Some time ago a friend I have known for many years and respect enormously asked if I might explore some of the bigger questions in my writing. I'm not quite sure if his interest was couched in fascination or amusement. Was he interested in the thought processes involved in pulling apart a difficult subject, or the entertainment in watching me walk a cultural tightrope?
I know exactly what he wanted me to write about - my lack of belief in any form of organised religion, and the roots of my opposition to it.
Before we start, it's worth stating that I would never publicly call out somebody else's faith. Sure, I might have a thought or two privately, and I might stop listening as soon as they start quoting chapter and verse, but I would never challenge their personal faith, because they obviously have their reasons to believe what they do, and who am I to stop them if they are doing no harm?
So why don't I believe? I suppose the best way to frame my answer might be through experience.
I watched a lecture given by Richard Dawkins some years ago - a well-known member of the scientific establishment who has turned his life into something of a crusade against organised religion. Towards the end of his lecture, a student called him out on stage, and asked: "what if you're wrong?". His answer went viral. He explained that what she happened to believe was almost certainly an accident of the location and epoch of her birth. If she had been born either into another culture or during another period in history, she would have had very different beliefs. He asked her in return "what if she was wrong?".
How does this relate to me?
During my childhood, I attended a predominantly Christian infant school. I can still remember the hall filled with fresh-faced children singing "Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War" - it's depressing really. I think a lot of similar songs were banned - not before attempting to program several generations though.
It's not just the dogma and the songs, and the parables though. It's the idiocy of the timelines in the "Old Testament", the books that were removed, and the behaviour of organised religion in setting out rules, threatening retribution, and praying on the most psychologically vulnerable.
Quite why so many objective, educated, rational people cannot take a step back and begin to question at least a little of the text they are encouraged to accept on faith has always been astonishing to me.
I've never been sure if unquestioned belief is based on apathy, laziness, or a bit of both.
To illustrate the point, within the "Christian" faith many different churches interpret different versions of the King James Bible in a variety of different ways. Is one book more correct than another? Why should any of the books differ if they tell the same stories? Is the Judeo Christian God a different one than the Islamic God? How about the Buddhist, Greek, or Roman Gods?
I suppose you have to give the Romans some credit - they cynically absorbed any religion they came across - subsuming foreign Gods to appease without conflict.
In modern history, it's interesting to read about the life of Gideon Mantell.
Gideon worked in Sussex in the 1820s. His hobby was geology, and following the discoveries of Mary Anning on the south coast of England (she of "She Sells Sea Shells on the Sea Shore" fame), he is credited with identifying some of the first dinosaur fossils. Senior figures in the Anglican Church of the time worked for years to discredit him. The efforts began at the Royal Society and continued until as recently as 20 years ago when a plate bearing his name finally moved from a side gallery of the Museum of Natural History in London to the main Dinosaur exhibit. It's also worth noting that at the same time a statue of Charles Darwin was finally moved from a dusty corner of a cafe to pride of place overlooking the main hall.
I wonder if stories such as the re-arrangement of the museum point towards a reckoning of sorts for faith.
The world still confounds me. The more stories I read in the press, the more I wonder how society has managed to progress. That the likes of Ken Ham can convince so many people to listen to their ill-conceived "truth" about the nature of the world makes you wonder why we bother to educate children at all - or perhaps the existence of such people is why we must educate future generations of children.
Perhaps a fitting way to close this post is with the words of Stephen Fry, in response to an Irish television show host who asked what he might say at the gates of heaven if it turns out there is a god (Stephen Fry is somewhat famously atheist):
"Suppose it's all true and you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What would Stephen Fry say to him, her or it?"
"I will basically (it's known as theodicy I think) I'll say, 'Bone cancer in children? What's that about? How dare you! How dare you create a world where there is such misery that is not our fault! It's not right. It is utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?' That's what I'd say."
"And you think you're going to get in?"
"Oh, but I wouldn't want to. I wouldn't want to get in on his terms. They're wrong. Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades and if it were the twelve Greek gods, then I'd have more truck with it because the Greeks didn't pretend not to be human in their appetites, and in their capriciousness and their unreasonableness; they didn't present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-munificent; because the god who created this universe (if it was created by God) is, quite clearly, a maniac - utter maniac, totally selfish.
We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of god would do that?"
Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life-cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why did you do that? Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation where that didn't exist. It is simply not acceptable.
So, you know, atheism is not just about not believing there's a god - but, on the assumption there is one, what kind of god is it? It's perfectly apparent that he is monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever.
The moment you banish him your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner - more worth living in my opinion."