Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted April 8, 2015

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A Letter to Athiests

by jpduck

Dear Atheists,
I am not writing to you because I seek to change your beliefs. I cannot imagine how anyone could be justified in doing that. I simply thought you might find it of interest to know how I arrived at my personal belief system.
It could be said that I was destined from birth to reject all religions. My parents and my stepfather were all staunch atheists. But, curiously, I was sent to a series of three boarding schools all with a strong Christian foundation. Yes, you’ve guessed it, those schools’ obsessive and unsubtle approach to ‘religious education’ merely reinforced my birthright. A few examples may illustrate:
Even before the first of the boarding schools, my parents sent me to a local nursery school run by nuns (perhaps it would be inappropriate to say ‘God knows why’).
At the end of my first day there, when my mother came to collect me, she asked, “What did you learn at school today?”
I replied, “I learned all about God and Adam and Eve.”
“Oh, really? What did you learn about them?”
“I learned that God was the nasty one because he wouldn’t let Adam eat the apple.”
[Hey, nuns, stop it! You’ll do yourselves an injury with all that spinning]
Being only three at the time, I have no memory of this. I know about it though, because, at regular intervals, my mother found great satisfaction in recounting the story to others.
At the second of the two boarding schools, every morning before breakfast, we were required to study the ‘Context’ for the day. This consisted of a Biblical quotation together with a ‘commentary’ on its meaning and implications. A little later in the day, at the morning religious assembly, one boy was picked at random to be quizzed on that day’s Context. If his answers were found wanting, he was beaten with a cane.
Interestingly, this school’s glossy prospectus contained a statement that the school had a policy of no corporal punishment; I had read this for myself before I started there. This certainly informed my views about the honesty and integrity of Christianity.
On Sundays we were crocodiled down to the local village church for morning service. The vicar, an elderly gentleman, probably coasting home to retirement, would always regale us – the boys and the villagers – with a lengthy sermon. This always ended with the same ritual words which I could never make out. But the last four ‘words’ were, I was sure, “Dis-Most-Guss-Ting”. I think, in the back of my mind, this was always the poor man’s reflection on the inadequacy of his sermon.
It was also at these church services, that I was first struck by the strange language to be found in the Book of Common Prayer. I especially wondered at that part of The Confession where the congregation declare themselves to be “miserable sinners”. Even at the tender age of twelve, it struck me as vanishingly unlikely that all these village worthies could really think of themselves as miserable sinners. It was another chip knocked out of the old integrity thing.
Later, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, I moved on to a ludicrously designated ‘public school’.  This, as you probably know, is the exact opposite of what it says it is and of what it actually is in the USA. Public schools in Britain are extremely expensive, privately-owned boarding schools (which are, grotesquely, permitted to claim charitable status). They are regarded by the so-called élite as bastions of society, their aim is to produce the ruling classes of the next generation and they should, in my opinion, be closed down as dispensers of child abuse.
But I digress. It was at this third school, when I was about fifteen, that the padre, who took us for Scripture lessons, outraged us by setting us an ‘assignment’ (roughly the equivalent of ‘homework’, but not done at home, of course). This was unheard of for Scripture. He asked us to write an essay on ‘Faith’.
What did I know about faith? Nothing. It was foreign territory. But, determined to take the subject seriously, or so I thought, I opened the essay with the words: ‘Faith is that quality in a person which allows him to believe what he knows to be untrue’.
This, I am sure, has you squealing with delight. But I must add that, if writing the essay today, I would probably say something slightly different – but more of that anon.
Soon after handing in my essay, I was astonished to receive a summons to go to see the head teacher.
“Mr Jarvis has passed your essay on faith for me to see.”
“Really, sir? Did you like it?”
(I was a cheeky little sod; still am, I dare say).
“I thought it was an unpleasant and cynical piece of work.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand, Sir. I thought cynical meant not believing in goodness or worthiness. What is there in my essay that suggests that’s how I am?”
“Well, perhaps not. But this is a Christian school.”
“It is indeed. But it is also a school that ‘encourages its pupils to develop their own ideas and ideals.’”  (I was still an avid reader of glossy prospectuses).
“Oh, go to Russia.”
With this, I was dismissed.
At another of the many meetings I had with the head, on this occasion in company with three or four of my friends, he wanted to know why, during prayers, we sat bolt upright rather than with bowed heads.
“It is out of respect for Christianity,” I replied.
“How is that showing respect?”
“I respect Christianity, but I do not believe in any of its premises. I do not believe in God. So if I were to bow my head during prayers, it would be false – a mockery – and therefore very disrespectful of Christianity. I assert my right to be an atheist as strongly as others assert theirs to be Christians.”
Yes, you read that correctly, I did tell the head that I was an atheist. So you may well be wondering why I am writing this. Is it just to tell you that I agree with you?
Well, no. It was partly because of this curious confrontation with the head master that I started to think a lot more about what I believed. I knew that I didn’t believe in God. But I also knew that I could not assert that there definitely was not a God. The simple truth was that I hadn’t the faintest idea.
So then I started to wonder why I was so clueless on the subject, and I realised that it was because, in order to know God exists, you need to have, as a minimum, some evidence of his existence. This, of course, is not required merely to believe there is a god.  By its very nature, such evidence will never be found. If God does exist, he must be completely beyond physical reality. To ask for evidence of him is much the same as asking someone who only possesses a tape measure to weigh a boulder. He cannot. He doesn’t have the means to do it.
Similarly, humankind is not equipped, internally or externally, to find evidence of God. It is, as they say, beyond our ken. He is unknowable.
So if I were to write the first sentence of that Scripture essay today, what would it be? I suppose, something like ‘Faith is that quality in a person that allows him to believe in something of which it is impossible to obtain physical evidence.’
So, dear atheist, I don’t give a damn what you do or don’t believe. I am simply putting it to you that agnosticism is the only truly honest position to take. We can no more know that God does not exist than that he does, for exactly the same reasons. That is why I am an agnostic.
Furthermore, dear Christians, Jews, Hindus and followers of Islam (if you are, perchance, taking a sneaky look at this letter) you may feel inclined to protest that I have no ethics, no morals, no guiding light. Let me say that you would be wrong. All my life, I have had deeply-held beliefs. I have always believed in the importance of honesty, truth and integrity, in the importance of caring about and for others, and in the need for people to strive to avoid judging others. People do what they do. Whatever that is, there will always be a cause of this behaviour, and that cause will not be innate evil – that’s just God stuff.
Or, as Nelson Mandela so beautifully put it, ‘There is at the heart of everyone a pure, golden flame of goodness, which can sometimes become hidden, but which can never be extinguished.’
May the spirit of peace and love be with you,
Passionate Agnostic.


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