Friday, 11 August 2017

I was always an atheist

First, a definition. An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in any god or gods.


I was born an atheist. When you're a week old, you don't believe in anything, except milk and poop. Then I was eight days old, my parents decided that I wasn't quite as perfect as delivered, so they got a mohel to make a small snip. No-one consulted me about this, although if I had been asked, my response would have been either "milk" or "poop".

Age 0 to 5 - my interests became more diverse. I had bricks, and stacking cups, and a thing you pushed things into whereat they came out the other end, and books. I'm told that I was starting to read at an age that I frankly don't believe, mothers always exaggerate. But I do remember my first day at school, I was about 5, and I came home very disappointed. "All they did was play with water", I said, although actually they were also doing "A is for apple". Except I was reading books by then, and wasn't even interesed in "Janet and John".

Age 5 to 10. As I grew up, no-one gave me any good reason to believe in any god. I enjoyed reading a *lot*, the local public library was within walking distance, I persuaded the librarian to let me borrow ten books per week, and I was doing well at school. There was some sort of "assembly" in the morning, and I do remember "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small", which is a great song, but the next line is "The Lord God made them all", and I classified that along with Santa Claus, because I already had read about evolution, and that was so obviously the right answer.

At the age of 9 or 10, I had to go to Cheder. Because my mother told me I had to. At Cheder, I learned two things. A) how to read hebrew, and B) how long I could hold my breath. Hebrew is really difficult - it isn't just a new language (and I found out later with French,  Latin and Russian that I'm really rubbish at languages) and it isn't just that the pages are back to front and the writing from right to left. It's also that the letters aren't the A-Z that I already knew, and the worst thing is that the vowels are left out and you have to guess what they are from just the consonants. Holding your breath, however, is really easy. The clock in the Cheder had a second hand, and in order to alleviate the excruciating boredom, I practiced breath-holding.

The purpose of Cheder was to prepare me for my barmitzvah, an ordeal that every jewish boy has to go through as a rite of manhood at the age of 12 or so. It's a bit like being given a spear and being told to go out and kill a lion, except that you're given a passage in hebrew, and you have to stand up in front of dozens of relatives and dozens of complete strangers, and not only read it, you have to *sing* it using the prescribed notes, which are, of course, not like the sort of music I was learning when learning piano - oh no, it was little marks amongst the hebrew that told you what pitches and lengths to sing. I would have preferred the spear and the lion. The only good thing about Cheder was that you got unlimited bread and strawberry jam beforehand.

I got through my barmitzvah unscathed. Because I got one-on-one tutelage, and more practice than I've ever used for anything else. Not completely unscathed; it was many years before I was willing to stand up in front of an audience and make a fool of myself.

So now I was a mensch. When a minyan was needed (you need ten men for some prayer services) I could be one of them! But even better - I didn't have to go to Cheder any more, and that was a real benefit; no longer was I in any danger of death by non-breathing. Also, I was in charge of the decision of whether to attend synagogue or not. I chose not.

The school I went to was all boys in gender, mixed in religion. Half jewish, half christian. Because of that, it would have been difficult for them to ram any kind of religion down us, but we still has a daily assembly, and I learned to ask for "forgive us our trespasses" which, at the time, I thought referred to that time in autumn when we would creep onto a field that we weren't supposed to in search of conkers. No-one explained this stuff to me. The whole of that prayer just sounded like nonsense; even the words I understood were being used in a way that sounded daft. "For thine is the kingdom"? What does that actually mean? It was just words, and meaningless. But we had to mumble them, although no-one explained to me why.

The school I was at was the Grocer's Company school (which I have to say was the best grammar school in the area, later called the Hackney Downs School, which isn't nearly as elegant). The motto was "God grant grace" and the school hymn was also  "God grant grace" This was completely wasted on me, because no-one ever explained to me the meaning of "grace" in this context. To me, grace was the opposite of clumsy, and the hymn was all about not tripping over your own feet. And the tune was a dreadful dirge.

It was at this school that I first learned the terms "jew boy" and "yid", which (judging from the tone of voice they were used) were supposed to be insults. But there were far greater insults, such as "cap crawler" (one who wears his school hat in conformity with the rules) and "swot". I was, of course, all four. I also learned that although I was wretched at French and pants at Art, I left everyone else behind at maths, which turned out to be useful later.

Grocers was an all-boys school. That didn't seem to be a drawback until I turned 15 or so, at which point the total absence of half the world's population became an issue. So I joined Habonim. That's a jewish youth movement whose objective is to get to to do Aliyah - emigrate to Israel. I had no interest in Aliyah, but a growing interest in that other half. And there they were.

Religion in Habonim is of very minor importance. Dancing, a lot more so. and mixed games such as British Bulldog, all of which gave boys an opportunity to clutch at girls, and vice versa.  There were also summer camps, also mixed, and winter activities. But included in all this, was a certain amount of what I would call cultural awareness, and it was there that I first found out about the holocaust. No-one had told me about this before, at school we were up to the Tudors and the Stuarts, and the syllabus ending in 1832. It's impossible for me to describe the impact that this had on me. Thinking about it still makes me cry, and although I've read lots of books about the second world war, I try to avoid books about the holocaust. Except "Maus", which I'd recommend.

My grandparents came from Russia at the turn of the century in response to the pogroms there (and no-one had told me about those, either, and "Fiddler on the roof" also makes me cry). They came from the part of Russia that became Poland, and if they hadn't emigrated, then 40 years later they would have been murdered by the Nazis, along with any children and grandchildren. And, of course, if they'd converted to christianity (which almost certainly they wouldn't have) that wouldn't have saved them - the Nazis didn't care about your religion, only your blood.

So between the ages of 15 and 17, I felt more jewish than I ever had, but not religious. I didn't go to synagogue (except for family barmitzvahs, weddings and funerals), I didn't pray, if you'd asked me I'd have said I was agnostic, but that was because I didn't know the definition of atheist - I was actually an atheist.

If I had believed in god at the age of 15 (which I didn't), then finding out about the holocaust would certainly have changed that. Some people say that you can't prove the non-existence of something, but actually you can. If you specify the thing in question (for example, a full-size elephant in my room) then I can prove the non-existence of that (I leave the proof to the reader, it's pretty simple). And I knew about this sort of proof from maths; you can prove the non-existence of a largest prime number, or that you cannot express the square root of two as a ratio of two numbers. I would very quickly have come to a strong belief in the non-existence of the god of the jews.

So I went up to university at 17 as an atheist to read maths, and soon discovered that I was the Only Jew in the College (if there were others, they were keeping a very low profile). There was Habonim in Cambridge, which was just as well because in student numbers, there were about 20 males for each female. In maths, more like 200. But in Habonim, five girls and two boys, which is small in numbers, but favourable in ratio, especially as there was already one couple paired off. But I'm not going to talk about my early sex life ...

As the Only Jew in the College, I found that there were people who thought that I hadn't heard the Good News, and that if only someone told me, I'd eagerly accept Jesus into my Heart and become one of God's Army. This is something I hadn't encountered before, and I was unpracticed at dealing with it. I fear that I was unable to sufficiently conceal my mirth at some of the approaches, which is not as well mannered as I should have been.

My worst misdemeanor was when a good friend of mine, who went by the handle of Li(3) of 1 (that's a mathematical joke) persuaded me to go to chapel, on the grounds that I've never been, and how do I know I wouldn't like it if I hadn't tried it, which is an argument that was also used on my to get me to start smoking (I didn't) and drinking beer (I did, and still do, occasionally). So I went with him to chapel, and maybe the fact that he called it "chapel" tells you which brand of christianity it was, but I never found out, and we went through a service that was every bit as boring as Cheder, and worse, because there was no clock with a second hand that I could use to practise holding my breath.

I shall pass over the incident when I was asked to eat human flesh and drink human blood and refused on the grounds that cannibalism was against my atheistic principles, even if it's symbolically, and skip to the part where Li(3) of 1 introduced me to the vicar (or priest, or minister, or whatever he was) with "This is my friend, he's, he's, er, er, he's a, um, he's of the Hebrew persuasion" at which I said, loudly enough for everyone in the chapel to hear, "No I'm not, I'm a jew".

I wasn't invited back.

I graduated, and there was a ceremony, and people prayed, and since I'd worked hard for that certificate I wasn't going to make a nuisance about that, and I got a job where they had an Elliott 503 computer, which I fell in love with, and I've been messing around with computers or the 50 years thereafter, and it turns out that if you like playing with the best toy ever invented, people chuck money at you, which is nice.

So for 60-odd years, I was an atheist, and thought nothing of it. I mean, it really is nothing, like "not playing football" or "liking brussel sprouts". I don't like football, but if someone else want to play, why should I care? And if someone else dislikes brussle sprouts, it's no skin off my nose. But then I was rummaging around Youtube, looking for yet another production of the Mikado, when I came across Christopher Hitchens, which led to Matt Dillahunty, and I discovered that for some people living in some countries, atheism is indeed a thing. Because in some countries, religion gets rammed down your throat whether you want it or not. Some people don't accept that other people's sex lives are none of your business as long as it's adult consensual.

I still go to synagogue for family barmitzvahs, weddings and funeral, but I've found that if I take a book with me and read quietly about such subjects as the "War of the Spanish Succession" while everyone else is either praying or pretending to pray, no-one seems to mind. Just don't read a book that makes you laugh out loud. At Pesach, I go to the seder at my sister's house (she does a great pesach meal with chicken soup, chopped liver followed by various Sephardi dishes (we're Ashkenazi, she married a Sephardi and now mostly cooks in that style) and because there's two seder nights, the other is at my sister-in-law (more chicken soup, chopped liver and then various Ashkenazi dishes). Because they both know how much I like chicken soup and chopped liver. And at the seder, it's laid down that you should ask questions about the exodus from Egypt, and boy, do I have some good questions each year. So if you want to, you could say that I'm gastronomically Ashkenazi Jewish.

When my kids were small, we did Santa Claus and the reindeer each year, and I actually do not care that some Christians think that they have a monopoly on Christmas, nor do I care that this maybe comes from a Druid festival or maybe from the Roman Saturnalia. And one of them was the Christmas Elf, who oversees the Distribution of Presents on Christmas Day, although I suspect that we might be the only family that had our own Elf. And I'm still willing to be Santa for grandchildren, because I think it's important for kids to learn that grown-ups lie about invisible people

Although in restrospect, I realise that religion has affected me, and not just the holocaust - I mean affected me personally. There was a thing in England called the Lord's Day Observance Society which led to legislation about what I could and could not do on a Sunday. And their idea was that the only thing I should do on Sunday, is go to church, which in my case wasn't going to happen. These days, the LDOS is pretty much a dead duck, and Sundays are full of activities.

But also the House of Lords (a total unelected anachonism in itself) includes 26 "Lords Spiritual" (bishops), which means that the cold dead hand of religion is infecting my government, although given the almost complete lack of power of the HoL, that isn't as bad as it might have been and nowhere near as bad as it is in the USA. Oh, and one of the Lords Spritual is a jew. These jews get in everywhere. But no Roman Catholics, because ever since Henry VIII, they've been persona non grata in the higher reaches of government.

I read with great dismay, the stories of people (mostly American) who have been inculcated with religion and who have considerable difficulty getting free of it, of the nightmares that some of them still have about an imaginary hell. About how the people they thought loved them, turned out to love their imaginary friend so much more that they'd turn their back on the newly declared atheist. About how people in one of the many religions of peace turned out to be anything but peaceful when push came to shove. About how even though the religion preaches charity, the devotees practise malevolence. About how faith is preached as an ideal instead of as the polite word for gullibility.

And I can only thank god that I am truly blessed because I am, and always was, an atheist.

1 comment:

  1. Me too. Although the term anti-theist (first coined by the great Douglas Adams) is probably more appropriate.

    Never believed in Santa Claus either. So from a young age it wasn't unknown for a friends parents around late-November/early-December to have a quiet, tactful word with me.

    I don't recall our parents ever mentioning religion, let alone expressing a view. They (quite rightly) left it up to us to make up our own minds. We were sent to a school with 'C of E' in the name, but there wasn't much choice - all of the primary (& middle) schools round here are C of E. Travelling to school in another village (or even the other side of the county) wouldn't have made any difference. So I had to endure the usual attempts at indoctrination, but I can honestly say it never occurred to me that the stories we were read every day in assembly were anything other than fairy tales. Indeed sometime at the age of 5 or 6 I went on the record and publically declared them to be so.

    Unlike my older sisters, I saw any reason to hedge my bets and adopt an agnostic position. Nor keep my mouth shut in the face of ignorance & erroneous information, especially when expressed by teachers - whether it was religious indoctrination or (as was frequently the case at high school) a woeful lack of knowledge of the subject they were teaching.

    My decade of formal education was a test of endurance from start to finish for several reasons. Especially at primary school, there was the daily dilemma of whether to make a stand and defy the command to close eyes & put hands together completely. Or instead pretend to comply, but instead of chanting along with the mandatory prayer improvise some words or protest and try to judge the volume so that my disobedience would satisfy my conscience, but would hopefully escape punishment by the patrolling teachers.

    By the time a lifetime of chronic illness brought my academic career to a premature conclusion at the age of 15, there were several teachers who I am certain were relieved to see the back of me. Little did they know that they got off lightly - like it or not, I could not be a troublemaker. It was in my nature to be well behaved. Had I done even a fraction of what I really wanted to...