I am non-religious. I always have been despite the best efforts of a Church of England Primary School, and those two or so years I spent in the company of Spiritualist friends, seduced by their ideas of an afterlife. I’m a happy non-religious, non-worshiping, atheist human being with as much good as bad to my name. When I turned my back on tempting religious ideas I didn’t find it a struggle and I know that I am fortunate because of this. I know that many people are isolated, excluded and cast out when they doubt religious teachings. For some, identifying as an atheist is a life changing event – sometimes even a life-endangering event. I think it’s important not to judge people who approach their atheism in different ways than I do, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes other atheists make it difficult.
When Sunday Assembly became a thing, and when it’s popularity soared, it made me feel uncomfortable. For as long as I have been open about my atheism I have been questioned about my ethics and morals and what I live for. The person that I am is the person I became without religion and I am proud of that. I have personally never needed church and, in some ways, find the concept of belonging to a church congregation – being a part of a ‘flock’ – creepy as fuck.
I have read horror story after horror story from friends about the awful things they had to endure growing up in families who heavily relied on the church, and I vowed to myself long ago to never take the good and ignore the bad. The sense of belonging offered by the church must be lovely, and the giving-back-to-the-community aspect is nice and all – but can that good ever erase the terrible? No.
When I encounter people on the streets offering to pray away cancer, aids, crippling disease and more… or trying to entice people to join their congregation and speak in tongues I feel angry and disgusted. There is nothing appealing about organised religion and it’s traditions for me, and that includes church congregations – even parody, feel-good, ‘we all love the universe‘ ones.
I don’t believe in any gods, but I do believe in humanity. Unlike gods, humanity isn’t perfect and has never claimed to be. That’s why I like it. When tragedies occur I am always moved by the selfless acts of people who run towards the danger to help those in need. When there is a natural disaster, a famine or some other global crisis, I am moved by the generosity of those who don’t have much to give. When I do my food shopping I am moved when I see the basket at the front of the store collecting food for the local Food Bank always overflowing onto the floor with donations.
I get the need to belong. I’ve tried belonging to atheist and secular organiations but they never felt enough, or they tried too hard, or didn’t represent atheism in the way that I identified as being non-religious. After spending so long trying to find belonging I realised that to do so I needed to look away from organisations and just live.
I’m an old-fashioned atheist. I’ve never needed my atheism to make friends or to feel a sense of belonging or meaning, even though for a little while I thought the opposite. I am not defined by what I do or do not believe in. I don’t feel a desire or need to congregate with others on a Sunday morning and give thanks or to celebrate life. I celebrate it every day, and I get meaning from the people around me, and music, theatre, art, the cinema, a good book, writing, my job, going for coffee, libraries, museums, my community, learning new skills and many, many more things.
I have never felt the need to clap, dance or sing about these things that are touching and moving and inspire me. It doesn’t seem satisfying enough, and I have heard people sneer one too many times at the atheists ‘who need church after all’. I don’t.
Yet, some atheists need church, and as mind boggling as that is to me, and as physically uncomfortable as it makes me, I understand that. Whatever floats your boat, right? Leaving religion is difficult. I understand the need for a support network for those who have started to doubt their religious teachings, or those feeling isolated or lost after leaving their religion. I just hope, deep down, that one day that celebration of what we are, and that sense of meaning, belonging and wonder can be found away from religious traditions – secular or not.