My long path to reason

(Via John Gordon)

My parents wanted to give me a religious upbringing so from an early age I was exposed to regular church and Sunday school. I was quite young and had been taught to do the “right thing” without questioning. From grade 5 I was enrolled in a Christian all-boys college (Church of England – now Anglican) and my religious exposure increased to almost daily. Chapel services every morning started proving tedious, this was not fun! I tried to be religious, I tried to find God but nothing was there, I found myself just wanting to be outside doing something exciting instead of wasting my time going through this chore. I would look around when we were supposed to be praying to see if there were others like me, but everyone else had their eyes closed and seemed to be in a trance like communication with God. Apparently God didn’t want to talk to me – oh, well, this is boring anyway.

I wasn’t particularly interested in receiving my confirmation but was compelled to attend a course and the ceremony. My grandmother never attended church and in my teens my father stopped attending also. I never thought to ask why, my grandmother was a little strange, and my father – well, perhaps he was too busy? Religion was not something that was actually discussed – this was the task of Sunday school and church. My mother kept dragging me along and gradually my resistance increased – I just couldn’t see the point in wasting half of my precious Sundays.

I became more selective about those parts of the ceremony that I would follow. I refused to recite “we are not worthy to gather the crumbs from under his table”. I had some self respect! I was not going to allow myself to be so pathetic. (I was worthy to gather crumbs!) There were other phrases I can’t recall now. I still generally sang hymns, which I found kind of moving. I would participate in the sacrament – the blood and body of Jesus – I thought the idea silly but it broke the monotony and I got to have a sip of port! At this stage it meant to me that the service was nearly over.

Suddenly my mother stopped forcing me to attend to church – what a relief. We would make an effort at Christmas Day and for weddings and funerals. For a long time I stopped even thinking about religion, good or bad, it just wasn’t for me.

In my adult life I became an avid reader, I started off in an ad hoc manner but my reading gradually became more focused. History began to fascinate me. I was reading something real, real people and real events that really happened - this seemed so much more relevant than imaginary stories – and I was learning. As I read about the Middle Ages, the inquisition, world war one in the trenches, the holocaust, I started to realise just how much suffering there had been (and still is) in the world. I became quite contemptuous of a God that would allow all of this to happen. It didn’t seem very forgiving or loving to me. I guess if he existed for me at all then he was not even worthy of my attention.

A critical point occurred while reading Norman F. Cantor’s “The civilization of the Middle Ages”. I quote the relevant phrase: “The disciples saw visions of Jesus a few days after his death; they believed that he had risen from the dead, and certainly he stayed alive in their memories”. A light came on! There is no evidence for the divinity of Jesus Christ! I just knew I had found what I was subconsciously looking for. Jesus was just a man, a prophet, (perhaps a very talented one), but a son of God? Born of a virgin? All the biblical stories suddenly seemed so silly – so much doubt and confusion fell away when I stopped trying to rationalize historical reality with biblical fairy tales.

I pointed this out to my wife (at the time) who scoffed at my book, how someone could dare to contradict the “truth”! Her instant denial was most disappointing; evidence was not in the least relevant to her beliefs.

A few years have passed since then in which I have had some other quite pressing personal matters such as a career change and divorce. Religion was irrelevant for me and I considered it harmless. I could categorise myself as an agnostic at the time although it was not really something I thought about much. Christmas I considered merely a tradition, on par with Santa Claus, a holiday to be appreciated and a time to share with the family. Occasionally at dinner in my sister’s home one of my nieces would say “Grace” in order to thank God for our meal. This was a surprise when it happened – like an unwelcome friend who has dropped in uninvited. I accepted this pointless exercise because I was in another home as a guest and it seemed to be important to them.

Religion reappeared in my life again when I remarried. My wife is a catholic and she is a believer – although (thankfully) only attends church rarely. We had a religious wedding because it was what she wanted, but I agreed for traditional and cultural reasons – what harm could there be? The ceremony was a beautiful experience and a wonderful time in my life. Although I still had not admitted atheism I did feel a little hypocritical being back in church, appreciating the beauty and ignoring the dogma.

Reading the “God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins was my final step in becoming an atheist. I devoured the book and it was quickly followed by “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens and “The end of faith” by Sam Harris. I spent a lot of time reading atheist websites and forums on the internet and I’ve joined the Brights. Discussions with my parents reveal that they are non-believers also (very passive though) and I gave my father a copy of “The God Delusion” which he really enjoyed. My parents revealed that they encouraged my church attendance when I was younger because it was **what they thought they should do**. “A gift”, if you will. “A gift of confusion” in my opinion – I have really begun to realise the dangers that religion poses in our society.

My wife is highly intelligent and well educated and we have had some relatively heated discussions on the topic. Her bottom line is “I don’t care how much logic or reasoning or evidence you give me; I have the gift of faith and I believe”. In the interests of matrimonial harmony we have agreed to disagree, she accepts and respects my philosophy and I need to accept and respect hers – which is difficult if I think about it too much! Open atheism is not readily accepted in our society, if only it were. Perhaps little by little the light of reason, truth and logic will prevail – one can only hope.

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