Essay:I've always been an atheist
I've always been an atheist...
- ...but I used to believe in God.
This seems like an odd statement, doesn't it. An ultimate contradiction or just a plain illogical concept. Atheists don't believe in God, or any “higher power”, “supreme being”, “creator” or subscribe to any supernaturally driven religion – so how did I used to believe in God despite always being an atheist. Let me explain.
A little school history
Like pretty much all British schoolchildren of the last few centuries, I was raised with the concept of acts of worship being integral to school assemblies. Those growing up in places with actual separation of Church and State might find this actually unfathomable! Everyone gathering in one big hall (if you were old enough you got a chair, but the smaller ones got to strain themselves cross-legged on the floor) and singing hymms, saying prayers and hearing the “parish notices” interspersed with the occasional Bible story. If pushed I could remember some of the songs, but they don't cross my mind very often these days. Indoctrination, however, this wasn't. Not so much. It wouldn't even be in the same ball park as those, frankly, horrifying videos of Ken Ham teaching children the "How do you know? Were you there?" line. You see, religion in UK schools is really one of those benign and inoffensive things that just floats there. It doesn't do much, it doesn't say much. The attitude is very much unlike the religion that secularists see – particularly those in the United States where God-bothering is taken to alarming degrees, or those looking at theocratic Islamic countries. So, growing up with my age in single digits I was exposed to all the usual religious stories. Noah's ark; Adam and Eve; and at least four Nativity plays, played out in the panto-esque manner we're used to - complete with appalling singing and even worse costumes consisting of tea-towel headdresses for shepherds and whatever soft toys looked most like sheep. It was all presented fairly matter-of-factly, but never historically if you care to discern a subtle difference between the two. So while there was no mention that these stories and events were mythological, disputed and just part of a religious narrative there was never any assertions that they were true beyond question. Belief was never reinforced by my parents, and there was never pressure to extend this out of school assemblies and to the Church every Sunday. It never weighed on my mind or made me think about it. As I said, this wasn't indoctrination.
So, religion just sat there in my head as just another thing. Noah was as real as Santa Claus, and God and Jesus were equally real individuals sat next to the tooth fairy. I pictured heaven as an actual physical place, sat on top of some clouds and with all the cool and weird things I could imagine, like televisions with – get this – circular screens. And I visualised God as a real person, not this incorporeal entity anyone with any religious knowledge would recognise. He had legs, arms and a face. He was quite young too, and with dark curly hair. And he had a crown, wore a brown something-or-other. But this description should give a good hint as to why I consider myself to have always been non-religious. If you were to offer this description of heaven and God to any adult Christian, someone who knows the religion, the dogma, and the concepts it is supposed to represent, they would very much disagree with my childhood musings. More progressive or wishy-washy ones might considering it some kind of imaginative possibility, but anyone thoroughly involved in modern western Christianity would never consider giving an all-knowing, all-powerful, transcendent God a human face any more than they'd give Jesus an Arabic one. Religion sat there as this thing, I didn't think of it as religion. Much like the concept of using genitals for sex doesn't strike you until puberty (even calling them “genitals” often escapes you for many years) so it was that the idea that God, Jesus, Bible stories, and so on were all part of this grander concept we call “religion” escaped me entirely.
First contact with the concept of religion
Moving on to the next school up in the system I suddenly met my first Sikh person. This was a strange experience given the fairly homogeneously Christian experience I had up until then. It opened up a brand new concept that all this religion stuff was just a little bit made up. It wasn't a shock, or even surprising, nor was it sudden and immediate. My primary reason for actively rejecting religion, even today with a lot more thought and experience behind it, is the multitude of them that exist and have existed. And it started here by meeting the first person who wasn't Christian. So here was someone that believed something different and I began to see religion from a new angle; these things weren't just stories, they were beliefs. Beliefs, judging by the fact people varied so much in them, seemed to be kinda optional. This was hammered home quite nicely in Religious Education (RE) lessons, as we had a particularly patronising teacher. “So...” she'd begin, before singling out this one Sikh girl in the class “...what do you believe?” - I thought it was odd, but also a bit cruel to single someone out likes this. I still cringe at the memory.
Incidentally, in high school the same girl was told to “organise a meeting for all the coloured people in the school” (I shit you not, this was the actual quote according to her), which turned out to be for this diversity and inclusion exercise, where they were told to celebrate their differences. “But I don't feel any different” she moaned in this class. “But you are!” came the response from the young, hip female white humanities graduate (well, that's what I imagined it as, it might not have been) running the scheme. Everyone else in the group hearing this story seemed shocked, I just fell on the floor laughing that someone could miss the point so much while coming across as a patronising twat. Anyway, I digress.
What came at this point back in my very first year of middle school was the realisation that these things, that up until now had just been there, came under this banner we call “religion”. And not only that, but that there were many of them. History lessons also seemed to agree; Egyptians believed one thing, Vikings believed another, Protestants and Catholics believed in the same god but were vastly different and enjoyed killing each other. RE lessons progressed onwards and I learned that there were these people called “Muslims” who believed something almost entirely different and did funny things with mats that faced Mecca and didn't depict people on them. With my interest in science steadily growing throughout this time I was coming to the conclusion that if people didn't agree on something as fundamental as this then it must all be some kind of bullshit. I still believe this; if there was any objective truth to any religion there wouldn't be multiple religions, there wouldn't even be a concept of religion, it would just be The Way. In fact, it would be very much like my experience before middle school, except everyone would feel the same and that feeling would never be lost. The problem of multiple religions existing is the single greatest barrier to anyone believing a specific religion for justifiable academic, i.e., non-arbitrary, reasons.
By age 12 I was pretty much an actual atheist. The same patronising teacher from above had just openly chastised someone for not speaking the Lord's Prayer out loud in the school assembly and my form teacher, bless her, went a little ape-shit back in the classroom and told us we didn't have to if we genuinely didn't believe it. My religiosity had bottomed out at Zero long before, but this was my first encounter with the "it's okay to not believe" attitude and so this formed the small nucleation point around which my non-religious belief began to crystallise. I wasn't as blatant and open about atheism as I am now, and the concept wasn't as fully formed - it still isn't fully formed - but in practical effect I was no more religious then than I am now. The only thing that has changed since are my positive attitudes towards life; embracing empiricism, pondering philosophy, supporting science, and so on. By part way through high school I would have actively gone out of my way to tick the non-religious box on any form that required it, although before then I did do the usual thing of treating Church of England as synonymous with “default” despite being an atheist in practice - I was presented with a questionnaire to fill out details for school, and on the religion question I simply shrugged, perhaps saying "none", I don't recall, but the response was "I'll just stick you down as CofE, then". These days, I would find that unacceptable, but it was sort of just funny and not very important at the time. By the end of sixth-form I had moved on from merely "non-religious" on to actually mocking the concept of religion.
And then University brings me to where I am now as the cynical cunt you all know.
So I was always an atheist?
But back to the original question; why do I consider myself to have always been an atheist? In a bit of bait-and-switch, let's shy away from saying "atheist" and call use “non-theistic” or “non-religious” instead. I say this because atheism as a term often evokes strong atheism or explicit atheism. It's a cheeky bit of wordplay, but hopefully forgiveable in this sense - I want to be precise. To answer the question, it's worth looking back at what I viewed religion as, and what I actually thought about it, back when I believed in God. The phrase “I believe in God” would have not meant the same thing to me then as it would now – the concept of belief wasn't defined, the concept of religion wasn't defined, the concept of God wasn't properly defined. I would have, aged 7 or 8, said “I believe in God” without much hesitation, but the raw qualia in my head mapped onto that phrase would bear little resemblance to the image in the head of Christian Union evangelist saying “I believe in God”. To me, it wasn't belief in the sense I recognise belief today, it was just a thing. I didn't feel the Holy Spirit moving through me, I didn't actually pray to Jesus, I never actually read the Bible itself. What I had before wasn't really a religion at all. I never became an atheist; I just became more explicit and knowledgeable about the fact I was an atheist. Perhaps an apt analogy could be how people consider themselves to have always been gay; simply being brought up in a heteronormative environment makes you heterosexual by default, but because this is before you have fully formed the concept of sexuality you wouldn't consider yourself heterosexual. Similarly, I was exposed to a religious-by-default environment without ever being given a full conceptual comprehension of what it meant to be religious.
In another sense, I had also no choice in my beliefs – again, not that it was really a belief in the sense that I understand it today. The system of collective worship, Bible stories and singing hymns in school assembles had left me coasting through life merely accepting it all as true; but without any comprehension of what “accepting” and “as true” really meant. In short, the experience robbed me of the main power of religious conviction, the power to choose it actively and freely - and the power to walk away if necessary. Without this, religious belief is really nothing at all.
This is at the heart of why we shouldn't place children into religions and indoctrinate them, even casually or as a default. Put this way, it has very little to do with ridding the world of some mysterious religious menace. Anti-theists the world over would love for religion to be eradicated and know that the best way to do so would be to cut off the unending supply of new recruits. And true, it probably would go this way as the natural equilibrium between the religious demographic and the non-religious demographic is fuelled by apostasy (or at least apathy), not miraculous conversion. But from the view of religion itself, indoctrination of children prevents them making the choice they need to make the belief meaningful. A choice of one option and one option only is no choice at all, and even when faced with multiple options these can be very closed ended and restrictive; and one of the most important options will always be the option not to make the choice in the first place. Atheism is the choice to not have a religion, and freedom of religion is meaningless without freedom from religion. The ability to believe is rendered redundant if it's not done in the context of the ability to not believe if that is the path one finds they want to take.
I have always been an atheist precisely because I used to believe in God.