I’ve used the word God frequently as a proper noun in the context of this entry. It is merely an English convention. To deliberately write God with a lower case ‘g’ to make a point would be churlish.
My wife and I have three children. We have had all three children Christened. I have stood in front of a Church Of England congregation and promised to raise my children in a Christian upbringing. And yet, I am an atheist. How can I square the two things?
The short answer is that I can’t.
I have adopted the term ‘cultural Christian’ to describe myself, although credit for this term goes to Richard Dawkins and I believe that he in turn attributes it to someone before him. This means (in my case) that I have, by chance, grown up in a country which has a Christian tradition and in a Christian family. My father was a Church of England vicar, so as it was I had little choice in the matter.
I am not complaining about this. I had what would be considered by most inhabitants of this planet a wonderful upbringing. I had loving parents and a stable family life, along with my brothers. My younger brother and I attended church religiously (pun intended). My older brother inexplicably managed to get out of going to church – I still haven’t established how. I joined the Cub Scouts, Scouts, and then Venture Scouts – at the time, unashamedly linked to the Church of England. We lived in a beautiful village and we had good family friends, thanks entirely to the church congregation. In short, we had a strong community.
Being a standard Church of England congregation of the 1970s/1980s, the atmosphere was one of what I would call ‘subtle worship’. I have no doubt that the adult members of the congregation were sincere believers, but a big constituent part of church life was the social, or community aspect – certainly, there were no charismatics in the congregation, no speaking in tongues or writhing on the floor, and, so far as I’m aware, my father wasn’t involved in performing any exorcisms, so the real spiritual elements were pretty low key – typical C of E some would say.
When our first daughter was born, we had her baptised. Had you asked me at the time, I would have said without hesitation I was a believing, albeit non church-attending Christian. When our second daughter was born, my doubts about my indoctrination were growing, and my discussions with the vicar who baptised her were less than fruitful. He could not answer any basic questions I had to my satisfaction, replying with the vague answers you get from many believers who are unwilling to or fearful of questioning their faith. According to him, everything eventually came down to a matter of faith or couldn’t be judged by human standards.
Consequently, I was a little unhappy about standing in front of a congregation and affirming that I would raise my child as a Christian. In one sense, unsure of my faith, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite; on the other hand, I didn’t want to upset the real people in my life – my wider family, for whom a baptism was an important event in a child’s life. To deny her a baptism would merely have upset them, would have been selfish, and would have made the girls wonder why one had been treated differently from the other. In the end, I told the vicar that since modern ‘pick and choose’ Christianity has largely adopted the key tenets of the Enlightenment (ok, those weren’t my exact words), and that a modern Christian upbringing shared a common humanitarian view of treating others the way you would like to be treated, I was happy to commit to such an upbringing. When I say ‘pick and choose Christianity’, let’s face it, many Christians eat shellfish and many priests shave their beards, both biblically forbidden, unless of course you do as many Christians do and look slightly embarrassed when somebody mentions the Old Testament – "Oh that was for back then. God changed his mind when Jesus came along."
We were blessed, sorry, we welcomed a third child into our lives a couple of years ago – this time, a little boy. By this time, I had become an atheist. I had read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and finally, someone agreed with all the thoughts I had come to independently and pointed out other things I had missed, and I often muttered in agreement while reading the book.
The thorny issue of baptism came about again. This time, however, the chance for my two siblings to have their children baptised at the same time in the church we had attended as children, and with all our childhood family friends around, seemed like a nice thought. Our son would be the same as our girls, my wife’s family in particular would be happy, and I was quite happy to metaphorically cross my fingers (bad choice of expression given the context, I know), since I no longer felt like I might be upsetting the ‘man upstairs’ – this time it was a victimless crime.
None of this negates for me the cultural significance of the event. Culturally, I am a white, middle class, English, protestant. It’s what we do in England when kids are born, much to the frustration of the hardcore religionists. Nor does it detract from my gratitude towards the role of the Godparents in all this, some of whom I know are sincere believers.
I am entirely happy for my children to learn about Christianity in particular where it relates historically to their heritage, which it does of course in the context of English, British, and European history. I may be less happy that they are forced to spend valuable learning time studying other belief systems, in a veiled, or rather increasingly open attempt to thrust multiculturalism on children. We do not have to believe or respect the beliefs of others; tolerance is all that is required. I am happy for anyone to tell my children the Bible stories. I would just hope and expect my children to ask some pretty pertinent questions, having heard the stories, and not to accept answers along the lines of "that’s just the way it is".
As for the tenets of the modern strand of Christianity called Anglicanism, so long as it increasingly evolves (oops!) to keep pace with modern society and the basic humanitarian principles of morality (yes, atheists can have a moral code), I have no problems with its followers. However, they may like to consider whether they are adhering fully to their holy book, or just creating a pick’n’mix version of those aspects they like or are socially acceptable in a modern, liberal democracy.
As outlined above, I happen to have been born in a country in Christian western Europe. It is an accident of birth that I was born here and consequently raised in a predominantly Christian society. Had I been born in India, I may have been brought up to worship Ganesh; in large parts of the Middle East, I would probably be a Muslim, in China I may have worshipped my ancestors. People in each of these places have an absolutely firm conviction in their own faiths, just as strong, if not more strong than the beliefs of many Christians. One need only consider the large number of Muslim martyrs who have been prepared to die for their faith in recent times. This alone would suggest that the Muslim martyrs are pretty convinced that they are the followers of the true faith.
Religions all around the world have their own tales of supernatural events, many religions have glossolalia (speaking in tongues), the concept of the virgin birth exists in religions which predate Christianity, as does resurrection. The god Mithras is said to have lived a life remarkably similar to that of Jesus. In short, there are worshippers of all religions who have faiths at least as strong as those of most Christians. And yet Christ clearly states that the only way to God is through him. So what of all the other believers of other religions? Are they all condemned? Even the nice ones, who are genuinely concerned for the welfare of others? As a true Christian, the only answer is yes (and most hardcore Christians I have spoken too – arguably the real Christians – believe that to be the case). Other Christians (the liberal Christians) will say that all religions worship the same God, but they are clearly not reading their own holy book properly if that’s what they believe. Yes, I have read the New Testament – three times in fact – twice in English and once in German* (it was a way of killing time when I was working in Switzerland).
If there were a God (and I think I’ve made it pretty clear now that I don’t believe that there is), then he must be either cruel or not omnipotent. If he is prepared to condemn someone because of an accident of where they were born, he is pretty twisted.
In all this, I am of course judging this deity by human values, but that is all I have by which to judge him – and yes, I know that Christians say that you can’t judge God by human values, but I’m sorry – that is all I have to go on. Values of tolerance, fairness, and love of one’s neighbour are values which are present in most religions anyway (and humanism, of course). If God isn’t working on the same set of values, then we can all, believers and non-believers alike, forget everything right now, because on that basis he is likely to be as temperamental as the flawed ancient Greek gods were, and subject to the same tantrums, in which case "we’re doomed"!
The human brain is an complex organ. We are capable of amazing things through our own thoughts and we can be fooled easily by NLP and environmental factors. Science has already proven that visions and paranormal experiences can be induced under laboratory conditions. Subsonic sound in Coventry’s medieval cellars has caused many people to see apparitions there. Coventry University’s Vic Tandy did extensive research into such phenomena. I have my own personal experience of paranormal phenomena, but just because such things can’t be easily explained, doesn’t mean that they are of the spiritual world. Hearing voices from God is no guarantee that God is talking to you. Indeed, many people who have ‘heard voices’ have gone on to perpetrate some of the worst crimes in history. In my opinion, any paranormal phenomena is likely to be (in order of likelihood, based on our current knowledge)…
1. Caused by natural phenomena, but ‘misread’ as being supernatural.
2. Imagined by ourselves, e.g. in the way our brain will always try to see faces in random patterns where they are to be seen.
3. Where people see visions, there are theories about the Earth’s magnetic field acting like a recording device, and then being able to replay historic events at future times. Given the fact that recording of video onto magnetic tape would have seemed like sorcery a couple of hundred years ago, there may be something in this.
4. Triggered unwittingly by our own brains (we’re in the realms of paranormal now, but why not consider the power of our own minds to act on the physical world before we jump to spiritual conclusions?)
The final concept in traditional religion with which I have a problem is the act of worship. Look, if you believe in an omnipotent deity, then you must accept that he already knows how good he is and how merciful (given that the world still exists). You don’t need to tell him! Monty Python made this point very pointedly and brilliantly in their Meaning Of Life film during the scene in the school chapel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e47huylg4Uo). In fact, if I were God and people spent their time in a building telling me how great I was rather than helping the needy, I’d be pretty peeved!
"I’ve put you on this planet to make a difference, and what do you do? Come and tell me how great I am! Bleedin’ time-wasters!"
People have their own reasons for believing in God. Some take comfort in belief; others fear what might happen if they don’t believe; some don’t want to believe that they are just born, they live, and they die, and that there is no afterlife.
To many believers, they feel nothing but sorrow for atheists. Others are more violent about those who don’t comply (witness those who die for apostasy in parts of the world).
To those who would feel sorry (or even wish to pray for me), please don’t. I kind of figured out what happens when I die, and based on my past experience, I reckon it’s pretty similar to pre-birth – an experience which, as far as I can recall, was not so bad. This belief, which is based on what we know of the world, merely makes me appreciate this life all the more, and care about my fellow members of the human race (of all races and creeds). I will not be looking forward to an afterlife at the expense of appreciating the true scientific miracle of my existence in this life. Because I value this life, I won’t be longing to drag me and my fellow humans into the next life. This is our one shot, so we’d better give it our best!
Finally, Richard Dawkins recommended that the recent atheist bus campaign use the slogan "THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE." The words were chosen carefully, Some atheists objected to the word ‘probably’, and some religionists laughed at the uncertainty of it, but as Dawkins pointed out, to rule out the possibility of the existence of a god is as irresponsible and invalid taking the position that there definitely is a god. We can’t disprove the existence of God – it’s all a matter of probability.
*My father actually went to the trouble of learning ancient Greek in order to read the bible in a more authentic version, and even he was able to find mistranslations or cultural differences in the meaning of some words.