Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith.

Part One

    The carol service at Kirkby Stephen Parish Church starred children from the local primary school, 200 of them, between five and eight. Just to get them to sit in an orderly manner was some achievement. It was wonderful to see them singing their hearts out, particularly after they’d been trailed round town over the previous week entertaining residents at local retirement homes. I had also seen one class sing under a canopy outside the Co-op. Poor things must have been approaching carol saturation.

    Today’s performance was the grand finale 2023. At the conclusion, 2.00 PM precisely, the teachers relinquished their charges into the hands of parents for the Christmas holiday. Sighs of relief from the teachers, sighs of another sort from Mums and Dads who know their lives will not be quite the same for the next three weeks.

    The service was lovely, traditional carols mixed with fearless youngsters reading snippets from the nativity story. One young lad near us had learned the words to every carol so needed no song sheet, he just sang his head off. One young girl had the self-assurance to adjust the microphone before she read her piece. While she fiddled, we waited in silence. She was nerveless and paid no heed as a hundred pairs of eyes watched on until she was good and ready. Ice in her veins but a performance to melt our hearts.

    Superb, all of you.

    But I have a bit of a problem with this talk of donkeys and virgin births; I have become an atheist. In other words, I no longer believe in the existence of God. In fact, I’m probably an atheist / agnostic - meaning I also don’t believe it’s possible to know whether God exists. How can we possibly prove it? ‘Have faith’ is the advice. But I need more than that.

    When did this start? To be honest, I’m not sure. The question I’ve found myself asking is, did I ever believe, or was it just accepted that I was a God-fearing Christian right back to junior school? I wasn’t given a choice, so my unchosen faith is a cross I have borne through life. Not a malevolent cross, just superfluous, which most of the time went unnoticed.

    Mine was a Church of England school (Christian, though it welcomed all faiths) so I was hauled to church every Sunday. I also thanked the Lord for the food we ate before each meal – in Latin. Aged 8, I was a Christian and it went on from there, unquestioned till many years later. I knew that food had nothing to do with any sort of God. In our case, definitely not, because meals were provided by a chef called Gilbert, who had a ciggy in his mouth from dawn till dusk. Consequently, our sausages were sometimes dusted with what we called ‘Gillyash’. Later, at senior school I was confirmed into the Christian Faith by The Bishop of Lichfield – not that I really understood why - although we had to undergo some ‘religious instruction’. I did it I think because lots of my friends did. Post school, my faith was cemented into my genome when I nominated Christian as my religion on various applications, passport or NHS for example.

    But gradually, instance by instance, I saw ‘stuff’ that disturbed me, and I started to question the existence of a benevolent deity. Was there a lightbulb moment? I don’t think so, just a gradual dawning - like a persistent drizzle. More than 30 years ago, I’d taken to praying when I was desperate, like when my Mum was dying. Nobody listened then, or if they did, there was no earthly reaction. More importantly, I got no comfort from my prayers. I had muttered increasingly meaningless spiritual messages to myself for many years, living in a kind of divine suspension. At some point I’d just had enough and finally went public. I ‘came out’ officially in 2022 just after Ian, my brother-in-law, died. I published a book around that time and dedicated it to him. Poor man had lived a desperate existence for his last couple of decades.

    I still get a lump in my throat when I read that dedication, written when I was still raw and angry:


For Ian

Inveterate chuckler and nice man.

I refuse to pray that you have gone to a better place,

because no god is deserving of my prayers.

No benign deity would have let you suffer as you did.

So, no prayers. Just my hope that somewhere

beyond the clouds, you are at peace.

RIP my friend.


    I remember another instance that must have been an accelerator along the road towards the dark side. A dear friend died a nasty, cancer-wracked death and I needed someone to blame. I took my frustration out on a deity that had been forced on me all those years ago. My pal succumbed a couple of months before my brother-in-law. Even if I believed in something at that point, it certainly wasn’t the fairy-dust entity who chased me through junior school. He wasn’t the God of the nativity, and he certainly wasn’t someone I wished to worship. These two thoroughly nasty deaths finally sheared my faith and neither represent the joy and celebration of a benevolent, bearded chap on a throne. In other words, this was the year I publicly decided there was an alternative to blindly being a believer.

    As I tumbled towards atheism, I thought about the various incarnations of the ‘good book’ upon which a huge proportion of the world relies for spiritual guidance, either for love or mayhem. Let’s be frank, the Old Testament is basically bunkum. World in seven days? Er, no. And most of that was done in the dark because after he’d created Heaven and Earth he said, ‘Let there be light’. On top of this, many contributors to those testaments were mere animal herders. Would we take the BBC’s 6-o-clock News seriously if it had been written by a goat-keeper? Based on recent performance, it would quite probably be more accurate!

    It seems to me that people find ways to rationalize religious texts rather than merely dismissing them as mischievous claptrap. They want to believe them. It’s only blasphemous to shun these (man-made) writings if you believe in God. I no longer do, so can shed a large chunk of nonsense from my life.

    Being part of a religion is a safe place to be. A family of co-believers who sing the same songs and recite the same prayers ad infinitum, ‘in full expectation of eternal life’. A Sunday dose of feel-good before a whiskey down the pub and a roast lunch. As an atheist I am cast adrift and must stand on my own two feet. I don’t have the security of the promise of life in an eternal garden after I die. A modern philosopher called Gervaise said something like, ‘It’s a strange myth that we, as atheists, have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite, we have nothing to die for, so we have everything to live for.’ It’s arguable that because of that philosophy, atheists live a fuller, ‘in the moment’ life.


    Having confirmed my religious (non) position, it’s both liberating and weird. I’m free to continue to live what I believe has been a decent, honest life. I don’t need a deity looking over my shoulder to do that. It’s weird because I’m probably in a minority and being on the outside of something is always peculiar. In this case though, I think I’m right and that’s what matters to me. What happens ‘after’? Well, I was blissfully unaware of the 14 billion years before I was conceived (itself a fourteen trillion to one chance apparently) so suspect I’ll be equally unaware going forward - right up to the moment where mankind finally wrecks our world, and with it, religion. At that point we’ll hand back planet earth to the insects and evolution (not God) can begin to recreate what comes next.

    Let’s return to the carol service. Mix the nativity tale and a group of children and you create some magic. It was a wonderful occasion, but the story’s foundations are built on straw. It would be different of course if we admitted the tales were a myth, but they aren’t treated as such. Mercifully, the children don’t understand the myth of it. They just sing with unfettered glee about a flagging donkey and a child born of a virgin in a shed.

    Seeing the youngster’s sheer joy brought a tear to my eye. It’s their blissful innocence, their hearty singing and gap-toothed smiles. Plus of course, my special step-grandsons were taking part. If we could only bottle all that joy and innocence and allow them to carry it with them for the next seven or eight decades, the world would be a better place. Sadly, it won’t happen, because sometime, hopefully later rather than sooner, the world will grab them, and they’ll be caught in our modern matrix. One day, some of them might also come to believe that there is no god. I don’t consider that a weakness, it’s just what will be. Their own choice to be made with their own reasoned, acquired knowledge.

My hope is that they are allowed to make up their own minds.Keeping the Faith !!

Keeping the Faith II