It was in the month of May during the post-war working class austerity of Glasgow in Scotland, I was born the son of an army Sergeant and a shop worker, into a close-knit, loving, loveable and modest Presbyterian home. Brought up within a consanguineous household I wanted for little. Responsive and energetic, I had a happy unblemished childhood, brought up to feel the unease of wrong-doing. Still too young perhaps to form, in the back of one’s mind, the uncertain outlines of an excuse.
Aged seven I sailed with my family from Tilbury, London on the long voyage to Adelaide, Australia together with 1,100 other eager immigrants. I celebrated my eighth birthday crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. Three and a half years later I would experience a secondary alienation on returning to Glasgow due to my mother’s susceptibility to the excessive summer heat of South Australia.
The colossal voyage was notable, I later came to realise, for a complete circumnavigation of the continent of Africa as the outward journey was detoured around Cape Hope due to the closure of the Suez Canal in 1957, though subsequently re-opened on our return trip in 1961. From London, we sailed for the Canaries then on to Cape Town and Durban, crossing the Indian Ocean to Freemantle and finally arriving in Adelaide. The return journey was via Colombo, Bombay, Aden, Port Said and Marseille.
On the open sea only the passage of the sun and moon over the ocean accompanied the rise and fall of the ship. This feeling of being connected without barriers to the ocean gave me a huge new feeling of space. An unexpected gap of time had opened up suddenly in everyone’s life. It was this epic voyage, together with growing up in and around Adelaide’s great adventurous ‘toxic’ hinterland, that reminds me to this day of an extraordinary and vivid time in my life. An experience of the world gained from an intense fascination for the mysteries of my surroundings, seeing through the eyes of a youthful explorer all the thrills and challenges of a pioneering age. A time when one meets those moments which appeal forcibly to an expanding imagination. As a result, and together with the many wondrous places I have visited since, the world was made not small but greater in the rich diversity of cultures I have encountered as both child and adult. During this childhood adventure when I witnessed the vast gulf between rich and poor, privilege and destitution, I was nevertheless innocent of the geo-political whys or wherefores of empire, domination and subordination. Whilst those early images are still clear in my mind, I now have alongside them, as I have grown older, an increased understanding of the value of life and a deep belief in freedom from repression and discrimination in all its forms.
Much of my early childhood was often subdued by a sense of wonderment which, with a growing habit of day-dreaming, often rendered me silent. It prompted my mother to announce, “Our Alistair’s a quiet one; you’re a thinker, aren’t ye son?” At times I have felt this to be a matter for congratulation. Confirmation of that can be found in the exemplary sentence ‘Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.’ I was therefore happy in the assumption that Mothers always know best, the maternal voice that keeps you on the straight and narrow. Perhaps the reason I shied away from serious trouble, or refused to be enticed into membership of any of the ‘tooled-up’ gangs that swaggered around Glasgow’s notorious streets and housing schemes.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve dreamed of brawling with lunatics, replaying the encounter in my mind time after time, imagining the perfect response – the perfect right hook, the perfect double-leg takedown, the perfect head-butt. I, nevertheless, managed to ‘body-swerve’ the serious, mad-eyed lunatics, and evade the allegedly mean city hard men, the scarred losers with razors in their neatly tailored pockets and a lifetime of defeat to avenge, with a wise combination of wit and discretion.
More the case, my pals and I were akin to a ‘lively bunch’, a spin-off from sporting endeavours and many of our harmless exploits took place after a hearty family teatime meal and a game of football. As it fell dark, now and then, we would daringly descend to a wild rampage through strangers back gardens, leaping fences and kicking over bins, being careful not to garrotte yourself on a clothes-line. Occasionally, in moments of extreme revolt, we swore loudly or gestured rudely at passing traffic. This was the extent of our rebellious ‘bunch’.
Not all my friends were Presbyterian; some I knew were of a different faith because they went to a different denominational school – they were Roman Catholic – for a Protestant schoolboy the nearest thing to one’s enemy. Whilst many of my friends were themselves Catholic, the awareness of the religious intolerance and bigotry running through the fabric of our city never hindered nor marred those friendships. As a member of the Boys’ Brigade, I attended church service regularly, a place I imagined to be some form of friendship club for family and close neighbours or friends, a simple if select social gathering where the telling of unusual and often sensational stories gained the imagination. Never once questioning my inclusion into this association, I was a willing participant believing the adults who were instructing me neither had reason to tell me lies nor in their innocence sought to do so. I wore a smart uniform; I studied in bible class, formed friendships through football, table tennis, Indian club exercise and gym. I never once recall being wilfully disobedient and certainly not to God, having an idea it would make him angry and for this I should and would be severely punished. I remember being told every time I stupidly hurt myself, that it was God punishing me.
My wavering suspicions, however, were finally confirmed when the toxic ingredients of religion arose from the seeds of my faith and met with the dry, stony face of occult immortality and how submitting to the totalitarian authority of an unknown presence so to claim an everlasting peace came from a collection of falsehoods nestling under a host of horrifying provisions. The malign teachings were craftily understated. Yet here I was in church, a church of Christ, where I realised the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead certainly stay that way. It was here too, whilst sitting innocently beneath the fashionable gaze of Christ that somehow I had unwittingly and mysteriously inherited the abysmal stain of a sinner. It was by this arbitrary authority that I should regard myself as depraved, rather than evolved. I later came to realise how someone of vague divine authority, perfectly indistinguishable from any other mortal human other than defining themselves ‘holy’, had come up with the incomprehensible notion that sin is your birthright, whether you accept it or not. It was a fearful concept. A fear without any thrill. It was the first time in my life I had felt personally threatened and not in the merest sense. This was a threat which came from out of the unknown and carried with it such an utterly malevolent, tenacious terror it was beyond rational knowledge – here, in the presence of everyone who loved me, came the fear of eternal damnation!
Thankfully from out of all of this, over time, I realised, axiomatically, life goes on with or without God. The time had come to begin to live without the neurotic relics contained in religion, to accept that faith is a simple euphemism for gullibility and that religion can only betray you in the end, a harmful man-made stop gap between life and death. If there is a need to take a stand at some point to establish an epistemological truth about the events of nature, why should our aggregate knowledge and critical intelligence of such events remain stubbornly and irrevocably rooted in a monopoly of so-called ‘wisdom’, hidden in the squalid candlelight of mythical revelation, and gained through the infantile philosophy and morality of Bronze Age goat-herders? Must this be where our endeavour to the truth begins and ends? Thus, it is my firm belief that all children should be educated without the ill-conceived dogma of such archaic philosophy. However, the most important element in the ‘psychic inventory’ of a civilisation happens to be religion.
Part of our archaic heritage is the assumption that nature dominates man and seems to threaten humanity with hostile events – earthquakes, floods and storms, illness and death itself. Religious ideas offer a way of coping with this situation by suggesting that these happenings occur perhaps to punish men for wrongdoings, and that the gods who cause these events can be placated by worship and sacrifices. It is the feeling of helplessness which gives rise to religious ideas and practices which in turn offer comfort and some protection, partly by giving men/women confidence. This feeling of helplessness has been experienced before, ontogenetically, during the person’s own babyhood and childhood, and phylogenetically, when human society began to evolve. The gods, and later the one God, come to be like parents. First, goddesses offer comfort, just as the infant’s mother did; then the male gods, or God, offer protection against external reality, as a father does for a child. Gods are also dangerous figures, again like the father. This is perhaps because the infant’s relation with its mother is disturbed when the child begins to perceive its father as another figure in the family. These ambivalent feelings are transferred to the gods.
Religion is, therefore, an ‘illusion’, an idea, or belief, based on wishes. Delusions are based on wishes too, but they are in contradiction to reality. An illusion is not necessarily false nor contradictory. For example, a girl may have an illusion that a prince will come and marry her. This could happen; but it is based on a wish. That a Messiah will come and establish a New Age is a belief based on a wish too, and it might happen. It is either an illusion, or a delusion, depending upon how realistic one thinks the belief to be. The appeal of religion is not based on evidence, for there is very little, nor on reason, for the reasons offered for faith are unconvincing, but on illusions – ‘fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind’. Let me ask: would you fly in a faith-based plane? If you wouldn’t fly in a faith-based plane, why would you want to formulate a social institution based on faith? Has anyone, in the whole history of human evolution provided good evidence that faith really is a reliable guide to reality? No! These adulterated wishes concern the need for protection through love from a parent; the need for relief from the feeling of helplessness which adults retain from their babyhood; and the desire to see justice fulfilled, which is met by positing another, future, life. Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion sets no store by verification.
Hence, belief is not the same as knowledge, and believing is not the same as knowing. Shouldn’t our first instinct therefore be one of suspicion? If you have seen God then fine, go ahead and live in comfort with that belief, but I’d rather be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite. To feel love, hate, anger, compassion, grief without any intervention from a supernatural God reveals an instinctive facet of our genetic ancestry; other animals safely do outwith indoctrination of the supernatural display all such attributes. Should we therefore allow for any human feelings or emotions that haven’t yet been fully explained be treated as inexplicable and therefore supernatural? If we cannot feel love, hate, anger, compassion, grief or indeed experience death without the intervention of a supernatural entity, then I’m compelled to ask what it is that’s lacking in our conception of human instinct and the material value of reality. We cannot recognize the existence of something unless we have a direct knowledge of it. Biblical graffiti may endorse the image of a supernatural realm, in the same way that pictures of fairies invite us to provide evidence for their existence. Alas, we have absolute proof of neither. Religion is like any other snorting, injecting addiction. It has its growers and suppliers and its dealers, and once it’s in your blood it takes over without authority, with the very same persistence and insidiousness of any lethal drug.
So where do we go from here? Without a doubt, religion has played an important part in the human story. It once provided answers to questions about the world we live in and purported to reveal the meaning of life. As science ebbs ever closer to answering the crucial facts of existence, believers will continue to be challenged to let go of the ramblings of a bygone era.
Later in life, mired in his deepening depression, I watched my father become a virtual recluse and succumb to old age and death with a haunted, dreamless look of resignation. He had no time for God, unlike my mother, and saw his death approaching with all the stoicism of an agnostic. Fourteen years later when my mother lay close to death, her murmuring whispers recanting mythical sins to a fictitious redeemer, I was thankful the age of her growing confusion and personal humiliation was coming to an end. Death may be the end but it is not a curtailment of everlasting, loving memories. I am happy when I look back at childhood photographs from the ’50s where my parents retain all the glamour and poise of film stars.
To these events I’ve given a particular emphasis not in any vain attempt to outrun my own genetic viruses of the mind but to admit when they both died I struggled to conceive I would never see them again. It was an understandable and instinctive anguish, a selfish regard to a hopeless fantasy. I was demanding of ‘Death’ my own form of self-delusion as relevant to a child, looking down on the dead body of one’s parent, and hearing for the first time a brassy yet silent voice inwardly proclaiming: That is a dead body; and in course of time that is what you will become.
By the time my own children and grandchildren were born, together with that unprecedented moment of joyful adoration, I was well aware that birth occurs without any transcendental or numinous entity to intervene upon these little miracles of Nature, simply by chance of evolution they had come into this world.
Some day we will all, thankfully, concede to our mortality. Many will succumb without fear, while others earnestly wish for that fateful alliance, guilty or otherwise, but sadly most will pass from this life having dreamed of little beyond the obedience of their fateful circumstances. Dreams end where conscious thought begins, and my dreams have ended here in a kaleidoscope of thoughts from a mind laid bare which, in time, will eventually fade and hide amidst the dust and silence of the upper shelf. It is my wish to humbly pass on to the reader an aspiration which has excited my imagination since adulthood. It may serve also as a latent attempt to unravel much I have puzzled over my entire adult life.
The bare act of being is an outrageous improbability, a sense of continual astonishment. After years of worthless brooding, I find, in this matter, I still hover somewhat on an air of general humility in line with fluctuating waves of enigma. Nevertheless aiming, I hope, at turning my unsociable remoteness into something positive. Thinking I have brought myself not so much to an opinion as a stance. Forthwith I am always to be conscientious, meticulous and explicit whenever possible. After all, when one’s life is a matter of individual conscience, content with memories of one level of intensity or another, memories of moments of absolute conviction, we alone remain responsible for all we might think, and say and believe in. Truth and belief may be subjective edicts and prejudices we are expected to defend. But rational justification is where truth and belief are exposed. To myself in particular I offer this humble piece of advice – ensure you have the uncompromising and affirming depth of belief, the equivalent solemn intensity as one’s ‘enemy’, slavishly rejoicing in falsehoods, before the battle gets under way.
In the presence of such feelings and all that has been revealed to me since, I can say with positive satisfaction I am an avowed antitheist and unless someone opens that heavy door to heaven and introduces to me a God beyond doubt I shall resolutely remain so.Tagged with: Antitheist • Barnsley • England • Glasgow • Scotland