Foreword: This began as an idea to recount how I lost my religion. It’s a viewpoint I’ve very rarely come across, and I wondered if it might be interesting for people. As it emerged, it became more and more apparent that something so deep needs to be explored properly, and it has expanded into a sort of chaptered-article. It takes the form of one continuous article, but is broken up by chapter for ease of reading and, frankly, to help me try and keep the article(s) focused. Enjoy.
Part One: Losing My Religion
I was raised Christian. I didn’t really know it at the time but technically only my mother was Christian. As far as I can make out, my father never really ventured many religious opinions beyond “no, I’m not Christian”. But whatever, he enjoyed the social aspect of going to church, and many of my early childhood memories are of sunny Sundays, getting (reasonably) neatly dressed and going to the big stone building. It was nice. Sunday school is a complete blur to me, but I don’t remember dis-liking it. It was just a thing that was there.
When I was seven, my interest in singing had grown to the extent that I joined a cathedral choir. So passionate was I about singing, even back then, that when I was offered a place in Lincoln Cathedral Choir (more than 150 miles from my home) I took it up. Even now I remember that it was my choice. No one pushed me. I joined because I wanted to sing, even though it meant leaving my home, my school, my friends and pretty much everything else. I became a scholarship schoolboy in a boarding house. Looking back it couldn’t get more classically white and English if you tried, but hey, at the time I just knew it was the place that let me sing.
Funnily enough, seven is when I first start having real coherent memories of my life. I gather than seven is typically the age where people begin to independently develop. They will trust things because they reasoned it out, not just because adults told them. In short, it’s when people begin to really manifest as their own unique person – making independent decisions, hypothesising independent enquiries, becoming who they are because they say so. So, certainly for me, it’s when religion began to grow from ‘a thing which I think I believe, because it is what I have been told’ to ‘a thing which I, personally, believe.’
And I did. I remember, throughout my childhood from around the age of 7 to 11 having nebulous thoughts about god, the nature of god and the principles of Christianity. I didn’t think about it in those terms of course, I didn’t have the mental tools or experience to pick it apart like that. I did it, well, like a child. But I believed.
Did being surrounded by Christian dogma help? Did singing in a magnificent, glorious cathedral? Did singing in Sunday mass and evensong, singing out ancient holy Latin set to the thing I valued most highly – music – help? Very obviously yes. No one spontaneously becomes a Christian without having first have people tell them what a Christian is. The same applies to…well almost anything else, ever. You can have beliefs and ideas, but you can’t willingly become part of a pre-existing group without knowing it exists. So yes, it helped.
I had a couple of other things that helped too. One was my ferocious interest in reading, the other we’ll get to in a bit. When I hit seven I started to discover reading in a big way. A big way. For several years my favourite building in my school was the little library. I became moderately infamous for sneaking books into class and spending hour after hour ignoring everything I was being taught, and reading whatever I could. I don’t remember much of what I read, which is a bit of a bummer really, but the salient fact is that I wanted to read all the time. Alongside this, while I did of course sing in evensong and other cathedral services, there is a lot of these services that isn’t singing. Prayers, sermons and the like. None of that particularly catered to me. What this meant is that, for at least four nights a week, I was spending over an hour sitting very quietly in semi-public view, doing nothing. Bear in mind this is in the days before smartphones, Kindles and other such devices. Boring doesn’t cover it. Sneaking a book in was too risky. Still, it occurred to me that there was one book that was already there. Sure, it looked boring and had a lot of weird words in and had really tiny writing. But…being bored by a book versus just plain being bored? Hand me that bible!
So I read the bible. Bit by bit. Page by page. I read the whole damn bible. I don’t know how long it took me but I was a fast reader even back then, and it probably helped the flow once I developed the skip-words-you-don’t-understand policy. I learned a surprising amount, most of which I don’t even consciously remember now. But I learned that the bible is as dry as the many deserts it describes. I learned that a lot of people are horrible to each other, often in quite creative ways. I learned that much of what I thought Christianity was was entirely wrong, and that many of the things people had told me about Christianity were also wrong – at least according to the book they all touted as their guide to being a Christian.
I also discovered that the bible is a bizarrely engaging read. Once you get past the odd layout and entire bloody chapters of genealogy, there’s a lot to dig into. History, morality, poetry and a hundred other actually interesting things. Over the days and months I chewed through the whole book. I remember particularly enjoying Leviticus, and read that chapter quite a lot. It’s a weird one to like as it’s just a book of fairly odd and repetitive laws. But I liked it. Mildew featured heavily, as did sacrificing goats and for some reason the layout of the chapter really appealed. I still don’t know why.
Over my years as a chorister, I read the entire bible three times. From Genesis 1:1 right through to Revelations 22:21. Bits of it kick around in my skull like old dust, sometimes getting blown across my brain. It’s built into me now like an extra bone in my skeleton – so deep I can’t even get to most of it, but I know it’s there.
I’ve said the bible taught me a lot of things, and it did. More than anything else it taught me something that I didn’t realize right away, which gestated like mildew inside my head for years until it was too big to ignore: This Makes No Sense. Nothing, from one chapter to another, from old testament to new testament, from what the book said to what preachers said, nothing made any sense. I don’t mean no sense in the traditional non-sequiteur type non-sense. Nor do I (entirely) mean the countless contradictions and twistings that permeate the bible as a whole. I mean that, from the ground up, from pretty much Genesis 1:1, the bible made no sense.
As a brief interlude here, something that complicates the issues that I’m about to talk around is the fact that they are very common questions. And like very common questions, they get a lot of crap answers. Worse, the prevalence of these questions (and answers) means that people are significantly less likely to actually think about them when they get asked. These things together mean that for a lot of people, these questions never get addressed. Ever.
So these questions? This non-sense? Where to start? God is omniscient and omnipotent but still punishes failure? Free will exists but is entirely pre-determined? God is omnipotent but lets the devil into Eden? Man is created as the highest form of being (except god) but god did so knowing they would fuck up? God does all the above and is omnibenevolent? All of this is just in Genesis. Early Genesis at that. These aren’t little questions. These aren’t things that can (rationally) just be brushed off. These are huge issues. These are core questions about the nature of god that over-ride almost every other trapping of a religion.
But, as I mentioned above, as soon as you ask these questions people come at you with pre-prepared answers. Often, very very very often pre-prepared answers that the person in question didn’t come up with, but things they were told and have never thought about. I have had a lot – a lot – of serious, in depth conversations with a lot of people about religion. Many of those were about Christianity but some of them weren’t. No one, no one has ever given me a well reasoned, well considered answer to the question “God is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. So why do bad things happen?” When I asked my mother – an intelligent person whose opinion I value highly, who is also a life-long Christian, once I overcame her initial arguments (very quickly), she began to type them into Google and tried to use the articles she found there.
Hold up. Lifelong Christian. Intelligent, reasonable person. And the first response she could come up with, to a real debate about God (and Christianity) is to Google articles and try to parrot them without even reading them first? Ummm.
Now, that’s just one example, but it’s a damn good one. It’s a pretty good yard-stick for the typical response. Because the vast, vast majority of people I have spoken to who refer to themselves as having a religion, have never ever actually thought about the religion they believe themselves to have. Often, it seems, because questioning your faith on a fundamental level is somehow considered contrary to believe. The point I have head, often, is that you ‘just have to have faith’. It is the single most facile and irritating answer to ever get, because it is so, so, so unbelievably stupid. It is deeply enraging, because it’s the kind of smug self-defending statement that gets hidden behind any time a ready-made answer doesn’t spring to mind – and the implication is gets given, when this answer is given, is that it’s an actual answer, as opposed to the utterly bizarre mental blind spot it is.
Hand in hand with this is another unfortunate thing, which is a deep societal problem that just also happens to apply here – it is usually not considered okay to say “I don’t know.” Somehow, it is seen as a weak answer, or an innate defeat. But time and time again, especially when it comes to religion, people I have spoken to go to absurd lengths, will say anything, anything to avoid saying “I don’t know”. My mother would be a good example of this again. To her, it was a better idea to read out the opinions of people she had never met, never read and never considered in the very faint chance that it would exactly match what she wanted to say, than to say “I don’t know.”
I remember the exact moment I lost my religion. I don’t remember all the surrounding details in perfect clarity, but I remember the exact moment; the sensation and realization. Looking back, it’s become one of the most defining memories I have. It was RE class (or RS, depending on how you know it). Religious Education (which I still think is a woefully misnamed subject – it covers morality, ethics and culture just as much as it covers religion of any type). I was about fourteen or fifteen. In general at this time, I was what was rather too nicely called ‘mercurial’ in class. But RE had less to fear than most, it was one of my favourite lessons. Not because I super-loved religion (I doubt anyone in my class even knew I thought of myself as Christian). No, I loved RE because it was one of the only classes that had discussion. Actual pupil to pupil discussion. Now I love to talk; when I’m in the zone I can speedtalk for hours at a time. I love to debate, to play devils advocate, to connect. In a school environment, where entire classes might be spent staying still, staying quiet and writing things down, this was like a pressure release valve. As tends to be the case, some people got more involved in these conversations (read: arguments). I was one. Partially out of desire to be noisy, part because this stuff interested me, part a hundred other things. Whatever the reason at the time, I was generally one to weigh in my half-baked ideas. In one such lesson, such a debate was happening. I have no memory of what the conversation was about, I imagine (given the context here) something based on religion, but I do remember that myself and one of my frequent opponents were verbally slugging it out. Katrina Tipler. She was smart and opinionated and when she thought I was talking bullshit (as I often was) she damn well called me on it. I enjoyed and hated our conflicts in equal part. Enter today’s argument of choice and once again it was getting intense. I’m not sure if I was arguing back that day out of belief in my point, belief that I should believe in my point, or because I was being a stubborn arsehole. But the back and forth happened until there came a point and she dropped a question at me-
-and I had no response. Just like that. Nothing. I couldn’t use one of the hollow arguments I’d spat out before, and my own brain choked up like an engine running out of fuel.
It is one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever had. Like that cartoon moment of running off a cliff and you just hang there until – ooooh – you look down. That was me, then. In truth I’d been off the edge of a cliff for a long time, but I’d been staring straight ahead and just imagining the ground under my feet.
I don’t remember much else – I have no idea if I did talk back, or what the rest of the day was like. But I remember that feeling, that mental realization that I didn’t believe what I was saying. Worse, I hadn’t believed it for a long time but wouldn’t mentally accept that until I’d collapsed like cheap furniture. My arguments were – no, had always been – substantial as plywood. I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in Christianity. I was wrong, and I had been from the start.