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Ammunition for the unbeliever

There are millions of atheists, but when we come under attack, we often can't justify our viewpoint - what we need is ammunition

blog imageI was raised in a very religious household, with many hours of Sunday dedicated to praising Him in whichever denomination my mother favoured at the moment, but there was something about it that my intelligence couldn't quite accept.

Why, if God had made the world, was it so crap? Did he not care, or could he just not fix it? Why did I have to ask him each night not to kill my dad down the mines? Why did my guinea-pig have to die?

You get the drift. They're natural questions when you're small, and I was fobbed off the way most kids are. God was kind of bundled in with fairies and Nessie and Santa and making wishes on dandelion clocks - vague, omnipresent, in the background. But overall not too bothersome, other than losing my Sunday, even if I did enjoy colouring in pictures of shepherds.

I was lucky enough to have a father who was an atheist, though the most he'd fess up to was agnostic. He left the religious education of his children to his wife, but couldn't quite suppress his snorts of derision at the whole thing. Eventually I joined him, refused to go to church any longer and felt much better for it. Mum toddled along on her own, moving from Anglican to Salvation Army and back to Anglican again, with a brief foray into Spiritualism in between. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons were always welcomed at our door.

I moved away at 18 and read Classics at college, which totally put the mockers on my faith. Once you've read the New Testament in Greek, and looked at the mistranslations and interpolations and strange elisions (which exist in all ancient manuscripts), you realise there's really nothing left on which to base a religion. And the writings of Augustine, Tertullian et al seemed to me to be the work of raving lunatics.

I left college at 22 and forgot all about God for many long years, and it wasn't until my mid-30s that I became an active atheist. In spirit, Britain is a fundamentally secular country, as in France, where I now live. Unlike the US, there is no separation of church and state, but religion doesn't play a part in most people's lives and only 3 per cent of Britons are churchgoers. Most people just ignore the fact that the church has unelected representatives in Parliament, controls a large tranche of the education system and has rights that apply to no other organisation. But I couldn't ignore it any more when a family member died and his wife couldn't obtain a secular funeral for love nor money.

The problem was, J had not been a believer and he would not have wanted hymns and prayers at his funeral. His widow was tearing her hair out with despair at having these alien rites foisted on her, and the local priests were refusing to officiate without them. It seemed that the family would have to grit their teeth and go through a ceremony that violated their beliefs. But then I remembered the British Humanist Association. I rang them, found they had secular officiants, and J was able to get the funeral his wife felt he deserved - no mention of God, nor anything else he didn't believe in.

At that time in the UK, there were only seven non-religious officiants in the UK (it's an official title, and means you're legally able to 'commit' the body). It was easier to get buried in any obscure sect of the religions of the book than it was to be buried without religion at all. So I joined the BHA on the spot and have been a member ever since.

Receiving the BHA literature was a revelation - one of those lightbulb moments, when you realise that you're not alone - that there are, in fact, millions of people who think like you do. Most of them are very well educated and many are scientists, and I'm delighted to be in their company. In fact, most of the people I admired in public life turned out to be atheists, from Jonathan Miller to Claire Rayner.

Since then, I've read extensively on atheism and agnosticism, so here is a quick recommended reading list for the unbeliever. Next time one of your God-bothering friends starts up, you'll know what to say:

Jesus, by AN Wilson. A biography of Jesus. AN Wilson started his research for this book as a believer, but little by little lost his faith. Well worth a read for those who are starting to doubt.

God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. A powerful and eloquent argument against religion as a source of morality.

Misquoting Jesus, by Bart Ehrman. New Testament textual criticism for beginners, explaining how and why manuscripts were produced in the ancient world, and why so many errors arise.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. A sustained and sometimes hostile attack on religious institutions and religious belief from my favourite scientist.

Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett. Powerfully argues that religious belief has an evolutionary and natural basis completely separate from any issue of whether God actually exists.

The Portable Atheist by Christopher Hitchens. Extracts from many great unbelievers from Plato to Ibn Warraq, at times breathtaking (check out the pieces by Ian McEwan, Carl Sagan and Bertrand Russell) and at times very funny indeed.

What is Good? by AC Grayling. An explanation of why you don't need God for morality and showing that the broader thread of Western humanism has only been distracted by the orientalist cult of Christianity.

All these books are available from Amazon, and are also listed in the SecondCherry bookshops on and

Having my say

Yesterday I was on the BBC phone-in programme Have Your Say.

It was a strange experience. I imagine I was wheeled in as a token atheist for a remark I'd posted on the Have Your Say website in response to Pope Benedict's latest daft encyclical. At a guess, the Beeb watch the boards, as it was only about 10 minutes after I'd posted my comment that I was rung by a member of the production team and asked if I'd be willing to air my views on the programme. An interview followed of around 10 minutes and I agreed to go on, imagining they would ask me something about my membership of the British Humanist Association and whether atheists can live in hope (a patronising question if ever there was one).

It was Friday afternoon and I spent the rest of the weekend regretting the decision. I'm a shy and nervous creature in general and would rather have my teeth out without anaesthetic than get up on a podium. But I did once have the experience of being interviewed in the street by German television on the subject of the British Royal Family, which was an enjoyable opportunity to air my republican sentiments and I thought Have Your Say might be something similar.

Come the day I'd reckoned without being laid flat by a cold. I spent pretty much the entire weekend in bed and only crawled out grubbily in my thermals and dressing gown, to conduct the interview live on television (phone-in only, thank heavens, rather than by Webcam), half an hour earlier than scheduled and about a subject I'd not been questioned on - the supposed atheism of Hitler and Stalin.

I struggled to string together a coherent sentence while my teeth chattered together in terror but fortunately I'm interested in Second World War and Holocaust history and had read widely enough to know that Hitler was a Catholic, and that many of his closest entourage were practising Christians, so I said my pretty piece, was thanked by the producer and that was that. Feeling completely pants, I headed back to bed.

I didn't see the programme, of course, as it was live, but the DH had taped it, so some hours later I had the surreal experience of hearing myself expounding on the subject of atheism on the telly, which was very weird indeed, particularly as I sound nothing like myself, if you know what I mean. In the end, I didn't make too bad a fist of it, though as usual in these circumstances, there was more I wish I'd said. However, the incident has at least galvanised me to say something about moral and spiritual values on this website, so I'll be posting more of this nature in the future.

But until I feel up to it, it's back to bed with an aspirin and a hottie...


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