My atheism

I’m not sure when I became an atheist; in a way, I guess I always have been. Sure, there have been times when I dipped my toe in the waters of faith, but I always felt rather hollow, usually to the point of dishonesty, when I did. I didn’t really, deep-down believe what I was trying to persuade myself I believed and, on the very few occasions in my life that I actually prayed, I felt like a complete fraud; wishing out loud to a being I didn’t believe existed for shortcuts to problems I was either unable, or too lazy, to solve myself.

Actually, now that I think about it, I do know when I became an atheist … like everyone else in the world, I was born one. A baby has no more knowledge of the concept of a god than it does of the purpose of the Large Hadron Collider, and to label a child as having a particular religious belief is ludicrous – you might as well label them a Marxist; they don’t understand these ideas and so can’t possibly have any kind of opinion on them.

I’ll always be thankful that my parents never imposed such ideas or beliefs upon me; in our house, god was less of a spiritual or metaphysical concept than it was a somewhat loud announcement that a hammer had interfaced sharply with a thumb, and the only time we’d ever see the inside of a church was for weddings, christenings, and anything else that was deemed necessary to placate certain older members of the family. Even then, I don’t think they saw it as anything more than observing particular traditions. My family were largely agnostic, often bordering on apatheistic; we didn’t know and, quite frankly, we didn’t much care.

I suppose what I’m really trying to understand is when I became aware that I lacked a god belief. There have been a few moments in my life where the hypocrisy, arrogance, or plain-old silliness of religious faith was somewhat exposed to me – the most notable happened when I was at St. Richard De Wych, a Church of England middle-school in Droitwich, Worcestershire. I was 11 years old and a burgeoning geek, with a reading age a good 5 years ahead of where it should be. A family-friend, having noted my nerdish, intellectual leanings from a young age, would regularly lend me books I otherwise wouldn’t have come across. I read “The Lord of The Rings” at the age of 10, and had fallen completely in love with “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” a little while before.

At this point, I had been reading another borrowed gem, “The Omen”, and, having finished it, passed it on to my best friend at the time. Unfortunately for him, he was caught with it in Mr. Lawrence’s R.E class; unfortunately for me (at least in the short term), he very bravely named me as the real owner of the book when it was confiscated (thanks, Mat). So, there we were, the whole of my year, all sat in assembly when Mr. Lawrence comes marching out of his classroom right over to where I was sitting. Hurling the book into my lap he uttered words I would never forget; “I don’t want to see this satanic filth in my school again, you little anti-christ”.

At first I was embarrassed for myself, singled-out and bollocked in front of the rest of my year. As time passed, I instead became somewhat embarrassed for Mr. Lawrence. To me, it was just a book, a story, a fiction, and it had upset him for reasons that it would take me a while to understand. By then, however, the damage had been done, and my already tenuous relationship with the notion of belief was forever changed. It seemed to me that belief was something for the insecure, the fearful, and the ignorant, and this endures in me to this day. I don’t mean to suggest that those who believe in a supernatural creator are nervous, cowardly idiots … well, alright, some of them are … what I’m saying is that I don’t know any believers whose faith, insofar as it endures beyond childhood indoctrination, cannot be attributed to at least one of those criteria.

The insecure worry over where and how they fit in; what is my place in the world? What is my purpose, my meaning? Why am I here, what’s it all about? Such questions frequently lead to the hypothesising of some grand purpose to existence, an overarching scheme or meaning, and this inevitably leads to the idea that something, or someone, must be both the architect of this end-goal and the ultimate arbiter of whether or not you achieved it. Problem: “I can’t imagine that my life has no inherent meaning”. Solution: god.

The fearful worry about good and evil; is there justice in the world? Will bad deeds be punished and good ones rewarded? How can we be sure that the guilty never get away with their crimes? Such questions often lead to ideas about an all-seeing judge who keeps an ever-watchful eye on the wicked and will make them answer for their transgressions. Problem: “I can’t believe that there are people who might never have to pay for the crimes they’ve committed”. Solution: god.

The fearful also worry, perhaps more than anything, about death; what happens when I die? Is it the end? Does everything I am simply cease to be? No one wants to imagine that, one day, every one of their biological functions will come to an end and that everything that makes them who they are is gone. Never again will they laugh, cry, love, hate, or hold even a single conscious thought, and the only thing that will remain of them are memories in those they leave behind. Such concerns regularly lead to the notion of a life beyond this one where we continue into eternity. Problem: “I am totally, utterly, shit-scared of dying”. Solution: god.

The ignorant worry about how things work; where did the universe come from? Where is it going? Is there anything outside it? Before it? After it? They have many questions that don’t have answers, but see their lack of knowledge as some kind of weakness. They see “I don’t know” as an answer to be ashamed of, rather than one that has been responsible for driving human progress and discovery more than anything else in history. It doesn’t matter if they have the right answer, just as long as they have an answer. Such thoughts frequently lead to an all-encompassing, cop-out panacea; a response to every unexplained phenomena and unanswered question as a way of avoiding having to admit that there’s something they just don’t know. Problem: “I have no clue how stuff works”. Solution: god.

I’m not saying that because I’m an atheist I’m not, nor have I ever been, insecure, fearful, or ignorant … I make no bones about the fact that I’m often troubled by my place in life, I’m really not up for dying any time soon, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I have absolutely no knowledge about whatsoever. The difference is that I’m comfortable with that … I’m comfortable with life having no inherent meaning, because then it can be whatever I want it to be – life’s purpose is to live, and its meaning is whatever we ascribe to it; it is the sum of our experiences, and of those with whom we choose to share our time along the way.

I’m comfortable, albeit reluctantly, with the idea that, one day, I am going to die. If our existence is eternal, our existence is meaningless; what are our achievements worth if we have forever to achieve them? Life, and all that we do with it, is more valuable precisely because it’s finite … an eternity of consciousness would be the most unbearable torture a sentient being could ever endure (I don’t really trust anyone who wants to live forever, because they clearly haven’t thought it through). I want to live a good amount of time, having done a bunch of things that I want to do, and exit my body with a final conscious thought; “That was cool, but I’m ready for bed now”.

I’m comfortable admitting that there are loads of things I don’t know. Without the willingness to concede our ignorance, there would never have been the desire to find the real answers. Instead of discovering bacteria and being driven to develop the means to fight it, we would all still be dying in our 30s under the mistaken idea that demons were responsible. Were it not for those who can say, “I do not understand this, but I’d like to”, we would still be cowering before every eclipse and sacrificing small mammals for the safe return of our life-giving sun.

When all is said and done, a painful truth is far better than a comfortable lie. Yes, we’re all going to die; yes, we don’t know how shit works; yes, there are criminals who get away with it, and life only has meaning if we give it one. The inability to face up to these facts doesn’t dissolve our insecurities, our fears, or our ignorance; it reinforces them, with blind faith acting as an Elastoplast to our problems. To quote the good Dr. Gregory House, “Religion is not the opium of the people; it is the placebo of the people”.

I don’t proclaim myself better than a believer for embracing reason and critical thinking (although perhaps maybe I should) … I just wish they had the courage to face their insecurities, their fears, and their ignorance, let go of the security blanket, and see reality as it truly is.

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On May 05, 2011 David Talbot says:

Nice article, Kris.

If I could add anything to your ideas above, it would be to the “meaning” question. In my mind “What is the meaning of life?” is a bit like asking “What colour is Friday?”. The answer can’t mean anything if the question is nonsensical.

Once anyone’s decided that they know the definitive truth (theist or otherwise) then they’ve stopped asking those questions which are so important when trying to untangle our sense of the world we’ve been dropped into.


On May 05, 2011 Kris King says:

I entirely agree … “meaning”, insofar as it can be applied to our lives (or, indeed, as much as any such abstract or nebulous concept can be applied to anything) is a completely fluid and ever-changing thing. I’ve always said our lives have whatever meaning we give them, but perhaps I should have added at that moment. Life’s meaning is utterly contextual, and what it means today could be radically different from what it means tomorrow; we live in a perpetual state of flux (ironically, change is probably the only true constant). As you say, it’s about trying to make sense of it all by never ceasing to ask the questions …

On June 21, 2011 Alexavia says:

That’s not just logic. That’s raelly sensible.

On July 04, 2011 Joe Swam says:

What a beautiful and well written post. I really dug the “comfortable admitting there’s loads of things I don’t know” part. I’ve never understood why we “heathens” are referred to as arrogant when it is the religious who claim to have all of the answers. Thanks for checking out my Hit and Miss blog. I deleted your comment by accident. I have to admit that I know almost nothing about how my blog operates (hence the delete). Thanks again.

On July 04, 2011 Kris King says:

Thank you, that’s really kind of you to say … I was never happy being told I was arrogant by people who believed the entire universe was made just for them – seemed a tad hypocritical 🙂 No worries on the delete, it happens … if it’s WordPress, I understand (I’ve been developing with this interweb thing for 15+ years and I still find myself deleting the wrong thing) 🙂

On August 12, 2011 The Doubter says:

Lord of the rings at ten….good effort, shamefully I only read it at 30 and still had to re-read chapters as I kept getting confused with the characters. The r’s not my strong point….more maths!!
I was lucky that my older sister was the bright child prodigy….poor sis always under pressure to perform…she explained to me that father Xmas was dad slightly pissed trying to stuff presents into my empty pillow case, eating a mince pie and trying not to wake us……later on she explained the whole tooth fairy thing and how to maximise capital return. Not sure when I didn’t believe in the big beardy bloke thing….but I am sure sis hand a guiding hand in that as well.
Liked the bit about the Omen book at school…….funny how I look back at school days and see things more clearly.
My friend got expelled from the cubs…..yes the cubs thirty years ago, hard to believe… was St George day parade, and he decided for whatever reason to put tomato sauce in the church service pamphlets!!!! Surely a man ahead of his time……years later in a pub over a pint, when I asked him what compelled him, he couldn’t recollect, but for some reason thought it would be a good idea!!
Last little story before I go……when my Gran (dad’s mum passed way); only dad, me and sis attended the funeral…yep long story…come from a slightly dis-functional family. Well my sis prior to the funeral said before we went into the church that we shouldn’t make eye contact…what’s up I say…well I’ll start laughing……ohh, the whole in-appropriate thing……vicar, prayers, church, coffin….!!!
Sorry, should put things in context first, Gran nice women…..working class roots always put fifty pence into our piggy banks in a trust pot……at 18 accrued 200 quid…bless, she thought it would buy us a house……she hadn’t foreseen the property take off…anyway I digress…picture the scene Dad deep in guilt…partly from not allowing his mum to come and live with us when Granddad died…just the three of us the vicar and organist (seem to remember the organist had a good booming singing voice…to fill the empty church!!!)…sis & I atheists…dad choked…and can’t sing and this surreal event going on………got to be a comedy play in this material somewhere!!
Really enjoying your posts……new to this whole blog thing…realise I have left a few comments…don’t worry not a stalker……just enjoying the moment…finding writing my own blog both time consuming but enjoyable…not sure how long the enthusiasm will last!!!
Finally…I am quite a measured person and not known for over blown statements……so I mean what I am about to say…that your posts are extremely well written but also humorous……I am sure other people have pointed this out…but definitely a book somewhere in your blog material…I can see an Xmas edition ‘Rant in a Minor’ book!!!!

On August 13, 2011 Kris King says:

In fairness, while I read it at ten, it wasn’t until subsequent re-reads that I completely understood what was going on – I only even really grasped the basic gist of the story when I was given tapes of the BBC radio adaptation 🙂

I can imagine how it must have been nice to have an older sibling to act as a guide and relieve that pressure on you a bit, although there’s no guarantee it turns out that way; often it can be worse, with the expectation of your parents set by the sibling. “Why can’t you be more like your older brother/sister” must haunt many a child to this day! I was the eldest, so I got to set the standard and take the brunt of the heat for a while 🙂 I don’t recall revealing the santa/tooth fairy thing to my younger siblings though … I think I figured they’d work it out themselves like I did, and just leave them to it!

I hated being in the cubs … I was made to be flag-bearer in the St. George’s Day parade, and hated every minute of it. I wish I’d the inspired genius of your friend to have done something similar. Would have made it much more enjoyable 🙂

I think you’re right in saying there’s definitely a dark comedy to your gran’s funeral proceedings, or at least that’s how it sounds. Shame that there were only 3 people there, but I can understand the dysfunctional family thing (although almost certainly to a different extent and for different reasons). At my grandad’s funeral recently, there was much annoyance from all attending that his only son, my uncle, didn’t show up. Apparently he told my nan that he “didn’t believe in weddings and funerals” (despite having two weddings of his own); he even said that he wouldn’t be at his wife’s funeral if she died first, and that she knows that. He always was a miserable wanker.

Thanks for the comments, really, I do appreciate them … I’m relatively new to the blog thing myself (only really maintained a rarely updated one on MySpace for a while, but it was much more diffuse, short, and random, and ultimately supposed to be about the noise-pollution I called “music” that I was responsible for creating!) I understand feeling a bit like a stalker – there have been a few times where I’ve enthusiastically left multiple comments on sites and wonder whether I was overdoing it 🙂 I do enjoying writing but, like you, I do find it hard (usually to get started – once I’m going, I’m generally okay). I think the enthusiasm lasts as long as you enjoy it – that’s the important bit – for me, it’ll be as long as I find stuff to get pissed off about 🙂

And thank you for your final comment, it’s really good of you to say! I’m not sure about a book, although that would be pretty awesome … a Christmas special post, though, is a definite 🙂

Take care … K