William’s atheism: no pang of regret
WILLIAM PANG, a Berkshire, UK, school pupil, describes his shift from devotion to disbelief. His article appeared in the March 2014 issue of the Freethinker
THE airplane accelerated on the tarmac, on the verge of lift-off. Recalling the prayer Zeny taught me, I quickly murmured the words:
God, please guide this plane safely in your hand.
Shaking with trepidation, I nervously clutched the armrests, squeezing as hard as I could until the plane became airborne.
Ten years ago, I was devoutly religious. I attended an Episcopal school for nine years, never skipped a session of Sunday school, and prayed every day. At the age of six, I was empowered with religious zeal, feeling the presence of God in my body and spirit.
I was taught that God keeps a book by his side; a book that records the good and bad deeds of each and every human being. And on Judgment Day, God will sit on his throne with this book in his hand, deciding who shall enter the gates of heaven or suffer the vengeance of eternal fire. I feared God as much as I loved him.
But after the six years of Bible lessons and Sunday Schools, I snapped. I rebelled. There were no more conversations with God, no more bedtime prayers. I looked forward to the mandatory Bible classes not because I wanted to hear the repeated Bible stories,but because I wanted to challenge my teacher and point out all the flaws of the Bible. Naturally, I chose the Old Testament for my source of material.
I bombarded my teachers with question such as “Why was a woman pulled out of a man’s rib? Isn’t that degrading woman?” and “Why does God condone slavery in the Old Testament? Doesn’t God love everyone equally?” There were mixed messages in the Bible that I couldn’t explain, messages that didn’t seem to be expressive of the logic of a 21st century human being.
I turned to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens for answers. I couldn’t explain the contradictions in the Bible, the unanswered prayers and the rational basis for believing in a religion. The downside of religion seemed so evident: suicide bombers sacrificing their lives in the name of God, the never-ending Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, brainwashing children with creationism … the list goes on and on.
The “New Atheists” all seemed to make a plausible point: religion should be criticised and countered through rational arguments.
Four years later, my father was forced to retire. He promptly took up Hebrew, a shocking development because I have always considered my dad as a non-religious and pragmatic person. I thought of many reasons to explain his drastic change in interests, though the answer was always before me. Seeing close friends and relatives pass away, my dad realised that death was no longer an idea tucked in the back of his mind. Maybe taking Hebrew classes was his way of finding comfort as death seems to approach closer and closer.
The first day I stepped into an Islam, Judaism and Christianity class, I was greeted by a loud, enthusiastic teacher. Mr Bowler loved to stir our inquisitive minds by viewing a story or an act from God from a fresh perspective.
Many students had to break away from the traditional understanding of a particular biblical story or event. It felt awkward questioning whether God or Satan was responsible for tempting Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge. But what role did God play when he told Adam and Eve that they could not eat from this one single tree, among the thousands of other trees in the garden?
Tackling Islam was no easy feat. The Koran is best understood when one chants the verses, rendering an English interpretation confusing and difficult to understand. Many students, including myself, had many preconceived notions about Islam. Having read and heard about the violence and bloodshed in the Islamic world, I regarded Islam as a violent and radical religion.
It was not until reading the Koran and studying both the violent and peaceful message that I realised it is up to the reader to interpret the text in different ways. The powerful messages in the Koran could be used for promoting love and peace, but they could also be misinterpreted by a small group of people to promote a radical agenda.
Five years after renouncing my religious beliefs and becoming an atheist, it seems illogical that I still continue to recite the prayer Zeny taught me. But I find comfort in those words, like many others who pray when faced with problems and challenges in their daily lives. Being an atheist has taught me to walk a mile in one’s shoes, to put away my prejudices, and to continue to yearn for knowledge and understanding of different religions.
I feel comfortable declaring myself an atheist because I respect and understand those who believe in God.