Theology and atheism: a match made in heaven?

Violet columnist Lily Ford explores faith in relation to her Theology degree

Lily Ford

Pretending to have the slightest idea as to what is going on at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India lily ford

“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” A classic, right? (Oh come on, I know you know the words.) Six-year-old me certainly did, and would continue to sing-scream at the top of her lungs until the ripe old age of eleven, when I waved goodbye to my Church of England primary school. (Some less regretful goodbyes were said to fellow classmates who would hit the crowded Thursday assembly hall with a rendition of ′you are the Lord of the KFC. Aren’t year six boys the best?)

Religious education at secondary school is no longer limited to a cheeky little bit of gospel study, and the broadened curriculum means students are welcomed to the study of any world religion. Islam, Judaism: I was learning other ways of life aside from what I had known in my childhood; enriching my religious palate, if you will. I seemed to have a hymn-shaped hole in my life and insisted on trying to sing to the class in Arabic at one point so obvs when ya girl got to Cambridge and had to start studying a scriptural language she avoided Arabic out of a literal fear of vivid flashbacks.

“The Buddhist focus on the analysis of being human, and how we can find happiness in ourselves felt like a breath of fresh air”

Fast forward another few years to this summer: eighteen-year-old me sat at my desk, questioning just where things went wrong – how had growing up in the environment I did produce an unshakeable atheist? Had I spent less time choosing a wallpaper for my Bebo profile or something as equally shameful, would I think differently today? Most importantly, how would this impact my three years at Cambridge, where I plan to devote all of my effort and attention to learning about the religious systems of which many would argue I could never fully, and truly, understand?

Inspired by a strictly atheist Religious Studies teacher, I came to this decision on a gloomy Tuesday morning in a lesson on Buddhism. The Buddhist focus on the analysis of being human, and how we can find happiness in ourselves felt like a breath of fresh air. I had been studying Abrahamic traditions since I could read – which I was, and continue to be, fascinated by – and yet here was a way of life that actively rejected monotheism and the need for a commanding deity. The influence of humanists like Stephen Fry (the only person I could think of when asked in my interview which theologians attended Cambridge, LOL how am I here pls forgive me Stephen), powered with a deep-dive into the problem of evil, left me assured: I just don’t believe in God. I finally started to feel as though I’d found a definitive stance – a position to take on what would be at the centre of my education for the next few years of my life.

Little known fact that if you don't attend at least one bop dressed as an angel they don't let you study TheologyLily Ford

Meeting the other two first year theologians at my college, I was surprised that they both shared the same view as me (as well as a similar taste in Jesus memes – love you guys). But I soon realised the mistake I had made. This course – like every course – requires an open mind. Sixth form had given me a dangerous complacency to approach Descartes with a roll of the eyes or automatically agree with the materialist claim out of a strange, unwarranted loyalty to fellow atheist scholars. (I’ve also always had a weird, grudge against Descartes because I secretly feel as though I resemble him a little bit; is that not the saddest thing you’ve ever read???). But embarking on Michaelmas term, I had a word with myself: you have to be willing to consider the other side of the argument if you’re going to appreciate this course in its entirety. I’m thankful to have chosen a subject that invites such variation of faith. And this term, I’ve actually read the work of my ancestor, Descartes, and have a new-found admiration for him and his ideas. It makes it easier with an amazing supervisor. Definitely don’t have a crush on him or anything. Not one bit. Being one of the less subscribed courses across the country, Theology and Religion seemed an odd choice to people, and it wasn’t without its questions – “haha, no no, I’m not eyeing up a spot in the priesthood!" – but it’s what I’m passionate about, regardless of personal belief.

While not the most prestigious degree - how dare you? The great Hugh Bonneville studied Theology, I’ll have you know –and the requirement to pick up an ancient language in first year (public apology to my Greek teacher after Wednesday’s mock xoxo), I love it. Every day, I get a glimpse of life through a different lens.


Mountain View

New Year, New You!

At Cambridge, where you’re studying with such attention to detail, the respect I have for the theologians and philosophers I used to dismiss so naively has deepened. Fine, Jesus probably isn’t the Lord of the KFC, and I definitely don’t share the exact same viewpoint as my six-year-old self anymore. As for the atheist today? A little more shakeable