How did I become an atheist? Born and raised in the UK, in a middle-class semi religious house. I was made to dress up and go to a christian church every week. This was not because my parents truly believed in the christian religion. It turns out we went because that’s what respectable middle class families do. As a child I didn’t really understand why we did this each and every week. Most of my classmates went through a similar process, going to church each week as a routine but not attaching any greater meaning to it. We happily celebrated all the christian festivals with food and presents, but no overly religious symbolism.
As I grew older and developed my own thoughts and opinions, it became apparent I am not religious. If asked, I would identify as an atheist. I am very rational, and don’t believe in doing things this one way as they have always been done. Given my rationality and desire to seek a scientific explanation for everything, the supernatural elements of religions puzzle me, why do people believe in something that cannot be proven? The misogyny in religions also repels me; they all teach that men and women are different, and men are superior. As a scientific woman I question this, and ask why? Personally I believe religion has held back society, and caused the gender issues we see in everyday life today. Men have been able to vote for over 700 years in the UK, with women only being able to vote for 100 years. Women still earn much less than men, as the gender pay gap legislation is reporting. And women are still expected to lead on caregiving and household management, tasks which as a society we do not value.
My awakening also took place alongside religious wars, the troubles in Northern Ireland were raging, with the IRA bombing the UK weekly. Although that war is not solely about religion, religion does play a big part. During my childhood I also started to become aware of all the child abuse allegations and coverups that churches were perpetuating. I also started to realise how religion wasn’t quite as accepting as they claimed to be. You had to fit the mold, believe what they told you and follow the line. I got the impressions religions were control mechanisms, giving people the community they craved at the ultimate cost of their freedom. A controversial belief perhaps, but I did see so many people going along with things they did not belief, and behaving in very judgemental ways about others.
What does religion mean?
If anyone has seen the Book of Mormon musical, there is a really interesting scene on religion. It originally appears they are mocking Mormonism, for only being made up a few hundred years ago. However then they mention other religions were made up far longer ago. Bringing to the fore the question does getting people to believe for longer equal more mainstream acceptance? What really is the difference between a cult and religion?
But these are only my personal beliefs as an atheist, I don’t expect anyone else to agree 100% with me. I realise I am in the minority by not wanting to convert anyone, or assuming others hold my beliefs. Personally I find it really arrogant and rude how many people assume their version of religious dogma is correct, and hilarious when they ask if I worry about going to hell!
Things that religions do well
Don’t let this article make you think I am as an atheist completely down on all religions and religious practises. Despite their many shortcomings there are things I feel contemporary religions do well. I’m happy to praise and appreciate the many things that religions do that add value and enhance the society we all live in. I don’t think I have a black and white answer as to whether religion is good, more a nuanced appreciation of atheist vs religious observer. Here are some random items that I commend religions for:
- I see people really enjoying the community side of religion
- The shared purpose and values really work for some people, especially those that really want to belong
- Actively helping and support those in need (when this is done without a requirement to believe)
Culture and Art
- This is where religions excel in my view
- Religious buildings are amazing architecturally and I love visiting them
- Preservation of history and times gone by
- Art – the Vatican has the best art collection over
- In particular the eastern religions excel at mind over body
- The calmness and contentedness could really improve our busy western minds
- Fasting is really beneficial at controlling desires
- Teaching gratitude and resilence
Preaching / Street Entertainment
I walk around London a lot, and thus see a lot of people preaching and trying to recruit for their religion. I’m very much in favour of the Jehovah’s Witnesses respectful stance. They are always out there prominently come rain or shine and look content. They are happy to chat, but never approach people. Other regular street preachers I see are interesting, some go for the megaphone approach, others just use their voice. I admire their tendacity, they don’t seem to mind that they get minimal response from the public.
But the prize has to go to the guy who went the full way. One winter’s day, he stood on London Bridge barefoot in a white sheet at rush hour. His prop was an impressive 6 foot high wooden cross. He also had a good beard and long hair, to add to the classical Jesus look. The vast majority of commuter did a double take, and he enjoyed getting his photo taken so much I had to wonder if he was a drama student!
Religious Celebrations I like
Despite my dislike of religions as whole, and the way in which it can influence people in a negative way I love the festivals. Having grown up with these festivals in a non religious way, I have started to see them as traditional celebrations, rather than religious celebrations per say.
Shrove Tuesday / Pancake Day / Carnival/ Mardi Gras
My personal variant is pancake day. I love pancakes, and believe we should all serve them more often. Shrove Tuesday itself, in my opinion is a gluttonous celebration yet also a preparation for a period of sacrifice. Unpacking these ideas is interesting. If you believe in sacrificing, can you also believe in overindulging? Does one not cancel the other out? As an atheist I can’t support the idea of sacrifice for a religious deity, but I can as a sacrifice for yourself. So while I think the idea behind the festival has some merits, I completely disregard the religious connotations.
How do I celebrate? By eating and making lots, and lots of pancakes. I am also encouraging as many people as possible to also participate in pancake day. Pancakes are ridiculously easy and cheap to make, the perfect frugal food. And if you have special dietary requirements, you can make your own pancakes and adapt the recipes to suit, vegan pancakes have come a long way.
A festival celebrated by fluffy bunnies and chocolate eggs? Count me in. But if you look into the religious meaning of easter, it gets much deeper, darker and supernatural. Sorry I don’t believe in resurrection. As a scientific realist, I just can’t get my head around the supernatural aspects of the Easter story. However I see the benefits of appreciating sacrifice. Especially when others sacrifice things for us. Like the suffragettes who suffered so we could vote? That sort of sacrifice I can support 100%.
How do I celebrate? By eating lots of chocolate. Easter eggs have long been a tradition, and I see no reason to stop. Cute fully bunny pictures are also appreciated at this time of year. And I always go away for easter. The two bank holidays mean it’s a perfect holiday opportunity.
Similar to Easter, I struggle with the religious meaning of this festival. The Virgin birth? Seriously? Are we teaching kids this stuff? Then to top off that ridiculousness, there is the next layer of commercialism. A recent play I saw on Karl Marx, had a great quote on this topic, pondering that Christmas may become
a week-long festival of commodification
Whilst I’m not an admirer of Marx himself, I can appreciate the sentiment. We need to find better ways of showing we care. Spend time with people. Make gifts. Enjoy experiences rather than material possessions.
How do I celebrate? I see Christmas as a family tradition, largely following the same script each year. Parkrun to start, always good to begin the day of indulgence with a 5k run. You get smugness as well as permission to eat a lot. Then breakfast should be pancakes and bucks fizz. Then we celebrate the day relaxing, cooking and spending time together. Finally the highlight of Christmas, big lunch. Usually served at dinner time. Good food and good company always wins in my books.
My inner conflicts
- Religions has caused so many divides and wars; if we banished the idea of religion, could we heal many divisions?
- Or would people just find another way to divide themselves and argue over?
- What do you think? As an atheist can I celebrate these traditions?
- Is it ok to use religious festivals for personal development?
- In 2018 I’m giving up chocolate and cake for lent, and debating fasting for Ramadan. Is this cultural appropriation?
*Disclaimer* I fully support everyone’s right to believe in whatever you want. I wish more people understood that people are free to choose their own beliefs. I am very guilty of this, but don’t assume everyone believes the same as you. More importantly I believe we should improve the wider cultural understanding and make the world more accepting.