Anyone who knows me well will be aware that I am an Atheist,
but this has not always been the case. These days I try to understand life through the lens of science, but at one point in my life I was such a devout believer that I seriously considered becoming a priest and dedicating my life to God.
I suppose that my journey into Christianity began as a small boy. We were not a very religious family but I know that my Mum has always had her faith. Apart from weddings & funerals, I don’t recall my Dad ever going to church but my sisters and I were sent to Sunday school to learn about God & Jesus.
When we moved to the village of Countesthorpe in 1969 I went to what was then called ‘Linden Junior’, a Church of England school, which meant that religion was very much part of the teaching. Each day we would all sit cross legged on the floor of the main hall and listen to bible readings and we would sing hymns with slightly dodgy lyrics about spreading our seeds and purple headed mountains, although the ‘double entendre’ was lost on me back then!
Religious studies suffered the same fate as every other subject, a complete lack of interest on my part.
One memorable parents evening (well memorable for my Mum & Dad!), my parents had to listen to my exasperated teacher announce “the problem is that Stuart is bone idle, just bone idle” and she was correct….oops!
Eventually I moved up to Countesthorpe’s newly built ‘Leysland High School’ (very recently demolished after a tragically short life for a school in my opinion) and religious studies became optional and I of course immediately opted out.
As a lad who had just turned into a teenager, my interests switched firmly to the opposite sex! I was never really one of the ‘cool kids’ so I employed laughter to try and attract girls, becoming the class clown, performing my Alvin Stardust impersonations on the desks (you may have to Google him) and pretending that I had a group of performing flea’s in a matchbox…..hey, it worked, don’t knock it!
A few years passed with no religion in my life apart from my Dad’s regular use of the word ‘Christ’ whenever he was trying to do a job around the house or car and it wasn’t going to plan, so basically, every time he did a job. I’m sure by this point in my story it will come as no surprise that what lead me back to the church was…..yup, chasing girls.
My great friend Andy announced that his Dad was involved in setting up a village youth club.
It sounded awesome; games, parties and girls! The catch? You had to go to church. A small price to pay in my mind. So I started to meet Andy and head to church for the 10:00am family service. This meant that I could also now go to the youth club each week to find my next ex-girlfriend.
As an aside, can I take the opportunity to apologise to all of the girls who had the misfortune to be my girlfriend at this point in my life. The biggest ‘cop out’ line that lads use is “ it’s not you, it’s me” but I can assure you that it really was me, you were all sweet, kind and pretty and I was a typically selfish, hormone fuelled teenager…well, ‘git’, to be frank!
Eventually, after a few months of going to church, not only was I becoming increasingly involved in the church community but I was finding myself drawn to the teachings of Jesus. I have never believed that the bible was the literal word of God as most of the events depicted and written about in the bible supposedly happened decades before. Rather I saw them as allegorical, a way of passing on the message of Christianity in an easy-to-understand way at a period in history where most of the world’s population was illiterate.
Regardless, these stories and the way our Vicar used them had a profound impact on me and I wanted to know more. The opportunity to be confirmed came along and I really enjoyed the classes that lead up to my confirmation. The first time that I took Holy Communion was very moving.
Around this time, I started to become increasingly involved with working backstage at ‘The Little Theatre’ in Leicester in part due to passing my driving test.
Through a combination of my church activities and the theatre, I was asked if I would be one of two ‘Follow Spot’ operators on a production of ‘Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat’ which was to be performed inside Leicester Cathedral. When I arrived for the technical rehearsal, there were two very high scaffold towers built for the ‘Follow Spots’ and when on the platform on the top of the towers you could touch the Cathedral roof, they were very high towers! Talk about getting closer to God!
Mounted on each tower platform was an enormous ‘Super Trouper’ follow spot (yes like in the Abba song) which had been hired for the show. For most of the show everything was fine but when the pharaoh character does his ‘Elvis’ style rock song, we were asked to wave the Follow Spots around like search lights. You will have to take my word for it when I tell you that a ‘Super Trouper’ creates a lot of swaying on a scaffold tower if you are dumb enough to wave it violently around and I really felt like I had a guardian angel to stop it all crashing down. Oh yes, I also got myself my next ex-girlfriend whilst working on Joseph.
My time was now split between the theatre and church (I maybe should have allocated a little time for my ‘O’ level revision too) so I was a busy boy. I loved Countesthorpe St Andrews which at that time still had its traditional pews, a lovely classic interior and Anglo-Saxon exterior. Our Vicar was a lovely chap called Brian Davies and he had an aptitude for engaging with young people and making the church relevant. I still remember the warm, comforting and happy feeling that I always experienced when in that church. It had an amazing community and some of the special events like Easter and Midnight Mass at Christmas were just fantastic. The feeling of belonging was very powerful and I genuinely felt that God would dominate my life.
A Negative Revelation.
In the late 1970’s a series of famines in Africa began to make the news, culminating a few years later with ‘Live Aid’. I watched with increasing sadness at the images of starving people, their spirits broken, cradling dead babies, they looked confused and frightened, trying to make sense of the horror. Aid agencies struggled to feed these people, whilst the leaders of these countries continued to live in luxury with the wealth stolen from their population.
Being a Christian, I of course prayed for these people, prayed for them to get help and be saved, but as weeks turned into months my prayers turned into questions. Why was God letting these innocent men, women and children suffer? Why was he allowing their greedy leaders to continue to thrive off of the misery of others?
I asked questions but got no answers.
Then one Sunday I was kneeling to pray but I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes. I didn’t pray and worst of all I felt spiritually dead inside. The church suddenly felt alien and the words of our Vicar felt hollow. I fought these feelings for a while but eventually I knew that my faith was gone.
I explained how I felt to my parents who were saddened but understanding and I switched my attention completely to the theatre and dropped out of church life entirely. I discovered later that our Vicar had come to see my parents to see if I could be brought back into the church family but eventually my Mum and Dad were able to convince him that my decision was final.
Like my father, apart from weddings (including my own) funerals and christenings, I didn’t return to church and I certainly didn’t pray.
Whilst I found frustration in the concept of an all-powerful god that would take no action to help people, I found comfort in the randomness of a science-based universe in which perfectly good people could be subjected to perfectly awful things for no greater reason than ‘shit happens’, and that life was cruel or kind completely at random.
I’ve come to realise that many people who find themselves in the same position as me, where you are faced with your mortality, either find God for the first time or return to their faith. This has not happened to me; I have put my faith and trust in medical science to get me through this.
It might then come as a surprise that unlike many of my fellow atheists, I do not get annoyed when people tell me that they are praying for me. If someone who genuinely believes in God, cares about me enough to ask god to look after me and keep me safe, I see that as an act of love and deep friendship, and I get a lot of strength from this.
And what of Jesus?
So, if I no longer believe in God, have I turned my back completely on Jesus? Well, no actually. I no longer believe he was the son of God as portrayed in the bible, but I do believe that he existed, or at least that he is based on a real person. I think he was a man who grew up to believe that it was his duty, his calling, to fight for social justice for the poor and powerless. Like many who have done the same in the centuries since, he fought so hard and with such passion that he became a threat to the wealthy and powerful and paid with his life. He was silenced but became an inspiration to others to continue that fight. He died on that cross, not for our sins, but for justice, kindness and love and in this regard, his teachings are as relevant today as they ever were, if not more so.
Without faith, how do you face death?
If I don’t believe in God and an afterlife or heaven, how do I look at the prospect of death?
I believe in the scientific explanation that all of the matter that exists in the universe was created in the ‘Big Bang’ and since matter can only be transformed and not destroyed, we and everything around us are made from matter created in that event.
The physical matter that is me existed before I did as a self-aware entity. I was unaware of anything before it all became me and when I die, I will go back to where I was before, unaware. I may cease to exist as a single entity but all of the matter that I am made from will carry on, changed but still around.
If I am correct then when I pass on, I will drift off into the long sleep of oblivion.
But what if I am wrong?
If I am wrong then when I die, I will be re-united with all of my family and friends that went before me and I will be happy because I will know that someday, I will see the friends and family that I have left behind, and that’s not a bad way to lose an argument, is it?
Not bad at all!
The Brain Tumour charity has been a great help to me since my diagnosis. They have a podcast which is always of interest to people with tumours and their families and also have the ‘Brian App’ ( yep that is spelt correctly, it is ‘Brian’) which offers advice and the ability to track your symptoms, appointments and treatments.
My Brainstem Playlist.
Since my diagnosis I have found myself looking at life differently including reflecting on my past life. Music has always been important to me so I decided to put together a playlist that includes songs that I love, songs that remind me of places and times in my life, and tracks that I have discovered more recently that help me to keep positive. I hope it’s something that you might enjoy too and always play in ‘Shuffle’ mode.