Friday, March 7, 2008

Explaining my scarlet letter

This post has been brewing and fermenting in my mind ever since I added the scarlet A to my blog a few months ago. The A is for Atheist, and you can read about the purpose of the corresponding "Out Campaign" here.

I was finally spurred into action by a recent thread on Pharyngula, in which commenters gave their "deconversion" stories. Plus I wanted to tell you my own story before reading and being influenced by "The God Delusion", which is lurking near the top of my reading list. So here is the tale of Why CAE is an Atheist. My apologies for the length, but it was a long process...

Unlike many of the people on the Pharyngula thread, I do not come from a particularly religious family. My Mum is Church of England and my Dad is a lapsed Catholic. My Mum is definitely the more religious of the two. She teaches French at a church-sponsored state school and attends services with her students, but apart from that she doesn't go to church except for the obligatory hatches, matches and dispatches. My Dad effectively gave up on organised religion after his family priest refused to acknowledge my Mum's existence - they had visited him together to try to persuade him to change his mind and read the banns.

So what did this mean for my sister and me? We were both baptised Church of England, and I vaguely remember going to some kind of Sunday school once or twice, but it wasn't a major feature of our home lives. I went to a Christmas Eve church service with my Mum one year, because we wanted to hear the carols. I once had a discussion with my Dad about how he wants to figure out what he believes in before he dies, but I was quite young at the time and hadn't really formulated my own opinions yet. (We're not really a deep discussion kind of a family - our weekly phone calls are 50% personal news updates, 40% sport and 10% dreadful jokes). I did find out last year that my Catholic Godmother tried to buy me a catechism and rosary when I was a kid, but was deterred by my parents. As it stands, she's taken me to more pubs than churches.

Most of my religious instruction therefore took place at school. I went to a perfectly normal state primary school, but since there's no formal separation of church and state in the UK our teachers were apparently free to discuss religion in any way they saw fit. (I have no idea what the actual law was at the time, but I do know that no kids or parents ever complained or thought that our teachers were doing anything wrong or strange in any way. It should be noted that our school was almost 100% white at the time, although my best friend (then and now) is Sikh - more on that later).

Our exposure to religion mostly took the form of teachers telling us the nativity, crucifixion and resurrection stories, with none of the "some people believe" phrases that you'd need to include nowadays. So, for all intents and purposes, the same people who told us that there are two high tides and two low tides each day, and that the Earth goes around the sun, also told us that our saviour was born in a stable in Bethlehem and died for our sins before coming back to life and ascending to heaven. No context, no caveats, no nothing, and we had no reason not to believe every word they said.

I was a quiet, well behaved and academic kind of girl, and I wanted to please my teachers. When I was about 8 or 9 my favourite teacher asked everyone in the class to raise their hands if they went to church. When only a couple of kids did so she reacted in shock and horror and said that she couldn't believe such a thing was possible. I went home that night and asked my parents if we could please start going to church? They were quite taken aback and quizzed me for my reasons, never guessing that it was only so I could report back to Mrs Lawson and receive her praise.

They really, really like to remind me now that I was the one who wanted to go to church when I was a kid. And that they didn't take me. We usually went on hikes on Sundays instead.

Things changed when I went to secondary school - again, a perfectly normal state comprehensive. I think our non-white contingent went up, from 2 students to 4 or something like that, and our new teachers didn't tell bible stories or make us sing hymns. Instead we started to learn about history, biology, and, more importantly, other religions. This was my first "hang on a minute" moment. You're saying that the Hindus, and Moslems, and Buddhists, and Jews, all believe different things, all with the same conviction with which my former teachers believed those bible stories? And what about the Greek, Roman and Norse gods? People back then knew that those stories were true, too.

From "well, they can't all be right" it's not too much of a stretch to get to "maybe they're all wrong", but in fact it took me a good few years.

I spent much of my time in high school with my two best friends, one Sikh and one Methodist. They both came from religious families and attended church or temple regularly, and we had some interesting discussions as I started to question what I'd been taught at primary school. My Sikh friend and her family maintained that Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, the Hindu gods and Sikh gurus were all different manifestations of one unifying truth. They took my sister and me to their temple in Leeds one weekend, which was a very interesting experience for us. Coming from such a white area, it was especially strange to enter the temple and be the only white people in a room of several hundred people. It certainly gave me some perspective on what my friend and her sister went through every day. And the food was excellent.

On the other hand, my Methodist friend was shocked at my statement that "if there is a God, and to get into Heaven you have to worship him and obey him, rather than just do good things, then I'm not sure I want to go". I should say that this friend is one of the few very religious Christians I've ever known who truly practiced what she preached. If she saw a homeless person on the street she would drop whatever she was doing to buy them some food and have a conversation with them. Imagine a large group of semi-drunk 18 year olds on a Christmas Eve pub crawl standing around in the cold and wondering what she would do if we told her to bloody well hurry up so we could go to the White Swan... Interestingly, she's now an agnostic (it wasn't my fault) and still just as lovely.

My ideas continued to mature as I got older. I read "I Claudius", which described the Roman reaction to the burgeoning Christian faith and disparaged Christianity as a religion for slaves. I started to see how the concept of an eternal reward in the afterlife - if you obey certain laws and generally behave yourself in the present - could be used to control a population, and how invoking an all-seeing, all-powerful deity was the best way to ensure compliance. I heard someone make an off-hand remark that avoiding pork and seafood in hot climates was a really good idea and that, again, invoking a deity was the best way to make an uneducated population understand the importance of food hygiene. And how better to explain where we came from than to say we'd been created by the same all powerful deity? I realised that there must be a deep-seated human need to know where we came from, and that every culture in history has come up with a different explanation to satisfy its people.

We first learned about evolution at around the same time, and it just made so much sense. It was so logical, so elegant - how could it possibly be any other way? Now, I haven't read "The Blind Watchmaker", but I do know one of its most famous quotes:

"Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Charles Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

Dawkins' quote sums up my own feelings perfectly. Evolution, along with abiogenesis theories such as the RNA world hypothesis, provides us with an explanation of where we came from that is supported by actual evidence and doesn't need to invoke a magical deity. Some people might not like the fact that we're related to monkeys, but that doesn't make it any less true, and the supporting evidence is right there for anyone to see - if they're willing to look. I began to see the myths and stories of all extinct and extant religions as nothing more* than attempts to explain (and control) from an era that didn't have access to any better explanations.

I called myself an agnostic for a few years, and really, agnosticism is the only truly defensible position. I can't know for sure that there are no gods, just as no-one else can know for sure that there are. But for the last few years I've called myself an atheist. In the absence of all evidence to the contrary, I'm happy to say that there are no gods.

Of course, if I'm struck by lightning as I publish this post, or see any other evidence, I'll be more than happy to change my mind.

I hope I didn't offend anyone - that wasn't my intention, and I'm sure boredom and indifference are the more likely reactions anyway. I'm heading off on a ski trip today, back next week, so if you leave a comment and I don't reply right away, it's not because I'm not willing to debate and to examine my logic. It might be because I got struck by lightning though. That Thor bloke has a temper on him.

*or less. In that context, I find the stories absolutely fascinating.


  1. you'll probably going to offend someone, but I wouldn't care too much. brace yourself for the God delusion, it's not one of his best books...I know a couple of hardcore atheists (myself included) who found it so annoying they couldn't finish it.

    Happy skiing. And yeah, that Thor is a grumpy dude.

  2. Interesting you should post this now, as my youngest sister and I are currently having a back-and-forth thing about religion. I'm an athiest, my husband is an athiest; my other sister B and her husband are atheist/agnostics (I think). My sisters and I were raised in a non-religious family. And yet my youngest sister R has been a religious seeker all her life, and has now settled on the B'hai faith. She's pretty darn hard-core, too; talks about her faith all the time, and gives my kids religious books and gifts.

    I've heard of the idea of a "God gene":that some people are simply born with a need to believe, and others aren't.

    Even athiesm can be complicated, though, and in no way excludes spirituality. Anyway, you've certainly opened up some issues with this post! I'd need to write my own blog post to respond fully =) Have fun skiing. I'm betting you're as safe from lighting as the next Christian or pagan.

  3. Interesting post. It's neat to read the paths to non belief of other like-minded people.

    I'd say we're not too different actually, both in what we believe and where we started. My folks are religious, but they never forced anything on me. Have fun skiing on that mysterious white stuff

    - Your Texan reader : )

  4. "if there is a God, and to get into Heaven you have to worship him and obey him, rather than just do good things, then I'm not sure I want to go"

    Wow, I swear this is almost word for word what I have said time and again!! Great post, and I think I will attempt to read the God delusion as well so we can talk about it!

  5. What a fantastic post! I went through my own de-conversion process, which you have now inspired me to write about. And I totally agree with you and ScienceGirl about the worship and obey thing.

  6. My experience is that Baha'is are often pretty hard-core about their faith, mostly in a good way though. I know a lot of Baha'is, and they're all really good people.

  7. Thanks all for your responses! I have to admit I came back wondering if I was going to have to defend myself, but I should have known better! I'm really looking forward to reading any spin-off posts that went up while I was away.

    Hypoglycemiagirl, I'm sure it's coming when the Googlers find this post! The God Delusion is next on my non-fiction list, but I'll probably read a novel or two first.

    Bean-Mom, if there is a religion gene then I'm definitely missing it too. I don't know of too many examples of siblings with such different beliefs, it usually happens in the other direction! (i.e. one person in a religious family deconverting). I hope it's not a source of conflict in your family.

    Chris, mine and yours is probably a very common experience! p.s. You should get yourself to your nearest ski resort and try it out for yourself. New Mexico maybe?

    ScienceGirl, thanks! It's amazing what a strong reaction that statement inspired in my teenage religious friend. I guess it goes against everything that most churches teach. I should run it by her again some time to see how she reacts now she's an agnostic ;)

    Mad Hatter, thank you too! No obeying here, although my hubby did (jokingly) try to write it into our wedding vows... I'm looking forward to reading your post.

    Corey, I have to say I don't know anything at all about Baha'is. I think a trip to Wikipedia awaits me!

  8. I really liked your post as I'm thinking more and more about religion/what I believe (as I've identified myself as christian for so long, but am finally fed up).

    I read the God Delusion and found it interesting and I finished it. However, towards the end I was getting rather tired of it. I'm really interested to read what you think about it!

  9. Hi Amanda, and welcome! I've just recently found your blog too and I've been enjoying it. It seems like I'll have to get on with reading the God Delusion now! Oh the pressure! ;)

  10. You made me chuckle with your phrase, "the obligatory hatches, matches and dispatches" for attending church. That really sums it up!

    I hope your ski trip was fun!


  11. Thanks Christine! Personally I try to avoid the hatches, the others are indeed obligatory.

  12. hi! great post, it is always interesting to see what paths people traveled to get to their current spot! I am a scientist and fully believe in evolution etc and i also believe in god. :) i had the same exact feeling about the whole "needing to follow rules to get into heaven" bit, i just can't believe that if there is a god that created all the loveliness i study every day that he would be so silly.

  13. Lasserday, that's a great way of putting it! It is silly!

  14. CAE, I am still struggling to get through your most-Googled post but as a non-scientist it's slightly heavy lifting for me. It is so fascinating though so I am determined to understand it!

    I loved this post though and not just because I could understand it on the first go round. I may have to write about my own experience with religion though I feel like that could be several weeks worth of posts!!

  15. Thanks both! Arduous, I really should have tried to find some kind of graphic to illustrate the ERV post, but I didn't really know how to upload images at the time and this time around I wanted to repost the original text. I'll see if I can Google anything that might help!

  16. And you really think that, “Evolution, along with abiogenesis theories such as the RNA world hypothesis, provides us with an explanation of where we came from that is supported by actual evidence…”? I’m taking it that you’ve not just took someone’s word for this, “evidence” of abiogenesis being something “actual” and in existence and not just some speculation based upon presuppositions and people trying to prove themselves right by merely having models explaining how it works, right?


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