Until 2003 I was a devout Christian. And I mean devout. I believed absolutely, and my faith was central to my life at that time. Various clergy thought I had a calling to “the ministry”; one even suggested I might have a vocation to be a nun. Now I am an atheist: the kind of atheist who is predictably referred to by religious apologists as “outspoken” or “militant.”
So what happened? What happened was four little words: “How do I know?”
One of the things that had struck me during my Christian years was just how many different Christianities there are. Not just the vast number of different sects and denominations (over 38,000 by one reckoning), but the huge amount of difference between individual Christians of the same sect or denomination, too. The beliefs and attitudes of an evangelical, biblical, literalist Christian compared with a liberal Christian are so wildly different that we might almost be dealing with two completely different religions –as I discovered from personal experience when moving from a liberal church in the south of England to the Presbyterian depths of the Scottish Highlands back in 2000.
Like every other Christian I have ever known, I had clear ideas about the kind of God I believed in and, on the basis of those ideas, I accepted certain bits of Christian dogma while utterly rejecting others. Again, let me stress: this is par for the course. In practice faith is always a pick-and-mix affair: believers emphasise those bits that sit comfortably with them, whilst mostly ignoring those bits that do not, or concocting elaborate interpretations to allow them to pretend they do not mean what they actually say. So this was the question I faced up to in 2003: What was there to suggest that the version of Christianity I believed in was actually real? Was there any better evidence for the version I accepted than there was for the versions I did not?
The Bible could not help me. Both kinds of Christian –the ultra-conservative and the ultra-liberal –find abundant support for their views in the Bible provided they cherry-pick enough (and, of course, they do just that, filing the bits that don’t suit their case under the convenient headings of “Metaphor” or “Mystery”). Tradition was not reliable, either: a false belief does not become true simply through having been held through many generations.
So what else was there? A Roman Catholic I was debating with once argued: “To those who say there is no proof, there is the question of the numinous. I know there is a God, I have a relationship with him and spend time in meditative prayer on a daily basis.” Perhaps that’s where the answer lay? Well, of course, I thought I had a personal relationship with God, too. I, too, spent time with him in meditative prayer every day. And as a result, I not only “knew” there was a god; I “knew” what that god was like. I didn’t believe –I really thought I knew.
Just about all the Christians I came into contact with “knew” there was a god, too. They, too, spent time in meditative prayer with him on a daily basis. And as a result, they, too, “knew” what God was like. So what did that knowledge tell us about him? How reliable were these personal relationships when it came to establishing the truth about God?
Some of us, on the basis of our relationship with God, knew him to be loving, compassionate, generous, always reaching out to us, pitying our mistakes rather than condemning them. Others, on the basis of their relationship with God, knew him to be angry, jealous, punitive.
Some of us knew that God had more important things to worry about than our sex lives; others knew that human sexual impurity was deeply offensive to him.
Some of us knew that God wanted us to respond to other people’s shortcomings with tolerance and forbearance and humility; others knew that he wanted sin to be made an example of, to be held up and publicly rebuked.
Some of us knew that God was offended by conspicuous consumption when so many people had nothing; others knew that God showered wealth along with other good things on those of whom he approved.
Some of us knew that God saw all religions as different expressions of people’s yearning for him; others knew that traditional, orthodox Christianity was the only route to him.
Some of us knew that the devil was just a myth to explain the existence of evil; others knew that the devil was very real and a genuine threat to our souls.
Some of us knew that there was no way God could ever allow such a thing as hell; others knew that hell was very much a part of God’s ordained order.
We all knew we were right, and we all based that knowledge on the personal relationship we had with him. How could any of us possibly be wrong?
What was striking about these observations was that those of us whose personalities led us to embrace the world and other people in a spirit of openness, generosity, warmth and tolerance “knew” that God did the same. And those who lacked the confidence for that, and consequently saw the world as threatening and evil and bad, “knew” that God saw it that way, too.
This is why subjective experience cannot tell us anything about God. Knowing what kind of god someone believes in tells us a great deal about that person –but nothing whatsoever about the truth or otherwise of the existence of any god at all.
And this brings us to something very important about atheism. Atheism is not in itself a belief. Few atheists would be so bold as to declare the existence of any god at all utterly impossible. Atheism is, quite simply, the position that it is absurd to believe in, much less worship, a deity for which no valid evidence has been presented. Atheism is not a faith: on the contrary, it is the refusal to accept claims on faith.
Atheists recognise that we need evidence in order to come to reliable conclusions about reality and that, so far, those who claim there is a god have signally failed to provide it. And atheists care about reality: not what it might be comforting to believe, or what has traditionally been believed, or what we have been instructed to believe. And this focus on reality, far from diminishing our experience of life, as so many religious people imagine, actually makes our lives all the richer: once you have faced up to the reality that there is no evidence to suggest there is another life after this one, it becomes all the more important to live this finite life to the full, learning and growing, and caring for others, because this is their only life, too, and there is no reason to believe there will be heavenly compensation for their earthly sufferings.
An atheist life, well lived, leads to the only kind of afterlife there is any evidence for whatsoever: the immortality of living on in the fond memories of those who loved us.
Paula Kirby is a writer based in Scotland. This is the first of a two-part article for The Hibernia Times on atheism.