Confession of an atheist

“I don’t believe in this heaven nonsense. When you’re dead you’re no better than a dead dog or cat”, said my maternal grandfather, John Milner. Aged seven I had seen my fill of dead cats during my foraging through bombed out buildings in south London and knew instantly what my granddad was getting at. Dead cats were smelly, fly-blown, shudder-making and disgusting. Oddly, granddad’s words did not make me hope for a more salubrious terminal destination. If anything they served to reinforce my incipient atheism, the feeling that if there really was a god then he would not allow all the horrible things to happen in the world (it was wartime after all).

Looking back, my grandfather’s atheism was remarkable in that in his working life he had been a highly skilled ornamental metalworker with Bainbridge Reynolds, leading specialists in ecclesiastical metalwork (check ’em out on Wikipedia). Granddad’s work was on display in churches throughout the country. So he owed his livelihood to Christianity and its trappings.

My father, a Bengali doctor, was what I suppose might be called a “social hindu”. He often took us to Indian functions celebrating some religious festival but his main motivation was to socialise with others of the Bengali diaspora rather than indulge in anything spiritual. True, he had from time to time officiated at Indian funerals as he knew Sanskrit and could give the deceased a respectable send off with appropriately holy words. We had no idols in our house and I had often thought that my father’s effective absence of religious belief was possibly a reaction to his mother’s piety. As I discovered many years later when I visited her in India, she spent much of her day in prayer, though whether this was because of deeply held beliefs or because it was the respectable thing for a widow of her generation to do, I never discovered.

At my primary school our teacher, Miss Mayhew, tried to give us a Christian upbringing with bible stories and hymns. Most of these were cloyingly sentimental Victorian concoctions such as “Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat; thank you for the birds that sing, than you god for everything”. I always enjoyed doing my own bit of sabotage by singing “thank you for the birds we eat, thank you for the food that sings”. At Easter we would sing the puzzling “There is a green hill far away without a city wall”. As a city dweller I could never figure out why it would have occurred to anyone to comment on the absence of a city wall around a remote rural hill.

The hymn that really irritated me was “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. I thoroughly enjoyed being a little boy, playing in the street with my friends, firing my hundred shot Colt 45 cap gun, riding my scooter. I didn’t want to be bloody sunbeam (I lived in a rough neighbourhood of south London and had an appropriate vocabulary). Looking back on it, I suppose that hymns like “sunbeam” must have been a great comfort back in the nineteenth century when high rates of infant mortality caused many a sibling or parent to hope that their lost one was now a heavenly sunbeam.

One of Miss Mayhew’s favourite bible stories was of Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple. Asked why, she simply said it was because they were evil. I was never satisfied with this explanation and later came to be even more puzzled at this amazing lack of foresight by the founder of Christianity in expelling these benign providers of seed capital. Fortunately no permanent harm was done or we could perhaps never have enjoyed the benefits of credit-based capitalism.

Seven years at grammar school provided a substantial exposure to Christianity with every morning assembly’s prayers, bible reading and hymn singing plus a weekly “RI religious instruction” class. Close to seventy years later I have a huge repertoire of hymns stacked away in my cerebral hard disk, there only because I have yet to locate the ‘delete’ button. In the first year sixth (= yr 12 in Oz) I even formed a ‘religious discussion group’ which met after school weekly in the library. Several masters commended my initiative, in ignorance of the fact that it was a front organisation for swapping the sort of jokes beloved of sixteen year old boys.

As a prefect I was required from time to time to read a passage from the bible during morning assembly. I once won a bet of five shillings that I would not dare read out a particular passage. This was to coincide with Trafalgar Day, 2 October, which celebrated the victory of one-eyed Admiral Nelson over the French and Spanish fleets about a hundred and fifty years earlier. So on that morning I chose to read from Matthew chapter 5, verse 29: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out….” For the rest of the day I nervously awaited repercussions for my flippancy. Curiously there were none, thus proving that neither the headmaster nor any of the masters paid the slightest attention to the bible readings in assembly.

Close to Christmas time a chorus of some five hundred boys in morning assembly (each assuming they were the only parodists in the hall) would sing “While shepherds washed their socks by night all seated round the tub, a bar of Sunlight soap came down and they began to scrub”. I like to think that some of the singers went on to fulfilling careers with Unilever, the maker of this useful washing product.

And now into the confessional. In my year there was a very serious boy, deeply religious (he toted a bible around with him all the time) called Ted Norman. He desperately wanted to come top of the “religious instruction” (RI) class. His piety I found deeply offensive to my atheism so I always made sure I came top of the RI class. His annoyance at this I found utterly satisfying. In some ways, though, Ted had the last laugh. I recently Wikipediaded Dr Edward Norman and found that he had taken holy orders, had been head of two Cambridge colleges, a bishop, a dean of a cathedral, an author of many religious and history books and had once provided spiritual advice to Margaret Thatcher. Still – he never beat me at RI !


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