I Don't Think I'm A Convert
I've recently discovered Jaclyn Glenn on You Tube. Like Rachel Maddow's weekly This Week in God blog post, Glenn pokes fun at the extremes of the American religious right – the right wing nut cases like Pat Robertson and Ken Ham who do so much harm to their faith by being clever people saying demonstrably stupid things. As a Brit looking in from afar, I am continually relieved that religious nutters are far less prevalent in my country than in the USA. Not absent, just less prevalent. Our answer to Michelle Bachman for example, Nadine Dorries, gets some air time but not enough to pose a threat to Britain's overall mental well being. And when BNP/UKIP local councillor David Silvester claimed that the flooding in the UK in the early part of 2014 was caused by the passing of the Equal Marriage Act he was pilloried by everyone. Life's too important to take people like him seriously.
Anyway, I digress. Jaclyn Glenn used her Facebook page to ask: "What 3 questions would you ask a room full of atheists?" A common theme in the answers she got was "what was it that turned you into an atheist?" the underlying assumption made by many of her respondents was that all atheists have converted from a starting point of religious belief.
Was I ever a Christian?
Is anyone a Christian at 5 years old? I was the child of Christians, yes. Like the vast majority of children growing up in 1960s/1970s Britain, my school day began with an assembly that included prayers and a vaguely mumbled hymn. I was not unusual in going to Sunday school, my parents were not unusual in being church goers. We used terms like 'Christian names' and the assumption that everyone had been baptised before they could walk was usually valid. That was the culture and it's why I personally wasn't too upset the other day when the Prime Minister described Britain as a Christian country. In terms of history and culture it's clearly true. Whether we're a country of Christians is another matter altogether.
Was I a Christian at 7 or 8 years old?
School hadn't changed, Sunday School hadn't changed, I still went where I was sent or taken — like all children.
Slightly less common among my friends was that at the age of 10 my parents decided I should be confirmed. I was taken to confirmation classes over a period of weeks and then in November 1973, I was confirmed as a member of the Church of England. As far as I can see the only upshot of this is that you’re then allowed to take Holy Communion.
It must have been about this time I went to swimming lessons too, and Cubs and my Dad was teaching me how to sail a dinghy etc. Confirmation classes and the confirmation ceremony were no more meaningful to me than any of those activities. It's what I did because it's what my parents encouraged or sent me to do.
Was I a Christian then?
What I distinctly remember is the period immediately after I was confirmed. For the first time I started to actually think about it. On one occasion I surprised my parents by saying I wanted to go to church with Dad and duly did so. And after that I thought some more.
I admit I'm now using adult thought patterns to describe a 10 year old's thinking but the thing I couldn't get around was this:
- not everyone who believes in a god is a Christian;
- there are Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Sikhs and followers of Shinto and Pagans and Druids and, and, and…
And even within Christianity there are Catholics and Methodists and Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons and, and, and…
All that division and disagreement about what is supposedly the reason we're all here, the Truth (capital T) about our place in creation. I have relative whose husband's family includes people of the 'True Faith' — which, in case you missed it, is a weirdo fundamentalist cult called the Elims. Ah yes, every Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Free Church of Scotland, Southern Baptist, Coptic Christian and Jedi Knight knows that they have it wrong and that the Elims have it right (seriously that seems to be what followers of the 'True Faith' think).
Anyway, let's check out some numbers.
According to a Pew research Study in 2012, the The Global Religious Landscape (cited in Wikipedia at the time of writing) the world's religions break down roughly as shown in the table.
Those numbers don't quite match the ones I've had in my head for a long time which are 40% Christian, 35% Muslim, 25% others including atheists and it's clearly extremely hard to come up with a truly accurate figure of global adherence to different belief systems so any figures should be treated as no more than approximations at best. But… I have yet to see any set of figures that disprove what I realised at the age of 10, namely that whatever the truth actually is, the majority of people are wrong. Using the Pew figures, if Christians are right, then 68.5% of the world's belief is wrong. If the Muslims are right, then 77.8% of the world is wrong. And those figures ignore all those intra-faith divisions (all those Protestants who think the Catholics are unthinking slaves to the Bishop of Rome, the teetotal Methodists who think the Mormons are weird for not drinking tea and coffee, Sunni and Shia slogging it out for who knows what purpose across the centuries, and so on).
Richard Dawkins gave a terrific answer to the question "what if you're wrong," my answer is much less dramatic but has the advantage of simplicity: at least I'll have safety in numbers.
If God exists, surely it would be obvious enough such that at least there would be majority agreement. Whatever evidence there may be is obviously extremely weak and unconvincing to the majority of people. Therefore I see no reason to believe that any god exists.
That was my conclusion at 10 years old before I'd heard the word atheist, before I'd heard of Richard Dawkins and, fwiw, long before Jaclyn Glenn was born. Moreover, it was my conclusion when I very first thought about the issue for myself as opposed to following where I was lead by my parents.
Was I ever a Christian? Not in any way that matters, surely. So no, I don't think I'm a convert.