For my entire adult life I’ve been an atheist. Indeed, I remember the precise moment I arrived at the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. I was driving back from somewhere, mulling over, as you do, the mysteries of the universe and I got to wondering what it might be like to be dead. Would it be dark, cold, lonely? Or, if I got lucky, maybe all about me would be filled with celestial light. Well, you never know…
Except you do, really. I sort of realised that being dead would be just not existing. Would it be unpleasant at all? No, because it would be exactly like all the aeons of not existing I did before I was born and that wasn’t a painful experience in the least. It was just… nothing.
So, if not existing was all there was outside of my actual lifespan, and if that was the same for all of us which is the logical conclusion, what purpose would there be in clinging to the illusion of an afterlife? Surely the point of all that would be to offer comfort that there is something nice and bearable beyond where we are now, a sort of reward for toeing the line. But if being dead is just the same as not having been born yet, well, I can face the eventuality without needing props and pretty fantasies to soften the blow.
All of the above would have come as something of a surprise to my mother who was convinced I was a most devout little thing. She had no idea where this godliness had come from. It wasn’t a family trait. Throughout my childhood I cruised from one Sunday School to another, trying out Methodism, the United Reformed Church and the local Gospel Hall as I went. I sang jolly little songs about Jesus and sunbeams, did Bible quizzes, went carol singing and learned verses from the New Testament off by heart.
My older sister thought I was quite deluded and told me so often enough. My younger brother preferred to spend his weekends playing football. Me, I put on my best clothes and trotted off to Sunday School. My mother was quite concerned that I might get in with the wrong sort of people and join a cult. I might be brainwashed, might suddenly decide to run off and join a commune in Israel or give all my money to the poor. I was only eleven. I’d barely heard of Israel let alone developed a yearning to relocate there and I had no money, however deserving the poor might appear.
What none of my critics seemed to grasp, though, were the bits of added value that came with all the singing and jubilant praying. Above all else, the things Sunday Schools were best at, in my view, were trips. Especially the annual jaunt to the seaside, usually free to those who attended religiously (sic) all year. Those were pretty damn good, and believe me, I knew what I was talking about. I was a connoisseur of Sunday School trips. The parties and social life generally were also well worth having. What was a spot of Bible-reading when compared to a free Christmas shindig, trips to the cinema, and a chance to hang out with my mates who had also cottoned on to this? My and my best friend, Annette, even started smoking on the Sunday School trip when one of the leaders left twenty Woodbines lying about. Oh, happy days…
I daresay my mother was relieved when, eventually, I outgrew seaside excursions and found other things to do on Sunday afternoons. Puberty, studying for my O levels, a weekend job to fund my growing interest in clothes and alcohol. The Gospel Hall could no longer compete. God and I went our separate ways.
The last I heard the Gospel Hall had been demolished and they built a branch of Starbucks on the site so I suppose young people still flock there, though for an entirely different sort of spiritual experience.