I am a seventeen-year-old guy from West Sussex in the UK and I am an atheist not through conversion by any book or any speaker, but through my own reasoning and decision. I’ve experienced things of my own, read and listened to both sides of the argument over religion and really there was only one conclusion I could come to, one that is led by people like Stephen Fry, Ben Goldacre and Richard Dawkins. “Science” appears to be a word stereotyped by those who don’t understand it as some kind of cold machine, something with no ethics and only concerned with human advancement, in much the same way that “Islam” is beginning to become synonymous with “Jihad”, “government” with “conspiracy” and “pharmacutical” with “evil”. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from what I’ve done and what I’ve experienced, it’s that you have to look underneath the common misconceptions of anything you want to find out about and come to a judgement of your own. It is very rarely the idea of a movement such as science or religion that is wrong; it’s just the people who interpret and utilise it in an ill-advised way that cause the problems. There’s no such thing as a car accident without someone driving.
When I was very much younger I lived in Redhill where the local church was very much a part of communal life, not necessarily for the religion but for the socialities and the contacts it gave you: anyone who was involved in the community went to church. This meant that I was taken to Sunday school every Sunday, something which I didn’t question and generally accepted as a weekly task alongside normal school. It was fun; we sang songs and played instruments and coloured pictures, and being at the age of about four or five I naturally assumed that that was what everyone did: believed in Jesus and God and went to church. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it, and there certainly wasn’t: it wasn’t evangelical, it was sociable and interesting and I had fun while I was there.
I never really began to question religion until later on in life when I got into secondary school. I moved to Sussex in ’98 and out family was never religious, strictly speaking. We never really got back to going to local churches and neither of my parents were Christians, nor were they actively against religion; we just lived without it, and it was never really a big part of my life. Politics, however, was slightly more prominent: the nanny who looked after me and my brothers while my parents were at work was the sweetest lady, and she certainly had lots of her priorities right (she didn’t trust state education and made sure that all three of us children were taught to read and write by her as soon as we could talk), but she was never one for supporting the conventional government. If I say she was a Daily Mail reader, that should give people some sort of idea as to what ideas she advocated.
Anyway, around the time I was thirteen I was taken in (there’s no better word for it) by the ideals of the UK Independence Party, made known to me by this nanny: the EU was a bad organisation who wanted to change England for the worse and intrude upon our lives. Being easily fired up (as I sometimes can be) I remember trying to “spread the word” of what I thought was an important issue, not really listening to anything anyone else told me to the contrary. After a series of what I now regard as slightly embarrasing situations the real picture was explained to me: UKIP were very right-wing and perilously close to the fascism of the BNP, which even I recognised as being wrong. There were other parties, both right- and left-wing, and people like the LibDems in the middle. No-one was definitively right, no-one had all the answers and conspiracy theories were almost always founded on sensationalised speculation and not real evidence. I learned from that experience: even I, when I had been utterly convinced that I was doing the right thing and promoting the truth, had been so wrong that I couldn’t even comprehend that what I was saying might be complete rubbish.
This was the first piece of knowledge I began to apply to religion, something I had learned before I had even taken an interest in the subject: weren’t all these people preaching that “God is the true path” and that “Jesus will save you” just the same as I had been? How did I know that what they were saying was right? There wasn’t any particular evidence for what they were saying, and I knew all too personally how incredibly easy it was to be pulled into something that appeared to make sense to you. Religion, as science, I began to have a genuine interest in and I opted to take Religious Studies as a GCSE in order to understand more about what might make these people believe what they did.
At the same time, I was enchanted by the clear, logical path of science: for example, you weren’t able to see around corners, therefore light must travel in straight lines. There was no other explanation that made sense, and science made its discoveries by looking at what any normal person could observe from the world. If a scientist proved something, anyone else could follow the same path that they did, get exactly the same outcome and come to exactly the same conclusion, no matter how many times the process was repeated. Of course, there were some things that science couldn’t definitively prove but, looking at the evidence available and through reasoning, likely conclusions could be reached. I found it a much better way to discover what the world was about than what someone had once written in a book two thousand years ago.
What really confirmed my current beliefs – and I hope it’s acceptable to advocate another scientist’s admittedly excellent book here – was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. For instance, just a few weeks before reading the book I had done an eletrolysis experiment in science of saltwater: chlorine is produced at the anode and sodium at the cathode. If you use copper electrodes, some of the copper can come off into the water and turn it cloudy. All standard stuff that I had witnessed with my own eyes. However, from the first chapter of that book I learned that “detox footbaths” worked by electrolysis, that a chlorine smell was given off and that the water turned cloudy. The “health professionals” were saying that the chlorine smell was “the chlorine coming out of your body from all the swimming pools you’ve ever swum in”, and the brown murky water was caused by “toxins” being exuded from your feet. As Goldacre rightly said, and as I was able to rightly confirm through first-hand evidence, neither of those two statements were true. If you put a Barbie doll in the water the same thing would happen; there are no toxins in Barbie and I’m pretty sure she’s never been swimming.
I read through the book and more and more of what I read seemed to be confirmed by basic science that I had seen myself, at a secondary school level. However, I was still sceptical for the reason that I knew how easily I was able to be drawn into things like these. A few conversations on the topic with people I greatly admired (my secondary German teacher, a very sensible woman, being one of them), coupled with the compelling scientific evidence I could see with my own eyes, allowed me to believe what was being said: really, you can only make concrete judgements on things that have been proven through logic and reason.
However, through my Religious Studies education, and through another great teacher, I was able to learn about why phenomena such as religion came about: the very consistent theme throughout all the religious principles was the human search for meaning. People throughout the history of time had been looking for answers, and without science to turn to the only other option was God. I came to accept and embrace that religion itself was not a bad thing: there were many, many people in the world who used it as a daily source of guidance and that was a good thing. It wasn’t something to judge people on and as long as it kept them and others happy there was no harm in it.
Hence, while I may not agree with some of the modern methods of generalising and making blanket statements against religion, if you’re looking for how the world works I could not offer a better explanation than science. It’s not a machine, it doesn’t ignore ethics, it’s not cruel and doggedly focused on its research and outcome regardless of the wellbeing of others; those are simply people mis-using scientific principles for their own gain. If you’re looking for values to follow, something to compare against in order to life your life as a good person, take the principles of any religion: they all advocate equality, fairness and respect for others. If you’re looking for the “whys” about life, “Why am I here?” and “Why are humans the way they are”, I’m afraid it’s a difficult decision; I’m not one to decide for others, but personally I find the Dawkins argument of “There is no specific purpose, only random chance; make what you want to of your life” much more realistic and compelling than “God wants you to be like this, conform to this way of life.” But again, it’s your decision.
I’m an atheist through science that I understand. Sensible people of reason like Dawkins and Goldacre have persuaded me to look for myself at what I can observe about the world, and this is what I’ve found. I’d highly recommend you try it too.