Don't be a dick

I’ve always found the notion of an intelligent creator spurious. Even as an ankle biter my cynicism was pretty scornful. In primary school I’d sit in assembly in utter befuddlement as to why we were supposed to pretend a bunch of archaic folktales were true. Why were these teachers, these authority figures that we were supposed to trust and respect trying to pass off stories as fact? What was their angle? Was it like Christmas where if we played dumb about Santa we might get a Tomy Tronic or some Zoids?

I was an obnoxiously precocious five year old. Sat there in my flared cords and itchy jumper. Hand raised like a lightening conductor, ready to do theological battle. By far the sternest and most devout of our teachers was Mrs Redcliff. She spoke of Jesus but you could tell by the hellfire in her eyes that she was 100% old testament. Her thin lips pursing ever tighter as I cheerfully highlighted the improbability of whatever passage she was reading.

Virgin births? Talking Donkeys? Zombie Jesus? Give it a rest Miss.

Why was I being chastised for asking questions? Where was this turn the other cheek vibe I’d been hearing so much about? As far as I was concerned the whole sordid business stank like five thousand magic sardines.

I saw it as a wilful war against common sense. I felt angry and frustrated that I was expected to take part in their collective delusion. A couple of times I was removed from assembly for refusing to bow my head or close my eyes during prayer. I wasn’t kowtowing to some imaginary sky god, not until they’d cured cancer and brought Chorlton and the Wheelies back.

My enthusiastic opposition to anything religious played a big part in my formative social development. I think my early disdain of it is responsible for spawning some of my most negative character flaws. The fact that I saw it as nonsense made me feel smarter than everyone else. Even more damaging was witnessing world leaders ask for god’s blessing. It instilled a belief in me that if you wanted to get on in life, you needed to be the one telling the stories instead of the one believing them. Not a great a start for a kid with megalomaniacal tendencies.

Not only did religion appear to be a risible circus of pageantry and lies, but it was clearly a force for bad in the world. To me it meant arse-numbing mornings listening to Redcliff bang on about Irad begating Mehujael or whoever. It had no positive connotations; it was all just extremists blowing stuff up on John Craven’s Newsround and shit telly on a Sunday. I remember learning that the Ku klux Klan had religious affiliations and thinking, yeah sounds about right. I was your archetypal joyless atheist, but smaller and with a bowl cut. I never missed an opportunity to tell a classmate (or adult for that matter) how trouser suckingly stupid and archaic I found their beliefs to be. I had an unwavering fundamentalism and prepubescent pomposity that made Richard Dawkins look like Bagwan Rajneesh.

When I was nine my mum got together with a Spanish catholic, it took me a couple of years to turn him but I was relentless.

“Can’t you find your own purpose in life? Are you so weak that you need to invent a cosmic babysitter to tell you right from wrong? A floating patriarchal deity that spends his time inventing scabies and thinking up ways to punish women? Is that what you want new dad? Is it?”

I didn’t give a second thought as to whether the poor bloke had something to replace this colossal spiritual vacuum I’d created in his life.

My bible baiting continued into my early adulthood, I would invite Mormons and Johava’s Witnesses in and gleefully disassemble them. I made one cry once. I thought I was doing them a favour, freeing them from their self-imposed matrix. I felt no guilt because to me god was nothing more than a contrivance of despotism and a justification for violence and tyranny.

As I got older the world taught me that I wasn’t anywhere near as clever as I’d previously believed. I made mistakes, lots of them. Homelessness meant I had to learn how to survive in contexts where my capacity for cynical analysis was worst than useless.

It took a long time for my angry fundamentalism to wain. I had to meet recovering addicts who would still be shooting low-grade smack into their perineums if they hadn’t surrendered to a higher power. I met people who considered their faith to be a sort of aspirational tool for positive transformation. That’s something I can relate to. I aspire to positive transformation too, both inwardly and in the impact I have on things. We’re an odd self-regarding species. We need to feel that things are existentially significant. For me as an atheist that purpose has to be sought as caretaker of the environment I inhabit and the people that inhabit it. Which is tough because the planet is dying and people can be dicks.

Secularism isn’t devoid of problems; we can’t all find an inner moral compass through some autodidactic inventory. I think millennials have found themselves evolving in a very difficult time to navigate morally. More than any generation before them they are made to feel ugly. They feed images of themselves through filters in order to make their avatars more attractive. Imagine being so dissatisfied with who you are, you feel compelled to make a more attractive digital version of yourself. How damaging must that be to their self-esteem? How confusing to their notion of veracity and identity? They are growing up being told they live in a post truth era. They have tinder instead of actual human connection. It could be argued that secularism has aided and abetted the capitalistic championing of the individual and instant gratification. An unambiguous commandment about how narcissism is unhealthy from an all-powerful being would probably make their lives easier. As it stands the most powerful voice they hear tells them they’re ugly and then tries to sell them a remedy.

One of the dumbest and most pervasive issues we face is sectarian thinking. It permeates every faction of society. Which can tell us most about ourselves psychology or genetics? Which can help us lead a better life, science, philosophy or religion? What are any of these things if not our floundering attempts to abate the anxiety of not understanding ourselves. We’re driven to search for meaning and purpose it doesn’t really matter which bus we take as long it isn’t mowing down pedestrians that disagree with it. It isn’t Christians or Muslims or atheists that are the problem it’s individuals that prefer dogma to decency. It’s understandable how these divisions become entrenched, we are tribal beings. Also, if you’re an imam or a theoretical physicist then you’ve invested a lot in the ideas you’re espousing, of course you don’t want to see them lose validity or power. Specialisation may be useful for the rapid progression of skills and ideas, but it can also engender conflict.

We all interpret our existence through stories. Whichever field you camp in, the danger only really comes when your chosen stories are given so much credence and power they can be used to justify murder or tell us who can and can’t love or rationalize the production of an atom bomb. There is an obvious problem with many of the old scriptures here, in that they advocate for misogyny, murder, slavery etc. That’s why for religions to earn their place in the world they need to be self-policing. They need to do more to contain their radical elements. If you advocate for a big book being the word of god, then you have a responsibility to reign in any dogmatists who follow it’s teachings to the letter. If you’re a religious person who isn’t a homophobe, who is against bigotry and violence then you have duty to speak out.

My current attitude towards religion is that as long as it’s extremists are policed and it’s bigotry loudly and internally disparaged, it’s fine. To me it sort of feels like we’re running on faulty software and god/religion is the patch. That patch can ease suffering and give us guidance. I can’t use it, because it would make me feel fragile and inauthentic, but I could probably benefit from it at times.

I have lots of religious friends and I no longer judge them for their beliefs, but I’m still an atheist. I still believe that sky gods are coping mechanisms and that Balaam’s donkey couldn’t speak Aramaic. What I’ve come to understand, however, is that it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or atheist, no ideology is bigger than the decision not to be a dickhead. Whatever your faith, ‘don’t be a dickhead’ is really the only tenet you need. So whether you’re going to spend your Sunday praying or partying, let’s all try not to be dickheads, and everything should be fine

Byron Vincent