Is the answer really 42?

Perhaps it’s my stage of life or maybe it’s just that until now I have not been able to have this kind of clarity but over the past year or so I seem to have been thinking a lot more about the spiritual side of things. I was born into a Roman Catholic family and so as part of my upbringing I was taught about God and Jesus (and as a good catholic I was taught to always bow my head in deference when I spoke the name of Jesus), the virgin Mary and of course the devil (although rather curiously details on the devil were pretty vague) and heaven, purgatory and hell. I was brought up to believe that had I not been baptised when I was a baby, I would have gone straight to hell if I had died as an infant or any time afterward (the catholic concept of ‘original sin’). I was told that priests were celibate, women could not be priests, the pope was infallible, Catholicism was the one true original christian religion, contraception was evil and many, many other things which were sins. Like every other child I committed a great deal of these ‘sins’ on a daily basis, and so I lived in genuine fear of God’s wrath. As a result of this fear I prayed every night that I would survive to awaken in the morning – because on balance I rather enjoyed being alive and dying a sinner was terrifying.

I even had a regular regimen of prayers that I would silently say every night – five ‘musts’ that I had to recite each night before sleep, and which I truly felt protected me from death or some other punishment (horrible sickness) for being someone who sinned. You may be smiling at the naivety of a child now, but consider that this very genuine fear was with me well into adulthood – in fact up to and beyond the time when I became a father. I was a child and adult who, despite my fears, found it impossible to accept what I had been told without questioning all of it.

I was morbidly terrified of offending God yet I was unable to ask some serious questions about the preachings of the priests and the devout beliefs of my parents. Of course this is a well-trodden path however everyone’s experience is different. In my case (and now with the benefit of hindsight) I had always doubted that the world was so incredibly absolute as it was being described to me. So many things were so definite and not open to being challenged (it was sinful to do so) however whenever I found the courage to ask pertinent questions, the adults seemed incapable of providing a clear or understandable answer. Their responses to my questions seemed to always drift away into language that seemed designed to confuse – “living in the spirit” for example, meant nothing to me.

As I grew older I drifted away from church worship, and instead of attending every Sunday and on feast days (with special effort throughout lent) I kept my worship increasingly private, with more and more infrequent visits to the house of God. My inner wonderings grew louder and the reasoning of my childhood and youth forced its way to the forefront of my consciousness. One day in the late 1990s and for the first time in a very long time, I took my young son to a morning weekday church service (ostensibly because it was the right thing to do) while my wife stayed at home with our baby daughter (oh and yes both our children had been baptised!). As I sat in that tiny church in a small English town I was suddenly struck by how none of the rituals and beliefs really made any sense to me any more. The umbrella principle which applied to my feelings and which now governs my position was – and is – that religion is entirely a construction of human intellect. I’m not just talking about christianity either – my beliefs apply to theism in general.

The theist/atheist debate is enormous and potentially exhausting, but is in my opinion dominated by one word: evidence. There is quite simply, no evidence for the existence of any supernatural divine creator or other deities.  Now please hear me – I completely understand that followers of all kinds of religions neither require nor seek proof of their god or gods – I do get that and I respect that their position is one of faith. ‘Faith’ is sometimes described as belief without the need for proof, a quality which is usually regarded by the same people who express it as being something aspirational. Again, I understand that a very great number of people feel this way and that’s OK. I understand that many, many people find comfort in the thought that their god is protecting them. That’s great and I am happy for those who find their lives fulfilled by their faith and their perceived blessings. It just doesn’t make intellectual sense to me.

The simple truth for me is that there is no evidence of God. My christian upbringing taught me many rules for living in society, and it was very useful that way since I still live in a predominantly christian country whose laws were based upon christian values. I’m familiar with the rules and have no difficulty with almost every one of them, and I am happy to acknowledge that in that respect (organisation and control of society)religion works. For me, that’s where it ends – as an example christianity (or judaism) provides a very useful structure for an ordered society in my experience. In that respect, a good job has been done. On the other hand, I believe that religion as a worship device is built upon a false premise (that there is a divine being or multitude of divinities), and so I don’t agree with any religion’s theological doctrine. And that’s OK too – except I don’t get the impression that it is for anyone who is ‘religious’.

Atheism seems to be looked upon as a dark, evil and malevolent force, when in fact in its purest form it is, for me, simply an absence of belief in a god or gods. I present no threat to anyone’s faith and I have a right to put across my point of view in theological debates. I have a right to say what I believe, and I will not try to convert anyone. Those who therefore fear and attack my position are perhaps less solid in their faith than they would admit to themselves. And guess what? That’s OK too (apart from the attacking my position part)! I am very happy for everyone to believe in their gods but I will defend my right to not share in those beliefs and to be able to talk about that without being insulted, reviled or shunned for doing so. There seems to be a very strong ‘be like me or go away’ kind of approach both in the media and on the internet these days, and I happen to think that it’s very unhealthy and a great shame that such an attitude has prospered.

I am lucky to have the choice of living in a country where I can say that I believe that there is no god, and not fear any repression or punishment for doing so. I am also, in my opinion and experience, lucky in another way. I have experienced religion as having been woven very tightly into my life, and I was a guilt – ridden, fearful child and man. I have left those fears behind, and I am very much happier for that. For example, I no longer fear that ‘God’ will make me ill for saying blasphemous things, or that I will die in my sleep for not saying my prayers. I don’t pretend to know everything about the universe or what (if anything) influences our lives, I simply know that there is no evidence to convince ME that any god exists. I believe that when I die, the lights will effectively go out and that will be that. I won’t meet my family and friends in any kind of heaven or hell because neither exists in my life. I don’t have to worry about committing sins that will condemn me to eternal suffering, however I know that I live in a structured society that has rules, and I will obey them because it is a very successful survival strategy to do so. I am therefore very lucky because I live in my world where the rule of law works and I and the overwhelming majority of people respect it, while for my mental well-being I do not have the dark cloud of judgment for eternal life hovering over me. Maybe, as Douglas Adams wrote; the answer to the ultimate question – life the universe and everything – really is 42, but I don’t believe that because there is no evidence for it either. The courage and audacity of the idea still makes me smile though.

Leaving behind religion has released me from a great deal of unfocused fear and unwarranted guilt. Becoming atheist has taken me to this place of acceptance, although there may be other routes (I hope that there are because if there is only one way to get here that would be rather sad and depressing!) and I wish this personal peace of mind for everyone.

I don’t need religious dogma to rule my life; I do good things because I enjoy doing so and I avoid doing bad things because to do so is negative and not productive as well as being a very destructive route to go down very quickly. I believe in loving and I believe hating is a destructive and wasteful practice with no positive outcomes. I believe in the human intellect and the amazing talent for invention and innovation that has taken our species to the point of being the dominant one on the planet (even if we have made some terrible mistakes getting here). I believe I am here on this planet to make the most of my life but beyond that I have no way of knowing if there is more than this life.

I believe I am free to believe these things, and you are free to hold your own beliefs. Enjoy!

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