I always find it fascinating yet humbling when a dear friend decides to share his story with me. Although I was aware of his previous theist belief, I admit it was a surprise to discover how deeply he was immersed in the daily rituals of that belief system. And so, without further ado, please enjoy his journey .This is a guest post by @GrahamJayGee.
I am lying on the bench seats of a rented caravan in Cornwall, diverting myself from the bad back, which has so confined me by reading Richard Dawkins. This is Dawkins in his professional guise as an evolutionary biologist, not the atheist campaigner who will later write The God Delusion.
I’m reading, science, interesting, well presented science too, despite the writer sneaking in atheist points from time to time, which I gloss over. Yes, which I gloss over until the one time I do not, the time I stop, ask ‘what if’ and rehearse the arguments I’ve just read and they fit together so neatly, this looks a better truth, well in this particular case it does. I guess the book goes down now and my mind starts to fit this new concept into other areas of what passes for my personal philosophy. It fits; everything fits, where before I had to perform mental gymnastics to hold together my rational yet theist world the thoughts now flow seamlessly.
So the Christian becomes an atheist and feels all of that peace and calm I guess you are supposed to obtain by finding a god not losing one.
That was the slightly dramatic end to my Christian story. I will now start at the beginning, or as near to it as I can personally recall.
I was brought up near Liverpool in the commuter town of Maghull. Back in the 60’s when I started at Maghull C of E school it would have been a minority of the pupils who also attended Sunday school at St Andrew’s Church, to which the school was and indeed remains attached. It was however a large minority, going to church was an acceptable, normal thing to do. School also reinforced the Christian message with overtly religious assemblies, I can still recall many of the hymns, scripture lessons and services in the church.
As I grew older my school pals gradually drifted away but something seemed to always crop up to keep me involved. At about 10 years old, Sunday school had become boring and even my parents could see that. However then we moved to Mr. Cockshott’s class, it was out with Bible Stories and in with Notable Historical Christians. Noah and Jonah kicked into touch by Elizabeth Fry and William Wilberforce. Credit the guy, his range may have been narrow, no space here for Rosa Parkes for example but he kept a dozen or so lads attention for most of his lesson. The following September, when the new teacher Mrs. Kermode had us draw a picture of our family Sunday school was kicked into touch!
My parents insisted that whilst they understood my leaving this kindergarten of a class I still had to attend church. This probably wouldn’t have lasted too long, the services being dull and I might well have had faith bored out of me but for the next turn of fate. My Dad was asked to be Churchwarden at a new church being opened on Green Park, a large newer housing estate so we started attending there. St James as it was called didn’t even have a building to start with, as a teenage lad being involved in all that went into creating a new institution was exciting, I met new people and I got opportunities that would never have come at the buggins turn of an established church. Moving on, as soon as I was old enough, I think seventeen, I was elected to the Church Council and by then I was off the lesson reading rate, because I was the designated ‘emergency reader’ should someone not turn up, what young person doesn’t like being given adult responsibilities?
So this is how I really became a grown up Christian rather than a kid dragged along with church going parents. I became part of a Christian society or family if you like. Sunday morning church, Youth Fellowship on a Sunday Evening with folks from St Andrew’s and another sister church St Peter’s. Then highlights like trips away to the Greenbelt Festival (then overtly Christian in makeup). On a jarring note, talking to Ann Smith outside St Peter’s vicarage she is surprised I believe in evolution!
And so off I go to Salford University. In my first year little changes, I don’t attach myself to a local church, but do attend the University Christian Union as a replacement for Sunday evening Youth Fellowship, even being keen enough to join them on a weekend away. Nevertheless, in later years I give up on the C.U. Finding many members too, right wing for my taste and even refer to its members mildly derogatively as ‘Jimmies’ (see you Jimmy – never mind!). I get more involved in University politics, join CND and church becomes St Peters when home in Maghull. A possible escape route from religious observance and then belief may be looming, I get my kicks now from Easter Peace Marches not Easter Vigils! When the search for work after graduation means a move away from the North West then that chance perhaps looks bigger.
Perchance however, I land a job in Birmingham, the city where my sister, was in the final year of her degree. We end up sharing a house and that Church community thing comes back with vengeance! We attend Harborne Parish Church. We meet a nice lad there, he and my sister become an item, they are still together, married and he is a ‘Reverend Doctor’. For a brief time I live in the University Chaplaincy and for 12 months in a theological college! I end up on the Parochial Church Council and help run a Youth Group (shame I now feel).
When work, then takes me to Bristol it is second nature to me to seek out a local church. Again, I end up on the PCC and teach in Sunday school (I really hope I was as useless at this as I felt I was!). Cotham Parish Church is a liberal enough establishment that when my girlfriend moves down from Liverpool she’s made welcome despite her Roman Catholicism and our sharing a bed. Another jarring note her parents won’t visit, on her mother’s instigation because we are ‘living in sin’. We get married in Liverpool at a ceremony with both the Catholic Parish priest and my Anglican Vicar involved. My mother-in-law will now visit our sexual congress legitimized!
I make few real friends at the Bristol Church and as we find interesting places to explore in the locality I drop out of the church organisation and stop going as often, then at all. I don’t at this point feel my belief has changed but without the constant reinforcement of religious observance and teaching I surely did become more receptive to different ideas.
The work brings a move north to Manchester and on arrival in our new home, I make an effort to connect again with a church community. I attend the local Anglican Church once or twice and the Methodist equivalent a few more times than that, but never feel that either is for me. Perhaps the sands of my mind have already shifted, I just haven’t noticed yet.
I have no doubt that it was getting away from the constant attendance at church and therefore not being reliant on the pattern of observance or routinely exposed to theological teaching that gave me the mental space to make the decisive move away from believing in an essentially absurd invisible boss man and/or friend. All religions are aware of this ‘danger’ hence their insistence on the importance of regular, at least weekly observance and the presence of a structure which guides you through the year both culturally and in your life of faith. It also convinces me of the evil of bringing up children in such a way leading them down this irrational, harmful path. Finally, I must say that I do not at all blame my parents, I see their belief as erroneous, but it is sincerely held and they were all round good parents doing what they truly thought right by their children.
Note: I’ve deliberately avoided giving some people’s names, but those I have used are absolutely correct, including Mr. Cockshott.