I was born in the winter of 1972, first son to two teachers. My parents and my grandmother had been instrumental in the setting up of an ecclesia, purchasing and converting an old mill built on the edge of a steep drop. I have fond memories of that building. It was built of dark stone, and had a large grassy area between it and the large carpark. The upstairs had been converted into an area for the ‘young people’ to use and featured a large stage, and plenty of space to run around in. In the main hall the chairs were a kind of khaki green and tubular in construction – no doubt there are community centres all over the world with chairs almost exactly the same as these. Being made to go practically from birth I didn’t have many feelings about the religion itself. I would spend the hour and a half of the service every Sunday morning happily drawing or quietly playing with toy cars, pausing only to admonish my mother for singing the hymns (even at that age I was showing signs of being a critic!).
The Meeting, as we called it, didn’t impact a great deal on my toddler world, and it was only when we moved area when I was about 5 that I started to notice it more.
Being of school age it was deemed appropriate that I should be sent to the Sunday School at the ecclesia that we’d joined. Suddenly Sundays were taken up almost entirely with going to the Meeting. My younger brother and I would be taken along in the morning to sit through the service (still made bearable at this point by us being allowed to take books to read), be encouraged to stay in our Sunday clothes over lunch (often shared with a visiting speaker – the Christadelphians don’t have a main vicar or leader, their sermons are given by members of their, or other, ecclesias), then taken back to the hall to be instructed in the stories of the Bible.
I hated it.
Suddenly half my weekend had been taken away, and I started to wake up on a Sunday morning with a sinking feeling, only compounded by the sound of Radio 4’s Sunday Service drifting up from the kitchen. Even now I can’t stand to listen to hymn singing. Still, I tried to make the best of it, and endeavoured to make friends with the other children at Sunday School and the Meeting, whilst making excuses to my school friends when they asked me to come out on a Sunday.
Despite my best efforts to be as ‘normal’ as possible at school it still got out that my brother and I had to go to Sunday School once a week….or ‘Sunday Baby School’ as one wit in my class had it. Increasingly I missed out on things that my friends outside of the Meeting were doing, whilst simultaneously being encouraged to spend more time with my Christadelphian peer group. I now see this as a classic tactic for making sure that unwanted ideas don’t enter into the group – many of the young people I grew up with in the Meeting have no real friends outside of it, enabling a constant reinforcement of the group belief.
It was during one of these Sunday School lessons that I was told something I remembered for years, something that when faced with the truth of the matter, started my journey into atheism. My father was giving a talk at an ecclesia in another town resulting in my brother and I having to attend their Sunday School during the afternoon. If going to our own meetings was bad enough, being forced to spend the afternoon in a room full of strangers was far worse, and usually came after we’d had a most unpleasant Sunday lunch courtesy of our hosts for the day.
On this particular Sunday the class we were placed in was teaching creation, indoctrinating the young minds with the notion that the Earth was created in a single week by God, around 4000BC. The teacher had covered all the usual stuff, going into detail about the first couple of books of Genesis, when he said something I’ll never forget – ‘Of course, you may hear about dinosaurs, but they never existed’.
Dinosaurs. Never Existed.
He actually said it. He then went on to explain that any skeletons of dinosaurs on display in museums were based on single bones (a piece of spine perhaps, or a tooth) with the rest, the entire skeleton, being made up out of moulded parts based on guess work.
This seemed to be a commonly held view amongst Christadelphians, as time and time again I heard variations on this theme trotted out by Sunday School teachers, lecturers, and even my parents. Myself and countless other young people were repeatedly told that a complete dinosaur skeleton had never been found and that the whole notion of them ever having existed was just an elaborate hoax being played by non-believing scientists.
Being young, I believed them. Why, after all, would adults lie to me?
Not only were Sundays taken up with church stuff, but Saturdays started to be invaded whenever there was a ‘Preaching Effort’ (a special talk, or an exhibition) which needed promoting. One of the Christadelphians’ favourite techniques for spreading their message is leafleting, or ‘Billing’ as they call it. This involves going around housing estates with a bag full of glossy flyers and shoving them through every letter box. The children of the group were actively included in this, often being sent off unsupervised into strange areas of town (the oddest incident of this I ever encountered was being made to do it in Switzerland during a holiday with other Christadelphians!) to peddle beliefs that they didn’t fully understand to people who couldn’t care less. So confident of the importance of this was that the ecclesia was instructed to ignore any signs in windows which expressly requested ‘no flyers/junk mail’.
Needless to say I hated billing as well, and hated even more the houses with dogs who would try and take your fingers off when you pushed the latest leaflet through the door.
It wasn’t all bad though. There were times that were thoroughly enjoyable, tellingly often the ones that had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. We would go on holiday with other Christadelphians, and for a while my parents arranged camping trips where up to 10 families would meet up in France, Germany or Switzerland and spend a week together. With the exception of the nightly Bible reading sessions, these were mostly enjoyable trips with plenty of children around to play with.
As I got older more evenings were taken up. First Friday fell to the CYC (Christadelphian Youth Club), then Thursdays were wrenched from Top of the Pops and converted to Bible Class – an evening where members of the Ecclesia would sit around and discuss the Bible at length. I found Bible Class tedious beyond words, but CYC was ok as the religious content was limited to 10 minutes at the start of the evening.
A move to an new ecclesia when I was 14 just made it worse. I was now sent on ‘Youth Weekends’ with my brother, often being dumped for an entire Saturday in some strange town with a bunch of overly enthusiastic twenty-somethings. The worst I can remember was an event so grim that my brother and I resorted to calling home from a phonebox in an attempt to get picked up early…..unfortunately my parents had gone out for the day and the mobile phone had yet to become anything more than a brick being shown off on ‘Tomorrow’s World’.
Then there was Swanwick.
Swanwick was a weekend away that involved lengthy Bible study sessions in a large country house that had been converted into a conference centre. Swanwick started on a Friday evening and ran right through to Sunday evening. And it was ok. Seriously. Often going along with friends, a great deal of mischief was to be made at Swanwick and, as I got older, even the Sunday morning service (the’highlight of the weekend) could be skipped for a crafty trip to the local pub.
Swanwick also had large grounds with a lake and wooded areas, supplying ample opportunity for young couples to get away from the organisers. Though I never thought such a thing could happen at the time, I now wonder how many Christadelphians lost their virginity in the rooms at Swanwick? Considering the atmosphere of repressed sexuality that swamped the place I’d be surprised if no one did.
At the time I was going to Swanwick there was a fashion for women to wear culottes, trousers so baggy that they looked like a skirt, only revealing their true nature if studied closely. These were frowned upon by some of the older members of the church, as they took various Bible verses about woman dressing like men a little too literally (they conveniently ignored the fact that men in the time of Christ would have worn long smocks or gowns, very similar to the ones worn by the women). Watching a blustering man in his fifties telling girls in their teens and twenties that it was a ‘sin’ to wear culottes struck me as thoroughly ridiculous.
It was on a trip to Wales on a CYC camp that serious cracks in my beliefs started to appear. During the evenings we’d have an hour of Bible study, discussing various parts of the Old and New Testament. It was during one of these session that the group leader explained that people who had never heard of Jesus, or the Bible, would not be able to enter the [future] Kingdom of God. This struck me as hideously unjust – how could it be fair that someone be excluded from eternal happiness just because they’d never heard the message of it? I questioned the Brother in charge of the study and he replied that it wasn’t fair or unfair, and that the people who would ‘just’ live and die would never know any better. As an answer this seemed utterly lacking to me, but the teacher proceeded to quote the Biblical verses that backed it up….which made it far worse in my eyes. How could a supposedly benevolent God deny so many people? ‘What about the countless millions who had lived in other parts of the world before the spread of Christianity?’ I asked. The answer was that they too would be denied a chance of eternal life. Not only did this seem wrong, it seemed almost evil. Why would God do that? If He was meant to be all powerful why would he deliberately exclude and punish completely innocent men, women, and children?
The answer came from Isaiah 45:7 –
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”
Was this verse saying what I thought it was? Was God really confessing that nothing could happen without it being his will? And if that was the case did that mean that free will was an illusion, that we were all on a set path from birth and that none of us could be held responsible for the ‘sins’ we committed? After all, if God made everything happen then how could we possibly be to blame for anything we did?
I mentioned this to a few of my peers the next day as we climbed over rocks on the beach below the camp site. Their opinion was that I shouldn’t bring it up and that it sounded like I didn’t really believe that what we were being told was true.
When I was 17 to went along with the inevitable and got baptised, even though, by that point, I had serious doubts about the veracity of the claims made by the Bible. I remember wanting to cancel the baptism in the week before, feeling that I wasn’t ready, but by then it had all been organised with family and friends from far and wide due to come and celebrate my embracing of Jesus as my Saviour.
The ceremony was held at the Ecclesial Hall where they had a large baptismal bath below the stage. Christadelphians believe in whole body baptism, so I was clad in a weird karate suit/pyjama combo and lowered beneath the surface of the water, to be ‘reborn’ when I emerged, sodden and newly holy.
My first ‘sin’ as a freshly baptised ‘Brother in Christ’ came mere moments later when, dripping wet, I slipped on tiles in a back room and let out a loud expletive.
One afternoon, a little while later, I was sat at home watching TV whilst my mother worked on something at the dining table. I was watching a show about dinosaurs, marvelling as complete fossilised skeletons were being dug up by archaeologists, this clearly showed the ‘dinosaurs never existed’ statement to be a bare-faced lie. The programme went on to discuss how birds had evolved from reptiles, and how it was probably that the descendants of smaller dinosaurs are still with us, hopping around in trees, filling our skies, and pooing on our cars. My mother was clearly listening and decided to clarify something, ‘Of course, they’ve never found a fossil that shows a half lizard half bird’. Her timing couldn’t have been worse, as the very next moment there appeared on screen a fossil of a winged lizard with teeth and feathers, as perfect a transitionary form as one could hope to see. ‘What about that one?’ I asked.
Either the Bible was wrong, or the evidence of the world around me was wrong…..the Bible was starting to lag behind on points.
It didn’t take long for these feelings to solidify, and I took to spending Sunday morning meetings scouring my Bible for evidence either way. I’d sit, ignoring the brother giving the morning exhortation (as they called the sermon), cross referencing, scribbling in the margins of my Bible, and generally trying to make sense of the whole thing. There were, without any shadow of a doubt, things that didn’t make sense about what I’d been brought up to believe. Dates didn’t match with known historical events, and in some places the Biblical history was completely at odds with what remained of the contemporary writings of the time. Battles that the Old Testament had claimed as glorious victories for the Hebrews had in fact been humiliating defeats and many didn’t seem to have happened at all. The Creation and Flood narratives made no sense and that one verse from Isaiah kept coming back to me.
I finally left the church when I went to university. I tried to explain to my parents as calmly as possible that I no longer believed the Bible to be true and that I wanted to resign from the ecclesia. To do this I had to spend several evenings discussing my feelings with two brethren who tried everything they could think of to change my mind. In the end though they had to admit that I was no longer convinced by the Bible’s teachings and that my faith had completely gone.
I tell you all this to give some context to my own background, to show that far from being an ‘angry atheist’ I am merely a very disappointed one. Over the years I became convinced that the Christadelphians were utterly wrong in their beliefs.
Two things were responsible for my final shift into atheism:
Firstly, the Bible itself, a book so riddled with contradictions and outright nastiness that it deserves to be almost taken apart verse by verse (and is, at the wonderful http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/ ) The second is Evolutionary Biology, a fact so inarguable in its anti-creation myth fire power that it reduces faith in an all knowing, all powerful creator God to a smouldering pile of rubble.
So there you go. Some people will no doubt say I was never a true Christian, others may see parallels in their own upbringings, either way, that’s my story, and that’s why I am where I am today.