I would like to thank you for helping me to feel confident in my own scepticism. My story is below, and writing it was quite a release.
I was baptised as an infant, and was expected to become confirmed in the Church of England as an adult. As a child, I often asked my father if God existed, and why he believed so. He always replied that if billions of people through the years thought so, there must be some truth to it. I always had a lingering worry that taking somebody else’s word for it was sidestepping the question, but the weight of those “billions” told on me when I was, after all, young and ignorant. My schools all held prayers and hymns at morning assembly, taught God and Christianity as truth, and as everything else they ever taught me was right, I felt I had no choice but to believe the whole package.
When I was sixteen my grandmother asked me, in retrospect rather publically and aggressively, when (not if) I was going to get confirmed. I realized that I was soon going to have to make a difficult choice, because, as I replied to my grandmother at the time, I wasn’t sure that I was a true believer. “What are you going to do then”, she replied: “Be a Hippy?” I had no answer. I had no concept of atheism, or humanism, or of the possibility of a moral life without God. Those concepts were never discussed or taught. I was alone in the wilderness. My mother, however, was some comfort. Well informed in history, she was aware of the doubtful credibility of much of the Bible, and advised me to take my own spin on “God” and on the veracity of the Christian teachings: she advised me to cross my fingers behind my back if I was forced to state in church something I disagreed with. Remarkably, this is something that the majority of Christians I know still do at one time or another.
I looked forward eagerly to “confirmation classes”, obligatory for people about to get confirmed, because I felt it was an opportunity to ask the big questions of someone who really knew. My scepticism remained undiminished, and my need for answers unsatisfied, throughout most of the classes, until at the end I felt that I had to ask. “I don’t have a problem with the existence of Jesus”, I told the teacher, “but I have a much bigger problem with the existence of God. What’s the evidence?” I asked.
“I think you’ll find that it is impossible to explain Jesus without God”, was the reply. That was it. I was terribly disappointed. I just couldn’t understand why billions of people over thousands of years would sign up to a set of beliefs on arguments like that. To be honest I felt betrayed. Worse, I had no way out if I was to be accepted by my family and society. I took my vows and was Confirmed. At the time the only way I could say those vows was by remembering my mother’s guidance and allowing myself the freedom of a liberal interpretation over the words. I almost forced myself to believe them for just a few hours. But it still felt wrong.
Once that was over then life became a lot easier. I got no trouble with relatives, and liberal personal interpretation kept me going, plus thanks to conservative British society I was never called on to declare what I really felt in public, nor to defend the vows I had taken.
Two troubles remained, for which I knew no answer outside of religion. The first was in morality. It’s easy to follow a given moral code when it’s listed in a book and there is no possibility of change. But where do you go if you have no holy book? The second trouble was one of praise and thanksgiving. In my life I have often experienced wonder. It happens all the time. I like natural history and astronomy, and I have a wife and children. Those things give me constant feelings of wonder, and a feeling of being blessed. I still have a frequent need to say thank you to someone for those things. Without religion there would be no one to thank.
In 2007 I read the God Delusion. It was everything I had hoped for from my religious teachings, and that they had failed to provide. It was, at the time, the only book about religion that had ever made sense to me. I am ever so glad you wrote it, but I so wish you, or someone, had written it twenty years earlier. After the God Delusion was published, so many other people I knew started admitting that they also didn’t really believe their religious education. It actually became acceptable, and respectable, to admit that you were atheist, and to talk about why not. It was as if the blindfolds had come off, and all the falsehood was suddenly revealed for what it was.
Where do I get my morality from now? From my whole upbringing of course, largely Christian. I like to think I have a good sense of right and wrong, and I don’t worry about where my own children will get it from without a holy book, because they get it from me and I see it on them. In short, I just don’t worry about that any more. Instead of praising God for the wonders I experience, I share them with others. I teach, and I have a blog with my nature and astronomy observations (http://bishnature.wordpress.com/). Those are pretty good outlets for a Universe crammed with surprises. It does mean that I say “Wow” a lot, but I’m OK with that. I worry that the institutions that led me to spend most of my life in darkness are still at play; for example my children go to a C of E school and are taught Christian teachings as fact. And I worry that the fact of evolution by natural selection is deliberately withheld and distorted from millions of people.
Thanks again, and please keep up the good work. Oh, and by the way, I’ve written an evolution book too. (http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198525288.do)
Peter Mayhew (York, UK)