Atheist Ireland asked the members of their email list why they are an atheist so I thought I’d post a quick response here.
I wasn’t always an atheist but nor did I have a strictly traditional Catholic upbringing. While my mum and her side of the family are reasonably good Irish Catholics, my dad’s side is nominally Protestant; although realistically atheist. Even when going to mass as a child, it wasn’t exactly your standard Catholic mass. I grew up in the 1990′s when the sex scandals in the Catholic Church were breaking and respect for the Church was waning. Also, I went to a non-denominational school so I was not exposed to early indoctrination there.
From an early age my dad made it perfectly clear that he considered god to be in the same group as Thomas the Tank Engine and Winnie the Pooh. If we asked what he thought happened after you died his answer was that you rot in the ground – he also referred to graveyards as “bone orchards”. In hindsight, I’d say this absolutely infuriated my mother who was as determinately religious as my father wasn’t. I don’t think the idea that me and my siblings would be brought up Catholic was ever contested; as seems typical in atheist-religious couples, the religious parent is far more adamant that the children are religious than the atheist parent is that they aren’t. While I may be misinterpreting memories, I have a sense that my dad was content to let us all make up our own minds when it came down to it. Because of this I was baptised, communioned, and confirmed – ironically taking my dad’s name, Ian, as my confirmation name.
The first house I lived in as a child was a five minute walk from a convent. The nuns were genuinely lovely, though exceptionally odd. My mum went to mass most Sundays and took me and later my siblings with her. My dad, obviously, didn’t. The few times that he was dragged to mass for Christmas and the like he engaged in a fantastic form of non-violent protest: he became the best mass attendee you could wish for. He would sing (read as shout) every hymn out as loud as he could, and if there were extra verses that the priest was going to skip, he’d sing them too. The mass in the convent was small, with only thirty or so people in attendance. One singer who’s as incompetent as they are seemingly eager goes a long long way towards bringing the air of quiet dignity crashing down. I think this pretty much ensured my father was entirely unwelcome at mass.
I grew up in the 1990′s. By the time I was cognizant, the early reports of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church were beginning to come out. I may be wrong in my opinions on this, but I think that the media were a lot more critical of the Church in the 90′s than than they had been before with this resulting in a general culture that was a lot less respectful of it. Growing up when peoples respect for the Church was fading meant I never got the full “respect the church at all costs” talks. Anecdotally, my age group seems to be the least religious. Of my 20 or so closest friends, a full third would identify as atheist and most of the rest not really give religion much thought. Only two would be practicing Catholics. Certainly, I do not see any future children of many of my friends being raised at all religiously.
The final factor that set the stage for me to become an atheist was the school I went to: Sutton Park School, a non-denominational school in Dublin. In the primary school there were no religion classes. People taking their communion had to stay back for an hour after school one day a week, although this was most of the class. Religion was not a feature of any of the other classes. There were no weekly prayers. There was the occasional hippyesque stand in a circle, hold hands and close your eyes moment of silence, particularly with one principal when I was in secondary school there. It was only much later that I found out that this lack of religion in school was completely atypical. My early time at Sutton Park was very important in me becoming an atheist as I was not exposed to the indoctrination that so many other children were.
I fully became an atheist in my early teens although the process happened over a few years before that. As soon as I was old enough that getting up early at the weekend was my idea of hell, I took every step I could to avoid going to mass. The few times I actually failed to worm my way out of going to mass, I actually read the pamphlet and listened to what I was saying. When I looked at what I’d been mindlessly chanting since I was too young to understand the words properly I realised that I didn’t agree with anything that was being said. In particular, the Proclamation of Faith creeped me the hell out. Seeing thirty or forty people brainlessly parroting each other is a genuinely scary experience when you are beginning to question the beliefs of the group. I totally stopped going to mass and despite this realisation, I didn’t identify as an atheist immediately. It took another few years as a lapsed Catholic where I didn’t even think about it at all. At some point I read something that challenged anyone who was religious to read Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion with an open mind. I took the challenge starting out as nominally religious and finishing the book a self-proclaimed Atheist.
On reflection, I was always atheistic. My church experience was so different from the traditional Catholic mass – I was exposed to lovely, slightly batty old ladies rather than a stern priest and so I never developed into a traditional Catholic with a fear of god and a guilt complex. The media’s growing criticism of the Church and the culture that came with it as well as being in a non-denominational school went a long way towards stopping a lot of the early indoctrination. Growing up in Dublin, which is far more secular than a lot of Ireland, while the Church’s sex scandals were coming to light contributed yet more. Finally, having one parent who was utterly dismissive of the concept of god and never hid that from me meant that I was predisposed to question religion.
As things stand now, myself and my brother are unrepentant atheists, one sister is religious and the other is likely to follow my brothers and my footsteps. After I became an atheist I certainly tried to help my siblings along the same path; I left the God Delusion outside my brothers door until he read it and got my sister a copy of The Origin of the Species for her confirmation!
If anyone has any comments please leave them below. Also, if anyone wants to write a guest post on this subject I am open to suggestions; email me.
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