Some christians ask me how I lost my faith or what took me away from god. I think, like many atheists, the question is almost nonsensical – it as if there is an assumed trauma or falling-out: that atheism is like a divorce or the end of a relationship. Perhaps for some it is exactly that, I don’t know. However it is not that I stopped loving god but that I stopped believing god existed and so questions of ‘love’ or any kind of relationship became irrelevant.
Having said that I think it is important to try and respond to Christians (or other faiths) in terms of a personal journey – even if that is somewhat misleading:
I was brought up both in Catholicism and the Labour Party. In the north-west of England it was not uncommon to be a practising Catholic and left-wing. My parents were both active politically – in American terms ‘liberals’. My dad would say that his socialist beliefs were derived from the teachings of Jesus. As English people of Irish descent Catholicism was also part of an ethnic heritage. When I was 8 I told my teacher that I was a Marxist – she explained that I couldn’t be because Marxists don’t believe in god – and so I decided that I wasn’t a Marxist.
By my early teens I thought about religion a lot but I was never very religious. I liked Church in so far as I could day dream and I assumed that is what other people did. It was only as I got older that it began to occur to me that what I was doing (thinking about religion) and what other people called “faith” were too different kinds of things.
I also thought about politics a lot and I became a bit obssesed (in a teenage way) about the issue of power. It seemed to me that the concentration of political power in a small number of hands was always a bad thing. I was attracted to anarchism and started reading works by classic anarchists – particulalry Peter Kropotkin. I found the analysis of politics from these thinkers illuminating and yet their ultimate visions of society was naive and utopian. I never became an anarchist but I did conclude that it was the equality of political power that should be the primary objective of the left.
But what of ominpotence? If an oligarchy is worse than a democracy, and a dictatorship is worse than an oligarchy – if the concentration of earthly power in one person always leads to great evil (whether Hitler or Stalin or Mao) then what of the concentration of all power in one being? Clearly any all powerdul creator would be a being not of ultimate good but of ultimate evil. It was a few years later that I was to find those ideas reflected in the works of gnostic writers and in the works of William Blake and (to some extent) the works of sci-fi Legend Phillip K Dick. The faith of the gnostics was not something I could personally believe in but it was interesting to see that others had also found that the all-powerful creator god was a being of potential evil rather than of perfect good.
For a short while I thought that a fallible god – a god of imperfect creation and flawed knowledge – could make sense. However I realised that I was picking and choosing what to believe.
Becoming an atheist wasn’t the product of a crisis or even had a distinct final step. However it wasn’t a rejection of the Christian values either. In catholicism there is the idea of a vocation – this usually refers to those who take holy orders but in a more general sense it can refer to the idea of taking the talents god has given you and using them in gods service. What talents had god given me? A logical, inquiring mind that was interested in ideas and so, as a vocation, I applied those to god and god slowly vanished. How could I explain that to a younger, still believing, version of my sense? Is there a way in which being an atheist is actually a fulfilment of the catholic values I learnt as a child? I believe so but for a moment you have to entertain the idea that there is a wise and good and powerful god.
We are told by believers that this god wants our love – that indeed it would be churlish and ungrateful not to love god. However such a being would also be the ultimate self-fulfilled and emotionally secure being and would have no need for our love. Further such a being would realise that its own children need to make their own way in the world. It would know that to use its powers to help us could only ever do us harm overall. Such a being would know that our belief could not, overall, help us or even guide us – because we would still need to navigate our own ethical decisions. Nor could such a being guide us on ethical choices without robbing us of our will. The conclusion is clear: such a god would not want us to believe in him (her/it). To love and obey a just and wise and loving god is to NOT believe in such a god.
I grew up in a version of a version of Christianity that was forgiving and progressive. I still hold onto many of the values I was brought up with by my parents. I don’t think I lost my faith but rather I followed it. If there was a wise and just god guiding our spiritual journey then that wise and just god brought me to atheism. If there is no such god (as I now believe) then I can’t even really fault my religious upbringing – it contained all the clues and hints and information neccesary to solve the puzzle of god – that there is no such being and there never was.