The Smallest Prayer in the Cosmos

night-1077857_1280

Put yourself in his shoes. He’s small. There’s electric pain in the elbow that hit the wall you went into. Recognise how hard it is to separate out the physical sensation from how you feel. You hurt.

Every Sunday you go to church with your mum and dad. He’s well liked, they say she’s shy and “you must take after your mummy”. Everyone sings songs and two little girls in dresses shove each other at the back of the room. We all bow our heads to pray. You close your eyes tight because it doesn’t work if your looking. All the children go out. In Sunday school there’s a story about Jonah and a whale and God was angry because Jonah tried to run away. You like Sunday school, you like the stories and God helps people. On the wall there’s a poster with footprints and another one that says “faith can move mountains”.

It’s Tuesday, P.E. day and you’re running out of excuses. You say you don’t feel well, your tummy hurts. Your teacher looks at you funny and sends you to the office. You can’t do P.E. If anyone asks about the bruises again he’ll get angry. Your mum will get in front of you like last time…your eyes water and you try to think of something else while waiting quietly for lunch time.

You like Lego and you’re sat in the living room building an aeroplane. You want to make a machine that will shrink you like on T.V. so you can fly to Disneyland. The plane has boosters so you can go fast and you’ll probably have a dog too. “I’ll fix the damn thing myself”. Your train of thought is derailed. The washing machine’s broken and you recognise that tone of voice. You go cold, you want to leave but you don’t want to move. The phone rings, he answers it, it’s okay.

At bedtime you say your prayers with your mum and when she’s gone you say the real ones. “Dear Jesus…”. You don’t want mountains to move or water to turn into wine. What you want is for him to stop hitting her and maybe if you believe hard enough, if you close your eyes tight enough and press your hands together, God will do this for you. But he doesn’t. It doesn’t stop. Maybe God answers other people’s prayers but not yours. Not when you need it.

*****************************

This story is fictional, although it is probably less so for some than others. It was inspired by a discussion I had a few months ago where I was struck by just how inadequately phrases like “abusive environment” convey their meaning.

Advertisements

Embarrassed about God

tortoise-235896_1920

While eating my lunch the other day I was gingerly approached by a guy in his late teens who, standing next to me, with his head turned down and feet shuffling, said in a tone of voice designed not to travel: “My church are praying for people in the area. Do you know anyone who needs praying for?” His embarrassment was palpable. It was the sort of embarrassment that any degree of empathy makes contagious. After politely telling him that I’m an atheist, he walked away looking visibly relieved. The incident recalled to my mind how I felt when school friends learned I went to church or the embarrassment I used to feel on behalf of members of the congregation who would start speaking in tongues. I felt that way automatically. I had no control over it. I was embarrassed on behalf of others because I sensed that social norms had been broken. I was embarrassed for myself because I felt my school friends would consider me stupid. Why stupid? Because I couldn’t give a good enough account of my beliefs. I knew there was a lot about Christianity that didn’t add up but dealt with it by not dealing with it.

I’ve encountered arguments suggesting atheists are smarter than the religious. I’ve also seen the contrary, that only the most intelligent scholars can understand holy texts. I’m not convinced much is achieved by arguing about IQ. In my experience those who hold religious beliefs do not do so as a result of extensive study into multiple explanations of existence, where the most robust is selected. Some may arrive at their beliefs this way but I suspect that many religious people know comparatively little about other religions or choose not to see how similarly justified they are. I imagine fewer still attempt to engage critically with their own religious ideas. Whether there are compelling rationales for holding religious beliefs or not, as a church-going school kid I had difficulty accounting for my beliefs because they were based on emotion not on reason. My inability to explain my beliefs and the consequent embarrassment were because I believed teachings that appealed to emotion but I didn’t possess the oratory artistry to communicate them. I had no answers to questions about the logistics of the story of Noah’s ark, why the plagues of Egypt weren’t in the history books or why the Bible should be considered any more true than the holy books of other religions. I had school friends effortlessly poking holes in what was supposed to be the word of God. That was embarrassing.

Embarrassment is of course a socially conscious emotion. It has to do with social conventions and our perceptions of how we will be judged by others. Where a religion gets to determine social norms in a particular context, there will probably be less embarrassment when openly discussing and practising that religion. The following clip showing a child named Bethany “receiving the holy ghost” strikes me as profoundly odd. Watching it makes me feel awkward, embarrassed, honestly a little angry but also hopeful. There’s a moment at 1:26 where Bethany’s sister walks into the frame, looks at the camera and shyly rejects an invitation to join in. A hand can be seen guiding her back towards her sister. She waves to the camera and backs out of the scene, clearly embarrassed by the circumstances. I grew up in a fairly secular society and attended a school where the kids had quite a mix of backgrounds. It was against this backdrop that I really began to reflect on how ridiculous some of my beliefs seemed and how odd some of the rituals were.

The experience of embarrassment feels bad so we tend to want to avoid it. This social mechanism keeps us consistent with the group. In extreme circumstances this can have an homogenising and isolating effect but where an influx of new group members is permitted and where there exists a plurality of ideas, embarrassment can serve a useful purpose, showing us when we are out of step with our peers. It has nothing directly to do with truth since majority beliefs and values are not true by virtue of their popularity but it can be understood as a kind of collective-aware course correction. It can also help highlight beliefs and behaviours that are worth reflecting on. Thinking about our embarrassment can help reveal assumptions and values that are so normal that they are only rendered visible through their transgression. If you feel embarrassed, why? Do you feel defiant of embarrassment and what does that mean? Where something might be odd or cause embarrassment in a one context, why is that not the case in another? Have you ever felt embarrassed about God?

We Are All Born Atheist

girl-67694_1920

That’s right, even the zealous, the pious and the most committed of religious characters were born without any beliefs in gods. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion”, children don’t have religions their parents do. We are born without knowledge of our culture, without an understanding of social stratification and without superstition. Children don’t inherit characteristics of social division, they are labelled with them. We ascribe them to them. They have to be learned and are invariably taught. In fact a quick search for “Christian preschool” will return a host of results for places children from 2 to 5 years old can learn about Christianity  while learning to grip a pencil, identify colours and count to 20. Hazel’s Christian Preschool  takes the view that…

“Through creative exploration and “hands on” approach, each child is supported emotionally,cognitively, physically, social growth and foundational opportunities to know God as our loving creator and friend.”

Which apparently works since one happy mother wrote:

“This is the absolute best Christian Preschool! I moved my 4 year old daughter from another Christian preschool because I didn’t feel like her faith was growing. On her very first day she started praying on her own!”

4 years old?! Also, I’m not the sort to judge grammar and spelling too harshly. I’m sure I make mistakes and typos all of the time, but then I’m not an educational institution or teacher. The Hazel’s (Hazels? hazel’s? Hazel’s?) Christian Preschool  site is filled with glaring language errors that should warrant more concern than the growth of a 4 year old’s faith.

This Religionising of children’s education is not particular to Christianity of course, but common to many religions. This quote from littlecaliphs.com makes the point for me:

“We strongly believe that early learning exposure of Islam in children will leave a long lasting impact in their life towards realizing and accepting that Allah is their Lord and Sustainer, Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is their teacher and role model and Islam is the way of life.”

They’re right of course. If you teach children from a young age that magic and gods are real, if you reinforce the idea that specific holy books are indisputably factual, then those children are more likely to grow up believing whichever religion they have been taught.

A parent’s concern with their young child’s religious education comes, I believe, from a good place. If you think eternal torment is in store for non-believers and rich rewards for believers, then you want to make sure that your nearest and dearest are on the path to a happy ending. There’s a difficult (and upsetting) question religious parents no doubt ask themselves about what would happen to their child in the afterlife if they were to pass away. According to Islam, all children of Muslim parents who pass away before reaching puberty go to paradise. The question of what happens to children of non-believers has many answers in Islam but judgement on the matter is usually reserved. Back to the Bible, a Christian website, tackles this difficult question by suggesting that all children go to the Christian heaven by default until they are able to understand right and wrong (legally 10 years old in the UK). After the age of 10 they had better be committed Christians though. There seems to be some appreciation that young children aren’t intellectually mature enough to be judged on religious beliefs but in what sense are children who have just hit double digits free or able to make an informed decision? If they have been taught religion as fact since they were toddlers then the extent to which they are “informed” is disputable.

Regarding the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit there are no easy answers. On the one hand it seems reasonable to teach your kids about your religion if you’re a parent who whole-heartedly believes that it’s in your child’s best interest to learn about your beliefs. On the other hand, where that belief manifests in narrowly restricting a child’s social interaction, instilling intolerance and depriving educational opportunities, the implications start to look less harmless. The fact is parents aren’t formally trained in the craft of parenting and the home lives of children vary. It may be that a child’s home life is dominated  by religion but school should be a space where they genuinely can acquire the intellectual tools to make informed decisions. Nowhere should a school be teaching religion as fact or presenting one religion as superior to others. If after learning about religions as part of a broad curriculum that is centred around language, maths and science, a child grows to decide (when they are mature enough to do so) that they believe and wish to follow a particular religion, then they have made a meaningful choice. Conversely, choosing to believe the only choice you’ve been given is no choice at all.

 

Belief in Absence Vs Absence of Belief

golden-791072_1920

When encountering claims like “atheists believe x” or “an atheist would say y” I often find myself unable to resist the urge to add my view to the discussion. This generally involves pointing out that atheism is an absence of belief in gods. Responses vary from “you’re a God denier” to “believing there’s no God is the same as not believing God exists”. It seems that although I’m trying to be clear about my view of what an atheist is I could be clearer.

I’d like to start with two quite different definitions of the word “atheist”.

Merriam-Webster:

“…a person who believes there is no God.”

Oxford Dictionary:

“A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”

To some people these definitions are for all intents and purposes the same but they’re in fact quite distinct. One difference is the notion of lacking belief. I prefer the word “absence” over “lack” since “lacking” implies that something is missing, while “absence” conveys non-existence or non-location. Another difference is between notions of believing something negative and disbelieving something positive .

Let’s pretend that my mind is a basket and beliefs are objects. I might believe for example that things I drop will fall. I can represent this belief in gravity as an apple and place it in my basket. Then perhaps someone makes a claim that ghosts exist. This can be represented as a bed sheet and I’ll exclude it from my basket because I’m not convinced by their evidence, that’s to say I disbelieve their claim. I’m then told that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. I can represent this belief as a toy dinosaur and place it in my basket since I’m convinced by the suggestion that if we can find whales in an ocean we ought to be able to find Nessie in a lochSo in my basket (mind) I have an apple (gravity), a dinosaur (Nessie) but no bed sheet (ghosts). I believe in gravity, I believe the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist and I have no beliefs in ghosts existing. My holding a negative belief (Nessie doesn’t exist) is not the same as the absence of a positive belief (ghosts do exist). Likewise, the belief the gods don’t exist is not the same as the absence of beliefs that they do.

Merriam-Webster’s definition that an atheist is “…a person who believes there is no God” is an example of a negative belief. People who are atheists may hold negative beliefs about specific gods but this isn’t a function of their atheism. Atheism has no evaluative tools or framework that might be used to form a belief about gods. There is no atheist epistemology. We notice that Merriam-Webster capitalise the “G” in God so they’re referring to something by name rather than a class or category. Their use of the word “God” is in the singular so we’re dealing with the god of a monotheistic religion. The assumption of the inherent legitimacy of monotheism and the creation of a false binary of only being able to believe God does or doesn’t exist is glaringly obvious and dishonest. The Oxford Dictionary definition does a much better job but could be improved by substituting the word “lacks” and removing the superfluous word “God”. Monotheists are aware that there are other gods. The reason they refer to their god as “God” rather than by the god’s name (where it’s known) is a mixture of cultural normalisation, aversion to blasphemy and elevating their god above others. In the last sense saying “God” is a sort of shorthand for “the one true god”, which has no bearing on the meaning of the word “atheist”.

After thinking about belief of absence and absence of belief, and considering this distinction in relation to the two dictionary definitions above, the following is perhaps a clearer way for me to phrase my position on what atheism is:

Atheist: a person who has no affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

Atheism: an absence of affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

The descriptive power of the word “atheist”, like “theist”, “monotheist” or “polytheist”, is quite weak since it’s an encompassing word. It offers a way of expressing the absence of beliefs that are sometimes assumed to be present. It says nothing about how beliefs are constituted or by what means decisions about beliefs are reached. Yet it’s a useful word that deserves to be protected from being defined through a monotheistic lens.

 

 

 

 

Evidence-based Faith part 2

amazing-736888_1280

In my last post (Evidence-based Faith part 1) I started exploring holy books as a kind of evidence that can underpin religious faith. I thought about some of the questions I might ask if I wanted to know if I could put my trust and confidence in scriptures. It seemed to me that the written word isn’t a good way to precisely communicate the will, intent and values of a supernatural entity, but it occurred to me that perhaps that isn’t really what holy books are about. Maybe they serve as a record of religious experiences, from which the general framework of a religion emerges. I have found that when I ask religious people why they believe they often tell me about an experience in which they found evidence supporting their beliefs.

It isn’t very difficult to find examples of religious experiences online and I would like to paraphrase a few of them here. Before I do though I ought to point out that what these experiences mean to those who had them and the exact detail of the experiences themselves would have been very difficult to capture accurately in writing. Something is often lost (or added) in the articulation of the experience and in paraphrasing I am again blunting the description. Additionally, the English speaking web from which I sourced these recounts has some fairly pronounced cultural biases. Lastly, those who choose to share their experience online may be more inclined towards particular beliefs or experiences.

In 2006 a middle-age Christian woman was involved in a head-on collision during her commute to work. She suffered serious injuries and had to be cut from her car by emergency services. She was airlifted to hospital where she spent the first couple of weeks in and out of consciousness and heavily medicated. During this time she saw her mother, with angels standing behind her.

“The most amazing thing was, I died. I bled out during the initial surgery (and I’ve had thirty-six). I was given over 100 units of blood and had two trauma surgeons working on me. When my heart would stop, they would revive me.”

Shortly after arriving in hospital, her church pastor and other members of her church came. When her husband arrived, he prayed with the pastor and…

“…something hit him. Out loud, he proclaimed that I was not going to die in a hospital. God was going to perform a miracle. And He did.”

At some point during this time her heart stopped again and she saw Jesus, who told her to go back (to her living body). She survived the accident and shared her experience 8 years later.

In 2009 a person who had lost their mother to cancer 5 years earlier and had been suffering from depression, admitted themselves to hospital. They felt as though they had lost everything except their faith in God and they cried and prayed and pleaded with God for relief. The person sat on a bed and played a song on the guitar they had played for their mother when she was ill. They began to feel an energy and hear “heavenly music”.

“I got to the part of the song where it says “and a man shall leave his mother” and the Heavenly music and very strong energy left my body at an incredible rate. I knew right then and there that I had released my mother into Heaven.”

In this recount of the experience the person explains that it happened at the same date and time that their mother had passed away 5 years earlier and that their watch stopped on that time (09:18).

This last experience happened to a recently and unhappily married 22 year old woman. She and her husband were fighting and their argument became physical when her husband choked her until she lost consciousness. She described an almost crippling fear and heartbreak but decided to forgive him. During a subsequent argument her husband again choked her unconscious…

“…As I was gaining conscience I could feel the most indescribable feeling of warmth and safety not only was that feeling running threw me but around me. It seemed I was in a vary big room that was well lit not to bright, not to dark… I couldn’t see the walls or nothing but it was kind of hard to take my eyes of the four figures that were with me, couldn’t see many details just remember the feeling of love and safety, oh and what ever was with me was really really tall.”

When she regained consciousness she described what she had experienced. She wasn’t sure what to make of the experience but wrote that she has some theories.

If you’re curious I’d encourage you to search online and read a few more. Something that strikes me about the three I’ve described here is how emotional they are. Struggling to survive an horrific car crash, trying to cope with depression and loss and finding feelings of love and safety in an extremely abusive relationship. Powerful emotional experiences can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives. They can also serve to reaffirm our deeply held convictions. I’m sensitive to the fact that religious experiences mean a lot to those who experience them and I don’t believe that questioning a religious experience need in any way devalue the experience. My task here is to consider what questions could be asked about a religious experience to assess its suitability for underpinning a person’s religious faith:

  • Do similar religious experiences indicate similar conclusions? For example, if the woman from the first story had been a Hindu, would she have still concluded a miracle had been performed by the Christian god? Or if she had been an atheist, would she have said she was saved solely by the hard work of the emergency services?
  • Does the conclusion that is reached follow logically from the experience? For example, in the second story is there anything about the experience of playing a song, hearing music and feeling a powerful sensation on the 5th anniversary of their mother’s passing that suggests she was released to heaven through that experience (or that heaven exists)?
  • Are there natural explanations for an experience? In the case of the third story for example, a combination of emotional and physical trauma, with a lack of oxygen and consciousness could explain the cause of the experience.

Ultimately, the cause of a person’s religious experience can be explained by natural phenomena but the “meaning” or “reason” thought to be inherent therein is generally open to interpretation. People strive to make sense or their experiences, particularly those that are personally uncommon and powerfully emotional. In my view, religious experiences are too easily interpreted to fit with any set of beliefs for them to be considered a solid basis for faith. Those who believe in spirits will take their religious experiences to be evidence for spirits and the same is true of those who believe in gods, angels or other supernatural entities. The difficulty with religious experiences is that they are so subjective. However, where religious faith has a direct impact on the natural world, as it does with faith healing for example, the claim can be assessed. So perhaps the place to look for strong evidence for religious faith is not in the experiences but in the miracles.

Evidence-based Faith part 1

manuscript-729617_1920

What is faith, in the religious sense of the word? Although what faith means may be varied and nuanced between different religions, denominations and individual believers, faith can be broadly defined as: trusting and having confidence in religious authority, which might include religious leaders, holy books and supernatural entities. Faith is seen by some to be an important component of religion. It’s often considered virtuous to place your trust in religious authorities. Faith is also frequently talked about as though it’s the opposite of evidence. “Blind faith” as a way of describing beliefs held without evidence is in my view nothing more than rhetoric. The idea that someone puts their trust in and has confidence in religious authority without evidence strikes me as false. The faithful must have some ideas about their god for example and perhaps its character, values or its will. These ideas are unlikely to have arisen independently in people and so it seems to me that the faithful must base their faith in evidence. This evidence is constitutive of their beliefs. Perhaps they were told about their religion by parents. Maybe they were read passages from a holy book by a religious leader. Some may not consider this evidence to be strong or convincing, but it’s evidence nonetheless. I don’t currently have any religious faith but this notion of evidence-based faith has got me thinking. What sorts of questions could I ask to find out if I could or should have the kind of faith defined above?

Many religions are based on holy books from which the faithful draw their religious knowledge. These books are generally sacred texts, which are held by some to be accurate and true. But is a holy book a reliable source of information? After all, language doesn’t withstand the passage of time very well. It has a tendency to change and meanings shift quite rapidly. This was even more the case before languages became standardised for printing. Meaning is easily (unavoidably?) lost or corrupted in the translation process and holy texts have a tendency to be compiled and recompiled from multiple sources whose authorship can be geographically diverse and separated by hundreds of years. Writing is a product of its time, carrying the assumptions inherent in the world view of its author. If the author lived in a culture that considered women to be property then the writing may well contain that view. If the author didn’t know for example what stars are or the motion of the earth around the sun, that ignorance may well be exposed in the writing.

Our perception of the authority of the written word has changed radically over time as well. Historically the word has had an almost magical quality. In fact in some cases the very act of making marks representing ideas was a method of spell casting. Before the invention of the printing press (enabling mass production) the sheer rarity of books endowed them with authority. They were expensive to make and were owned by the very wealthy. Even if books were available, levels of literacy in the past were very low. Our view of books is much more pragmatic now. We are less likely to believe the content of a book simply because it is in a book. The availability of books and levels of literacy are far higher now, although not evenly distributed. People now have greater opportunity to engage critically with books and fact-check using the internet.

If assessing a holy book to decide if I could have trust and confidence in it I might ask:

  • What is the history of this book and how was its content assembled?
  • Is the author identifiable and how credible are/were they?
  • What is it offering me and what does it want from me?
  • Are its claims consistent with our constantly improving understanding of how things work?
  • Are its claims verified or supported by independent records?
  • Is it logical and consistent?
  • And how does it compare with other holy books?

I’m not convinced that a book is a good way to ensure that an essential religious message travels unaltered over hundreds or thousands of years to reach the maximum number of people. Perhaps holy books are not so much the perfect transmission of the values, will and intent of supernatural, creator entities. Perhaps they are more to do with normal people expressing and recording their (and others’) religious experiences.

Is Atheism a Religion?

the-procession-462670_1920

The question of whether atheism is another kind of religion seems to pop up with surprising regularity. I’d like to spend a few moments sharing my understanding of what atheism is (and isn’t) along with some ideas about where points of confusion may arise.

I find it useful to think about atheism in relation to other *theisms. There are a lot and I won’t include them all but … there’s theism, which is the belief in one or more gods who are usually creators that get involved in human affairs. There’s monotheism, which is a belief in one god. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are examples of monotheistic religions, although some might debate Christianity on the grounds of the Trinity. Polytheism is the belief in more than one god, as in Hinduism or the ancient Greek pantheon (Zeus, Poseidon, etc.). Anti theism is an opposition to a belief in any gods. Pantheism is the belief that “god” is essentially another word for describing nature or the universe. Atheism describes an absence of belief in any gods.

None of the *theisms are in themselves religions but instead describe a position on a belief in god or gods. However, religions may have a stance on the existence of gods. For example, all Muslims are monotheistic (as far as I’m aware) but not all monotheists are Muslims. So it follows that atheism, as an absence of a belief in gods, is not a religion, but a religion could be atheistic. All we can say about monotheists for sure is that they believe in one god, although not necessarily the same one. Similarly, all we may say about atheists for sure is that they have no beliefs in any gods. Why one person is an atheist might be completely different from why another is. Atheists, like monotheists, polytheists etc. don’t necessarily believe the same things or base their beliefs on sound reasoning.

So why is atheism sometimes spoken about as though it’s a religion? I think confusion about definitions of atheism can explain this to an extent but I also think that many atheists draw on science, reason and logic when discussing religion, which some people may see as a system of belief that is analogous to religion. It could be that the repeated pairing of the word “atheist” with “science” facilitates this misconception. Science is of course no more a religion than atheism but like religion, science is in the business of saying things about existence. A core difference between science and religion is the means by which we get there. Religions, particularly those based on holy books, make claims about existence from a position of assumed authority. Things are true because an authority says so. Believers may be promised rewards and non-believers might be threatened with punishment. It is a way of looking at the world based on subservience and faith. Scientists make claims about existence from a position of questioning. They observe, hypothesise, test, and theorise as part of an ongoing “chipping away” at the truth. There is no reward or punishment for believing but there is the utility of discoveries. It is a way of looking at the world based on scepticism and evidence. Another important distinction is that when scientists make new discoveries and new evidence arises, scientific claims are amended and improved, whereas many religions aren’t (easily) able to change in response to new discoveries. Good examples are geology, the fossil record and evolution, which for many casts doubt on creationist explanations of human origins (sometimes called intelligent design).

In my first post I talked a little about how I stopped believing in god. My reasons for not believing were not terribly scientific but were sort of empirical. I had prayed many times in my life but had never observed a response. Nor had I seen or heard anything that could be called evidence for the existence of a god. This was enough to spark a wider interest in religion and to cause me to critically engage with some of the claims made by religions. I share the view that there is no reason to believe something without compelling evidence. This is why I identify as an atheist. However, I don’t think you need to be an atheist to question religious claims to knowledge. In fact many religious people, to their credit, are critical for example of the sexism and homophobia they observe in holy books and daily life.

Goodness and Religion

life-guard-351484_1920

A few weeks ago a friend was talking to me about leaving her religion. She said she’d spoken with her family and they’d asked her how she thought she could still be a good person without her faith. They’d said that morality came from her religion and that she couldn’t pick and choose the bits she liked. I’m not convinced at any religion can really be considered the de facto source of morality  but I think there are many examples of religious teachings that try to define what is right and wrong. Some of these teachings tap into moral properties that are common to all people. Other teachings may have more to do with the values held by specific groups.

There are a range of behavioural predispositions we could call good or bad that are part of our biology rather than learnt. These have to do with social behaviours and are instrumental in persisting the human species. Where people differ from other animals is that we also have culture. Good and bad behaviours depend to some extent on the context and who is judging the behaviour. Even if a person wanted to do only good there will be someone, somewhere who considers their behaviour bad. We all know for example that breaking into a person’s house is bad. We also all know that breaking into your elderly neighbour’s house to help them because they have fallen is good. So if a person can’t literally be all good or bad, why do we talk about “good” and “bad” people? I think it is likely we have these categories as a way of summarising complex observations, thoughts and feelings about people into a simple shorthand to guide our behaviour and to help us communicate our views to others.

We tend to label people as good or bad depending on what we think of their actions, behaviour and intentions. I might call someone a good person because I know that they volunteer at a homeless shelter. Here I’d be focusing on a specific behaviour over time and assuming that they intend to make others’ lives better. If I see on the news that someone has committed a murder I might describe the perpetrator of that crime as a bad person because of the intellectual and emotional weight of that one action. Someone might view themselves as a bad person because they have been repeatedly told it or taught that there’s something wrong with them. Conversely, a person might believe wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their evil actions. Their intent is good but based on faulty reasoning, misunderstanding or illness. The question of who gets to say what is good and bad is an important one.

So where does religion fit into all of this? Broadly speaking religion can contribute to our values and offer some guidance about how to order our lives. Of course there are many religions, each making mutually exclusive claims about existence. They have some members who behave well and others who misbehave. There do appear to be areas of moral commonality between religions, such as the suggestion that we treat others as we would like to be treated. Since this isn’t the property of any one religion, it supports the idea that our morality is much more than a set of specific religious teachings. Our values change over time and between places, which can cause problems for religions that are not sufficiently dynamic. The Anglican Church for example has encountered considerable difficulty in modernising its stance on sexuality. It’s an interesting issue since it seems to have a lot to do with the role of culture and politics in the interpretation of scripture. This is a problem not just because of the effect it has on how people treat each other, but also for the institutions since people will increasingly ask “what relevance does a religion have if it’s at odds with the values of the society it exists in?”

My view is that religion can influence morals but the final word on morality doesn’t belong to religion. Our values change over time and hopefully for the better. Goodness finds expression in the actions of the religious and non-religious alike. It might be true that my friend was raised in a religious environment and learnt something about goodness from that experience. I don’t think that means you have to take the bad with the good. She had the courage to question some of teachings she felt uncomfortable with and I’d say that’s the hallmark of a good person.

How I Stopped Believing in God

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.