Recently friends and colleagues have been asking me if I believe in God and when I tell them that I don’t, they are interested to know why. It turns out that many people I know identify as Christian even if they don’t attend church or read the Bible. The fact is I used to believe. I was raised in a Christian home in the South of England, attended church on Sundays and associated with other Christian families. By the time I became a teenager I no longer enjoyed church or believed the Bible stories. Adam, Eve, Noah, Moses; it all seemed a little far fetched. I stopped going to church at fourteen or fifteen and never went back. I could see the flaws in the Bible tales if taken literally, so viewed them as assorted metaphors and fables that still supported the existence of Jesus and God. I continued to pray and believe in some measure right up to my mid-twenties. I imagine like many people my enthusiasm for God increased when times were desperate or when friends were particularly enthusiastic and diminished when things were going well.
I stopped believing in God while eating lunch in the grounds of an old church in a lovely port town called Lymington. It was a beautiful summer’s day and it occurred to me that I had been praying since childhood and had never had a reply. Not one. The impression I’d gained about God was that he had created everything, knows me completely, loves me and wants a relationship with me. The nature of the relationship between me and God was supposed to be somewhere between parent and friend or at least that is how the notion had crystallised in my mind. I began thinking about my experience of this relationship and whether it had lived up to my expectations.
I set myself a task. I imagined that the relationship between me and God was just a normal, earthly, relationship. What could I say about it? Could I really claim any kind of relationship? I have never seen God nor had physical contact with God as one sees or touches people. I have never had a conversation with God as one shares thoughts, feelings and stories with people. I couldn’t understand why God would make humankind a social species and choose to only talk at us through a book that had to be translated, edited and interpreted. The answer seemed obvious to me. God doesn’t respond because he doesn’t exist. It wasn’t that these thoughts had only just occurred to me. I’d thought about it before but was only then ready to accept them and the implications. I immediately felt a kind of restfulness and peace that was quickly followed by fear. I was afraid of punishment or retribution. I then felt angry that I should feel this way. Was that what had been holding me in place? Had I maintained my beliefs out of fear? I’d left the Christian faith as a teenager but the effect of it hadn’t left me.
Reflecting now on my experience back then, I’m struck by how long a process it was but how immediate it felt. Early on I recognised that Christianity specifically and the supernatural generally are badly evidenced. It was clear that my religion was just one of many religions making claims about truth, existence and reality. I understood that the Bible could not seriously be considered the unaltered word of a creator god. It wasn’t enough to know these things. I needed to feel comfortable with them, to allow them to dissolve the fictions I had been sold as truths in my formative years. Religious beliefs are not just ideas nor only a guide for how to behave, but are also a part of the person. They inform how you see yourself and signify your belonging to a group. When the tenets of your faith are challenged you feel as if you are being challenged personally. This is why it took so long and in part why I was afraid.
I’ve shared my experience here because I know others are going through the process of leaving their religion and evaluating their beliefs. Many are not as lucky as me and may have to deal with family and community difficulties as a consequence of their changing beliefs. Some will even face violence. I guess what I want to say is: it’s okay to not believe in God and you aren’t alone.