I’ve never been particularly religious. I was never raised religiously. I was never brought up to believe in God. I know this is more common nowadays, since I live in a particularly secular country (the Netherlands) where the religious adherence has declined through the past forty years and most Christians I know are barely proselytic or are only so in name. My parents are not religious, although they were raised Catholics – as far as I know, my mother is an atheist and my dad isn’t… well, anything as far as I know. Let’s just say it’s not relevant.
The fact I was not baptised has never been a source of commotion. My mother’s parents were devoutly religious and I have no doubt they didn’t like their daughters’ children not being baptised (one of my aunt and uncle decided not to baptise their children either), but they never said a word against it. Maybe it is because they realised their children were adults and could handle things on their own, maybe they just didn’t care. I don’t know and since my grandparents are both deceased there is no way of asking. My dad’s side is not very religious (they too were brought up Catholic) but my grandmother had revoked her subscription to the church and my grandfather is not very devout (but I can’t tell, since he barely speaks anymore due to his paralysis). Of course my uncle is gay, so that doesn’t really aid matters. I know one of my uncles is definitely an atheist and I always got along with him very well, and I don’t know about many of my other aunts and uncles (they are all nominally Cath0lic, but the extent of their belief is not really well documented for my part and since they never speak about belief, I doubt it is interesting for me to know).
But still, you come into contact with it. I went to a public school which was secular – my parents did offer me the possibility to study religion, and I did do religious studies while I was in primary school, in which we learned the stories from the Bible, particularly that of the Old Testament stand out for me. I did not own a Bible, but my paternal grandmother did lend me her children’s bible to read – which I devoured at the age of nine, since I was into mythology and stories (and I still am). But at that age, at nine, I considered them stories – I did not think about their implications in the world whatsoever. They were just stories, and whatever they said about God I took much in the same way I took Theseus slaughtering the Minotaur, or Perseus taking care of Medusa. It was a story, and one I have always liked for its storytelling value, but never for the truth or even its morality.
I hated my primary school – I was bullied heavily, I fought with lots of people. It wasn’t happy and I was alone often. I have spent many days in my room playing and making up imaginary friends to play with. It was normal for me – I was alone often. I didn’t really notice the meaning of friends. I didn’t know how to make them. I do now, of course – not easily, but I do. In hindsight that didn’t have anything to do with religion, but I can imagine how in such a period you could turn to God for aid. I didn’t. It never occurred to me that I could ask a deity for help. Perhaps it’s because religion wasn’t something spoken about with my parents – they never encouraged one particular religion and they always emphasized my complete cultural awareness – they wanted me to learn and to question, they didn’t want to make the impression on me that what they said was invariably true. To be open-minded sometimes, particularly my mother who is to this day still this way, was a valued trait and not a burden. They liked my eccentricity, even if that brought problems.
I went to a Catholic (nominally) high school. The school affiliated themselves as being an open Catholic school – they were founded on Catholic principles, but they encouraged any religion. Religious studies was on the curriculum, but I was taught by a teacher who managed to use South Park in his classes to great effect, and who managed to bring Plato equally effectively as the Sermon on the Mount. He was an excellent teacher – he was nominally Catholic, but he was also extremely open-minded, and he was very willing to teach about anything religion-related, not just his (proselytism was not an interest of his). He had to research Buddhism for one semester for us – he let us choose whether we preferred Buddhism or Islam (the overwhelming majority voted Buddhism). It meant he had a whole new thing to study, but he did it lovingly and to this day I know more about religion because he encouraged objective study of the subject. Religious studies teachers around the world, take note: there exist people who can bring the Bible, the Qu’ran and anything else to the people without forcing their opinions on you. There are people that encourage thought. Nevertheless, he always ensured I was interested in religion.
At the age of 12, my grandmother died. She was buried in her home village (a tiny, strongly devout Catholic hamlet in the south of the country). She was very religious, and my family being rather tight-knit, I tried to pray for her. But it didn’t work. I felt empty. It was like I could turn my hands to the sky and hope for a miracle, that she could come back, or that it would be ok again. It never was. Obviously. I don’t think that was a turning point, but it started my disinterest in religion – the endless tedium of masses in her name I had to attend afterwards are well etched into my brain. I became so sick of these masses, with the endless tedious sermons, that it was by virtue of sheer boredom that I wanted to leave it. I preferred to study the Latin and Greek rather than pay attention and would recite prayers in Latin rather than Dutch.
As I grew older my interest in atheism grew. At the age of fourteen/fifteen I started to develop an interest in heavy metal music, possibly the most atheistic of musical genres. I listened to punk bands. I learned of music called Bad Religion and although some of my friends remained Christian – I never sought their company in the face of some of them pointing out I should be religious. I wasn’t. We agreed to disagree. It wasn’t until a few years ago, though, that I really started to settle on this belief. It took readings of The God Delusion to understand what I really wanted to say. What it really means to be non-religious in a world full of people devout to their faith.
I was raised with awareness of science and technology consistently. My father has a degree in theoretical physics and now works in IT. Computers and natural history (I was obsessive about dinosaurs and the solar system as a child) were always around me. I learned how to do mathematics quickly. I was raised, in other words, to question – my father, as a scientist and rational person pur sang, would not have stood for anything less than his son doing his scientific academic work. But being induced into this early means that my upbringing is almost incompatible with religion. Be taught about the universe, about atlases, about the history of the planet and you stumble upon evolution very early – the central theory of why religion and science are at odds. Learn about Darwin and Cope means you’re almost bound to be in the field of science (I now study chemical engineering). My mother is a speech therapist and although she doesn’t really care much for sciences – she always encouraged study of it too. My brother is an animal freak and really loves nature documentaries – he too was raised with this and taking him to a zoo makes him ecstatic. He has watched more Steve Irwin than anyone we may care to consider insane – and he and I have watched David Attenborough documentaries together (one of my heroes nowadays). He also doesn’t consider himself very religious and he is planning to go into biology.
In hindsight, this makes my atheism seem almost obvious. Being raised tolerantly but always to harbour suspicion for anything; being exposed to the bane of all religion, evolution, as a young child; having experiences with religion that are quite frankly making any form of it seem irrelevant. But I still believe there’s something more to it. I like to say that I am a good person and that I am morally conscious. But science is not morality. Gravity doesn’t tell us how to love our partner. But I still believe that I can. And that seems to be the greatest victory. I don’t feel guilt about who I am or what I do. I answer only to myself and what I think is right. I answer to those I love. I have faith in those who I am close to. I love my family and my girlfriend to bits and pieces. I feel no shame for who I am. I am who I am, and I’m proud to be intellectual and to be able to think for myself.
I don’t believe I should take the advice of anyone who tries to corner me into guilt again. My one biggest weakness is guilt and the feeling I should make up for who and what I am. The feeling I have done wrong and need to make it right. That is why I declare myself an atheist. I will never feel anybody looking over me to tell me I have sinned. I will never feel the shoulder of society questioning why I have grown up to like half-Satanic music and read books about totalitarianism and suicide. Why I am a nerd into science and fantasy stories. Why I write depressing poetry. I do it because I am who I am and who I have discovered myself to be.
I have everything I desire. I have a job. I have self-expression. I have academic interests. I have music. I have love in my life. I have everything I want. God is irrelevant to my happiness. I can start to feel proud of myself soon, I hope. I sincerely hope this feeling will never change. The feeling of knowing there is someone that always loves you is the best feeling in the world, but I found this feeling on earth and not in my imagination now. For the past year I have tried to become happy and I sincerely feel I can succeed. For once I don’t always have to cry. For once I’m okay. For once I will be me.
I am sincerely yours, Planet Earth.