Yes, you read that right.
No, I’m not making this up.
At one point in my life I was a regular little jeebot! (I’ve totally stolen that word from Godless Mom and must attribute the invention of it, in its entirety, solely to her!)
*NB. This is going to be a really long diatribe! I’ve decided to turn it into a fixed page instead of a regular post, partly because of its huge, great length and partly because I think that it belongs together next to the other little mini-bio about me.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, Bad Girl Bex did indeed move in much different circles, to the kind she frequents today. Whilst it might surprise those of you who are familiar with my scathingly iconoclastic outbursts on Twitter, those who know me from ‘waaay-back-when’ won’t be quite as shocked to hear of my previous illicit entanglements with organised religion.
I guess it all started when at the age of 3 or 4, my parents began taking me to services and Sunday school at our local Methodist church.
A quick bit of back-story here, just to give you some context, I come from a fishing family who originally hailed from Aberdeenshire, in the north-east of Scotland. There is a long running tradition among the fishing community in that area, of the trawler-men and their families being stern, upstanding members of the Methodist church. Fishing was the predominant source of income for people in this area with most of the community being involved in the industry in one way or the other. Fishing communities also had their own chapels, where you were just expected to attend every Sunday; not to mention the myriad peripheral activities that took part throughout the year.
When my grandparents (on my mother’s side) moved to the Isle of Man, they immediately joined and became active members within the local Methodist church. They attended the women’s fellowship and the men’s fellowship during the week. Children attended church and Sunday school and some of them were involved with the choir. (Two of my aunts are amazingly beautiful singers and would often give solos or duets together during special services.) My grandmother was a fantastic cook too; a talent she passed on to my mother and her other daughters. So whenever there was a fête, a coffee morning or any sort of fund-raising event, you could be sure to see a cornucopia of baked goods and home-made jams, produced by family members.
So it was only to be expected that I too (along with my little sister who is three years younger than me) would be taken along to the cold, draughty Methodist church every Sunday, to sit on those uncomfortable, rickety old pews and receive my own initiation into the religious way of life. As a child, I only had to stay for half of the services, before being taken off with the other children for an hour or so in Sunday school; which was always a rather fun, pretty innocuous mixture of bible reading, singing and arts & crafts. I actually enjoyed it.
Being a very small town, where everyone knew everybody else, I would see friends I knew from regular school at Sunday School and I have fond memories of the various harvest festivals, fêtes, plays and Sunday school picnics we were all involved with over the years. I know that a lot of people’s experiences of the Methodist church, involve a very sombre, puritanical mixture of temperance, Christian perfection and the Wesleyan hymnal, but the church I was involved in was very cheerful, inclusive, liberal and seemed more to do with friendship & fellow than fire & brimstone.
Our minister was a young, progressive man who moved to the island with his family from Cornwall (who randomly turned out to be my sixth-cousin, somewhere along the line!) and who put most of his emphasis on what the majority of us would consider the ‘good bits’ of religion. His sermons were about selflessness, support, working together, appreciating the beauty in the world, showing kindness to others and striving to be a ‘good’ person. It never felt as though I were being scared into being a ‘good girl’ with the threat of eternal damnation, or anything like that. Far from it. In fact, if you took out the bible verses, hymns and prayers, what you were left with was a mixture of humanitarianism and gentle humour.
As I got a little older, I became involved even more in the various peripheral activities: I sang solos at Christmas, gave bible readings, performed sketches with the drama club (cringe!), attended the youth club, went on adventure weekends with my friends (where I learned to shoot and kayak and sat up at night telling ghost stories) and served tea & coffee at countless coffee mornings. I even took it upon myself to study the bible like a mofo, before taking part in an inter-island Bible Quiz, against about 30 other contenders – only to come second after I got my 1 Timothy mixed up with 2 Timothy in a moment of complete mortification! (If only I’d spent more time genning up on my NT, as opposed to worrying about all the stuff in the OT!)
It was actually around this time though, as I was preparing for the quiz, that I started to get those first intrusive flashes of doubt and disbelief. I know that I’d had the odd moment before then, where I’d briefly thought “Really? Is this actually true? Did that actually happen?” But they had left my mind as quickly as they had entered them and I thought little more about them.
I was about 9 or 10 when I was studying in preparation for this bible quiz I’d been asked to enter; and I distinctly remember my incredibly competitive side coming out in me, in much the same way it would at school whenever we had a spelling or comprehension test. I didn’t want to let my church down, I didn’t want to appear stupid and I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t a good little Christian girl who didn’t know her bible inside and out; so I went out of my way to memorise as much as I could in the months leading up to it. But it was during those months, as I did my best to wade through the bible, book by book, that those teeny flashes of doubt started to crop up more and more.
A lot of it was so utterly dry and fucking boring, it was excruciating to try and commit it to memory. But then there was other stuff that just didn’t sit right with me full stop. During sermons and in Sunday school, we’d be given little snapshots of the bible, learning about the parables and miracles performed by Jesus. But they were isolated excepts, cherry-picked by the minister or our Sunday school teacher to either teach us a lesson or prompt group discussion. Reading the bible in its entirety however, was a totally different experience and I remember thinking how horrible a lot of it was. And so it was that the first real seeds of doubt were sown, during a time when I was supposed to be showing everyone was a good little Christian girl I was.
It’s true what a lot of atheists say: that the best way to become an atheist is to actually read the bible in its entirety. Those few months spent studying it in order to compete in that quiz, really started me thinking about what it all meant. What was this book all about? Who was this ‘God’ character, who had previously been presented to me as an all-loving, caring figure during Sunday school, yet who seemed so angry and nasty in this very weird and confusing book? He seemed like a bit of a bastard really, when I sat and thought about it. But I was also very conflicted, because I never saw anyone else questioning any of these things. Was I just being a wicked, ungrateful child? I guess it’s kind of ironic that by doing everything I could to learn the bible and prove I was a good little Christian, I actually ended up starting down the path to complete disbelief and identifying as an atheist!
Over the next few years the churches in my town started up an interdenominational evening service for Sunday evenings, where all the churches (and we had about five or six I think) would come together and attend what they called ‘In His Name’ services. The idea was that with attendance numbers on the decline – and the cost of heating and overheads just for opening up on a Sunday evening on the rise – it made much more sense for everyone who liked to attend evening services, to come together in one place, in a larger congregation, for a more relaxed and modern approach to worship. The older traditional hymns were replaced with a more modern selection from Christian singer/songwriters like Graham Kendrick, accompanied by the (surprisingly talented) youth band – complete with keyboards, drums, guitars, clarinets and various other instruments. Skits & sketches by the drama group replaced long, dry sermons and there were some games included too as a way of trying to bring home whatever the ‘message de jour’ was that evening.
Churches would take turns on hosting the services each week and the Methodist church held one twice a month. It was a really relaxed, low-key affair with all the emphasis on fun, praise and coming together. As far as religious services go, it was probably the nicest example of what a positive, friendly, happy environment churches can provide society. (I know that in the years since I was a part of it, the interdenominational spirituality network on the island has grown immensely and become a much more larger, more formally organised community.)
I attended these services every time, without fail. But by the time I was about 12/13, I had stopped attending the morning services at my local Methodist church. My doubts had been slowly increasing over the past couple of years and in an attempt to figure things out, I had decided to try attending other churches, in the hope that a different one might appeal to me more. A couple of my friends Kellie & Emma, were involved in the Living Hope Evangelical Church, so each Sunday we would go there for a first service from 9am-10.30am, before cadging a lift to another church in a little village 4 miles away, for a second service.
Afterwards, we’d walk the 4 miles back home to Kellie’s house where we’d make lunch and rehearse whatever piece of drama or music we were going to be performing that evening. Then, we’d either head off to the ‘In His Name’ service at 6.30pm, or once a month, walk to another different church, in another little village 3 miles away in a different direction, for something called ‘Celebration’ – which was also interdenominational, but which had also adopted a lot of the more modern, evangelical practices like ‘Toronto Blessings‘ and periods of mediation where most of the congregation would end up speaking in tongues/raising arms in the air/rocking backwards & forwards/swaying. These were new, strange, curious experiences to me, but I wanted to experiment with as many different types of ‘worship’ as possible, because nothing was really resonating with me at this point.
So yes, I was going to three church services every Sunday. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. On top of that, I could also be found travelling to various other services and meetings at all kinds of churches, all over the island, throughout the week. I went to Methodist churches, Baptist churches, an Elim Pentecostal, a Catholic church, the Church of England, a Free Church, interdenominational services…pretty much any and every type of Christian gathering going. And not just on Sunday’s either. I’d rock up for prayer & bible study at weekday fellowships; Saturday afternoon’s were spent at ‘The Well’ Bookshop & Cafe which was next door to the place that ran the Alpha Course; I was even going to tea at the Dean of the CoE’s house every Thursday afternoon, after school. (Oh and just in case I wasn’t being enough of a dork, I was also one of the bell-ringers at the CoE cathedral too; performing for weddings and special Sundays. So you can add crazy campanologist to my resume of ridiculousness too!)
But try as I might to tap into that vein of blissful belief and serenity that everyone else seemed to be basking in, all I ever found myself experiencing was a greater sense of doubt and disbelief. I didn’t want to speak up about it to anyone else, because I was afraid of what they might say, but there were so many parts of the bible that contradicted one another, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to think. Not to mention the parts which just made me feel really uncomfortable, like the story of Lot, his daughter and his wife. And now whenever I looked at all these people, eyes closed and hands raised in praise & prayer, the envy I had originally felt towards them for having discovered the secret of tapping into this state of bliss, had now been replaced with a sense of distrust and revulsion.
How could they allow themselves to behave like that? Had they no shame? Why did so many of them seem to want to outdo each other, when it came to those huge outbursts of emotion and noise that happened whenever they ‘received the holy spirit upon them’? I’d look at their faces whenever they would go through the motions of greeting one another with ‘the sign of peace’ and instead of seeing a genuine window of warmth of welcome in their eyes, I found myself studying the forced frozen rictus they had pasted on their faces and felt repulsed at the sensation of their hands in mine as they performed the obligatory handshake. Everywhere I looked, I saw insincerity. I saw piety, smug serenity and a sense of superiority among those who ‘acted’ the most intensely. I would refuse to allow them to do the ‘Toronto Blessing’ on me, having watched how so many others had succumbed to what to me looked like a sensory overload of hypnotic chanting and rocking that would set anyone’s semi-circular canals into a spin. I wouldn’t allow any of them to do a ‘laying on of hands’ on me either after I looked on a couple of times to see some members of the congregation, placing their hands in places I wouldn’t have wanted a boyfriend to touch me, never mind a stranger.
It was all just building up to what became an abrupt realisation one day, that all of this was complete bullshit and deep down, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I didn’t actually want anything at all to do with it. Whilst going through this period of realisation, I had also found myself reading through the copies of the ‘New Scientist’ that my parents had kept in the bathroom (informally referred to as ‘The Reading Room’!) I was reading things that were so completely at odds with what was being taught at these churches and there was no way I could keep on trying to swallow back my doubts. Who was I supposed to trust? Respected, accredited experts, who produced scientific studies, backed up by experimentation and evidence, or a book written by…well…who exactly?
We didn’t have the internet back then (fucking hell, how old do I sound now!?) so I didn’t have access to things like Twitter, Facebook, online fora or blogs. I wasn’t aware of any atheist authors and I didn’t know anyone who had said outright “I don’t believe in a god” or “I’m an atheist”. But I was fascinated by science and the things I was learning from magazines, books and documentaries like Equinox and Horizon, just flew in the face of the things religion was saying. I remember at one point, as a kind of last ditch attempt at giving the notion of religion a go, reading up on the various other faiths and belief systems out there. I spent a lot of afternoons in the quiet reading room in the back of my local library, poring over any books I could find on religion looking for something, ANYTHING that spoke to me on a spiritual level. But it really was a futile exercise. I eventually had to face the fact that my mind just wasn’t wired for belief.
And so it was that eventually, through years of trying to immerse myself in religious experience, of observing so many other people in the throes of religious ecstasy and of desperately trying to get ANY of it to make sense, that through the process of examination, evaluating the evidence (or lack thereof) and finding much more inspiration from science than any so called ‘holy book’, that I stopped trying to talk myself into the idea of belief and finally allowed myself to accept the fact that I was an atheist! Hurrah!