I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember. My lack of faith was possibly influenced by my primary school, with hymns and prayer every morning, after an assembly filled with Bible stories. This was a very typical experience in an English primary school, but it was something I never felt a connection to. As a self-confessed stubborn person, I preferred to come to my own conclusions about the world, rather than being told what to believe by somebody else. Furthermore, I felt that I would rather follow my own principles than institutionalised religion, which I consider to be separate to personal beliefs. To many, this may seem a typically arrogant conclusion, but when it comes to faith, I strongly feel that it should be a personal or solitary decision. So, in terms of belonging, while some enjoy being part of a religious community, I would much rather be a part of a multi-faith world, rather than a single-faith religion.
My atheism is a lone exercise, where I am happy to be sceptical about the world, in a way that some people may interpret as pessimistic. This does not make me unhappy in my lack of belief and conversely, my outlook on the world is not because I am lacking faith. In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, he “comes out” as an atheist in a predominantly religious world. For me, however, atheism was a natural progression, from realising that I had no emotion towards the being I was praying to in school assemblies, to atheism. In many ways, I am nonchalant towards religion, in the sense that I am not offended by religion and it does not interfere with my experience of belonging. Atheism is the right fit for me, because belonging, for me, would not involve a religious institution or principles. This does not mean, however, that my atheism contradicts with other people’s sense of belonging or religious beliefs or, indeed, my relationships with them.
I have a rather mixed bag of friends and acquaintances, with varying religious affiliations and strengths of belief, ranging from Cypriot-Orthodox to Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Wicca and Gnosticism. I met many these people at university, where I study in a Theology and Religious Studies department. My faith, is certainly of no hindrance, both in terms of my academic studies or my sense of belonging. On the other hand, I remember during one of my first lectures at university, a lecturer seemed to assume that everybody had some form of religious faith. If they didn’t, they stated that they were not sure “why they were doing this degree in the first place”. Yet, surely every perspective, religious or not, is important, in every discussion relating to faith. We live in an increasingly secular world, where, often, religion is ousted as archaic, or “not needed” within society. Therefore, to tame such ignorant attitudes, it is important for religion to “know its enemy”, to nurture debates and discussion and make sure that every voice is heard.
My school and Sixth Form in Birmingham, for example, was predominantly Muslim, where I remember having many debates about religion. As the minority, without a faith, it was always interesting to have such an open discussion – though admittedly the conversations often became heated. For me, this is what belonging is all about. Every individual is entitled to their personal beliefs, but society’s open discussion should always continue. Individuals should, however, expect to feel occasionally uncomfortable because of other people’s opinions, without being aggressively pushed to change them. This, of course does not mean that every discussion must end in an argument or insults from both sides, but it is important to allow oneself to be challenged by others. Faith should always remain personal, but that does not mean that it should be stagnant or dormant.
Faith and belonging is all about honesty and openness. Whether this is within friendship groups, school or university, discussion is the most important part of living in a multi-religious society. People of all beliefs, or lack of belief are important, to foster understanding without forcing belief or attacking those who are religious. This may seem idealistic, in a world of general ignorance, but we must try nonetheless.
Rebecca Cotterill is a third-year “Religion, Philosophy and Ethics” student at King’s College, London. Despite being an atheist from an early age, she has always had a keen interest in religion. She is from Birmingham, England.