Saturday, November 17, 2007

THE ATHEIST'S ROAD TO DAMASCUS

Jonathan Miller's recent television programs outlining the history of atheism included a recurring line of questioning for the atheists he interviewed. Most of them had been raised with some form of religion, so Jonathan Miller asked, "how did you come to shake off your religious upbringing".

They all had different stories, ranging from a gradual realisation that they didn't believe what they'd been taught as children, to a flash of revelation that some other reality was far more plausible.

In my own case, it was the latter. I was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic schools for 13 years. The Catholic faith was always presented as fact, and don't remember anyone daring to suggest otherwise until one night when I was 14. The subject of religion was not often raised in casual conversation, but someone mentioned it in the Year 9 dormitory. My classmate Colin Powter confided in me that he believed everything we were taught about religion was untrue. In my memory he said something like, "it's all a load of crap!"

"What, all of it?" I replied.

"Yes, everything."

It was a defiant statement with very great appeal to the instinctive rebelliousness of a healthy 14 year old. Hearing those sentiments for the very first time, in that instant, I knew I was in complete agreement.

My disbelief arrived almost fully formed, and it gave me a rush of excitement. Here was something that made perfect sense, and gave me a tremendous feeling of superiority over the deluded clerics who had power over me in almost every other way. I made a conscious decision that night to consider myself an agnostic, and spend the subsequent years deciding on the bigger question of whether god existed at all. It was probably about three years before I decided the answer was no.

All it took to convert me was the realisation that one of my peers did not believe in the dogma of Catholicism. I had never been told in 10 years of education that I had a choice. Embracing that choice was thrilling, and that erases any embarrassment I might have that it happened so late. Other atheists report they discovered their unbelief when they were as young as five. A collection of these enlightenment stories would make a great book.

Not telling children that they have a choice in this matter now strikes me as being a terrible abuse of their rights. It is important for atheists to counter this and make their beliefs public in a strident, entertaining, eloquent way. The Blasphemy Challenge is an admirable project to propagate these declarations.

I came up with the idea of the credo revinco, a brief declaration of what I believe and why. I hope that the minute it takes to read it might provide the same flash of enlightenment as I had back in 1977, even if it's just for a single person.

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