Sunday, June 08, 2008


We are all born atheists

Last Friday we attended the funeral of my cousin’s husband. One of our other cousins came out from Canada and after the funeral I gave her a lift back to the friends she was staying with. She asked me about my walk on the camino and seemed confused when I said that I am an atheist who loves walking pilgrimage trails.
“Why are you an atheist?” she asked. “What made you stop believing?”

I smiled and told her that I was born an atheist – that I had never been a ‘believer’. There is a perception amongst Christians that atheists are people who have fallen off the religious wagon and need rescuing – who need to be brought back to the fold. I was never a Christian or a theist. I never did belong to the fold. I attended the Sunday schools of a number of different church denominations as a small child and the occasional church service as a teenager but I had no strong feelings about Christianity, religion or deities. I didn’t have a wonderful childhood but nothing dramatic happened that would have turned me away from a religion if I’d had one.

Unlike my husband, whose grandfather was a Lutheran priest and missionary from Norway. He came to South Africa in 1909 and set up a mission in Zululand. My husband’s father, who was born in Norway, died when Finn was about 2 ½ years old. He and his mother returned to the mission where they lived until he needed to move back to Durban to attend high school. Finn had a missionary upbringing, attending church services and often helped his ‘mor far’ with his priest’s robes before a service. He was christened and took confirmation classes in the Norwegian Lutheran church.

My mother’s father was a deacon in the NG Church and I remember ‘oupa’ reading from a Dutch bible at the dinner table before we said grace. I don’t know if my father was a Catholic or a Protestant or whether he ever went to church. I was never christened or baptised and didn’t attend church until I was about 5 years old when my parents divorced and my older sister and I went to a home for girls from broken homes. The committee were Methodists so we attended the local Methodist Sunday school. After a few years the committee changed and we attended the Full Gospel Church. I loved the stories of baby Jesus and the angels just as I loved those about Father Christmas and the fairies. (I think I stopped believing in both round about the same time.)

When my mother remarried and we left Wylie House to live in Woodlands we attended the local Presbyterian Church. When that was relocated we started going to the Congregational church. By then we were in our teens and rebelled at having to go to church on a Sunday. My sister left home and I stopped going to church altogether.

When I met Finn he wasn’t a regular church goer but we went to the St Olav’s Lutheran Church on special days like Easter, Christmas, weddings and funerals. We got engaged and planned on being married in St Olav’s but because I had not been christened or confirmed, this was not possible. I was told that I would have to attend confirmation classes and after a few weeks of instruction, at the age 21, was duly confirmed into the Lutheran church. I did not particularly want to be confirmed into the church, but if I wanted to marry the man I loved in his church, it was something that I had to do. Both our children were christened at St Olav’s but they did not go to Sunday schools and we rarely went to church.

There was a period in my life where I reached out to Spiritualism and Christianity. Our younger son was born in 1977 with a crippling bone disorder and in an effort to 'leave no stone unturned' we tried many different things to alleviate or cure his disorder. We travelled to faith healers, tried spiritual healers and various different potions and lotions. I joined a charismatic, healing bible study group based on the ‘faith and presumption’ evangelism of Hagin and Copeland - popularised in the late 1970's. I found the talking in tongues, ‘claiming of gifts’ and the ‘positive prayer’ ministries rather disturbing. One night, after I told the group that Mark had broken a limb and was lying in a traction frame at home, our leader suggested I offer my cardigan to the group for ‘soaking prayer’, which involved laying of hands and speaking in tongues. In order for Mark to be healed I was to take the cardigan home and cover him with it. When I reported back the following week that this didn’t appear to have the desired effect, I was told that I did not have enough faith. They were right. I didn’t have the courage to take my 18 month old child with a fractured femur out of the traction frame and pronounce him cured by virtue of my prayed upon cardigan. Suffice it to say, I didn’t go back to bible study. This was not a catalyst on my way to becoming an atheist, rather an affirmation of my convictions.

Although I am not religious, I have an interest in the history of religions, in religious art and architecture. I particularly love walking on ancient pilgrimage trails. Hinduism is considered the oldest formal religion with four main denominations that differ basically in the god they worship as the Supreme One. Judaism is almost as old, being based in Abraham who lived about 1800 BC although the Egyptians predate them both and the Mesopotamians and Chinese predate them all. Australian aboriginal beliefs probably go back 60,000 years or more and, if Africa is the cradle of humankind, there were most certainly even earlier animist beliefs that involved animals and plants, the skies and the seasons.

Most visitors to holy sites – religious or not - respect the sites and have a sense of their sacredness. The holy sites of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh in India (the most sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus) or Bodhgaya in the state of Bihar (the most holy site for Buddhists): the pyramids at Giza and the temples to the many gods and goddesses that shaped their lives for thousands of years. Secular pilgrims walk the paths to the 88 Buddhist temples on the island of Shikoku and visit the many Christian monuments and churches on the way to the tomb of St James in Spain, to Jerusalem or to St Peter's in Rome. One need not be a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Christian to enjoy visiting these sites.

The world is either 6 000 years old (according to the bible) or 4.5 billion years old (according to science.
The oldest tree system ever found is a Spruce that has been dated to 9 500 years.
The oldest human fossils, found last year at Atapuerca in northern Spain, along with stone tools and animal bones, are up to 1.3 million years old.
The oldest dinosaur fossils are approximately 230 million years old.

In the spiritual world, Christianity and Islam are the new kids on the block: Christianity having been around less than 2000 years (since about 30 AD) and Islam about 1400 years since 610 AD. A human being has a fleeting lifespan of perhaps 70 – 80 years and I prefer to spend my fleeting moment without fear of gods or demons, angels or devils. I have met many people who I could call angels and a few that could qualify as devils! I live my life according to human-kind’s morals, hopefully tolerant of other’s beliefs, as a pacifist and vegetarian pilgrim. I expect others to grant me the same respect.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Teilhard de Chardin ©

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