Paul Surman – How I became an atheist/humanist

I became an atheist when I was about fourteen. My parents were both atheists, but I didn’t know that then, and was not brought up to be either an atheist, or religious.

One of the attractive things about most of the atheists I have known is they don’t appear to feel a need to indoctrinate their children. They usually encourage them to think for themselves. My own parents tested my arguments by putting the opposite point of view, but never told me what to think. It was my job in life to decide what I thought. Lively discussion on a wide variety of subjects was a feature of home life in my childhood.

The spirit of enquiry spilled over into my religious education classes, where I soon found it was not encouraged or approved of. The response I received to the very simple questions I asked did more to push me towards not believing in god than healthy scepticism did. I was met with what I can only describe as elaborate evasions. The more vague the teacher was, the more I objected. I felt angry that someone was trying to convince me of something they were unwilling to provide even the smallest proof for. I felt then, as I do now, that I was being lied to.

When I felt sure I didn’t believe there was a god, I asked at school to be allowed not to go into morning assemblies, which were clearly identified with religion in those days. I was told this would be allowed if I obtained a letter from my parents. I was surprised then to discover that my parents were atheists. I got my letter.

This was not an end to my exploration of religious and spiritual matters. The nineteen sixties were under way, and interest in forms of belief and spirituality other than the established version, especially those of a far eastern kind, was becoming common. I became fascinated by Buddhism, which in its simplest form satisfied my need for things to be susceptible to reason. But ultimately its central idea felt life denying. It could undoubtedly do much to eliminate personal suffering, but at a cost of hardly being alive at all. I am now content to accept that life is a messy business and always will be.

Not all atheists will agree with me, but the idea of spirituality seems an entirely phoney one to me, spiritual is a capacious but slippery word. Another way in which we humans attempt to give ourselves unwarranted airs and graces, or imagine we have options that are simply not available to us. I hope I will never give up enquiring into all manner of things, and I read more about religion than any other subject, but from an entirely different perspective these days. I want to be better able to persuade people how unnecessary religion or so-called spirituality is in order to live a fulfilled and worthwhile life, and hopefully accept our inevitable demise, having done our best to live intelligently and well.

I decided to join the humanists late in life, and it’s good to be in the company of like-minded people, who approach experience in a spirit of rational, open-minded enquiry. I especially like it that humanism is not encrusted with dogma, but responds to whatever new discoveries we make about this wonderful, albeit frequently imperfect life. The older I get the more I realise that it’s the quality of the questions we ask that matters.