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Why I am an atheist – Paul Williams

I attended that most English of institutions, a Church of England Boarding School. My mother was a lapsed Catholic and my father was inscrutable on such issues but he did pick the school.

The school advertised its “pastoral” approach to the care of the young men who attended. Girls were only admitted in the 6th Form (for any US readers – that is the last 2 years of study before a pupil leaves at 18 years old). Chapel attendance was compulsory. There was a school service every week on a Sunday, a week day service for your class and a weekly event called a House Meeting that was for members of your house (think fraternity without the beer, or porn, or TV other than the news or sport) that was partly a meeting about upcoming events and partly an excuse to get a pupil to write a short morality based story that always ended with the “Christian Family Prayer” (The Lords Prayer). There was also Religious Education classes that never mentioned any other faith at all, despite the demands of the National Curriculum.

In line with Church of England (Anglican) thinking there was no science denial, and in fact the 3 science departments of Chemistry, Biology, Physics were well respected by the senior British Universities. Even more unusually, the most religious member of staff that wasn’t the Chaplain was the Head of Biology. But never once did I ever hear the word “god” or “directed” or “planned” in a biology class. It was just science and I loved it.

Even the Chaplain was the most honest priest I had ever met. Despite great anger from a variety of parents he refused to perform any Confirmation Service for a pupil that was only there on parental orders. I witnessed once such altercation, when a parent of a good friend of mine demanded to know why the Chaplain had refused to Confirm their son. The Chaplain’s reply was perfect: God said he wasn’t ready, and it needs to be his choice and not yours. No theist parent can argue with that!

This perpetually gentle approach, combined with compulsory chapel attendance made it normal to believe, normal to attend. Service attendance was never even presented as being fun – no happy clappy rubbish here – but as a solemn duty that fit with the ethos of a long standing English Boarding School.

I left school at 18, and after a break, studied law to Post Graduate level. I still believed but did not attend church, I married a woman who had Evangelical parents. I find it deeply ironic that it was her parents’ frankly idiotic young earth creationist beliefs that started my journey to atheism. As I met more people with wider ranging beliefs the obvious conclusion occurred to me – they can’t all be right! I first noticed similarities: always a father figure, always a son, often a virgin, always a fallen angel / god etc. I wondered if language from different cultures had merely been describing the same events. I became more curious and read more books! I read more history of mythology, particularly Greek and Norse as I found the characters much more interesting that anything Christianity had to offer.

Reading any good book on Ancient Greek history inevitably leads you to science, and I read more science books.

I cannot pinpoint when I changed from living with the assumption that god was there, to living with the assumption that there was no god, but I do remember when I realised I had become fully atheist.

It was an event that some would claim might or should strengthen faith. It was the survival of my youngest daughter.

The birth had not gone well. Waters had broken and under trial local health guidelines inducing labour would not be considered for 96 hours! Fortunately after 24 hours our midwife refused to be pushed away from the hospital. Over the next 20 or so hours the foetal heartbeat dropped lower and lower, reaching a low point of 7. My wife was in and out of consciousness. I was there, and I thought I was going to lose them both. The medical staff began slowing down their actions. At this point a new doctor came in. She pushed past the midwives and nurses and actually screamed into my semi-conscious wife’s ear “push you lazy bitch” – it was surreal. The doctor manipulated my wife’s belly in a way I would expect a vet to behave! My daughter was born. Not breathing, blue and very smelly due to infection from the amniotic sack being open for too long. She spent a lot of time in the High Dependency Unit, as she had effectively been born with pneumonia. My wife recovered quickly as mothers often do when the “cause” of the problem has been born.

The doctor was an Egyptian Arab and due to how she was dressed (muslim ‘approved’ scrubs) I made an assumption about her faith. In the next 10 seconds I had more theological thoughts than I had experienced in the last 10 years, no doubt bought on by the extreme emotions. I wondered if I should thank Jesus as he had forced a muslim woman to save a life. I wondered if I should thank Allah for a muslim woman who had saved the life of a Christian woman to prove superiority, etc etc. Then a single thought came hammering into my head: Just thank the doctor. She did all the hard work.

That was the end of any lingering pretence of faith I might have had.

I have explained this event to other people. Funnily enough it is usually atheists who claim I experienced a religious epiphany and so my conversion is suspect. I do not agree. I consider it to be a final realisation of something I already knew and that the heightened awareness and emotion of the birth merely let me  think without restraint. It was the final 1% from sceptical agnostic to atheist. Theists consider my atheism particularly disgusting as it was confirmed after god had saved my daughter from certain death. I’ve even been asked if I regret not thanking god for her survival! But it wasn’t god. It was a human doctor who no doubt studied until she dropped. Then had coffee and studied more.

My youngest daughter is 5 years old now and already she is the most argumentative and authority challenging person I have ever met and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Since then I have certainly become more vocal. I have had a few articles published in The Freethinker and also by the National Secular Society (both UK). I tolerate theist pride in stupidity less and less and I find myself interrupting people to correct them. No doubt I’ll get a punch in the face at some point, but I won’t regret that either.

My final thought is one that I presented to religious friend. If God appeared and there was sufficient evidence (of whatever kind we might want) that he/she/it was God I would not worship him. I would not obey him. I would not seek his forgiveness. I would demand his apology for famine. His apology for war. His apology for every single rape. Every single murder. Arguments about free will do not alter his ability to step in and prevent child rape or starvation or his ability to answer the cries of a lonely and desperate child. Until every apology has been made god would have my utter contempt. I meet good people every day who are disabled by a supernatural superstition that prevents them from learning and living and often loving who they want to. It must stop and I’ll continue to do my small part to help.

Paul Williams
United Kingdom

Comments

  1. Quodlibet says

    If God appeared and there was sufficient evidence (of whatever kind we might want) that he/she/it was God I would not worship him. I would not obey him. I would not seek his forgiveness. I would demand his apology for famine. His apology for war. His apology for every single rape. Every single murder. Arguments about free will do not alter his ability to step in and prevent child rape or starvation or his ability to answer the cries of a lonely and desperate child.

    That is magnificent.

  2. Menyambal --- Sambal's Little Helper says

    I would demand his apology …

    Bravo!

    I’d nail the bugger to a tree, myself, but I was raised on old-time religion.

  3. generallerong says

    Thanks for writing this. God doesn’t help people, people help people.

    The part about demanding an apology from god was the frosting on the cake.

  4. theophontes (坏蛋) says

    @ OP

    Church of England

    Do you think that being brought up in Xtianity-lite ™ may have contributed to you becoming atheist? Letting science into religion almost seems like a mistake (from the religionists point of view).

    @ PZ

    * IDEA *

    I was just wondering:

    It is good to be able to read the journeys to atheism in the “Why I am an atheist” series. What I would also find very interesting would be a series called “why I am a christian (muslim, jew, zoroastrian, vogon …)”.

    There are a number of religious pharyngulites, I would be fascinated as to why they cling to their various beliefs in the face of all the arguments presented in these blogs. (I imagine it would need some measure of moderation, but could be rather interesting. I seldom get to speak to religionists where I live.)

  5. illdoittomorrow says

    generallerong @4,

    God doesn’t help people, people help people.

    The next time someone’s looking for something to put on an atheist billboard message, they should consider this.

  6. cicely (Something Dark and Mordantly Humorous) says

    I have explained this event to other people. Funnily enough it is usually atheists who claim I experienced a religious epiphany and so my conversion is suspect. I do not agree. I consider it to be a final realisation of something I already knew and that the heightened awareness and emotion of the birth merely let me think without restraint.

    I’d interpret the “I wondered if I should thank Jesus as he had forced a muslim woman to save a life. I wondered if I should thank Allah for a muslim woman who had saved the life of a Christian woman to prove superiority, etc etc.” as the final, over-topping incongruity of so very many, and consider it no grounds for a “religious epiphany” diagnosis. And explain it that way. Hey, nameless theist, if this is Your God At Work (whichever “God” you’re defending), that’s a fumble hard to believe of an Officially Omniscient Being.
    -

  7. cicely (Something Dark and Mordantly Humorous) says

    Oh, yes, and I also loved the “I would demand his apology” part.
    -

  8. quisquose says

    That sounds very much like my school Paul. I also knew a Paul Williams. Coincidence? Did your school have a religious and medical name?

  9. christophermoss says

    An idea not explored enough by atheists, is what should a rational being do on discovering there is a god. I’m not just saying that one should express a sense of unfairness and disappointment that this inscrutable but all-powerful being didn’t live up to our expectations, but why would we agree that as sentient creatures we have to submit, obey and be grateful. All our best ethical thought goes in the opposite direction – that it is immoral to impose restrictions on the freedom and self-direction of the sentient. The fact that believers can give loud and insistent lip-service to ideas like freedom and democracy, yet are unable to see the incongruence of their own abasement before a deity with these ideals disturbs me. I’m with Bakunin – if god did exist it would be necessary to abolish him.

  10. martin_z says

    @christophermoss – “An idea not explored enough by atheists, is what should a rational being do on discovering there is a god.”

    Why? What on earth is the point? Why not decide what a rational being would do if the sky turned pink? Or if he or she (or it?) saw an elephant fly?

    It’s not going to happen. So there is no point thinking about it.

    If I’m going to spend time thinking about things that aren’t going to happen, I’ll think about how I’ll spend my lottery winnings. Much more fun – and at least there is SOME chance of this happening.