Why traveling has made me an atheist


It might not be easy to get a long text or an e-mail out of him, but ask my husband why he is an atheist and you get an essay! Whilst travelling through Greece this summer I began reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Whilst personally I found this reading a bit on the heavy side, I found some of the quotes to be really quite thought provoking. My husband, who is far more knowledgeable on religious beliefs than I am, presented some strong arguments in support of Dawkins’ claims and I felt that I just had to capture some of his fiery passion on the subject and share it with my readers. So here goes, straight from the horses’ mouth… 

“Previous age’s religious beliefs are the current age’s fictional reading” (Richard Dawkins)

First of all I should state clearly that this post is not designed to offend anyone’s religious beliefs. I will always defend vigorously anyone’s rights to free thinking, no matter how much I might object to it, that is a choice of a free society.

So a little about me, well I was brought up Roman Catholic from an Irish descended mother. I went to a Roman Catholic school, attended regular mass during school days, school lessons taught by nuns and was indoctrinated into the Catholic Church through baptism and confirmation. Even to this day, I can recite the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary word for word, such was the number of times we asked to say them out loud everyday. Never quite understood why there are so many references to “trespassing” and “bread” in the Lord’s Prayer!

I use the word “indoctrinated” into Catholicism because I was not born a Catholic. In fact, I was born with no religion, I had no understanding of it. If I was born in Iran, I could well be a Muslim, which confirms my thoughts that no one is born religious, we are a product of our social upbringing

My mother, despite her religious background, staunchly made me scientifically question everything, and pretty soon I was finding I was at conflict with things I was being told:

  • Noah had an ark, saved every animal and the world flooded – really every animal? What did the lions eat? What about the endless species of insect found in the Amazon? And not to bother with the fish?
  • The world started with Adam and Eve – really? Darwinian evolution? What about the dinosaurs?
  • God created every living creature and is all loving? – really? Even the insects that lay eggs inside others and cause such pain by eating their way out of the host animal?
  • God is omnipotent and controls all? – really? Why is there such suffering in the world and regular natural disasters that cause mass death to the innocent?
  • The Pope is the mouth piece of God and tells us how to live our life – really? A man who doesn’t have sex, tell us how we should be having sex, and ban the use of contraception to prevent the spread of disease?

I once declared to my Irish grandmother that I didn’t believe God existed, she said to me “you’re still a Catholic…just a bad one”. So with my lack of faith at its premature stage and strong conviction for science, I decided to set out to see the world with a rucksack, sleeping bag and a bunch of Lonely Planet guides to hand.



Kenya and Tanzania

Whilst traveling through these 2 counties my eyes were fully opened to the natural wonder the world has to offer, Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater and the amazing animals that roam the plains. However it also showed me suffering and hardship of what living in poverty was really like. My first world troubles seemed trifling when people were begging for food to eat just to survive. However, it was the introduction of Christianity to the population that moved people away from their traditional Gods that had a profound effect in one area that really upset me. Contraception is a proven combatant of spreading incurable diseases. Whilst not perfect, surely any sane-minded person could see that the use of a condom could help prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. Yes, the governments of the countries should be taking a responsibility for greater education, but when the mouth piece of their God, the Pope, and his messengers, the priests, are proclaiming the use of contraception as wrong, and that God can, and will cure all diseases, then what hope do the people have? I found the people of East Africa deeply superstitious and regularly found them looking to their religious leaders for guidance. This worried me and still to this day HIV and other life threatening blood based diseases are a real problem in sections of Africa.

China

Pre 2008 Olympics, China was such a culture shock to start with, the language was near indecipherable and next to no one spoke English. Army soldiers stood on every street corner in the major cities, which had a knack of reassurance and worry at the same time. Any talk of negativity towards China and its leaders could result in a trip to the police station. Asking questions of the Tienamen Square student protest was a ‘no-go’ area. I also had the unnerving pleasure of being a tourist attraction myself. Seemingly endless locals wanted a picture of me, in fact I once appeared in photo with a newly-wed bride. I only wish I could have seen the look on my shocked mother’s face when she opened the photo in an email with the tag “You’ll never guess what I did in China!”. Some of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever seen are in China, along with a religion that most intrigued me; Buddhism. A religion based upon tolerance, peace and self betterment to reincarnate, Buddhism certainly has its plus points in helping the world. But the thought of my cat at home as once being a person reincarnated, I couldn’t get my head round. My cat liked to drink water out of puddles rather than her bowel, drop food onto the floor before eating it, and loved to roll in mud. What kind of person would that be I thought? My scientific mind was telling me Buddhism didn’t quite fit, so I moved on.

India

India is such a diverse melting pot of religious cultures. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christians all living in a country with the ultimate cut-throat business sensibilities. Varanasi and the reverence shown to the Ganges river as the life blood and soul to the country is an amazing sight to behold. I was always curious and if not slightly appalled at the news stories I would hear back in the UK with regards to Indians or people of Indian descent being married off in arranged marriages, sometimes without ever seeing their proposed husband or wife before the big day…talk about being nervous! The question wouldn’t be just “will she say yes to marriage?”, but “what’s this person I’m about to spend the rest of my life with going to even look like?!”. Whilst in India though, I started to notice the different coloured string wrist bands the locals were wearing. I particularly noticed the colour orange with those that seemed dressed in smart clothes. This I found out was a mark of their ‘cast’ and that Hindus were placed into casts or levels of society; think lower, middle and upperclass, though they have many more. The idea of the arranged marriage was so that they only married within their cast or social level. I was always amazed at the people of India’s desire to improve their financial position and lifestyle. Like Buddhists, Hindus also believed in reincarnation with the notion that if one lived a good life, they had a good chance of moving up the social cast level in their next life. However should one not live a good life according with the Hindu religion, they could also go down a cast level. With this in mind, I came across the lowest cast level named the “untouchables”. I witnessed first hand the contempt and disgust this social class were treated with because they were deemed to have been bad in a previous life. Through the order of religion this cast of people just tried to survive day by day through begging and hoping that by showing contrition they will have a better life in their next. And don’t get started on how dogs are treated, it would not be uncommon to see an Indian Hindu kick a dog as they walked past it. Dogs are seen as the reincarnation of people who have committed serious crimes in a previous life. I was finding the segregated nature of society in India hard to live with.

Egypt

I’ve always had a fascination for ancient civilisations, so much mystery and intrigue on how they lived and how they accomplished such amazing architectural feats, only for following ages of man to destroy next to all evidence of it. I also found an interesting contradiction between what is mythology and religion? The gods of Ra and Horus were dismissed first as false gods by a new dominant religion, to then slowly over time be converted into stories and myths. I even heard an American once say, “isn’t it funny how they used to follow a God that doesn’t exist”…but I digress, we’ll get to the good ol’ USA later. The more I looked into the Gods of the ancient Egyptians, the more I started to notice similarities between them and Christianity. A God of light, the son of a God, born in December, died and resurrected in Spring. Sound familiar? But hang on a minute, I was told Christianity was the true religion, a unique religion with the one true God. Surely it can’t have taken ideas from other religions? Surely the symbol of the cross can’t be the same one used for years as part of Paganism? Well its happened before, the Romans so enamoured with the Ancient Greek gods, they basically just renamed them. Zeus became Jupiter, Ares to Mars, Hermes to Mercury and so on. My final religious memory from Egypt actually came from a Muslim tour guide who declared that Noah’s ark couldn’t have existed as the Pyramids predate when the mass flood was supposed to happen, and yet there are no natural signs of water marks on the Pyramids. I did some research into this and despite the claims of Turkey for a supposed ark…he’s right.

Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, UAE & Turkey

Arabic and North African countries tend to to be made up of mostly Muslims with a few clusters of Christians. I am acutely aware that any negativity towards the Islamic faith often brings complaints and can be a minefield to properly navigate, but I’m going to do my best in the hope of not offending anyone. Do we really know what the Islamic faith stands for? I sincerely hope it’s the peaceful loving version that many Muslims I meet adhere to, but then there is the oppressive, aggressive, caliphate side. In my humble opinion, women should not have to be oppressed into covering up, not talking, not driving, not having well paid jobs. I know this is a generalisation, but unfortunately in some countries this is the case. My wife is often left frustrated by the disrespect she is shown when local Arabs refuse to talk or answer her questions. Or if they do, it is in a dismissive nature and will quickly turn to talk to me instead. Education should be there to broaden ones mind, not to only be indoctrinated further into one ideology. Gay, straight, bi, it doesn’t matter we are all humans at a genetic level, therefore we are all equal. And yet with all of this I find the call to prayer, the Blue Mosque, Jerusalem and the other wonderful sights of the Islamic world so fascinating. I have the deepest sympathies for the people of Palestine with the wall Israel has erected, yet I also saw the fear in the Israeli’s eyes when rockets were flying above our heads from the Gaza Strip. I just wish a greater level of peace and tolerance could be seen on the streets each day in these countries. We have both at times felt in danger because of who we are perceived to be. Any religion that denies the rights of humans to live their lives freely and causes such havoc, I have no intention of following. And before I get accused of being biased or ill-informed, I include Christianity in that. Too many have died in the name of religion. Of all the countries listed above, Jordan was by far our favourite. Wonderful people with a real outward-looking perspective and being extremely friendly, and yet, when I drove past the huge refugee camps, I know there’s two sides to every story.

 atheism

Israel

First of all, what an expensive country, make sure you have lots of spending money before you go! I did think to myself, if ever I was going to reconnect with my supposed God, it would be in the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Instead I found myself asking really daft questions. If the wise men came with sheep, why does Israel have none? Why is Jesus always pictured so white, when if he was a Jew in this land, he would most likely be dark skinned, or at least very tanned? Why are all the tales of Jesus and his feats written by people who were not even alive when he was around? I came away from Israel thinking of the admiration and pride the Israeli people have in their nation, and then sadness at how destructive and decisive the region has become and the suffering on all sides. If a God did exist, who’s ever it is, how can this all powerful being have his holy land ripped apart to such an extent.

USA

What can I say? Love the East and West coast but the more to the middle of the country I look, the more I start to shake my head in dismay. Teaching creationism in a biology lesson is just wrong. Leave theology out of the science lesson.

I could continue with other examples; the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church has the money to pay of the debts of Greece, but is refusing to do so, even though it can see the strife everyday people are living with. The numerous sex scandals of Roman Catholic priests in Ireland with underage boys. However I’m going to finish with the country where I did find my religion. I say religion, I actually mean science. You see religion is based upon stories written by people, translated into different languages with the aim of offering order to things that some believe can not be explained (another Dawson quote). Just look at the Christian church in the UK. The church was the wealthiest institution in the country, it demanded taxes, and if you didn’t pay, you were told you were going to live a life of punishment in hell. If you wanted to broaden your mind and better yourself, you needed education. Well education was controlled by the church too, with only monks allowed to study at university. Whereas science follows a familiar formula, create a theory, test said theory, report on findings, share evidence, have evidence scrutinised by others. It is this scrutiny that places science in such high regard for me. In constantly questioning and challenging itself, it is able to improve itself and provide answers. Why is religion so scared to be tested and scrutinised? Is it scared we will find out they don’t have the answers? And so…I finally found myself in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands.

Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands

Much of South America is deeply Christian, which again makes for an interesting contradiction in that the indigenous people once followed the Gods of the Incas, Aztecs, Mayans etc. And yet on the wonderfully diverse and amazing Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin discovered something intriguing and developed the theory of evolution, which, through further scrutiny has become fact. Evolution is not just a theory, it is a fact. He discovered how animals of identical genetic coding changed over years when on different islands. These changes were in direct correlation of the environments the islands were offering them. They weren’t changes through divine intervention, but by “survival of the fittest”. The giant tortoises being the classic example. And if I was left in any doubt, I only need to look closer to home to find numerous fossils of dinosaurs that predate by millions of years the supposed start date of the earth by God, set to be approx 4004BC. Ah good old dinosaurs, the huge fundamental flaw in Christianity and its insistence that God created the earth and Adam.

 Galapagos giant tortoise

So what did all this traveling teach me? (I could add numerous more countries to this list). Religion has never been able to prove anything of any note, whilst science has made endless discoveries that have benefitted us all, take medicine for example. So why do people follow a religion? Well I think it could be one of the following:

  • Some use religion as a comfort blanket to aid them in reassurance about this life and the next.
  • Some use it as a guide as to how to live, a sort of moral code.
  • Some use to outright control others and gain power and,
  • Some use it to commit acts of terror

And yet I am finding none of these apply to me. I do not need a comfort blanket, I am happy that when I die my body will be absorbed by the ground and its nutrients will be given to other living organisms, it’s called the food chain. I don’t require it as a moral guide, I know what is right from wrong without needing a religious figure telling me so, especially when they are spouting such rubbish with regards to contraception. I do not believe religion should be used for control or powerful gain, humans should be free to live in a peaceful tolerant society with the ability to be educated without influence. And I have no intention of committing an act of terror and devastation in the name of religion. Too many people have died in the name of a God.

So that leaves me along with approximately 45% of other British people being an atheist (around 2% say they are Jedi, got to love our sense of humour). Free to live my life in the knowledge that I should make everyday of this life count as there won’t be a next. So my advice for you…well if you want a religious lifestyle, it is there for you to have and I defend your right to pray to any God you wish without fear of retribution. However, I will place my faith in science and its boundless quest for new discoveries. It is the scientific education of a trained surgeon that can save a life on an operating table, not a prayer. It is the amazing work cancer biologists are doing everyday to reduce mortality rates that is working, not a prayer. It is the dedication of world health doctors decoding and then creating new vaccines to ever resisting diseases that is working, not a prayer. If just praying worked, we wouldn’t need the use of medicine. So my final thought for you if you are feeling curious is and want to broaden your horizons, buy a rucksack, pack a sleeping bag and book your ticket to go explore what the world has to offer, it’s amazing out there.