Not My God is about the experiences of atheists in America because the U.S. is in the unique position of being a staunchly religious nation in the developed world. It’s part of what makes America America: having a gun in one hand and a bible in the other. As a result, atheists have it a lot harder here than in, say, France or Japan.
I recently spoke with a Turkish man who told me that, contrary to what I thought, it was easier to be an atheist in Istanbul than in the U.S! I still find that hard to believe, but it’s hard to deny it coming from him. I went to Istanbul for a short trip as a teenager and it certainly didn’t feel very progressive.
Even though Not My God is about the U.S., I always want to hear from our friends abroad. Especially since this puts American experiences in context. This is from a Scottish correspondent:
“I grew up in rural Scotland in the 80s and 90s, in a very small village, with an appropriately small primary school (for ages 4-5 to 11-12). When I was very young, it was the practice in my school for morning assemblies to feature a very christian theme. Prayers would be said before lunchtime meals, and visits by the local reverend were common. As a child, I had a very hard time following the words of these prayers (I had similar problems understand the lyrics in songs). One day, as we went into the tiny hall to eat our lunches, the dinner lady (a miserable, venomous personality) was leading the prayer as usual, and I started to wonder what would happen if, instead of struggling along pretending I knew the words, I simply said nothing.
“The result of this action was my being physically threatened and shouted at abusively by said dinner lady (her exact words during part of her tirade were “If you don’t join in I’ll wash your mouth out with soapy water”). Bearing in mind I was 6 years old at the time, and the thought of this filled me with dread, I did what any self-respecting 6 year old would do - I told my mother. Suffice it to say, neither of my parents are religious in any way, and had always encouraged me to think for myself. My mother took action immediately, and I was never harassed by that particular wretch again. Interesting how she felt the need to physically threaten a small child who could barely even comprehend what was happening.
“Soon though, another problem would surface. By age 10 I was healthily inquisitive, thanks to my father’s interests in science fiction, science/engineering and satire rubbing off on me (although before you make any conclusions, my father is a tradesman). Around this time the entire school was still congregating in the mornings for these christian themed assemblies. The tradition was to recite the Lord’s Prayer before assembly would begin - except that since I had no religious education outside of school (most other children went to Sunday school), I did not know the words. I also suffered from undiagnosed myopia, and could not read the words from where I usually sat. I had previously pretended to avoid trouble, but one day I decided to fight back.
“I was caught by the head teacher sitting, eyes open, saying nothing and looking entirely unenthusiastic during the prayer and was singled out and reprimanded in front of the entire school population. I believe this to be the pivotal moment in my journey towards total rejection of religious beliefs. I could not understand both their need to pray and their need to punish anyone who did not agree. I began to aggressively question ideas that others took as rote, and established a reputation as a troublemaker, an upsetter of the status quo. Not only that, but the idea solidified in my mind that I did not have God to thank for my achievements - only myself and those who supported me - and I tried as hard as possible to share these ideas with others. I know this may be a far cry from some of the more extreme examples where evangelism and Mormonism are concerned, but the running theme seems to be similar. Accept that a fictional entity is dictating your existence, or be punished.
“Later on, in high school, my religious education teacher (a Protestant) frequently opined that eventually I would understand better, and would subtly hint that I might be religious eventually. My father always said something to the effect that ‘people need religion in their lives because some essential part of their psyche is missing, or damaged, and you should be very careful with them - because their god figures absolve them of ethical responsibility in the long run.’ As I have travelled through life into adulthood, I have seen this demonstrated time and time again. I sincerely wish more people could have had parents like mine, for whom the concepts of mysticism, racism, sexism, homophobia et al simply did not enter the picture. As with religion, when I first encountered these similarly ignorant attitudes they were virtual unknowns to me, and quickly revealed their true colours.
“Thereafter I decided as a matter of principle to never again sit by the sidelines and listen, but rather to challenge the bearers of these ideas and test their convictions. I have only contempt in my heart for those who make the non-religious feel threatened and unwelcome in society.”
This is such a good illustration of what I think many atheists go through. What first struck me is that it reminded me of my mom and how when she was in school as a kid, they made all the students recite the Lord’s Prayer– and she was Jewish! I have no idea how “Christian” the school could possibly have been, since this was in Union, New Jersey, which was a fairly Jewish area.
Another aspect is “fighting back.” The writer (as a small kid, mind you) used forethought and deliberately resisted having religion imposed on him– even though he knew this would get him in trouble. How many of us had to sacrifice comfort or safety for what we know is right? How many of us could, either as adults or kids?
It is interesting that children are often able to see inconsistencies, such as those this writer saw in religion, that many adults would not see, particularly after a whole lifetime of indoctrination. From the mouths of babes, as it were. Many adults tend to think that children aren’t as “smart” as grown-ups, or don’t have the critical thinking skills (skepticism) that they will grow to have. Clearly, that’s not always the case.
That story about the Emperor’s New Clothes really captures a lot about atheism. Here we are, the kids, saying the Emperor is naked– and getting a mouthful of soap for our troubles.