My childhood was fairly unusual, with a lot of illness and a year in hospital followed by five years at special schools, not to be confused with public schools – apart from the boarding aspect, there is little or no similarity. It was while I was at boarding school that I decided I could not believe in God. I was about eight or nine. It might seem to some that as a result of so much illness, being separated from parents, sometimes being treated badly at the school, I decided to blame God and therefore stop believing in him. In fact, such a thought never occurred to me. I didn’t know any different and surprisingly enough, I didn’t pity myself at the time. The realization that I was an atheist just grew and grew as I found I could not believe what I was being taught. There was no personal element in it. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in God. It was that I realized I didn’t believe in God.
As this was the sixties, atheism was rare. A strident nine year old atheist even more so. My parents did not mind one way or another – my father was an atheist himself and my mother’s religious zeal had declined by then – but the school was a different matter. It was run in a fairly religious manner, certainly by today’s standards. We had daily assemblies, hymn practice every now and again, grace at meal times and compulsory church attendance on Sunday mornings. One assumes most if not all of the staff were Christians. They reacted to my claims of atheism with some dismay, and tried their best to disabuse me of my mistaken views, primarily by constant repetition of the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’. They took no notice of my wish to stop going to church, although I suppose there wouldn’t have been much they could have done, given that we all processed to church in a ‘crocodile’ and to leave one child behind might have been a bit difficult.
As time went on and I eventually returned to live with my family and attended a state secondary school, I became, if anything, more strident. I would either refuse to sing the hymns in school assemblies, or sing to my own words. I would happily tell everyone of my lack of belief, would refuse to attend any church services or religious activities the school decided we ought to go to (this time with parental support) and would stick my neck out in front of the whole school to this end, if necessary. As far as I could tell, I was the only atheist in a school of four hundred girls. I did once persuade a friend to get up with me in front of the whole school to show that we didn’t want to attend church, but her parents decided I was a heathen and outcast and a bad influence on her and made her go to the service anyway, thereafter disapproving of my contact with her and making our friendship difficult to sustain.
As I came from a poor family I was unable to go to college or university and entered the world of the office at the age of seventeen, where as far as religion went I was still in a minority of one. Apart from my own father I had still not met an atheist. Among the people of religion in my new workplace were a Methodist and a Salvationist. I admired the Salvationist personally and met many other members of the local Salvation Army through her, but it was hardly my first encounter with the Army, as I had attended Sunday School with them for some time before I declared myself an atheist.
As the years passed I read the Bible from cover to cover, partly out of interest and partly to have knowledge of what I was arguing against with friends and colleagues. I was horrified to discover that the Bible contained stories of mayhem and murder beyond belief. It was nothing like I had been taught as a child. Later on I read the Qur’an to try to comprehend Islam at a time when it was beginning to get a bad press.
Despite having no ‘axe to grind’ with a non-existent God, I was angry with religion, any and all of them, but particularly with Christianity, and I didn’t know why. It was one Sunday, maybe in the eighties, while watching ‘Songs of Praise’, that I finally understood that I was drawn to Christianity, always had been, despite being unable to believe in it. Not only could I not believe in it, but I marvelled that anyone could. I would watch Songs of Praise and scoff incredulously at what people said. But I was watching it. You could say I had an epiphany that day. I finally got peace, accepted that while I was indeed drawn to certain aspects of the shiny surface of Christianity, the love thy neighbour parts, etc., there was no place for an atheist in it. I stopped thinking about religion so much, stopped watching Songs of Praise, took the position of ‘each to his own’ and got on with other things…