One day, when I was six years old, I was standing in the playground of my infants school. This was in the early 1970s. I can remember exactly where I was standing. I could still take you there today. It was November, a beautiful sunny day, and I had just realised that God didn’t exist.
I can’t remember exactly why I had this “epiphany”. I think it was around the same time that I realised that Santa Claus wasn’t real. (I had accidentally found a present from Santa in a wardrobe at home.)
I fell into a great depression because I was now convinced I was going to Hell. I knew that was where people who didn’t believe in God went when they died. I was only 6 and hadn’t really thought this through. It took me a while to work out that if God didn’t exist, then Satan and Hell didn’t exist either. But even with the frightening idea of going to Hell going through my mind, I couldn’t convince myself to believe in a God that didn’t exist.
Coming Out As Atheist
Now, my parents never talked about religion. And to this day I don’t know what they believed, although I suspect they were agnostics. But they sent me to Sunday School anyway, because I think they wanted me to make up my own mind. But I never discerned this, and I continued to go to Sunday School because I felt they expected me to believe in God.
Not that it was a completely bad experience. I loved the minister at my Church who would tell us the story of Pilgrim’s Progress. It was fantastic to hear him tell the story, and to this day, I still try to live my life based on the lessons I learned from listening to the tale.
But on the other side of the coin, there was a miserable old man who used to take us for bible study. He once slapped me for questioning the validity of the Bible. That was the day I decided to “come out” as an Atheist to my parents. Of course, when I did “come out”, they were fine about it, and I no longer had to attend Sunday School. All those years of secret guilt vanished in an instant.
Living As An Atheist
When we’re teenagers, we don’t like to be different. And to many people, not believing in God is a significant point of difference. So I kept my beliefs to myself. Even well into adulthood, I kept my lack of faith to myself. Partly because I don’t like confrontation, but also because my scepticism was still evolving. I still believed in Astrology well into my 30s, and I am, to this day, a mighty fine tarot reader (even though I don’t believe in it anymore).
A few years ago, I decided to change this and became more open about my Atheism. I felt there were a lot of misapprehensions about Atheists. We are not devoid of morals or evil. Nor are we unfeeling, selfish and cold. We are people like everyone else. We love, we hate, we feel happy and sad, but we do all this outside the framework of religion. By being an “open” Atheist, I try to show religious people that it is OK to be an Atheist by setting a good example.
I try not to be prejudiced against religious people, even though I find it strange that adults continue to believe in imaginary friends. And sometimes I fail and can be overly aggressive towards religious people, which isn’t fair to them.
But, at the same time, I also feel that Atheism and Religion do not exist on a level playing field in Australia. The tax exemptions applied to religious bodies are not available to secular associations. Religious leaders get more air time on news programs than Atheists. When someone is saved from a natural catastrophe, you will always see the news clip of the victim who says “it was a miracle”. But you rarely see the Atheist saying “I was just lucky”.
Of course, we do live in a nation where an Atheist can become Prime Minister, something that would not happen in many countries. But we also live in a nation where each new session of Parliament is opened with a Christian prayer; a Parliament that is meant to represent all Australians.
Dying An Atheist
Like most people, I have had losses in my life. My father died when I was 13. And my elder sister, who was 18 years older than me and like a second mother to me, died a week after her 60th birthday. This was not that long after our mother had died. At no point did my unbelief waver. At no point did I wish there was an afterlife so I could see them again. Don’t get me wrong, I miss them dearly, but I was able to let go of them. They existed, I knew them, I loved them, and now they’re gone, just as I will be someday.
I’m not scared of death. I don’t want to die — there’s so many things about this world that I don’t want to give up — but I have no choice. I simply hope my death is as painless as possible. But I am comfortable in knowing that when I do die, that it will be over. No afterlife, no second time around.