Why I am an atheist – Gary Roberts

Easter Sunday was a good day for us when we were kids, second only to Christmas Day. We couldn’t wait to get home after Mass to unwrap our chocolate eggs! We’d remain in our Sunday best most of the day, as family and friends filed through my parents’ house for tea and biscuits. The religious significance of this day wasn’t lost on us either, especially after having just sat through an interminably long sermon by the parish priest about The Resurrection. A scattering of palm-leaf crosses could still be found on the tops of cupboards and shelves, or tucked away behind a picture of Pope John Paul II; souvenirs from our visit to church on the Palm Sunday the week before.

But that was back then. Things are different for me now, as far as church and religion are concerned.

Just to give you a backgrounder, I was raised a Catholic. In the Catholic schools I attended—particularly junior (or middle) school—Religious Education featured prominently in the curriculum. I remember learning the Catechism by rote then having to recite it in class along with my fellow pupils, or having to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary as a group when we were gathered in the assembly hall each morning.

R.E. was definitely an important part of the curriculum and we sometimes had drop-in visits by the local priest, who’d test our knowledge of the bible by putting us on the spot with his many questions relating to the Old and New Testaments.

The headmaster at our junior school, Mr. McGowan, was fond of interrupting our regular classes in order to stage an impromptu Q&A session about the Catholic faith. Mr. McGowan had a predilection for confusing us when asking such questions. One of his favourite methods was to stare at one pupil and call his or her name before asking his question, while actually pointing at someone else sat on the other side of room as he posed his question. The unlucky subjects of both gaze and finger would stare at each other, dumbstruck, as they each waited for the other to answer first. Neither pupil could know for sure who was actually required to answer. Of course, the two would then receive a reprimand for not being able to read his mind.

It was a ridiculously inane way to teach and its sole purpose was to stoke a power-hungry ego, I’m sure. It also had the effect of instilling a sense of dread in our young minds whenever he entered the classroom.

My parents were practising Catholics, my father having converted to Catholicism from Protestantism in order to marry my mother. My mother’s side of the family, being Irish, were fervent followers of the Catholic faith. We had lots of cousins on the distaff side, some of whom were nuns or missionaries.

As children, we were expected to attend Mass with our parents every Sunday until we reached 16 years of age, at which point we were allowed to go to church with friends and cousins. We often skipped Mass, however, and would hang around outside St. Gregory’s church, making sure we weren’t discovered until it was over. When Mass was finished and the congregation began to file out of the church, we’d make our way home with the rest of the crowd; at this point, we were usually seen by friends of the family, who’d then be able to attest to our presence there, should our parents ask.

We were also expected to go to the Confessional at least once a month to unburden ourselves of sin. I never really thought I did anything bad as a child, so I used to have a whole list of trivial and not-so-trivial sins on standby, which I’d mix up every now and then when I was in the Confessional, just to make it sound more authentic.

Moral Lessons

I’d have to say that throughout my childhood and teenage years I did believe in God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the importance of absolute faith, the perils of sin, the horrors of hell. I remember at times having a feeling of being watched, or judged, and of having a sense of dread at what would happen to me if I should die. Would I be saved? Would I go to heaven? Would I end up in hell? This feeling of being watched was constantly reinforced by the amount of Catholic paraphernalia, either hanging on the walls or standing on any available flat surface in our house and the homes of our aunts and uncles, whom we visited regularly. Pictures of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, past and present Popes, crucifixes and statues of saints could be found in most rooms of the house in which I was raised. There was no escape. You just couldn’t get away from the disapproving frown on the face of some old pope, which would be hanging near a picture of a saint, for example, wearing an expression of beatitude and love.

This was my childhood. The meanings and moral lessons associated with these religious icons were constantly reaffirmed in our day-to-day interaction and conversations with older aunts, uncles, friends of the family and whatever priest happened to be overseeing our parish at the time.

I remember, one time, lying on the bed beside my mother as she rested during the day and Jesus, Mary and Joseph stared down at us from her bedroom wall. I was about 8 or 9 years old and we were talking about baptism, the bible and the Catholic faith. I asked her what would’ve happened to all those people born throughout history before the coming of Christ. I was surprised to hear her say that these people—which included innocent children and babies—could never attain salvation, simply because they hadn’t been baptised into the Christian faith. I’m not a hundred per cent sure if this was actually true according to the Church’s teachings or not, but I remember how horrified I felt for those unlucky, unbaptised masses. I tried putting forward naive arguments, such as its not being their fault they were born when they were, before the coming of Christ; or that they may have led good, honest lives.

But my pleas on their behalf just didn’t cut the mustard—these people were toast.

I believe that was a major moral crossroads in my life, one which led to skepticism regarding the tenets of not just Catholicism, but any religion. Skepticism, in fact, not only for an unjust religion in general, but eventually anything supernatural. It all just started to seem like nothing but myth, with no basis in fact.
Enlightening Times

I would say I have a very down-to-earth personality, one which responds well to logic and reason. I was always interested in science, particularly biology, physics, and astronomy. My putting aside of religion came about slowly, over a long period of time, I now know, in which I wasn’t really aware of what was happening. The process followed on the heels of my skepticism and I just began to believe less and less in any type of religious teachings, without thinking too much about this sea change in me. Any kind of faith that required unconditional belief in supernatural beings—simply because it was written in a book—seemed puerile and lacking. Anecdotal evidence based on revelation and dogma just wasn’t good enough for me.

Throughout history, many disparate and diverse societies had believed in one god or another, worshiping them and even sacrificing to them on a regular basis. There was a time when people believed in Odin and Thor, Zeus, or Apollo. The Ancient Egyptians believed in the sun god, Ra. Reams of literature had been written about each of these deities. I began to realise that if you used the premise that there’s only one god, that your religion is the truth and that all others are false because it’s written so in your sacred book, then the same premise can also be used to explain a whole pantheon of gods (as was the case for pre-Christian Roman society, and even some extant religions such as Hinduism). How could one claim a monopoly on the truth, based on questionable revelation and dubious translation of ancient texts, when other religions could make an equally valid claim? This way of thinking seemed somehow intrinsically flawed.

Aside from these discrepancies I associated with religion, I came to realise I had a problem with how divisive it was, how inhumane and uncaring many of its practitioners were in contrast to the central thrust of its teachings. If anything, religion and its followers were—in the main—more tribal and protective of their beliefs, rather than tolerant and compassionate towards others who held different, or opposing, views. And yet the basic tenets of these beliefs were supposedly based on compassion, and an adherence to a set of high moral standards and guidelines.

As a gay person trying to lead as good a life as possible and to help people in any way I could (not because a book told me to do so, but because it was in my very nature), I had a lot of trouble reconciling religion with basic human rights, to the extent that religion lost out in my eventual philosophy and interpretation of the world. In short, I finally realised that I was living my life without religion or faith, and that it was okay to be that way. In fact it felt good, if not downright liberating, to be rid of the side effects of religion and dogma. Effects such as guilt or fear at having sinned. Not to mention the mind-numbing, expected obeisance to the Church in general and to God in particular. Independence and freethinking weren’t desirable traits amongst the flock, and certainly weren’t encouraged in any way, shape, or form by the priests in my childhood.

My way of thinking and eventual freedom from religion led me to the belief (if I may use that word) that this life is all we have. Nothing else. Just this one shot at happiness and enjoyment of the world and all it has to offer. This understanding makes faith in any of the major religions, or belief in any of the lesser known world views, seem so trivial. But that’s just my own point of view, something we’re all entitled to—be it religious or not. That’s something I’d like to emphasize here. I know this isn’t how holders of such beliefs would see it, and that to them my way is anathema. But, however firmly they believe in their religion there are many millions of people who believe just as firmly in another, opposing religion.

And the basis for their faith is almost entirely dependent upon the culture into which they were born and raised.

Nowadays, religion fascinates me from a cultural and sociological perspective. It still has the power to shape whole societies and influence the decision-making processes of reasonable, rational people in the 21st Century. Other than that, it holds no sway over me. The only awe I feel at being inside a church is for the architecture of the place, or its historical importance. I appreciate the aesthetics of magnificent buildings, and churches and cathedrals always seemed to be the jewels in the crown of human architectural achievements.

Gary Roberts

(I put out a simple call for your explanations for why you’re an atheist, and I’m still inundated with submissions. This will be a daily feature on Pharyngula.)


  1. ManOutOfTime says

    That early childhood Catholic programming can be hard to shake! Personally, I haven’t come around to being able to appreciate the beauty of Xtian art and architecture, as I can’t shake the association with the pious fraud that built it – good for you that you can. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Jolimont says

    I was raised as a very liberal Catholic and I’m still an atheist. Good essay, thanks!

  3. moggie says

    Thanks for that, Gary.

    The only awe I feel at being inside a church is for the architecture of the place, or its historical importance. I appreciate the aesthetics of magnificent buildings, and churches and cathedrals always seemed to be the jewels in the crown of human architectural achievements.

    Even this is connected to the dishonesty of religion, for me. It’s a classic bait and switch: awe you with the wonderful achievements of humans, and immediately redirect that awe to their god. No, sorry: I’m not going to forget that this building was raised by calloused human hands like those of my builder father, or that the voices in the choir are only heavenly in a figurative sense. People are amazing: isn’t that enough?

  4. Sally Strange, OM says

    I wasn’t raised Catholic, nor even Christian really, and yet I still had that sense of being watched when I was a kid. It wasn’t until after I learned about Christianity, of course.

    I still resent Christianity for that. Making me feel watched by a phantom, when I wasn’t even indoctrinated. Now that is some powerful cultural hegemony.

  5. athena says

    Thanks, Gary, for a good description of your journey.

    Funny thing: No matter how religiously inspired that cathedral is, science is still the bedrock. Load-bearing, glass-making, paint-mixing rely on math, physics, chemistry, etc. That cathedral is standing because of science, not religion.

  6. says

    Wonderfully written. Not to dissmiss the others- but this I could really relate to. It was/ is a copy of my childhood.

  7. cicely, Inadvertent Phytocidal Maniac says

    Well said, Gary.

    The only awe I feel at being inside a church is for the architecture of the place, or its historical importance.

    And sometimes, in their efforts to prove that Xianity is The Truth, its proponents bring up the ol’, “Would so many have been so inspired to put so much time, effort, and material, into building something so awe-inspiring for a lie?”…yet, somehow, when you point out the equal inspiration and expenditure put into, say, the Karnak temple complex in Egypt, somehow it’s not the same; not a validation of the religious beliefs of that culture.

    Heck, even staying within Xianity, the same fundamentalists who claim that Catholics “aren’t really Christians” have no problem appropriating their artistic accomplishments to bolster their arguments.

  8. Nutella says

    A memory from Catholic school days:

    The teacher didn’t want to push the old-fashioned, fire and brimstone idea of hell so she told us that the reason why heaven was so great was the presence of god and why hell was so awful was that the souls there knew that they would never be in the presence of god, that they had screwed up for all eternity. We had also learned that limbo was where the virtuous heathens and unbaptized babies went since it wouldn’t be fair to send them to hell. So I asked whether god was present in limbo. No. So it’s no different from hell, then? Shut up, kid.

    But what caused me to give up completely was another modernization effort. We were originally taught that missing mass on Sundays was a mortal sin. [Technical note: Mortal sin sends you straight to hell, venial sin sends you to purgatory temporarily.] Later when things were liberalized, ‘Sunday’ mass could be attended Saturday evening and then eventually we were told that we should just try very hard to attend mass every week. Apparently the old rule about the mortal sin was wrong then, so I gave up on any of the rules.

  9. says

    What I dislike about Catholicism the most is that attending mass is the most boring activity in the world. I can’t think of anything that is more boring than that.

  10. Saul Adrem says

    Wow Gary, I could have wrote that myself. Exactly the way I feel and have come to think over the years. Although I must say that my younger years were’nt as “fundamentalist” as yours. My family wasn’t nearly as into it as yours.

  11. Steve says

    I really enjoy these personal insights. They are such a great way of showing how we all came to the same place. Please keep them coming !

  12. says

    I too appreciate the beauty of churches and things, but I always imagine that if the religion was true, and Jesus came back, he’d look at them and be like “Um….wow. That’s really nice, and I appreciate the effort, but uh….that’s not really what I meant, I was more thinking along the lines of help the poor, be nice to people and that….so…..um….yeah. Thanks, though.”

  13. ConcernedJoe says

    Gary we share similar stories – you brought back memories. Thanks for your post.

    I think there is a turning point for people. Goes something like this for boys ;-).

    We start out either feeling dread or feeling peaceful when in life-threatening situations (boys do get themselves in those situations – at least we did) based on whether we “pleasured our self” or not since our last confession.

    We start to mature and change our thinking to (1) any god who is that petty about what gives me pleasure is no god worth his salt and (2) I ought to not climb those slippery cliffs again.

    Then we really mature and see how immature we were about a lot of things. Heck we always have the boy in us (we hope) but at least we sort of know “this would be foolish” and hopefully make better choices, and we recognize reality as reality – we at least cast away a childlike belief in magic.

    We also learn to appreciate life’s simple pleasures without guilt, and that it is normally pretty much instinctive as to what is right and wrong, and prudence, kindness, patience, etc. are good things to have no threat of eternal fire required.

    We also learn to not rely on authority figures to do our thinking, but more importantly to not let them unchallenged have the final say about our life.

    I guess some people are just psychologically tied to authority (RWA types) and/or some people just psychologically have to cling to childlike thinking about things and/or some people just plain old cannot give up the social perks of being congruent with the majority.

    I am just happy I broke the bonds for myself.

  14. mitologica says

    Gary chapeau to your story. I totally relate to parts of it, I could have written this myself. I was also raised catholic but my parents, luckily for me, were not the practicing type, so when I decided that I didn’t want to assist to Sunday school to learn the catechism, they complied. However, belief in a god and Jesus was (is) part of the society, something taken for granted, so yes, I believed in “God”, and I loved when my dad would tell us stories of the life in Jesus’ times. That included romans, and what they believed before Jesus. And also, how the roman gods where very similar to the greek gods… In short, I started to question, just like you did, why some religions were ‘true’ and others were not. Who was wrong?, who was right? (and who had the right to decide who was right!?). So I decided that, as the roman gods were obviously false, this god must be false too. I was about 12 or 13 years old at this time, and I felt great with my decision. Years later I became a scientist (biologist), and it was all too good to see my thoughts confirmed over and over again. Thanks for your post, I enjoyed it very much!

  15. Dr. I. Needtob Athe says

    Great essay!

    This caught my eye: “… my father having converted to Catholicism from Protestantism in order to marry my mother.”

    I think that if a person is willing to make a wholesale switch to a different set of beliefs about what should be vitally important issues to them, such as the existence of a creator, what that creator requires of them, and where they should expect to go when they die; and the person is willing to make that switch just for the sake of harmony with another person; it reveals how trivial and unimportant the matter must really be to them and casts doubt upon whether they actually have any beliefs at all.

    (Note: The previous sentence is over 100 characters longer than the first sentence of Chapter 13 of Life, the Universe, and Everything.)