When I was young my mum told me that being naughty and telling lies would put a black mark on my soul, so that god could see it. I now know my mother doesn’t believe this to be true, but for a good while I thought it was fact and I was scared. At school I would be forced to sit on my left hand because I am left handed and my teachers often thought this was blasphemous. I was ashamed. I’m not anymore.
As I grew older I learned that my father was something called ‘atheist’ and that he didn’t believe in god. It blew my little mind that someone could be so defiant. I was a child who had been brought up in an environment where religion was normal and the existence of god unquestioned.
To suddenly learn that my own father didn’t believe in any of it was eye opening. I think I was about nine or ten at the time. It also scared me because he didn’t think those who have died are still around in heaven. Up until that point I had believed that everybody went to heaven or hell – the idea that this was false was deeply troubling, but the question had already been placed in my mind and the doubt started to build – eventually resulting in me realising that I too was atheist. It was a long struggle because my father doesn’t talk about his non-belief. I wish he had because it would have helped, but what’s done is done.
Before that happened I found it really difficult to let go of the idea that the deceased were completely gone. I could accept there was no god, I could accept the bible might be false and all the other things my father believed to be true, but I didn’t want to let go of the idea that I would one day see the grandfather Id’ never met. I was counting on meeting him, it was too cruel to even think I wouldn’t.
This is where my fascination with death and an afterlife really blossomed from – with encouragement from television shows and websites about paranormal research. The religious ideas that had been forced upon me at school as a young child had shifted into the idea that people do live on, just in spirit form. Heaven became ‘the other side’. It was comforting at the time. I can see that now.
For a few years it worked, but after a while I started to see the flaws in the idea that ghosts exist. I came to realise I was fooling myself all over again. I was terrified at the prospect of not really knowing anything about what happens after life.
People I had trusted promised me that I’d see those I’d lost and suddenly I realised I couldn’t rely on their words and I felt isolated and confused. Then, for reasons I can’t even remember, I purchased two books.
One was called ‘The God Delusion’ and the other was called ‘God is not great’. I read those books and I found answers. It wasn’t instantaneous – it took time and a lot of reading other similar things, and watching other people who said they were atheists, but those two books led to a clarity that I have held on to ever since. A clarity that often makes me weep at the very nature of the universe around me. I recognised myself as the atheist I have always been – ever since birth, and then I truly started to live.
I recognised the personal beliefs others had tried to push on to me throughout my life and I came to realise that life is insignificant and pointless – and that’s what makes it so fucking awesome.
Today the news broke that Christopher Hitchens passed away. I sat in sad silence as I thought over the impact that Hitchens had on my life. It feels odd that a stranger, who didn’t know I even existed, helped me understand my life better than my own parents could. This led me to feel not sad, but humble and grateful. I also felt very fortunate.
Thank you, Christopher Hitchens. Your words and voice will live on through those of us that they helped without you even realising it.