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Pushing away the poison chalice; how losing my faith helped me find much more

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By John Williams (UK, Graduate of Law at Birmingham University)

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”
– Karl Marx

I cannot remember becoming a Christian.

I, like most who have followed a faith, was raised religious from birth. I have fond memories of attending church groups from the age of three or four, and I easily recall my confirmation ceremony – the prestigious event where you are called to receive Holy Communion (bread and wine for the godforsaken amongst you) – and the slightly tedious hours of bible study that pre-empted it. But, as far as I am aware, there was never a defining moment that signalled God entering my life. I harboured a sense of jealousy towards people who had recently ‘found’ Jesus, those whose lives had been invigorated by their new faith (although I did experience a similar ‘red-pill’ feeling on becoming a vegan – an innate desire to join a cult perhaps?) But I never begrudged my mother for raising my siblings and me as lightly-practising Christians from day one. What I may have lost in not having the ‘eureka’ moment experienced by the born-again crowd was compensated for by having known the truth for longer.

I cannot remember becoming a Christian because, for all intents and purposes, I never did become one; I simply was. Faith was an intensely real part of my experience, a truth that was simply not worth questioning. Grass was green, water felt wet, and the Lord sent his only son to Earth as an act of love. I didn’t have to consciously accept Jesus into my heart; he always had been there, from the moment I took my first breath. This is how essential Christianity was to my being.

It has now been five years since I could call myself a person of faith, and I am relieved to say that I can look back with a sense of nostalgia. I am thoroughly glad that I am now an atheist – not a four-letter word in my book – and that I have no deep-lying mental scars that I am aware of. This is because, despite the fond memories (and there are plenty), I now view my former faith as a restrictive influence, shackles that I have since broken free from. In this piece I will detail the subtle harms of religion, the negative implications that affect many believers, and also attempt to convey why leaving my faith behind, despite early misgivings, was one of the best things to have ever happened to me.

So how does religion harm us?

Religion creates deep divisions between human beings. While it is often erroneously stated that religion causes a lot of wars (a recent study found that just 7% of wars had religion as a causal factor) a great many conflicts are complicated, prolonged, or in short worsened by religious differences between the protagonists. One could look to Iraq, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Palestine and Afghanistan for one of the more obvious examples, although you would also have to include bloodshed inspired by the worship of the head of state, such as in Hirohito’s Japan. Also one cannot neglect violence perpetrated outside of a war setting; acts of terrorism such as 9/11 or 7/7 were not included within the 7% figure.

By far the most troubling thing about religious violence, particular from the perspective of an apologist or reformer, is that the perpetrators often have scripture directly justifying their actions. Furthermore, our attention tends to focus on the violent acts themselves, rather than the motivations behind said acts. Religious doctrines encourage, one could argue require, the notion that the believer – the member of the cult – is one of the special ones, the chosen few, and therefore non-believers (or ‘infidels’) are consequently lesser beings. While few religions condemn non-adherents to an eternity of hellfire like ‘Loving’ Christianity and ‘Peaceful’ Islam, this ‘us and them’ mentality is at the root of so much division between religious groups.

While moderate believers like my former-self would never dream of perpetrating violence, I was instructed to think that that non-adherents – which included most people I knew – were somehow of less value, or at the very least deserving of some sort of divine punishment. Therefore the killing done in the name of religion is a symptom, perhaps an extreme manifestation, of the divisions that religion plants seeds for from the off. If these divisions were to disappear, the judgment, and consequently the violence, would not occur, and we would all be better off as a result.

Religion champions harmful ways of thinking. Faith, broadly defined, is belief without evidence. Therefore religious beliefs, often interchanged with the word ‘faith’, are rarely held to anything resembling an empirical standard, and are instead often based on the anecdotal (“God spoke to me in a dream”) or the emotive (“my faith makes me feel good, and therefore must be true”).

Faith being promoted as a virtue, when it stands as little more than gullibility, is simply ludicrous when taken out of its cultural context. I conducted my whole life based on reason and evidence, with regards to everything from the medicines I took to simple decision making, and yet when confronted with the most important questions of all, I threw my critical faculties out the window. Furthermore, this line of thinking, believing for the sake of believing, stands in direct contradiction with scientific championing of reason and evidence, perhaps the saving grace of humanity. This ‘religion vs science’ stand-off has very real implications; faith-based convictions are often cited to deny evidence-backed theories, such as evolution and climate change, which in turn stifles progress at a time when the modern demands on humanity (overpopulation, pollution and drug-resistant illnesses to name but a few) mean we need progress more than ever.

There were of course times when my faith made me feel better, when my belief in God was a comfort to me, but it came at the cost of the search for truth; I missed out on the “real happiness” about which Marx wrote so eloquently. I now regard the search for truth to be more valuable than false comfort; I wish more others would do the same.

Religion encourages incredible narcissism. Many hold the belief that the supreme ruler of the universe cares about them personally. This notion is most starkly demonstrated when individuals reach some sort of milestone; one would only have to tune in to the Grammy’s or the Super Bowl to see the Lord getting thanked for helping to achieve in a certain field. This belief isn’t constrained to times of happiness and success; religion is often credited with helping people through hard times, with the love of God helping individuals navigate through rocky waters.

While in Christianity this belief is presented as humble and modest (we are loyal subjects, the flock to Jesus’ shepherd) the belief is incredibly self-centred; the creator of the whole universe, of all the billions of galaxies and solar systems and the organisms that inhabit them, thinks about me, he has a plan for me, and he intervenes in my favour in daily life. I cringe when I recall the petty prayers of my past, how I once asked God, rather than help with this immense suffering in the world, to make my podgy eleven year-old self well enough to eat Christmas dinner. You have to question the morals of a deity who helps the British middle-class with their first-world problems and not the child who dies every three seconds due to extreme poverty.

At a time of such great inequality, I seriously doubt that faith-based self-obsession is an asset in the long-run. Even acts of charity, which many say are inspired by their particular faith, are significantly reduced in value when undertaken in pursuit of divine reward. Many religious doctrines encourage this unjustifiable narcissism; some, one could argue, require it.

Religious morals do not respect personal liberty. One of the perceived benefits of religious belief is a strong moral compass; you are given a definite sense of right and wrong. While some of the morals are commonsensical in nature (i.e. the commandment not to murder) and one would hope could be arrived at without divine intervention, a lot of religious teachings instruct us to condemn behaviour which in no way infringes on the lives of others. These behaviours often form part of the human experience; sexuality for example (particularly female) or homosexuality in any form.

The religious revulsion of the right to express oneself carnally continues to negatively shape our attitudes towards sex. This perverted obsession, a cornerstone of so much religious doctrine, manifests itself in hideous actions, such as honour killings, stoning and FGM (not to mention mandatory male circumcision, something I personally think is regarded far too lightly). The illiberal morals preached by the faithful extend beyond the bedroom to include blasphemy (the justification given for the Charlie Hebdo massacre) and various different thought crimes, most notably apostasy (leaving a religion behind).

It is shameful to think that I believed I had the right to demand that two people, no matter how deeply in love, should be prevented from marrying each other because my own religious sensibilities did not approve of same-sex weddings. This form of judgement, the kind that ultimately deprives others the freedom to live life as they please, is a significant barrier to human rights worldwide, and will continue to be an enemy of progress for as long as it is preached with divine authorisation from the pulpit, which for the very least, will be the foreseeable future.

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Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, religion degrades the value of our ‘earthly’ life (a term I reject in its entirety). Many believe in the concept of an afterlife, some further existence after we kick the proverbial bucket. While I used to lean on this belief as a comfort (on the few occasions in my charmed existence that I had to come to terms with death – not my own of course) I have now come to view this notion – that there is a paradise beyond the grave that we should all look forward to – as perhaps the single worst religious belief of all.

Try to look at the situation objectively. Billions of people, including many who wouldn’t even consider themselves religious, spend the duration of their ‘earthly’ life, the one existence that they know they will have, counting on the fact that death will not be the end and the next chapter will be so much better. Our shabby little 70 years on this rock will pale in comparison to the eternal paradise in the ethereal plane, and isn’t it a shame that we have to wait to get the party started? (Note – religious leaders have tended to frown on suicide, so no queue–jumping please). This is of course the belief that motivates sex-deprived young men to blow themselves up in the pursuit of pussy, but beyond pathetic acts of martyrdom, anybody holding beliefs resembling those previously described is detracting from their quality of life in some way. Every action, every emotion, every single moment of bliss or sorrow, is ultimately meaningless in the face of never-ending happiness.

Consider everything you have done, or ever will do, whether it is to laugh or cry, make love or suffer heartbreak, give birth or mourn the passing of others, and then remember that all of these seemingly rich experiences are reduced to wiping your feet on the mat before you walk through the door. Simply put, a life based on these kinds of beliefs, whereby our ‘current’ existence is merely a stop-gap on the path to the eternal, is scarcely worth living; life is not to be fully treasured, death is not be fully mourned. Far from the common notion of religion giving one’s existence meaning, my faith diminished the worth of my life significantly, and I am more than relived that I have now reclaimed this lost value. The appreciation I have for my short time in this universe has increased ten-fold; I would not have found this if I hadn’t left religion behind.

My overarching intention behind this piece was to demonstrate that you do not need to be subjected to extreme doctrine to be harmed by religion. War, terrorism, genital mutilation and human sacrifice are far-too prevalent for a time as ‘advanced’ as ours, but in our comfortable first-world lives, most of us are afforded the luxury of disproving of these horrific acts while being shielded from them. Furthermore, these abhorrent crimes are too-often excused as being aberrations, deviations or perversions of ‘true’ religion; “true [insert ideology] isn’t about that, it’s really about peace and love.” Religious doctrine is too often let off the hook, even when the perpetrators read directly from the text. If we cannot call a spade a spade with respect to the most blatant examples of wrong-doing, what hope do we have in discussing the harm of religion in its more subtle forms? The woman wishing to take off her veil. The teenager struggling with their sexuality. The child scared of hell.

As for my own Christianity, there was a quick and painful divorce. While there had been doubts lingering for years, mostly thanks to scientific enquiry and mockery from my friends (which, if I’m totally honest, I still haven’t wholly forgiven them for), there was a very definite moment when my faith died. One of the few roadblocks on an otherwise smooth journey through childhood saw a young life lost and a member of my immediate family seriously ill. On finding out about the terrible events of that morning, and having been giving the task of informing the parents of one of the people involved, I felt a tremendous sense of helplessness. For the first, and as it turned out last time in my life, I beseeched the heavens with an urgency that had been absent from my previous prayers. Exactly what I said I don’t remember, although it began with “God, if you’re listening…”

Two days later, having seen touching messages about heaven and angelhood on the Facebook wall of the girl who had passed away, I felt comfort in the belief that she was in a better place. However it dawned it on me very quickly that many of these kind words, no matter how well-intentioned, would have been written in the hope that they were true; some of these people, just from my own knowledge about how irreligious my generation is, would not have truly believed that she was in heaven, and, I finally had to admit, that neither did I. My relationship with God had come to an end.

There was a time of uncertainty that followed. Having been teased for being the “choirboy” of the group, I suddenly felt that a part of my identity was gone, and it was never coming back. I also felt as though my change of belief had seriously let my mother down, even though she was unaware of it, and I accompanied her to church more frequently in an attempt to hide my secret. But within a year, I began to feel proud of my change of heart. I came to terms with, and began to speak passionately against, the many harms of religion that I had previously refused to acknowledge, while the supposed benefits of faith – the comfort, the feeling of belonging, the tingling sensation during heartfelt prayers – paled into insignificance compared to the freedom of facing life on its own terms.

It is imperative to state that I absolutely do not regret having been raised Christian. My experience as a person of faith gave me a sense of understanding that the dogmatic, mocking atheists simply do not have; I know what it’s like to be religious, to have a relationship with God that gives your life meaning. My indoctrination in – and now fascination with – religion has given me powerful friendships, even a couple of romantic attachments, that have enriched my life and that I would not do without. However, in light of the immense harm previously mentioned in this article, it would be incredibly narcissistic to shelve more serious concerns in favour of the personal benefits afforded to me.

Closing a debate titled ‘Does a good god exist?’ the late Christopher Hitchens gave an incredibly powerful monologue on the freedom of life without religion. His words, uttered by a mortally-ill man on the precipice of oblivion – a time when he could have been forgiven for hedging his bets – are a beautiful illustration of the value of pursuing knowledge, exercising free thought and appreciating life on its own terms, and I can’t think of a more fitting tribute than finishing this piece by quoting him in full.

“To me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet. That I haven’t understood enough. That I can’t know enough. That I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

[Addressing the audience] I’d urge you to look at those of you who tell you, those people who tell you at your age, that you’re dead until you believe as they do – what a terrible thing to be telling to children – and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift, think of it as a poison chalice, push it aside however tempting it is, take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.”

Having pushed away the poison chalice, I can certainly vouch for his words. Losing my faith has helped me find much more.

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