Why Atheism?

Why atheism?

It’s sort of become obligatory for those that are to say ‘Why I’m an atheist’ and I’m happy to oblige only in the hope that someone might be persuaded to the side of reason if wavering on the Occam’s razor of religion versus atheism. But I do have a problem as I’m not one of those ‘in your face’ atheists and I still hold to a certain take on spirituality – but as my first post shows – it is a belief in the indefatigable, infinite human spirit, not some remote transcendent immaterial omniscient spirituality.

As a four-year old my mother took me to Sunday school in the corrugated ‘tin’ covered Bethel Chapel in the village in which I was born and raised on an island in the Thames Estuary off the north Kent coast. (This makes me a ‘man of Kent’ – as opposed to a ‘Kentish man’ because they’re born west of the River Medway). I don’t remember anything of this time except that it, in recollection, seems blissfully short.

For a reason lost in the mists of time I and my younger brother transferred to the Methodist Sunday school which we attended for many years and from which I have many memories, mostly happy. In a village, even one as large and spread out as Minster in Sheppey, the church provides a solid social base, the religion bit is very secondary, or it was in the 1950s (yes, I’m that ancient!). Neither of my parents was particularly religious: my mother attended the occasional church service but I cannot remember my father ever entering a church for any reason whatsoever. Ever. It was never a topic of his conversation either.

In 1957 a new scout troop, the ‘10th Sheppey’, was established which my brother joined (we had both been in the 3rd Sheppey Sea-scouts ‘cubs’ section); he seemed to enjoy it so some time later I too joined and quickly rose to ‘second’, ‘sixer’ and then ‘troop leader’. The troop used to meet in the Abbey gatehouse, now a ‘Scheduled Monument’ and museum, but then a rather dilapidated left-over space which the troop quickly colonised. This was before the days of Health and Safety and every ‘Bob-a-Job’ week we would lower a two-wheeled trek-cart on ropes through a trap-door in the floor of the gatehouse to the stony trackway some twenty and more feet below. Madness.

I digress: the 10th Sheppey Scout Troop was affiliated to Minster Abbey, dedicated to Saints Sexburgha and Erminhilda, the two founding Abbesses of the oldest Abbey Church in Britain, and one day a call came from the vicar to the scouts for volunteers to join the church choir. My brother and I each had passable treble voices and we joined the choir. This meant quitting the Methodist church but that was compensated by the excellent youth club run by the Abbey in the old tea-rooms next to the cemetery, where we played endless games of table-tennis, snooker and darts, and we learned how to dance.

A little time later the boys in the choir were offered confirmation classes in the front room of one of the vergers and around the age of fourteen I found myself duly confirmed by the Bishop of Rochester into the fellowship of the Church of England in the historic parish church at Eastchurch – best known for the first airfield in England (from where Lord Brabazon flew) and the open prison. About the only thing I recall of these evenings was being told by the verger that one day I would become Prime Minister! I must have been an argumentative little bugger? Oh, and I knew bits of the Bible pretty well. None of this was done because I particularly desired it and my ‘Christianity’ was very laid back, uncharismatic and non-evangelical. It just sort of happened as an integral part of having a caring mother and ‘hands off’ father in a semi-rural part of late 1950’s England.

In 1963 when I reached the grand age of seventeen, I found myself in a group discussion having to defend Christianity in the prefect’s room at Borden Grammar School in Sittingbourne. The only other defendant of God was my good friend Ben, who had recently undergone a mysterious experience, of which he never divulged a word despite intense questioning, but which had left him a firm believer in a deity although not necessarily particularly religiously so. We failed abysmally: I was not a proselytising Christian. It is an interesting aside to ponder the fact that in a prefects’ room of fifteen or so guys in 1963 none was a believer, because neither Ben nor I were prefects, being in the lower sixth at the time, and we had been dragged in to debate God by the upper sixth prefects. It follows that there were very few church-goers in a sixth form of more than 60 boys and this was, I believe, a fairly accurate reflection of the state of religiosity among the relatively intelligent youth in the UK.

For us young men, this may have had a little something to do with the senior maths master, a particularly nasty piece of work whom we called ‘Tot’ Wheatley (totting up/maths? Geddit?) who was a member of ‘Toc H’ the militant arm of the Methodist Church. Militants of all descriptions are really their own worst enemies aren’t they?

I’ve quoted that joke about the CofE in an earlier post that says so much about the English:

“Are you religious?”

“Yes, I’m a member of the Church of England.”

“Ah, so you’re not religious then!”

By this time my voice had broken and I no longer attended church and when I went ‘up’ to study architecture at the University of Sheffield in 1964 I had no personal or emotional ties to religion and I spent my wonderful university years largely blissfully free of God and religion of any shape whatsoever. There was also the ‘summer of love’ to enjoy. I hadn’t become an atheist as such, I just gave God no further thought, until in my postgraduate years I shared a flat with four really bright guys and we spend many a happy evening smoking dope, listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and those American bands on the CBS label, like Chicago and The Flock, and exploring matters philosophic and religious.

In 1970 I purchased my Faber Paper editions of ‘The Geeta’ and ‘The Ten Principal Upanishads’ (now beautifully rebound) after a particularly intriguing chat with Dave, a lover of LSD and ‘The Divided Self’ by R.D.Laing and unbeknownst to me at the time, this was my first tentative step into the world of the ‘Veda’ and the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, ‘The Prophet’ by Khalil Gibran and the fascinating world of Lao Tzu and ‘Taoism’.

Through one of those strange happenstances of life I happened to have my copy of ‘The Prophet’ on my drawing board one morning in 1974 when a visitor to the architecture studio in which I worked passed by, did a double-take and offered to buy me lunch across the road in the ‘Eight Bells’ public house in the centre of Old Hatfield. Never having been one to knowingly miss a free lunch we had an enjoyable chat which ended in an invitation to join him and his family for supper the following week. George is a Scotsman, his charming wife Marion is Welsh and their two girls are delightfully English, much to George’s chagrin. At this first of many suppers were two couples and I recall the evening passed by very enjoyably in a haze of good food, wine, good company and conversation. As a direct result of this I joined the practical philosophy class of the School of Economic Science in the centre of London and the following term I also enrolled for the economics class. When the philosophy was less than engaging the economics was interesting and visa versa and so I completed the first three years of esoteric study.

Next came classes in calligraphy and Sanskrit, both of which appealed to me and so the years passed. I got married and fathered Simon and Claire. I first tutored in economics (see my post on ‘Value’ below) then in Sanskrit, which I loved and finally in philosophy; I still tutor a philosophy class in the early years and I make the strictest distinction between philosophy and religion, despite the fact that they broadly address similar questions. A key difference is, I believe, that philosophy is an integral part of the world of questions, like science, of keeping the mind and heart open whereas religion is in the business of providing answers and thereby in closing down the heart and mind.

The philosophic antecedents of the school run from Socrates, via Shakespeare to the Vedic concept of ‘Advaita’ or ‘non-duality’. A series of conversations between Leon McLaren the founder of the school in 1937 and the Shankarācharya Shri Shantananda Saraswatī spanning the years 1965 – 1993 forms the foundation of study for the ‘senior’ students of the school. It was here that I began to have qualms about theism and atheism. Despite the fact that I am clear in my own mind about the distinction between philosophy and religion I observed that most of my fellow senior students were believers in God almost by default.

If you ever thought about reviewing ‘non-duality’ sites on the internet, you will find this same dichotomy. Some sites/writers are strictly non-Godly but others have been caught up with the concept of ‘The Absolute’ (Brahman) which becomes directly equivalent to ‘God’ and this I observe in the school too. Fortunately the current leader of the school never mentions God so my continued association remains but it’s getting ever more tenuous.

Fortunately the school runs the annual arts and crafts event ‘Art in Action’ at Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire, which has become the premier tented summer event of its type, and this aspect of service to humanity is one that I hold dear. (My job is Health & Safety! *facepalm*).

Now, an integral element of membership of the school is the taking-up of mantra meditation and there is plenty of evidence available these days to demonstrate the general beneficial mental aspects of meditation but to ‘advaitins’ one of the key ideas is that meditation will take you all the way to a point of ‘no mind’ or to pure consciousness beyond the mind and therefore to one’s ‘absolute’ Self. Now this is where the trouble starts because it’s clear from the non-religious web sites that the idea of achieving ‘self-realisation’ is fairly commonplace whereas amongst the ‘Godly’ it’s pretty much non-existent. As an illustration, a few months ago I was speaking to one of the ‘éminences grise’ of the school and when I mentioned this fact he said ‘Well, they must all be saints then.’

And there it is. God, saints, angels, satan, etc., are all impediments to what Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’ or what is known in non-duality circles as ‘self-realisation’. This is true of the wider aspects of the Godly influence: impediments galore. More recently I have had the undoubted pleasure of reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and Christopher Krzeminski’s ‘What are you without God?’ and I finally realised I was a fully-blown atheist but with a firm belief in the indomitable human spirit, as my first post ‘A penny dropped’ attests. (In which I acknowledge the journey Jen August has taken as recorded in her blog ‘Wading through the Illusion’ and its precipitant effect on resolution in my own understanding).

So I belatedly discovered that I’m a firm atheist, but also a meditator and a believer in the infinite goodness of the human spirit, to which extent I am a spiritual person. Maybe it is the case that in some way the mind is geared towards what may be called ‘natural spirituality’ and an absence of good education allied with religious indoctrination of the young means that impressionable minds can be forced into the cognitive dissonance necessary for belief in an omniscient, omnipresent, transcendent Creator. Its just dogmatic ignorance really.

In addition there are those individual revelations of the numinous, such as friend Ben’s above, but it needs to be remembered that the mind is still largely uncharted territory. Hard-ass atheists will relate the mind purely to the brain, about which precious little is also known. You ‘pays your money and takes your choice’: the mind is either solely an adjunct to the brain or the brain is the decoder of the infinite mind. The fact is: nobody knows. So these individual revelations could all be figments of the mind or imagination and anecdotal evidence is of no value without the ability for replication essential in the context of scientific knowledge, of wisdom.

It seems to me that the tendency to religiosity is largely a psychological matter; essentially believers want to believe so they do, irrespective of reason, replicable evidence or plain common sense. And the obverse is probably equally true so I find I am just as wary of the militant atheist as much as I am of the militant or fundamentalist theist. To that extent I am an agnostic atheist: an atheist but without absolute certainty, which incidentally is the intellectual stance of Chris Krzeminski’s excellent book.

It has taken me a lifetime of effort and study to arrive at this point, I’m kinda jealous of those atheists among you who arrived at this position early in life. But I don’t regret it, and, as always in Philosophy, there is further to go.

There is always further to go, for if there wasn’t one would be omniscient and that is impossible.

And if you have been, thank you for listening.

Stephen Coulson

@philositect on Twitter


  1. What beautifully vivid descriptions. There is such ambience in your writing. I love it. I too came to accept the label of atheist rather late, and a bit reluctantly. In the end, those who seek truth despite the fear of giving up a comforting myth, must reach that point of self reliance and independent examination of evidence that simply cannot exist within the framework of faith…your point exactly regarding the divide between religion and philosophy. Thank you for an eloquent bit of time travel!

    • kool*son said:

      I am ecstatic that you should respond as you have, because as you well know I am in awe of your writing skill and your view on the world. As you said elsewhere: ‘brain crushes are the best’ and so they are. It is thrilling to meet a mind who ‘gets it’ and so I may go to bed a happy chap. Thank you … you must tell me your name some time. 🙂

  2. ecblade said:

    Isn’t it lovely that you can be on a journey, headed toward one destination and discover along the way that you boarded the wrong train, but ended up where you always should?

    That your journey has been so filled with mindful progress and a true joy in gaining knowledge, ever-increasing wisdom and experience is such a joy to me. Martin And I had a lovely talk yesterday concerning the difference between education and certification. Your commitment to your own education inspires and delights me because I feel the same: always more to learn and experience.

    I maintain that knowledge earned makes a greater impact than knowledge passively accepted. You can trace your journey, point out the stops which lends greater credit to the firm foundation upon which you’ve built your philosophy.

    Thanks so much for this! I love knowing you because I learn everyday!

    • After reading your latest post Jessica all I can possibly say is thank you, because on the mutual learning stakes I still feel mightily indebted to you. There is nothing more to add to the comment I left on part IV of your blog. Just that: I have nothing more to say. *Falls into reverent silence*

  3. ZoeJenB said:

    “It has taken me a lifetime of effort and study to arrive at this point, I’m kinda jealous of those atheists among you who arrived at this position early in life.”

    This made me smile because I was thinking ‘I would like to do a post about atheism’ but my problem is that because I grew up with it, it’s just such a no-brainer to me, I can never think of anything to say about it except ‘D’hoh!’

    I was thinking ‘I’ll leave it to the Americans, they have a journey with and it’s like ‘coming out’ to them so they always have a story’ and then you came along with your poetically nostalgic 1950’s Britain and your giant brain and proved that the Brit’s can do it too!
    Very very interesting, thanks for sharing.
    Z x

  4. ZoeJenB said:

    No no no! I went all Homer Simpson – I meant ‘can never think of anything to say except ‘Well duh!’ !
    *Goes out for more coffee…

    • LOL *giant brain* and I’ve always thought of myself, with Pooh, that I was a bear of small brain – witness that its taken a lifetime to arrive at a position that was intuited when still a teenager. The starting point for me was the admission at age 28 that I was ignorant but that it was possible to know, and the above post records that journey out of ignorance. It is not possible either to claim ‘I know’ because that’s just plain silly and effectively closes inquiry, and ‘there’s always further to go’, as Socrates so ably demonstrated. The wonder of this life is the people, like you, that one meets on the way, for which I shall be eternally grateful.

  5. Roger Smith said:

    Funny you should mention “Tot” Wheatley as a ” particularly nasty piece of work” In an idle moment, I was searching the web to see what happened to him and found your mention of him . I assume he is long dead. I was at BGS during this period and, of all the teachers I hated he was the worst – a sadist who delighted in humilating pupils. I hated maths, geometry in particular, and I remember that one day when I couldn’t answer a question, he made me walk to the front of the class and bang my head against the wall – today he would have been prosecuted for assault. . A”nasty piece of work ” is an understatement

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