Born: Sunderland, UK in 1969
Location: Dublin, Ireland
Organization affiliation: none
Label: Atheist and Secularist and Humanist and Rationalist
It’s More Than Ok to be an Atheist – It’s Brilliant!
My name is Deveril and I am an atheist – but I am many other things as well, including a husband, father, son, teacher, artist, rationalist, humanist, ex-vegetarian, never-smoker, writer, philosopher, facilitator, friend, (half-)brother, uncle, cousin, nephew, cat-owner; and I have experienced love, hate, elation, depression, jealousy, compassion, fear, bereavement, pain and many of the emotions and sensations that we as primates and mammals share with other humans and other species.
And I have done and been these things for over three quarters of my life without any need for a god-figure in or guiding my life and thoughts.
I am 42 years old, but remain youthful in my thinking about what our role as living things might be – but that’s not to say that I think there IS a purpose or reason as such, or a meaning ascribed to us by anything other than “we just are”. All living things share a commonality – life – and that is simply a condition coming about from the way that some atoms, and whatever else the universe is made from, have collected together for a very brief time to ‘behave’ in a certain way. Nothing more, nothing less.
However, as we have evolved into sentient, thinking, self-aware creatures, we have become concerned with ‘why’ we are here, rather than just existing to survive in a hostile sometimes abundant, sometimes stingy environment. We have developed emotions out of sensations from, and interactions with, external stimuli.
So, why say all that?
I think that if we all let ourselves stop being concerned with ‘why’ we are here, and just did as most of the other living things on this planet do – get on with living – then we would see a reduction in human vs human struggle, and more cooperation to live happy lives.
It’s a dream of mine to see a world where religion does not exist – but a world that still has cultures and sub-cultures based on different tastes and preferences, without any one of them saying their way of doing things is the best. We can co-exist without fighting; we can share the resources of the planet more effectively than we do now. People can be equal, should be equal.
When I was a child, growing up first in the north-east of England and then from about the age of 5 in a small town called Ipswich in England, I went to schools where hymns were sung in assembly and prayers said at various times, or bible stories used to illustrate issues. My mum had married a Roman Catholic man and I was christened at the age of about 3. I even went to RC schools run by nuns for a couple of years. At home we had picture books of bible tales – the images were vivid and I can still recall the feel and smell of the books, and the emotions the pictures stirred in me. I had this vague notion of there being a god – as I was told there was – and I remember reading the bible to learn more about this character: what was his name? (ah, Yahweh or Jehovah, I discovered); where was he? what role did he have in my life? if I prayed to him, would my prayers be answered?
I did pray. But my prayers (probably the usual childish things) didn’t seem to make a difference to me or my family. I started to ‘test’ god. (Religious people will tell you that you can’t test god… but I’m not sure why not… is he not ‘big’ enough to take it?) Nothing that I prayed for happened. I began to question why I should even bother. But still, at school we were made to sing songs telling us that god has got the whole world in his hands and he made all things great and small.
Then at the age of about 10, my mum finally told me the story behind my conception and birth… My dad wasn’t my dad, but my step-dad. This was both a great shock and a great relief for me – I had always felt slightly different to my siblings, who were very fair, while I was darker. But as my step-dad was also dark, it didn’t seem too odd, I suppose. My ‘real’ dad (genetic father) was an Italian, I was told. That explained why I felt a little out of place in my family and even among my friends (even though they were quite diverse).
But, it was a shock all the same – I hid it from people for a decade, until I started to realise that it was part of who I was. And it made me think that if what we thought about ourselves was real turned out to be false, then maybe other things were like that too.
I can’t recall any one particular thing that led me to stop believing in god, except the need for anything spiritual in a religious sense began to leave me. From a young age I had also been somewhat obsessed with UFOs, ghosts, and the supernatural – fueled by Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and books supposedly about real hauntings and alien visits. I read books by Erich von Däniken, but what it made me think was that if the bible, for example, shared so much with other old texts and beliefs, then perhaps these things were just all mythology created by people without the understandings we have now of the universe.
Aged 10 I went regularly to a Saturday-morning club at the town’s museum, where the fossils and other artefacts from the human and natural sciences charted development and diversity of life that was amazing to me. I had always been interested in dinosaurs too, and saw how they didn’t fit with what the creationists were saying and that, for me, undermined the whole biblical account. I investigated the theory of evolution alongside exploring fallacies and superstitions – and discovered how these beliefs were human inventions based on misunderstandings of cause-and-effect or natural events.
We are part of nature, I concluded, but somehow long ago or over time humans had begun to see ourselves as different to it, and superior to it. But why? I wasn’t sure why we felt superior to nature when it seemed to get the better of us in so many ways. Plus I thought: we (humans) aren’t so perfect either – why are we so faulty if made in a supposedly perfect god’s image?
In the first few years of secondary school (from 11 years old) we were made to sit through RE lessons (religious education), but it was Christian education – a classmate sat outside during these classes: he was Muslim. I became aware of religious differences – and even somehow forced to observe so-called racial differences (up until then I had hardly been aware of any distinction to be made between people with different skin colours; these differences were only superficial to me, but I began to learn that these differences had been used throughout history – and to this day – as reasons to discriminate and dominate).
As I’ve mentioned, I had always been interested in understanding history and realised that many things we had been told were wrong – in the old books I had, discussion of the Crusades, for example, seemed to gloss over some of the religious aspects. My interest in the Second World War led me to find out more about Nazism, antisemitism and the Holocaust. How could this collection of atrocities have occurred so recently?
Through my early teens I was very into role-playing games (starting with Tunnels & Trolls, moving rapidly onto RuneQuest 2). My close friends were my constant partners in imaginary explorations of character (we were less interested in using dice to fight, and more concerned with personality development of our odd-ball adventurers – we identified with them as outsiders, weirdos and misunderstood). The magical worlds we played in were ruled over by gods and goddesses, pantheons of order and chaos, cults and orders devoted to deities and ritual; worlds where divine intervention was possible – but for me this reinforced the lack of supernatural or godly in our world.
By 16 I was interested I why people were religious, but knew that I could never be a believer. My mum was getting more and more sucked into the local church and becoming a born again Christian.
One day I was in the house of a Mormon schoolfriend, and we were discussing his beliefs, and were on the topic of evolution; he was saying that god had planted fossils to test our faith. At that moment there was a knock at the door – it was some of the missionaries (brother this and brother that). To my friend and them it was somehow (I think) a sign that I was to be converted (I’m still not sure how this connection was made, if indeed it was). They took me on a trip to the London HQ of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints. I watched ‘conversion’ videos and met the head of the UK Mormons (he gave me a book that I no longer have). The whole thing was a laughable experience and I knew that there was nothing they could say or show me that would sway my views. It all seemed so ludicrous – I couldn’t understand how anyone could have been duped by it all!
About the same time I was rebelling at home, getting more withdrawn, unsure as to who I was – I didn’t know my real father and it wasn’t until I was 30 that I met him. I had a bible which I defaced by writing in it, removed pages from and threw into my bedroom bin. My mum found it and her born-again principles were deeply offended. It had been a message to her that I didn’t believe in her religion and could challenge it in the most direct way imaginable – destroy its foundational text as easy as that.
I have not since that day had a discussion with my mum about religion – although she said something along the lines of “oh he’s not reading him is he?!” to my wife recently upon seeing a copy of Dawkins’ The God Delusion in my room.
These days I do not feel a need to say “I am atheist” unless I have a good reason to. I’m not ashamed of my atheism, far from it, but I feel disrespected when people start to talk about their religion and/or make assumptions that I share with them their faith (or a faith in something) – so I don’t disrespect others in that way; religion or lack of it is a private matter, or at least should be. I’m careful not to get into any debates with religious people – they mostly end up going circles. I state that I am interested in evidence-based knowledge, be it scientific or whatever else, and not things that have just been inherited from the past, in old books or through rituals handed down through time. I have tried to stop using any religious or superstitious phrases – it may be rude, but I never say “Bless you!” if someone sneezes. I tell people that I’m not into alternative or complementary ‘medicine’ and ‘treatments’ in the same way – my whole world-view is based on what we have learned through empirical means, and not because someone who didn’t understand the world many years ago decided to give things a divine reason. I am not closed-minded (as I have been accused of being), and I am open to change if there is good evidence presented to me. (I was vegetarian for 25 years until I read about why I was putting on so much weight, and changed my diet because of recent scientific understanding of how our body metabolises certain foods – I now eat meat and I have lost weight and feel much better!)
Fortunately I found a lovely woman who shares my views (more or less) and who rebelled against a Catholic upbringing in a small village in Spain. We now have a daughter (she is 3 years old as I write) and she is godless and happy. I just wrote a blog post about it: Lost for Life
It’s more than OK to be an atheist – it’s brilliant!