The previous “Why I’m an Atheist” posts can be found here, if you haven’t read them, check them out.
My name is Ian Winick and I’m a native of Dublin currently residing in Cologne, Germany. As Atheist Ireland invited its members to explain why they are atheists, I thought I’d take Harry up on his generous offer to host my contribution on his blog.
There’s a wonderful line in Wuthering Heights describing the servant Joseph: … the wearisomest, self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself, and fling the curses on his neighbours. This, in a nutshell, is organised religion as I see it: exclusionist, self-serving and prone to interpreting ancient scriptures with a very specific agenda in mind.
I was born in 1975 to a Catholic mother and a lapsed Jewish father. Hard to believe it now, but my mother actually required a letter from the Pope to permit her to marry a Jew, and had to promise to bring her children up Catholic. I’ve never laid eyes on that letter but I’d give anything to see how it was worded (and to see whether Pope Paul VI used smileys to dot his i’s).
My mother is a religious woman – I have vague memories of rosaries being said together in the evening and of being dragged off, blinded by sleep, to early morning Mass every day during Lent – but there was always a healthy element of common sense. I’ve never discussed it with her but can’t imagine that she doesn’t share the view that condoms are a welcome means of preventing unwanted pregnancies and curbing the spread of AIDS, that a rape victim should not be forced to have her rapist’s baby, that masturbation does not lead to blindness or hairy palms, and that US TV evangelists are the scum of the earth.
As well as this, there was never any suggestion that godless heathens such as my father – and the other two-thirds of mankind who failed to embrace Christianity – would end up banging on the pearly gates of Heaven begging to be let inside as the flames licked higher. Ironically, if you take belief out of the equation, my father is one of the most Christian people I know: Christian in the sense of having a strong sense of right and wrong, of treating other people with respect and kindness, of enjoying life with a cheerful demeanour. In short, as far away from Joseph and his bible as you can imagine.
After attending a mixed-sex primary school, I went to a Christian Brothers secondary school for boys. Thankfully, the black-clad sadists who held sway during my uncles’ schooldays were long gone except for a rat-faced principal and a handful of doddery old Brothers – and, save a prayer at the beginning of every lesson, religion didn’t get in the way of education too often.
Growing up as a Catholic in Ireland, religion was such a constant presence that you didn’t question it any more than you would stop to examine the air you breathe. Looking back now, I imagine that, had I – or anyone, for that matter – been brought up without any exposure to religion, Catholicism would have had no chance of gaining a foothold after that. Or about as much as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster does, and without the humour to redeem it.
For the last 15 years, I have been living in Germany, which is far more secular than Ireland, both in social structure and in mindset. At a guess, I would say that it is a generation and a half ahead of Ireland in this regard. Religion simply doesn’t feature in the lives of most people I know here and the days of Church power are long gone. Having said that, the religious demands of the Muslim community – some reasonable, some ludicrous – are being accommodated more and more. This is not only because of the carte blanche widely granted by civilised societies to religious beliefs, particularly ones with explosive tendencies. For historical reasons, German society is anxious to distance itself from any accusations of racism or intolerance. After all, it’s all too easy for anyone with a grievance to play the “Nazi” card.
Three years ago, my interest in the existence or non-existence of a divine being was rekindled, possibly after reading an article about The God Delusion in the Guardian. I bought the book with the intention of reading it during a week’s holiday at my parents’ in Dublin. It was then I realised that I was very nervous of bringing the book with me on an airplane. Not that I was afraid of what other, God-fearing people would think – no, my fear was that the Almighty would strike, casting me into the cruel Irish Sea along with a couple of hundred of my innocent fellow passengers and a handful of Aer Lingus’ finest. It was this striking realisation that made me realise that I had to read this book and – as Bob Geldof puts it in his autobiography – “rid myself of the voodoo”.
At the end of the day, if believing in a god, karma or Santa Claus helps you to live a good life and be a better person without encroaching on other people’s rights or indoctrinating children, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my book. But, as I certainly don’t need to point out here, the link between morality and religion has always been a tenuous one. There is nothing moral about doing good in anticipation of a reward or in fear of a punishment, eternal or otherwise. In fact, this is no more moral than helping an old lady across the road just because you’re being forced to at gunpoint.
Hey, while I’ve got your attention, do me a favour and check out Bawdy Zebra’s latest product, There Are Other Rivers by Alastair Humphreys. It’s on iPad, iPhone and as PDF so it’s on Android too!