Disclaimer: What I’m about to say has featured in the great works of the last several millennia; I appreciate there’s a lot more to say.

Let me tell you a little about myself. I’m Jewish, and have always been observant of Judaism’s main laws, whilst submerging myself in secular culture and education. This, I believe, is the optimum way for a religious person to live their life. The problem I always get is that people try to ‘box’ me: "Oh, you’re Jewish? Have you, like, ever eaten bacon? Do you, like, know the people who run the media? What does God have to say about all that?" I won’t even bother with the stupidity of these questions, except to say that I don’t believe in God. (Pause for dramatic effect; look into distance quizzically.)

It’s not that I believe that there is no God, just that I don’t positively believe that there is a God. I’m not a spiritual person; however, religion still plays a large part in my life and I value it greatly – call it religious agnosticism, if you will. Sometimes, people are so busy religion-bashing that they don’t appreciate we’re not all crazy zealots trying to save your soul. I won’t be preaching facts and figures to you today, but speaking from the growing vat of personal experience.

The Atheist Bus Campaign sent messages throughout the streets of London, preaching "There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life." This may be the belief of most atheists, and is one that I have sympathy for, but from my experience many people who self-define and make a point of publicly proclaiming themselves as atheists are actually anti-theists – a subtle difference, but one which leads to huge irony.

Most of the ridiculous questions and offensive remarks I’ve received have been from anti-theist atheists – rarely from another person of religious belief or background. It strikes me as paradoxical that those who criticise religion as a force for good in the world, who dismiss those who subscribe to a supernatural belief system, who claim religion spreads corruption and abuse, belong to an ‘ism’ themselves. Atheists can be fundamentalist in blindly accusing others of fundamentalism, and are sometimes the most evangelical of the lot. I do not speak out against atheism per se, but against fundamentalists of all walks of life – and yes, this does include those whose god is having no god.

I admit that religion has caused crusades, suicide bombers, wars – but this argument is getting a little tired, and it would be naïve to claim that religion was their sole factor. Similar strife has come because of power, prejudice, land – I think we can agree that land is pretty vital for, you know, walking and things. You don’t see many buses cruising around screaming "land probably shouldn’t exist". Religion can, and does, have a positive effect on people’s lives – from providing the destitute with hope, to surrounding people like me with a rich, historical and social culture. Religion isn’t just about God.

And here I finally reach my point: the root of all human evil and wrongdoing is ignorance, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof – a prevalent problem in the world today. Trying to get rid of religion, as some would recommend, merely adds fuel to this fire. We need to educate and coexist.

This works two ways. I don’t advocate the lifestyle of those who live in small religious communities and reject any influence from the outside world, never testing their beliefs. Similarly, the secular world needs to open its arms and foster a world of religious freedom – something it might think it does but, take it from me, it doesn’t.

It’s not just religion itself that causes hardship and war; it is the ignorance and intolerance of those unwilling to learn about and accept other people’s ways of life. So what if people believe there’s a God? Stop worrying and enjoy your life. LD

 

Sometime in September, 1994: my first day at a C of E primary school. I’m probably nervous and certainly eager to please. I don’t have many opinions – I’m much too young for that – but they will come with time, no doubt moulded by my surroundings.

As the years go by, institutionalised religion plays a big part in my life. I attend weekly classes in the adjoining church, headed by the local vicar; and the school community is brought together by twice-weekly assemblies, where we mindlessly sing in praise of God.

We are never told what to believe. But then again, we are so young we don’t need to be. When we hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand, many of us are literal-minded enough to believe that it’s absolutely true. At one point, probably feeling the effects of peer-pressure, I ask my mother to take me to church on Sunday. Nobody sets out to indoctrinate us, but they manage it all the same.

Flash forward to 2010. Sixteen years have passed since I first entered education. Fourteen of these were spent in faith schools – which I attended not because of the religious aspects, but because my parents believed they offered the best education available. The same is true for many others. I was about ten or eleven when I first started really to question the beliefs which had been handed down to me. Years later, and after much thought, I define myself as an atheist. I don’t dismiss the possibility that there might be something ‘out there’, but I plan to live my life without the expectation of having to answer for myself at the end of it.

I count myself lucky that I confronted Christian beliefs eventually, although I resent not being made to challenge them in the first instance. What angers and worries me even more, though, is the fact that many – especially those with religious parents – never go through the questioning process. They remain believers to this day and this in turn shapes their opinions on a wide range of issues, from charity to marriage to homosexuality.

I’m perfectly aware that there are plenty of religious people who explore the reasoning behind the teachings they are expected to follow, and many dismiss the worst of these as unfortunate relics of the past. But few scrutinise their beliefs to the extent they should, and it’s not hard to see why. Perhaps the main lesson to be drawn from the examples of Abraham and Moses – who feature in all three Abrahamic religious texts – is that we must believe unquestioningly. For Christians, this is stated explicitly. Jesus’ words to Thomas the Apostle, after Thomas touches his wounds, send a shiver down my spine every time I read them: "Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

Blind faith can cause great harm. Sure, for many wars, religion has been a convenient excuse. But, under its influence, the most intelligent people can be capable of the most appalling ignorance. Twice in my two years at Cambridge have there been scares over condom piercings, attributed to religious nuts within the university. Accordingly, it is everyone’s duty to ensure, in a respectful way, that our assumptions do not go unchallenged.

While I have no problem confronting Christians, I must admit I’m a little more hesitant in chiding what I see to be the archaic views of other faiths, for fear of causing upset. But this should be welcomed. Religious people should accept that there will be ignorance and, instead of taking offence to this, seek to educate. And where they can’t answer for their beliefs, they ought seriously to consider discarding them. Because as long as there are people out there who unquestioningly believe – and don’t subject their faith to scrutiny – I’ll do my best to enjoy my life, but I won’t be able to stop worrying. DE

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