At the age of 15 I was a committed and devoted Roman Catholic. I would visit Church often, consult with my Parish Priest and at this time I was busy saving money to participate in a trip to rural Kenya to build a multi-purpose church/classroom. I am now an atheist, and active secular campaigner. I consider myself a skeptic, humanist and a rationalist. This is the story of how it happened.
Religion had always been an important cultural factor in my life. As the grandson of an Irish Navvy, I always understood the cultural importance of being a Catholic.
Growing up and attending Catholic schools probably contributed to the idea I had that everyone was a Catholic. I certainly did not have any awareness of other religions, nor that I was part of a minority religion, of which there were many.
Probably around the age of 11 when I was confirmed into the Catholic Church by Bishop Joseph Divine, I had begun to better understand the role of religion in Society. The dramatic ceremonies and music of the Church always fascinated me. I remember that at one point in my P7 year I seemed to get chosen for a run of readings at mass. I remember the great pride and honour I felt to ascend the stairs to the altar, a slight bow to the broken body of Jesus which presided over us all, high up on wall.
I remember the excitement, and trepidation as I read out the ancient words. Unable to quite understand why me – a pupil – had the fixed attention of all the adults in the room. My teachers and other lay ministers, listening intently to me repeat the words. This would usually be followed by some of my female peers performing a beautiful hymn a cappella.
Something that always struck me, almost moving me to tears, was when – at the end of the performance, we would return to our pew (bowing again, at Jesus), in total silence. There was never any applause. The words, the sounds and the prayers were for God. To acknowledge it would be rather distasteful.
I was confirmed into the Catholic Church at the age of 11 (picture of my First Holy Communion about two years earlier above, with my Gran & Papa). I chose as my Confirmation name, John, as in St John Ogilvie the Catholic Martyr.
The ceremony and the traditions of the Catholic Church always appealed to me, even now I like to think of myself as a traditionalist.
My faith grew stronger in my early teens. The Church was the only place I knew at the time where there was ever a hint of philosophical discussion. I used to spend a lot of time discussing ‘the big questions’, Fr King would remark to me one day; ‘Gary… I think you’re searching for something’. Little did he know, that thing was atheism.
It hard to describe now, what it felt like to be a believer. It had something to do with hope, the hope that I would get to meet my maternal Grandparents, who sadly died before I was born. There was also a feel of rebellion about it. I was always taught in (Catholic) school that Catholics are historically, and presently, a persecuted group. We were taught never to put the name of our school on a job application, or to draw attention to our religion. There was something secretive about it, and it was exciting. Also the knowledge that our traditions and rituals were fairly unique, which creates a feeling of belonging, and group identity.
Due to my religious schooling, in my teens most/all of my friends were also Catholics, so there was very little in the way of challenge to my faith. I would occasionally get some comments from people, however we always had well versed rebuttals ready, which we had learned in school.
At the age of 15, following some advice from my RE teacher, I went to a La Sallian Monastery in Coatbridge. The La Sallian monks are originally teaching missionaries, and that is what I went to find out about. I was luckily chosen, and for around one year I saved, and fundraised to fund a £2500 trip to rural Kenya to build a multi-purpose classroom/place of worship.
My trip to Kenya (photograph right) was an incredible experience, and one that will stay with me throughout my life.
I don’t think the trip strengthened my faith, however, the return home did. It sounds like a cliché, but it took a long time for me to understand why my Church did not practise the values it preached. Why could there be such a vast disparity of wealth, and why my Church continued to use golden goblets.
I remained very religious throughout my teens, although I stopped attending Church regularly. I remember at around age 17 or 18, my friend Chris had just read the God Delusion. I remember how he challenged my views on religion. I found it very difficult. My religious beliefs were very close to me, and I didn’t like them being questioned. I remember at one point telling Chris that I wouldn’t read the book, because I didn’t want to run the risk of becoming an atheist!
The final straw came around age 19-20. At a party with my friend Danny, at our mutual friend Graham’s house. Graham was always an interesting guy. He had an eclectic mixture of tastes, and seemed very well read. At one point religion came up in conversation and I happened to mention that I was Catholic. His response was short, but – inexplicably – resonated with me for some time, he said: ‘Gary, are you still religious?’.
I was used to people scoffing at my faith, and even being angry at the Catholic Church. This comment, however, made me pause. Why did he say still? Why did he assume there was a natural progression out of religion? I started to ask myself challenging questions. Can I be sure that God exists? Do you need religion to lead a moral life? Does heaven definitely exist?
I set myself a challenge, to try to pretend that God doesn’t exist. I stopped praying, I removed my crucifix, and stopped all appeals to the Divine.
I was immediately struck by how little changed. Life went on, the same as before.
I then started to examine the Catholic Dogma’s in more detail. The infallibility of the Pope. The industrial-scale rape and torture of children, and subsequent cover-up. The heel-dragging of the Church’s policy on contraception and human sexuality. Whereas before I revelled in the scriptural authority of the Priests, I now felt utter pity and embarrassment for the men confined to a life of celibacy and servitude.
Losing my Catholic identity came fairly easily. For a few years I would describe myself as a ‘cultural Catholic’, or non-practising Catholic. I remained, broadly, a Christian for some time though.
It was at this point that a good friend and mentor, Ali, bought me a series of books by philosopher AC Grayling. I devoured this with relish. I could never have imagined that the questions which seemed so engaging to me, were also of interest to others.
From this point on, I began a huge effort to read and better understand a range of philosophy and science writing. The more I read, the more books revealed themselves to me, and the more engaged I began to feel.
At this point, I could no longer deny it. I was an atheist.
Was I happy? Delighted? Ecstatic?
The first feeling was one of dread. Anxiety. Dissociation.
All of a sudden, I was going to die. I became mortal. I was 19/20, and it felt like I had been under a delusion for all that time.
I suffered from anxiety attacks for about 18 months. Not a condition I would like inflicted upon anyone. However, this experience sparked my love of psychology. To understand conditions like anxiety, and how incredibly common they are. The more I learned, the more comfortable I felt in my surroundings. Until I reached the stage where I was happy to relax and submit myself to the forces of the universe, which were beyond my control. All-in-all a very humbling experience, and I can only imagine how arrogant I must have been as a young Catholic.
This journey has never ended, and I’m not sure it ever will. I continue to be fascinated by religion and psychology. I love to engage in debate and conversations about the profound questions in life.
My family and friends know how important this process has been to me, and despite how strident I may sometimes be – I don’t ever want to damage anyone’s faith or beliefs. I think, and hope, that as people learn and develop they will leave religion behind. However, I do not want to (or think it’s possible) to take it from them.
Question everything, and you will find, it’s not comforting, or easy, but thinking for yourself beings great rewards.