I am an atheist; but I am not anti-religion. That’s not what atheism means for me [...]. Although I don’t believe in a God, over the years I have developed a perspective on religion that I find necessary in order to acknowledge and accept other people’s faith in God. When people for whom I have enormous respect as individuals and intellectuals, are also serious Christians, Sikhs or Muslims, I find it isn’t helpful to dismiss their faith as a delusion. In fact, increasingly I find it better to interpret religion as a natural expression of our humanity; our human quest for understanding.
To me, the fact that dispersed and isolated human societies have all developed religions of different kinds over the centuries, suggests that religion meets human needs on a number of levels. Fundamentally I see all notions of a God as a proxy for connecting to our shared humanity; religious faith, to my mind, gives people an accessible vehicle to express a range of ideas and feelings that all humans share, regardless of faith:
- A way to rationalise our existence on Earth and to face our mortality as individuals and, ultimately, as a species
- A means of expressing a sense of gratitude for the joy of living and the love people feel for each other
- A context for communal activity, sharing expressions of wonder at the power of our shared humanity – including communal singing and prayer
- A framework for a moral and ethical code reinforced through stories and philosophical teachings
- A source of hope and comfort in a confusing world where, amid the joy, sadness, loneliness, pain, hunger and poverty are all too prevalent [...]
- A way to give meaning and purpose to our existence; that yearning for a bigger scheme of things, beyond a humble biological human life.
Obviously, there are important differences that we need to face and acknowledge. There’s a major conceptual gulf between believing in a supreme being and not believing in one. As an atheist, I don’t regard the Bible or the ideas about Jesus being the Son of God as anything more than a collection of folkloric tales and recollections distorted through the passage of time. Most Christians believe some spiritual or miraculous experiences and concepts to be real when atheists regard them as beyond rational possibility. Some aspects of religious practice are challenging and occasionally offensive to me – such as the link between church and state and the belief that any one religion could be more valid than any other or imposed on others.
But, I can still value the core of religious ideas as humanistic and genuine. The rituals and rules of religion – the places of worship, symbols, prayer ceremonies, rules about food, marriage and clothing – are to me entirely human constructs, handed down through generations. Again, that is something that I can accept and embrace - provided I’m not expected to give these things undue meaning or reverence. I also feel we should be able to challenge these things at times – because they are human and not divine in origin.
At Christmas time, I can go one stage further. The Christmas story has been passed on for centuries – a true story for Christians with deep significance. But, as an atheist, I can still appreciate the value in celebrating a human life with a story about forgiveness, suffering, peace and hope. Not only that, but I’d argue that since for centuries, English culture has been filtered or carried by Christian institutions and rituals, they are a genuine part of my cultural heritage whether I like it or not. I don’t have to believe the Jesus story to appreciate the significance of the underlying human themes. Of course, in my family, Christmas is all about Santa, turkey, Rudolph and the tree; but when I take part in the Nine Lessons and Carols service at Chelmsford Cathedral I don’t feel like a fraud; it’s a story that we’ve all grown up with and the moral messages are common to us all. I actually feel that it’s my story too; even though I don’t believe it is literally or historically true, it’s part of my culture...
Extract from 'Reflections of An Atheist Headteacher' http://headguruteacher.com/2013/12/07/reflections-of-an-atheist-headteacher/