Losing My Religion (How I became an atheist in 3 unholy chapters) Chapter 2

Posted on October 31, 2009


I have no problem with Nativity plays. They are nice little pieces of warm fuzzy tradition and they teach teamwork, the art of line learning, speaking in public and all sorts of other skills. And the Birth Narrative of the Synoptic Gospels (minus Mark) is a great little story. It has plenty of characters, it has the fairy tale-like repetition of threes. It’s great. But I would equally have no problem with kids acting out pleasant Koranic stories about Eid or any other festival of light. Virtually every tradition in the world has come up with a celebration when the season is at its darkest, that celebrates light and hope and family and togetherness. All of those are things I like. But the point is I don’t claim any single one is better than another, much less that one is “right” and another is “wrong”. I would be more than happy if children acted out Aesop’s fables for their parents. They too teach humility, wisdom, friendship, modesty, compassion and many other lovely traits we would wish in our youth. Alongside its more bloody thirsty and morally dubious proclamations, the Bible does have some valuable advice and beautiful passages. It would be a great shame to throw it all out. Yes, it says in Exodus 21:7 that it’s okay to sell your daughter into slavery. Yes, in Corinthians11: 19-24 it says you shouldn’t so much as “touch” a woman on her period because of her “impurity”. And yes, Exodus 35:2 says anyone working on the Sabbath should be put to death. Along with the more mad laws like tying tassels to the corners of your clothes, paying a 12 stringed harp and sounding a horn at the beginning of every month, but it also says we should turn the other cheek and do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves. These phrases have entered the lexicon. They are simple idioms that are part of our lives. The Pythons famously said they made Brian their protagonist in The Life of Brian rather than Jesus himself because the things Jesus said were pretty fine and hard to take the piss out of. I can completely concur. There’s some very good stuff in there.

I was Baptised and went to Sunday School as a matter of course really. If my parents had their time over again, I don’t think they’d have bothered. Sunday School is a bizarre institution. Looking back on it, I don’t think anyone there was a Christian. Not really. There was a tuck shop. And games. And a sing song involving only vaguely religious tunes. During the fair few years I attended Sunday School my most abiding memory of the whole thing is the day we make disciples out of peppermint and I ate so much peppermint I made myself sick. I don’t think I learned the true meaning of the gospels. But before any fun could be had, there was the business of church. Some bits were okay; I remember enjoying Christingle You were given an orange with a candle on top and cocktail sticks stuck in the sides with currants and sultanas skewered onto them. All of this represented….er….Well, it looked pretty, and smelled nice and we got to hold candles which was exciting. But that was the exception. Mostly, I just remember church being BOOORING. I’m sure this is unfair. Maybe we had a particularly boring vicar. Maybe there are some superb preachers out there that are inspirational and exciting. But to my mind, preachers fall into two categories. The dreary and boring type mumbling in dusty buildings- and then the creepy charismatic type shouting into microphones and holding vulnerable people in their sway, slowly relieving them of their hard earned money for the “good of the church” Before you complain, I am aware this is hugely unfair and unrepresentative but it’s what I can’t seem to help myself from feeling. No matter how hard I try. Anyway, back to the story. Our boring church. Christ Church, Quinton in case you’re interested. From about 1986 to 1992-? Every week we were given these little purple books with condescending children’s versions of the Bible parables. (I remember finding them patronising even then.) And here’s the thing. We would read the same book every week. There was never any variation. Speaking as someone who was devouring one or two lovely secular books a week by this time, the Bible was severely lacking. Yes, Jesus was all nice and lovely and said we should all be kind to one another and all that. But why was there not a little purple book detailing some of the juicier sections of Leviticus in patronising detail? Or, if you want to play the “well that was the Old Testament; Jesus ushered in the New Testament” card, what about Revelation? Why are there no books for kids about all that Rapture stuff? The end times. Why are you sanitising t? Are you worried it might put people off?

I went to a friend’s wedding a few years ago. I knew both the bride and groom. And I knew for a fact that neither of them were Christians. Not in any real sense. They’d been living together for years so presumably they were picking around all those “fornication” passages of the Bible. That’s if they ever read it. Yet it was a Catholic wedding. Because it’s tradition. They and everyone else had to mumble these awful phrases, hoping they bring their children up “in fear of the lord” What? I don’t wish that. I don’t wish fear on anyone. What an awful thing to wish. I don’t want their kids to be brought up in fear. I want their kids to be brought up with love and happiness and joy and intelligence and freedom. Fear? What a peculiar thing for the Church to pick out. Above anything else. I didn’t say it. I just opted for a dignified silence.

Anyhow, I remember getting through those interminable services by thinking of the tuck shop and switching off my mind. When I hit 11 or 12 (I forget which), I was taken, along with a number of other kids of a similar age, round to the vicar’s house after the service. None of us were happy. We wanted to get to the games and the sweets. We were ushered into his neat and modest lounge. He smiled at us (he was a perfectly nice fellow, just, you know, not very…interesting) and told us that now we were getting older, the fun had to stop and the hard work had to begin. It was time to concentrate on our religion and our belief. Now was the time to get serious. I never went back. The day I’m serious is the day they carry me off in a wooden box and if I still have my marbles I intend to record some tasteless jokes to be played at my funeral. That’s how dedicated to silliness I am. The following week I remember watching Rolf’s Cartoon Club (a superb programme) and my mom calling for me to drive up to Sunday School. It had always been a difficult choice but I in the past I had figured there were sweets and we could run around shouting for an hour so I opted to get myself in the car and go. But this week the words of the vicar were ringing in my ears and I very reluctantly trudged down the stairs. My mom instantly knew there was something wrong and I explained. She asked whether I still wanted to go. It was like Sodom and Gomorrah in the hallway of that little suburban semi. I went back to Rolf. I never went to Sunday school again. Not even for Christingle. Not even for Easter when you were given chocolate and a cross made out of that palm stuff. There are more exciting, worthwhile and, importantly, more edifying things to do with your time.