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Date: 11/04/17

Believe It Or Not

I have a young relative (and, if you know the family, you'll detect a pun there) of whom I am, naturally, very proud; just as I am of all his cousins (Phew! That should save me from a lynching!).

Apparently, when he was no more than about seven or eight years old, he calmly said to his mother, "Y'know Mum, I don't think I believe in god".

When his mother told me of this statement a few years later, I - as the Jews say - kvelled. And I started to ponder upon my own path to enlightenment, which took place when I was a few years older than my relative.

I can't claim to have been raised in a religious household. My parents were religious in the sense that most people were at that time; believing somewhat fuzzily in the existence of a god, but not being formally Christian beyond the standard 'hatch, match and dispatch' pattern. It mattered to them to some degree, but not to the extent that I was in anyway proselytised by them (beyond my mother teaching me to pray, which I have taken since as the price for the fact that she also taught me to read long before I set foot in a school).

We were - as were most child-owners in the village who expressed a preference at that time - 'church', rather than 'chapel'. There were two Anglican churches and about five chapels still active in the village at that time and, although any sense of rivalry between us kids was tribal in the 'blues and the greens' sense of mutual mockery, (where, from the point of view of us 'church' kids, the 'chapel' ones were constrained and quite joyless; what they thought of us I don't recall now), Belfast it - mercifully - was not.

In any case, almost every child in the village went to what was known as a 'church aided' school, where most of the funding came from the local council, but where a religious organisation had a strong say in the running of the establishment. That the religious organisation in this case was the Welsh branch of what is somewhat grandly known even today (and in the face of mounting evidence) as the 'Anglican Communion' meant that, on the whole, the religiosity of the school was more a sort of background radiation rather than anything more rigorous or thoroughgoing. Sure, we had a religious assembly every morning, but that was mandated under law and there was damn all which could have been done about it even if anyone had objected to it; yes, we had occasion pep-talks from our succession of vicars (one of whom was somewhat raffish for the breed, and whose son was - as is sometimes the case with the offspring of priests - one of the most vicious people I've ever known); we had someone from the Diocese come in about once a year to test us on our scriptural knowledge (I think I still have my gold certificate somewhere); we had to learn the Catechism (a friend of mine was - because of his parents' insistence upon his going to Sunday School - jeered at by the name, "Holy Catholic" from the wording of said work ("I believe in God, the Holy Catholic Church...")); and we had to schlepp down the road to the parish church at least four times a year (Christmas, Easter, Whit and harvest festival) and sit, stand, pray and sing in a building the experience of which - winter or summer - seemed to be designed to prepare us for experiencing the Heat Death of the Universe.

But, even with the views I hold now, I couldn't describe the thing as being oppressive in any sense. Welsh Anglicanism - at least at that time - was on the whole a kindly affair, with a distinct lack of either fire (which might have been welcome in a freezing church) or brimstone (which would have been drowned out by the odours emanating from the steelworks anyway). Besides which, we didn't know any different, any more than our parents' generation would have done.

(Which is, of course, a main source of gripe against the whole notion of allowing religion - any religion - a say in the education of children. Children have not had the chance to develop any sense of resistance or immunity to what is being shoved in front of them; this the religious authorities understand rather more than passing well, of course, which is why they will fight like wildcats to make sure their opportunities for propagandising the young are not taken away from them.)

Given this hinterland, it is perhaps not surprising that I retained belief (albeit of the same inchoate form as my parents') into my teens. Indeed, I remember that - at the age of thirteen - I made it a point of piety that I would not swear on a Sunday, even in the confines of my own head.

I recall also that - in my first year in that wretched establishment - my secondary school asked the Gideons in to hand out copies of the New Testament and Psalms. I tried following the schedule given for what verses I should read on what days, but as no one verse ever followed on directly from the one for the previous day, it played merry hell with the storylines, and I lost interest in the plot soon thereafter.

Our secondary school, although formally secular, was of course bound by the same silly legal imposition as my primary school had been, and so we had the same rigmarole every morning there as well. Only this time there were more of us, the hymns were read not from a sort of flip-chart which was raised to line-of-sight level on the back wall, but from proper books with hard, green covers (although these were replaced by cheaply-produced and flimsy paperback booklets in due course), and the teachers were all arrayed on the stage in high visibility (where the biology master could be seen - but not, obviously, heard - noiselessly mouthing the words in a manner which would become more broadly familiar to the public after its imitation some years later by John Redwood).

But it was here that the doubts started to kick in. I don't mean in any theological sense - I didn't have the intellectual capacity or rigour for such considerations - but because I began to see the rather less than godly uses to which religion could be put.

It was quite a regular occurance when our scrawny and sharp-edged headmaster would - probably just after we had sung something praising the limitless compassion and love of god - order some poor miscreant up on to the stage, there to berate him for his misdeeds and humiliate him before about six hundred of his contemporaries, all of whom were, of course, just relieved that it wasn't them.

Then, verily, the Word was revealèd unto me. And the Word was...


It was the exercising of Dominion, using religion as the pretext (as it didn't actually appear in any of the numerous denunciations of this sort which it was my misfortune to witness down the years I was there).

The seeds of rebellion were thereby planted in my mind.

Seeds had something to do with my final disassociation from religion as well, in a roundabout sort of way.

By the time I had got to within grasping distance of leaving that wretched place, the school had grown so much in numbers that it was no longer possible (or, at least, no longer safe) for the whole school to gather together in one place shortly after nine of a morning. So part of my year was sent down to the other end of the school to hold our assembly in a couple of the history rooms in the Bottom Block (the partition between the rooms would be drawn back for this purpose).

There, our assemblies were taken by the school's gardening teacher, who had inevitably been nick-named 'Bayleaf' after the gardener in the kids' TV programme The Herbs. It was during one of these cramped sessions one warm morning where Bayleaf was giving us the benefit of his opinions on some aspect of faith that he said:

"Of course, Einstein proved that you could travel from the Earth to the Sun and back eight times in a second..."

Those of us who were 'doing' O-level Physics, and who avidly watched Tomorrow's World and any other science programme within reach, looked at each other and tried neither to laugh nor to do whatever the cultural equivalent might have been at that time of a mass facepalm.

And so the truth was made manifest to me: religion was not only irretrievably dotty, but it was the cause of irredeemable dottiness in others. The scales, brothers and sisters, fell from my eyes! Alleluiah!

I left that establishment not long after and, although I hadn't hardened my views totally just yet, I knew which way I was going and that it was the way (and the life) that I wanted. I 'came out' to my mother at about this time. All she said was, "Ah, well! You'll be sorry some day!".

I then went to a sixth-form college where - mirabile dictu! - there was only one assembly per week (on a Thursday morning), and attendance at it was totally voluntary!. And that, m'dears, marked the end of my regular involvement in religious activity.

By the time I was seventeen, I had become a convinced atheist, although I wasn't really equipped to argue my case very convincingly even then. I was confirmed (as 'twere) in my position when a close friend of mine suddenly 'got religion', and started saying some - to me - rather bizarre and unsustainable things. By the time I went up to University at the age of nineteen, I was certain of my views on the subject.

But have I ever been "sorry some day"? Have I ever come close to resiling from my hard-earned and not-dogmatic-at-all-oh-dear-me-no stance?

Yes. I confess it. I did approach a volte-face. But it was not as a result of some emotional trauma or need, but as a consequence of my cultural explorations.

In my mid-twenties, I started reading in earnest the writings of the playwright, essayist, playwright and patriot Saunders Lewis. Lewis was raised as a nonconformist but converted to Roman Catholicism as a young man, and - as is always the way of converts - became a firm promoter of his new church's teachings, however odd they would have appeared to anyone else. Despite my obvious resistance to such ideas, I started turning over in my mind the possibility that I might become a Catholic myself. I think that I was attracted by the rituals of it, but also by the thought that if one is going to go into an orthodoxy, one should be prepared to go into it con amore. I even considered going along to our local Catholic cathedral and asking for guidance (or at least a small encyclical) from one of the priests there.

Shortly after this, in search of cultural depth of another sort, I availed myself of the opportunity to watch and listen to Wagner's Parsifal. The Bayreuth centenary production of this was to be broadcast simultaneously on BBC 2 and Radio 3 on the Good Friday. It's a long work, as many of you will know, and it meant giving over the whole of the afternoon to the experience.

I watched and listened somewhat non-committally to start with. Then, something strange happened to me in the last act. I'm not sure to this day what it was which was opened up to me in those moments; all I can say is that by the time that the Spear was placed beside the Grail at the very end, I was sobbing.

The experience disrupted my emotional equilibrium for some weeks, but in the end neither my flirtation with Rome nor my being grabbed by the Gesamtkunstwerk came to very much, when I realised that I couldn't countenance having a bunch of elderly celibates telling me what I may not do with my own crotch, and that Wagner's music does - as the old joke says - have great moments but terrible quarter hours.

And so I returned, slightly shaken and somewhat stirred, to my previous state. Where I have happily been ever since.

Of course, atheism has - thanks to great communicators such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - become a more openly visible phenomenon in recent years, even to the point of it being trendy. But it wouldn't make any difference to me had it not gained a greater degree of prominence in public discourse. There is an underlying principle to non-belief which is, to my thinking, watertight: do not believe without clear and irrefutable evidence. Accept no claims made on the basis of spurious authority, or on the grounds of extended wishful thinking. Trust only what your sense of Reason and humanity can vouchsafe to you.

When I see the almost casual inhumanities committed every day somewhere on this planet in the name of - or under the cover of - religion; the visceral hatred, the unheeding irrationality, the blindness to even the most obvious reality, the adherence to primitive methods of punishment, be it nailing someone to a couple of planks (as the late, great Robert Calvert once remarked, "What a way to spend Easter!"), immolation, self-immolation and stoning (*), then it is way past time that Reason should not only prevail, but be made to prevail.

I believe so, anyway.

* I once read a screed by an Islamist who tried to explain how righteous this odious practice was. He undermined his position by never once using the word 'stoning', preferring instead the management-speak term 'lapidation'. I composed a short verse in response, based on the work of the great Arabian poet Bhab Abu Dhillan:

"Oh, they'll lapidate ya if ya don't pray every day,
They'll lapidate ya if you are gay,
They'll lapidate ya if you're the wrong race,
They'll lapidate ya if ya dare show your face.
Who cares that tribal laws are so outdated?
Everyone must be lapidated"