Another guest post in the series kicked off by my why I’m an atheist post. Matt Bolton and Conor Murphy’s posts can be found here and here. Thanks to everyone who keeps reading responding these posts, the feedback has been brilliant for me and the guest bloggers. If you are interested in having your story appear here then drop me a line.
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I suppose, if I were to list them, there would be many separate and distinct reasons why I do not believe in the existence of any deities. These would include lack of any evidence, moral and ethical reasons, and the fact that I have never felt within myself, either emotionally or reasonably, the presence of any supernatural beings, either conforming to the rules of a specific doctrine or to my own specification – a ‘personal god’, if you like. I also think the means by which many Irish people come to be atheists is through a rejection of the obvious fallacies imposed upon them by the Catholic Church during childhood. In answering the question ‘why I am an atheist’, it is through these two points – the lack of connection with the supernatural and the rejection of the church, that I find perhaps the most important personal reason arises.
Like most Irish people, my formal education began with the local Catholic national school (hardly surprising given the fact the Catholic Church still owns in excess of 90% of our primary schools). I was exposed, quite strongly, to religion at home before this, but indoctrination began in earnest once I entered the school system. Daily praying was commonplace, and religious instruction was friendly and subtle – children’s books depicting kindly drawings of the good deeds of gentle Jesus (meek and mild) are a lasting memory. As a small child I was slowly drawn in, nothing in any of this was threatening or even terribly confusing; ‘a friendly looking bearded man loves me’ I thought. Seemed simple to present it in such terms in the early 1980’s, sentences like that are now rigorously queried by parents if reported from their child, I dare say.
I’m afraid that I have no memory, being just a few days old, of agreeing to the acceptance of my first sacrament, baptism, whereby I was formally admitted into the church. However I do recall preparation for my second, namely Confession. Through this, I was informed, all of my wrongdoing could be absolved by simply admitting those childish errors to an elderly man (thankfully, for the first confession, not seated in a creepy confessional), who would then hand out a modest punishment. As a seven year old, my militant tendencies were barely evolved and reserved only for parental lobbying for toys and sweets and so I did not protest the acceptance of this sacrament, especially as I would have been the only child amongst my peers to have done so. I do recall however, querying the whole process. Were my sins really so bad (didn’t do the washing up and called my sister a bad name, being two that I recall) to warrant me having to pick up the direct line to god to ask for forgiveness? Couldn’t god just forgive me anyway, once I’d realised my errant path, without the need of confessing my childish crimes to a stranger? How do I not use this ‘get out of jail card’ to never wash another dish whilst directing a tirade of expletives towards my siblings? I did not ask any of these questions, as the whole process seemed so normal in my surroundings, but I did worry that I was not understanding this ritual fully – why was I not understanding this? Am I stupid? Does this make me a bad Catholic in god’s eyes?
Hot on the heels of the sacrament of confession, came my third, and most consumable sacrament – that of holy communion. Still digesting the ‘child sin hotline’ as revealed to me through confession, further startling revelations about what was on offer were about to become clear. Apparently, it was now possible to say a spell over some bread and wine, which would literally transform (emphasising ‘literally’, not ‘symbolically’, no wishy-washy Protestantism here) these foodstuffs into the flesh and blood of my now edible hero, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ indeed! I was now invited, in the strongest possible sense of the word, to partake in a ritualistic cannibalism of the son of the god I was explicitly told not to offend in the first place. Nervous times. The reason behind why it was felt we should all eat this converted flesh was never really explained to my satisfaction, and indeed to this day I am still at a loss to understand. However, as before, I went along with the wave of enthusiasm, and received my first piece of the lord from the hand of no less than the bishop of the diocese, a minor celebrity in our naïve world. I went on to eat more than a body weight in small pieces of my saviour over the coming years, but the lingering pang of doubt remained with me throughout, as I felt I simply did not understand what this process actually meant. Thoughts of my lack of comprehension plagued me, and I began to feel like an unworthy recipient.
More than four years passed, and I continued as a practicing child catholic, trying desperately to feel the presence of our lord in my daily life, and kidding myself into thinking my prayers made some sort of difference when in my heart I knew they did not, all the time feeling that there was something wrong with me for not understanding my church. It was now time for my fourth and final sacrament: confirmation. Now, through learning of the history of monarchies, the idea of a man ruling something, and then his son being involved, perhaps as a sort of heir-presumptive, is something I could understand. The world has been good to god with its never ending adulation, and naturally he’d want to involve the kids, even after humanity murdered him and continually feasted on his body. But what in the world is going on with the pet dove? For confirmation, we got familiar with the silent partner in the trinity: the holy spirit, represented by a shiny white bird. I do recall having a sense that the educators and clergy had somewhat given up at this point, and explanation was barely attempted. The ritual itself too was entirely forgettable, but I had a vague notion that I was now a full member of the church, a ‘made man’ if you will, however the feeling that I would be caught out as a pretender at any minute prevailed, and I still felt a devoted but confused conformer to a faith I simply did not understand. My religious faith stayed with me until I finally rejected Catholicism, and soon after the idea of the supernatural, in my late teens.
The late great Christopher Hitchens said that religions arguments were so flimsy that even a child could see through them, and this can be regularly referenced by the direct questions they often ask when religious instruction fails to make sense. You may think that I am including myself proudly amongst such children with the sacramental stories I have told you above, but unfortunately I think of it in opposite terms. When I finally rejected religion and became an atheist, it was such a rush of relief, and I felt that the world was suddenly revealed to me in all its beautiful craziness. I spoke a lot around this time to people my age about their experiences and, whether they were amongst the faithful or not, I got one overwhelming sense of how religion is perceived, in this country at least. Very few people, except the small number of exceptionally devout, really believe any of the bizarre claims outlined by the church such as in this story – and in this I include most clergy and religion teachers. I feel I may have been unusual in my guilt over not understanding the central tenants of the church as revealed to me, but I believe nobody fully understands them, as they are simply nonsensical. The only reason it was so important to me is that I felt I was alone in this lack of comprehension, whereas almost everyone else questions it much less, going along for the ride out of either habit or indifference, or as a child even for the financial perks of taking ones sacraments. I wish then I could have had more of the logical sense afforded to some of my childhood peers, and simply have said to myself ‘right, this makes no sense, but so what, I’ll just get on with my day to day life’
The serious point I would like to make for why I am an atheist is as follows: I think there are few things as depressing as the thought of a normal, intelligent, curious child feeling stupid and doubtful for not understanding a lot of dubious, nonsensical superstition in a surrounding of complete acceptance from the society in which he lives. This neither fosters nor encourages intelligent development, and in the case of the Catholic Church, it is an indoctrination into a sexist, bigoted, homophobic and sexually repressive organisation run by elderly men who are entirely out of touch. As a criticism of ‘new atheism’, I have heard the accusation that atheism is just another ‘religion’ to replace those that are now, thankfully, beginning to drift into irrelevance. But I challenge anyone to describe anything secular today that is even close to the level of indoctrination of children as outlined in this story. I began by saying I am an atheist for many reasons but I think the primary one is this: I am proud not to believe in any god or organisation that takes it upon itself to force children to believe their own views, and I think it is absolutely commonplace amongst non-believers not to practice this notion, no matter how sure they are of their own worldviews. The ideas of free thought, free discovery and finding one’s own path is something held by most non-believers as (if I may borrow the word from the faithful) sacred.
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John Manning was born 1 week after the papal visit to Ireland in 1979, and like three other boys in his class in school was christened ‘John Paul’. Eventually rejecting religion completely in his late teens, John later discovered the writings of Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens, authors who helped give expression to the philosophical and indeed moral arguments against forced religious indoctrination. John lives, works and volunteers in Dublin City.
Harry Guinness is a professional magician based in Dublin, to hire him, or for more information, go to www.HarryTheMagician.ie.
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