying a genetics degree, partly in response to reading The Blind Watchmaker (and other books), and partly because of some fortuitous summer placements in various genetics labs in and around Oxford. I was then privileged to do my PhD at the Sanger Centre, on the Human Genome Project, writing bioinformatics software that helped others analyse genomic sequences.

Soon after my initial spell as a summer intern in a genetics lab, in the ecology department of Oxford University, I came face-to-face with belligerent creationism for the first time. I’d grown up in an atmosphere ambivalent over the historical nature of the Bible and the voracity of science. Any apparent contradictions had little practical import, and could be left as philosophical problems, where “different sorts of truth” could be in-play at any one time. However, this was all to change when Roberts and another gentleman (but not Wyatt, I think) stayed at our house, and after the Sunday Roast, did a presentation on their discovery of Noah’s Ark. They showed us ‘gopher wood’ from the Ark which was laminated, and told us about conspiracies to hide skeletons of giants and of chariots excavated from the Red Sea. I tried to ask questions, to clarify what they where saying and test their claims. Their response was robust enough that my father told them this was not the way to speak to his son in his house. The difference could not have been more stark to that just a few weeks earlier where I, as a 15 yr old summer student had been able to question world-class ecologists over his evidence that energy was a major factor in how many eggs birds laid in a clutch, questions that where answered with courtesy and to my satisfaction. Science seemed to both get the goods and accept questioning and inquiry. Religion seemed to both be powerless to do anything much but breed dissent, for ever leading to schism upon schism, but at the same time was hostile to honest questioning and challenge. Surely as religious truth was self-evidently higher than scientific truth, it should be more able to withstand criticism, without needing to lash out at the criticiser? Indeed, should it not encourage honest questioning to show time after time that it passes all tests? Apparently not creationist religious truth, a pattern I’ve seen repeated to this day on creationist forums and websites.

My move from being a passionate believer in a personal God and Saviour to accepting atheism started in earnest from about the age of 14. In the run up to my GCSE’s, I became very aware of the pervasive influence of the religious hierarchy in our faith school, and the way it reached it’s grubby, manipulative fingers into every aspect of our thoughts and feelings. We where told what to think, how to think, and given potent examples of what would happen if you did not follow this through, heart and soul, especially when not being watched. Denouncements in the churches associated with the church school where very public affairs.

During my A’levels, spent at an Anglican boarding school, I learned the difference between being a true believer, and doing the things that true believers do. Over the first two years of my degree, transplanted into a strange, new city and with the opportunity to see various churches without any familial or personal obligations or entanglements, I began to see all the manipulation and petty corruption rife within them, despite being full of well-meaning, trusting and nice people. It seemed innate to the environment, not the aberrant effect of a rotten individual here and there who could not be predicted or taken account of. Whatever the Christian Church should be, this was not it.

I also went through a period of looking at the tenets of my personal faith and of my spiritual experiences. The more I dug into it, the less substantial things seemed to be. Faith seemed to have gone from “belief in things not seen,” to “belief in things you’ve seen credible evidence against,” and I saw no reason to believe that this trend would turn around. Yet another wave of revival swept through the international charismatic churches (ironically, only to be terminated by the SARs outbreak and its effect on restricting the movement of the faithful and their shepherds through fear of earthly disease). Whenever I attended the revival meetings, all I could see where conjuring tricks and stage-show hypnotism. Yet it was all the same things that I’d been raised to believe in as ‘signs and wonders’. Occam’s razor fought an ongoing battle with the need to believe, but ultimately I came to realise that this need in itself had no reasonable basis. I had, in effect, been conditioned from birth to need to believe. By the end of the first year of my PhD, this last toe-hold was broken.

It has been a long road recovering from the effects of my childhood. I have been left with a propensity to long periods of depression fuelled by feelings of no self-worth. At the same time, I can’t listen to relaxation and meditation tapes without falling into an almost blind rage at the thought of having my emotions manipulated. The very regimented and strict rules of childhood have left deep scars, some of which may never fully heal, although I am now able to walk a more balanced line between guilty binge spending and miserly penny-pinching. Our constant uprooting from our social circles has left me very careful about how I make and keep friends, and probably with a tendency towards not giving enough to the friends I do have, but I am blessed with the friendships I’ve kept, some of which have lasted for all of my adult life.

My wife and I are now expecting our first child, a daughter. We’re by turns excited and apprehensive about becoming parents. I am determined not to visit the sins of the (grand-)parents upon the children. I hope that we will be able to provide a loving environment, with structure but without dogmatic rigidity. I hope that her life will be free of constant superstition, yet bathed in the numinous and magical. I hope she will be able to make moral judgements without recourse to a cosmic Moral Judgement, and love nature without invocation of The Goddess. Perhaps things will not all work out as we wish, but I hope they do, and refuse to fear that they will not, even though they may not. This is my decision and my choice.

I spent my entire childhood living under superstition and the constant, background fear it engenders. This has cast a long shadow from my childhood across the rest of my life. With the starting of our family, it’s well past time to put this firmly behind me and take responsibility for myself and my future with my family. Religion isn’t a safety-net, it’s a spider’s web, a phantasm of our own making. This is why I am an atheist.

Matthew Pocock
United Kingdom

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Lofty

    That is one powerful spell you have broken. Congrats on making it out into the real world!

  2. 2
    douglaslm

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. 3
    machintelligence

    I agree. Congratulations on your ability to make reason triumph over such powerful indoctrination. Most people never realize that faith is just gullibility, dressed up in its Sunday best.

  4. 4
    latsot

    Hi Matthew, all nicely put.

    I think I might know you from a university in the north, in which case hi.

  5. 5
    Thomas Lawson

    “Religion isn’t a safety-net, it’s a spider’s web, a phantasm of our own making.”

    Is that a genuine Matthew Pocock? Because it’s brilliant. Well done.

  6. 6
    Gnu Atheist

    Hi Matt,

    Loved your piece!

    But, please fix something for me. I apologize for being a nitpicker, but you did it 4 times. You write “where” when you mean “were”. Where, of course, refers to a time or place. Were is a past, subjective tense of the verb to be. “Where were you guys last Sunday?” “We were at the American Atheists convention.”

    Thanks! And, you’re going to be a great Dad.

    Bob

  7. 7
    chrisv

    Ask any fly caught in such a web…it is not easy to get out. You did it. Now, fly away. To the light.

  8. 8
    charlesdavies

    Jeezus those Xtians are iggerent.
    Imagine trying to find Beetles records to burn in a time when the biggest bad influence on the morality of the world was obviously “The Beatles”, pshaw.
    And in my opinion ,the maniac did shoot the wrong Beatle, but doesn’t that mean that we may all get a molecule of ex-John Lennon, sometime, maybe?
    Even the Xtians?

  9. 9
    chrisdoring

    That was very interesting, well spoken and moving. A long journey indeed. I commend you coming through the other side of such intense indoctrination. Thank you for sharing your story!

  10. 10
    robster

    These “Why I’m an atheist” stories are great. For a change and to perhaps add some more “entertainment” could PZ consider a series on “why I believe in childish nonsense”? The atheist stories are all common sense and indicate a degree of intelligence, whereas stories about being sucked into the fraudulent vacuum that is faith would be good for a giggle. They could also act as a warning to people that maybe exposed to religious nonsense/indoctrination and help them prepare for the onslaught of brainless stupidity and prepare to kick it in the bum. It’s something that we could all laugh at and helping people laugh can’t be a bad thing.

  11. 11
    claremilner

    I can understand your anger at the manipulation of thoughts and feelings. I can handle relaxation, what gets me are the motivational speakers. They are too close to evangelical preachers and I experience that “get out of my head” anger.

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