This is the first part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction, which explains in a bit more detail, is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them. In this part, I write about the background; how and why I was raised without religion.
I got a certain degree of Christian-slanted religious education just from growing up in the UK, because state schools here are legally required to provide religious education and ‘a daily act of collective worship’. (The latter meant, in practice, that our school assemblies would include a prayer addressed to ‘Dear Lord’ and a Christian hymn, and sometimes the day’s story-with-a-moral would be from the Bible. Eventually I ended up at a posh secondary school where we were expected to provide our own hymn books, and figured out that I could cut the cover off mine and use it to smuggle paperback novels into assembly, so that was the end of me paying much attention to anything we were taught there, but I’d already absorbed quite a bit of this Christianity-lite by then.) The religious education was supposedly multifaith, but we did get a very overtly Christian teacher for a couple of years when I was in middle school; fortunately, she aspired to the Jesus-as-Good-Shepherd-and-inspiration model rather than the fire-and-brimstone model, so it wasn’t a significant problem overall. I filed the more religious parts of her lessons away in the ‘might or might not be true’ mental category.
So, as far as background culture was concerned, I did absorb a watered-down version of generic C. of E. Christianity from school. Not enough that I ever came close to considering myself a Christian even culturally, but enough that I was aware of what Christianity was about and that it did shape some of my assumptions; when I thought about whether God existed, I rarely thought to wonder whether more than one god existed, and the god about whose existence I was wondering was typically a version of the traditional Abrahamic god rather than any of the others humanity has pictured over the millennia.
As for my home life, however, my parents neither practiced nor criticised religion. We kept Christmas and Easter as secular festivals, and we did have quite a few Bibles around the place simply because it was the wonderful sort of house that was full of books of every variety, and religious topics did sometimes come up for dinner-table discussion in the same way that all sorts of other topics did (I don’t have any specific memories of these, but my mother recently reminisced about them, remembering the time my father and sister were arguing agnosticism versus atheism). But there was nothing more formal. On the flip side, they were never anti-religious in the slightest; there were no criticisms of or rants about religion, and I never had any feeling that it was something of which they disapproved.
There are moments in life that you realise only with hindsight to have been the planting of a seed, and one of those was the time that I asked my father why we weren’t being brought up as any religion. His answer was simple enough; he explained that because he was Jewish and my mother was Christian, they thought it was fairer not to bring me or my sister up as either religion. This struck me as a perfectly reasonable answer, but it also started me wondering; what did it mean to be Jewish or Christian? Or, for that matter, any of the other religious groups to which I was vaguely aware people could belong?
It’s worth mentioning here that, in the case of both my parents, the respective terms meant ‘came from an undogmatic version of that particular religious background’. As you’ve probably gathered, they certainly weren’t practicing members of those religions, or even believers, by the time I was growing up. But just the idea that people could be categorised in this way was interesting to me. I started looking out for books about different religious lifestyles and ceremonies and what they mean for the people concerned.
For years, that part – the cultural side of religion – was what really interested me. Questions over the truth of it interested me as well, but in a more distant way. ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘Which (if any) religion is actually true?’ held, as far as I can remember, about the same level of interest for me as ‘What job will I do?’ or ‘What kind of life will I have as an adult?’; yes, they were important and interesting in an abstract sort of way and I’d certainly have liked definite answers had such been available at that point, but they weren’t anything I felt any sort of immediate pressure to have answered.
So, where did all this leave me?
With a kind of vague default belief in a filtered and toned-down version of the traditional Abrahamic god, heavily footnoted with ‘but we don’t really know if it’s true’ disclaimers, and coupled with a keen awareness that this belief didn’t default to being Christian.
This would, in the long run, affect my search for answers about Christianity in multiple ways:
- I started from about as impartial a background as anyone growing up in this society realistically gets. (I do realise that’s not the same as genuinely being fully impartial, but we all absorb something from society, so I don’t think ‘fully impartial’ is an option short of being raised under a rock somewhere.) I wasn’t burdened with any expectations of following or shunning religion, and that made things a lot easier for me.
- Because the god I learned about at school was presented very much in a ‘suitable for the children’ way – all the love and wisdom, none of the fire and brimstone – I grew up with the general impression that God’s existence would be a good thing overall. One of the things I sometimes see Christians say about atheism is that it’s just a sort of wishful thinking from people who don’t want to believe in God (I’m not sure how that’s meant to fit with the idea that atheists are also all just looking to fill a ‘God-shaped hole’, but whatever). For the record, that wasn’t the case for me; I’d have preferred it if I’d been able to reach an honest conclusion that someone wise, loving and powerful was in ultimate charge of the universe. I just didn’t want to use this as a reason to kid myself into believing it was true when it wasn’t.
- I also grew up understanding that it wasn’t a binary choice between Christianity and atheism. Not that I ended up in any of the other options in the end, so I suppose it’s a moot point, but I’m still glad to have always recognised that the decision’s a lot more complicated than an either-or.
- On which note, I was always fascinated by Judaism. I’ll write more about this in my next post, but this interest did mean I learned quite a lot about it, and some of that would be really useful background in understanding Christianity.
- And finally, a key point: I grew up with personal awareness of the fact that good and wonderful non-Christians exist. When I heard the Christian belief that people who weren’t ‘saved’ by Christianity would end up in eternal hellfire, it had a very personal meaning for me, since any such claims included my father. (And, it seemed reasonable to extrapolate, many other similarly good people who also didn’t deserve eternal torture.)
And that’s about it for the general background. In the next post, I’ll write about how I got into looking into Christianity in particular.
I love how you wrote that!
Like you, the church I was forced to go to as a child was as you said, “Jesus-as-Good-Shepherd-and-inspiration model” and the indoctrination I got from Sunday school, youth group, and summer bible school was all the sanitized stuff meant for children.
When I was very young, before bed the kids all chanted the prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”…until I pointed out that it was talking about dying in your sleep and then the younger kids started crying and we never had to say that again. That was the extent of religious talk in my house. Like in yours, Christmas and Easter were secular celebrations.
Also as you pointed out, in the US as in the UK, it’s impossible to live in society and not know anything about Christianity. In the US, there are countless tv specials (the Charlie Brown Christmas one from the 1950s/1960s is especially preachy) and lately the whackaloons’ culture wars, such as the time they collectively melted down that the red Christmas cups Starbucks was featuring that year weren’t Christian enough. When my kids went to school in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was an especially hard push to have all-Christian (whackaloon sect), all-the-time indoctrination in the schools. So, it’s impossible to NOT know anything so long as you’re participating in society.
Can’t wait to read what you have for us next.
Dr Sarah says
Goodness, I hope it lives up to expectations, then! Thank you; so glad people are enjoying this. 🙂
Pierce R. Butler says
When I heard the Christian belief that people who weren’t ‘saved’ by Christianity would end up in eternal hellfire, it had a very personal meaning for me, since any such claims included my father.
Which gives you something in common with Charles Darwin. The whole post, actually, seems rather Darwin-childhood-parallel.
[insert Union-Jack emoji here]