Re: Dawkins on Channel 4 tonight

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Tue 17 Jan 2006 - 12:55:20 GMT

  • Next message: Chris Taylor: "Re: Dawkins on Channel 4 tonight"

    Chris Taylor wrote:
    > Ahem (deep breath)...
    > I'm interested in your perspective: The Dad thing (thanks btw) wasn't
    > (I'd argue) actually formative for me in my religious rejection as it
    > took a couple more years before I was aware enough of stuff to make a
    > choice (I started Catholic through vertical transmission and went away
    > from it just before I'd have been confirmed) and is some 27 years
    > distant now; I do think though that I know roughly what my path to my
    > own variant of screaming atheism was.
    > It started with my being slightly alarmed by the text of the mass (once
    > I stopped chanting and listened): Sort of like the icky feeling when one
    > hears the root of most common nursery rhymes kids recite, which are
    > mostly quite unpleasant (the rhymes not the kids). Narcissism (no other
    > gods, and keep the praise coming) not that I knew the word at the time,
    > vampirism and cannibalism (transubstantiated or not), the presence of an
    > altar with its associations (how very OT). Then I was probably like most
    > in that I saw a lot of 'evil' as I watched more news. The death knell
    > came with things like the mistranslations in the bible, the range of
    > qualitatively different faiths and of course science. Evolutionary
    > biology (my thing once upon a time) has a history that starts with
    > clerics and ends with loads of atheists :D
    > Anyway I wonder what confirmed and sustains your faith in the face of
    > what made me so very different in outlook? This is by definition
    > probably quite personal but if you can sanitise it I'd feel privileged
    > to hear it as you are clearly in possesion of well-developed critical
    > faculties.
    > Btw I didn't misunderstand I don't think, but I was already building up
    > a nice head of steam and so wasn't so clear myself: I am genuinely
    > intrigued by what gets under the wire as not absolute (objective
    > scientific) proof in the sense of God on TV saying 'Chris start saying I
    > rock or you're in for an eternity of fire boyo' but yet is more than gut
    > conviction or a response to the possibility of god? I'm repeating the
    > above request essentially.
    > Cheers, Chris.

    Ok - I don't know whether you'd classify what follows as "sanitised", but this is my background.

    [Note added later: this is a pretty long post. It really is just about my history. Don't plough through it if you're looking for stuff about religious evidence. I'll do a separate post after, about that.]

    My Dad's an atheist and Mum not really anything. They never went to church. We moved around a lot but always the village schools were Church of England so I got the odd Harvest Festival and Bible story thrown in; but that was about it, really.

    Then I boarded in my late teens and had to go to church every Sunday I was at school. I loathed it. There were bits of the Communion service I could not bring myself to say (the bits about not being worthy to gather up the crumbs under God's table, etc.) I took O level Religious Education, which actually was mostly ethics with a few bits of Scripture for decoration, and spent the entire course in fierce debate with the school Chaplain, who taught it. I could not believe that someone as bright and sensible as him could *really* believe this stuff. I felt the same about my best friend at school, a devout Christian who ended up at Oxford University and is now a barrister. How could people so intelligent turn a blind eye to the facts in this way? At about this time I first read The Selfish Gene, and was so embedded in my own atheism that I didn't even notice it in Dawkins's writing.

    At Cambridge I became even more embedded in my views. Christian Union members didn't help, lurking around every corner in the hope of a conversion. (That is seriously unfair, in retrospect, and frankly I didn't bring much joy to their lives either. But it was how it felt at the time.) Afterwards I ended up in the Philosophy Department at Sheffield, doing an MA and then PhD, and as we all know Philosophy depts are bastions of atheism. I felt very much at home.

    Then, partway through my MA, I had a bit of a personal crisis. Other people's crises are never as interesting as they think they are, so I'll refrain from the gory details. The relevant bit to this story is that, in a moment of sheer desperation, I prayed about it - to what, to whom, I didn't know, but I was pretty desperate. (This may seem pretty feeble, given how I've described my atheism; but desperate times call for desperate and apparently even shameful measures.) And then, shock horror, it *seemed* that my prayer was answered.

    Now, shock horror really is how I felt. I was apalled. I admitted it to nobody. But I had to admit to myself that something had happened which, if I was really serious about being open-minded and seeking the truth, I could not ignore. Tentatively, I prayed again - and again there was either a huge coincidence of timing or the prayer was answered.

    So I thought it was time to find out which it had been: coincidence or answer. I'm not very good at doing things half-heartedly, so I began to look into this Christianity thing in some detail. I talked to Christian friends; read literature written by Christian writers including scientists who are Christians; read John's Gospel for the first time. I already knew the arguments *against* religion - you can't study philosophy for any time and not! - but I realised that I just wasn't familiar enough with what Christianity said to know about the arguments in its favour. I also subsequently looked into lots of the other world religions (I taught multi-faith RE for a while, after my PhD). I read some bible study notes that encouraged the reader to pray at the end of each reading. I tried a couple of church services, and talked to the clergy afterwards (was that 'talked to' or 'interrogated'?).

    Throughout this time I decided that I had to consider myself on the fence, religiously speaking. I wasn't prepared to ditch my atheism on the basis of one answered prayer/coincidence. I did the rational thing and retained my faith in it, you might say, while I investigated this new piece of evidence. I continued to read the anti-theist literature, too; and to talk to other atheists - mostly philosophers, but some scientists - about this stuff.

    And then there came a day when I knew I had to get down off the fence. It was a complete bloody nightmare. All these years I had been so publicly, so definitively, so rabidly atheist. What would my Dad say? My friends? Oohhh - groan - my fellow philosophers? But either God exists or he doesn't. The claims of Christianity are true or they aren't. I had to come to a conclusion at some point, and really by now I knew what it was. So I made my decision. I came out about it. Peals of laughter rang out around the Philosophy deparment. Life went on.

    And the evidence that convinced me? I'll stick it in a separate post, as I said above. This is much too long already.


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