My Atheism

My Path from Rome

My Path from Rome

OH, YES – I once had an orthodox creed. I was brought up in a devout Roman Catholic family, and had an old-style convent education – and throughout my childhood and adolescence I was a steadfast believer. That was in the days (before the Second Vatican Council) when the Catholic Church was still Catholic and the Pope was infallible – so I had absolute certitude about God and the universe and my place in it. But in the end – and it took me a very long while – I grew up.

Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all. No one needed to drum religion into me: I lapped it up like a thirsty puppy. Of course, I must have been given the taste for it first of all, but I cannot remember as far back as that.

What I do remember, though, is that my four younger sisters and one younger brother were coaxed to say, as the first syllables that ever passed their lips, not “Mama” or “Dada”, but the far more difficult “Jesus” – so presumably I was equally precocious. Anyway, by the time the good nuns got hold of me, at the age of four, I was hooked on the supernatural.

At home, as in most large families, we were always playing competitive games among ourselves – and Rule Number One, which became standard for any competitive family game, was “No Praying”. This was at the insistence of the others, who thought that praying would give me an unfair advantage.

This indicates that at home I was regarded as the pious one of the family – which is saying a great deal – and the nuns at my first convent school seem to have cast me in the role of a future saint. Whenever there was any school entertainment, I was given some religious poem to recite, and once, when they put on a little play in which Jesus appeared, I was given that role, without any competition – though, admittedly, my auburn curls may have contributed to the choice.

There was a large sentimental painting on our classroom wall of a guardian angel hovering protectively over a child on the edge of a precipice – and I accepted it quite literally. I never got on a bus or a train without quickly reminding my guardian angel to keep an eye out for danger.

My gullibility embraced not only the supernatural and miraculous, but also the magical. Amazing though it may seem in these days of advanced childhood knowledge, I was actually ten years old by the time I realised that Christmas presents were not really left by an old red-coated gentleman coming down the chimney.


When I upbraided my mother for having told me such lies, she protested that Santa Claus did, in a sense, exist – as the personification of generosity and giving. But it was too late to give me a metaphorical explanation. I had accepted the myth literally for too long.

Empathising with younger children on whom the same confidence trick was being imposed, I embarked on a crusade around the neighbourhood, telling all the kids that there was no Santa Claus. This reached the ears of the father of a neighbouring family, who reproved me for spoiling it for the little ones. “Spoiling it’”! I could not understand what he meant. To my mind, they were being made fools of, and I was only saving them from this indignity. I now see this as the beginning of both my loss of faith and of my persistent missionary zeal in proclaiming scientific truth – but it was many years before Jesus went the way of Santa Claus.

On one occasion, when our family, together with a number of aunts, uncles, and cousins, were spending Sunday afternoon at Grandma’s, our uncle priest offered a shilling to the best behaved child at the tea-table. When, after a tea-time of unusual restraint, the children were told they could leave the table, I was the only one who remained to say my grace – and that, of course, won me the shilling.

The others protested that they too had remembered to say their grace after meals – but quietly, with a less ostentatious sign-of-the-cross. This, however, was apparently not believed. To this day, half a century later, some of my cousins still hold this shilling against me – maintaining that I cunningly planned the whole thing: but it is really not so. I would simply never have thought of eating even a biscuit without saying a grace both before and after.

As my sexual urges developed, I got all my sexual out of contemplating the sufferings of Jesus – the masochism engendered by Christianity, as exemplified in medieval art – but, of course, I would have been horrified had I realised that this had anything to do with feelings associated with parts of the body that one was supposed not to notice.

At that time, never having experienced orgasm in any context other than prayer and religious meditation, I interpreted it as one of the “consolations of religion” – a phrase which I had often come across in the lives of the saints. Indeed, I still think that that is precisely what most of them meant by it. And when those of them who had taken a lifelong vow of chastity wrote in mid-life about “the dark night of the soul”, I think it was really the body they were referring to. Nowadays it is commonplace to say that religious emotions are akin to sexual feelings: but they are not just akin to them – in my experience, they are indistinguishable.

At my secondary school – also a convent – the other pupils laughingly referred to me as “the saint”, though I was fortunate in that my piety did not make me unpopular. Eventually, however, even the nuns told me to spend less time in church and the convent chapel, and more time study. But they played on my masochism, and were always lending me devotional books and pamphlets about the religious vocation. My favourite book for years was the autobiography of St Therèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul – which I now regard as utterly sick, and sickening.

By the time I was fourteen, I had no wish to be anything but a nun – not in a teaching order, but in the Carmelite (enclosed) order. I was already saving up half my pocket-money towards my dowry – and I would gladly have entered at 15, as St Therèse did. But my mother said I must wait until the age of 19 to see if I changed my mind.

A vintage picture of Carmelite nuns

An archive picture of Carmelite nuns clustering around a Catholic priest

She said the same to one of my sisters who, similar to me in temperament, is nine years younger than I – but whereas the Second World War started when I was 16, and I then left school and went out first into the world of work and then into the Women’s Royal Naval Service, my sister, in the post-war years, remained at school until the age of 19, and then went straight from one convent as a pupil into another as a novice, with no time between to change her mind. She is still a nun.

In my last year at school I was awarded the religious knowledge medal by the diocesan inspector because, when he unexpectedly departed from the set catechism questions and asked for a proof of Christ’s divinity, I was the only pupil ready with an answer. To me it was obvious that God would not otherwise have given Jesus the power to perform miracles, since this would mislead people as to his divine claims. It did not occur to me at the time that it was an unproved assumption that the gospel stories were true. And no one pointed this out.

On other occasions, I would ask the nuns quite probing theological questions – but, of course, my teenage naivety was no match for their comparatively sophisticated replies, and so, though generally of a questioning turn of mind, I accepted the Catholic creed in toto. Indeed, in those days of papal authority it had to be all or nothing; and I remember how amazed I was to hear of a Catholic who had given up practising yet had remained a believer in Christianity. For me, there was never any possibility of a halfway house between the Catholic Church and atheism.

At the same time, I must already have begun to fear a loss of faith, for I remember praying daily that this would never happen to me. It took ten more years to complete the process.

At the age of 19, when, at my naval training camp, I found that there was no provision for Catholics to hear Mass on January 1, (the Feast of the Circumcision) or January 6 (the Epiphany), which were then holy days of obligation, I successfully requested special 6 am “liberty boats” for that purpose. How my fellow Catholics must have hated me for forcing them to go out on dark, wet mornings, instead of having another two hours in bed!

A year later I was in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where I served king and country for the next 21 months. There I not only mixed with non-Catholic Christians, with some of whom I used to discuss moral theology, but I also visited Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, and so widened my perspective on religion. Consequently, by the time I returned home after the war, I was no longer sure I wanted to become a nun, though was still a believer. However, my theological doubts now began to build up, and became more and more insistent.

In confession, I was told that I was suffering from intellectual pride. Who was I to put my puny intellect against the teaching of Holy Mother Church? I saw the force of this argument – especially as there were important Catholic writers I admired, such as G K Chesterton, who, though obviously far more intelligent and learned than I, apparently had no difficulty in accepting doctrines that seemed to me to be irrational and at odds with the world around us.

Now, of course, I realise that many people of undoubted mental ability manage to cling to their supernatural beliefs by keeping them, as it were, in different mental compartments from everyday knowledge, not subjecting them to the same sort of scientific scrutiny of rigorous evidence that they would demand for anything else.

As for the accusation of intellectual pride, surely the boot is on the other foot. Atheists don’t claim to know anything with certainty – it’s the believers who know it all.

At school, we were taught that there is no such thing as an atheist – and to some extent I think the nuns were right in this, because they took the world “atheist” to mean someone who categorically denies the existence of any kind of god. Obviously, it must depend on the definition of the world “god”, which can mean anything from the very human and immoral Old Testament god, Jehovah, to some sort of abstract god, such as Bernard Shaw’s Life Force, or even something as indisputable as the whole of existence. The only objection one can make to that last god-concept is to the confusing use of the word “god”  as a synonym for everything.

However, the one function that most gods seem to have in common is to give human existence some ultimate purpose – but, while it is not possible to disprove an ultimate purpose, there is no evidence for it. This is not to say, of course, that there is no purpose in life at all: as well as the collective purposes of human society, we all make our own individual purposes as we go through life. And life does not lose its value simply because it is not going to last for ever.

For most believers, however, the important thing is that death is not the end, either for themselves or for their relationship with close friends who have died. Most of us, probably, would find it comforting at times to believe that – but the fact that a belief is comforting obviously does not make it true. And I suppose, in common with other atheists, I just happen to be the sort of person who cannot derive comfort from a belief that lacks supporting evidence.

In fact, all the evidence is against personal survival of death. It just doesn’t make sense. How could anything that survived the death of the body be the same person?


As for the idea that the universe was deliberately created, which is intended to explain existence, it manifestly fails to do so – for one is still left with the question of God’s existence. It is less complicated to suppose that particles of matter and waves of energy have always existed than to suppose they were made out of nothing by a resourceful being that has always existed.

Besides, the idea of deliberate creation raises the moral problem of all the suffering there is in life, for so many people – and also for animals. I am ashamed, in retrospect, that I ever found it possible to worship the supposed creator of over-reproduction, sentient food, disease, and natural disasters. If I still believed in an omnipotent creator, I would have to heap curses on him – or her, or it. But if there is one thing to be said for this creator-god, it is his evidence non-existence.

In the late 1940s, however, I was still trying to reconcile belief in his existence with the nature of the world around me – of which I had become more aware Remembering from school theology lessons that Thomas Aquinas had said it was possible to come to faith through reason, I thought I would give my faith a boost through reason, stimulated by a course of reading. So I read book after book – mainly books written by Catholic apologists, but some by atheist philosophers too. And the more I read the less I could believe.

Finally, one Saturday morning in November 1949, standing by the philosophy shelves of my local public library, I suddenly said to myself, with a tremendous flood of relief, “I am no longer a Catholic”. And that, for me, meant I was no longer a Christian, or theist of any kind.

After so much mental turmoil, I did not imagine at first that I had really come to the end of it; I expected to go on having doubts – doubts now about my disbelief. But in fact this never happened. I have never for one moment found any reason to suppose that my decision that morning 36 years ago was a mistake.

Cautiously, though, until the mid-1950s, I adopted the label “agnostic” – only to find this was generally misunderstood as meaning that I was still sitting on the theistic fence: a position I had found so painful, and was so relieved to relinquish in 1949. So I began to declare myself an atheist and a humanist – which suited me far better.

That is not to say that I have not sometimes hankered after my old childhood comforter – but it is no more possible for me to go back to believing in a god and a heaven than it is to go back to the belief than an old red-coated gentleman climbs down chimneys with presents on Christmas Eve.

• Barbara’s article first appeared in the January, 1986, edition of the Freethinker. It is included in her anthology of articles she penned for the magazine over a period of five decades. Her 239-page book is entitled Freethoughts and she still has a few copies for sale at £10 post-free. The first item is dated 1966,the last 2002.

If you would like a copy, you can write to her at 51 Farmfield Road, Bromley, Kent BR1 4NF.


18 responses to “My Path from Rome”

  1. john dent smith says:

    Much my own feelings, though not of the Roman High church, I was bought up C/E, attended a school where chapel was daily before.classes my confirmation retreat was to the British Army Chaplincy at Bagshot.
    I have turned to believe in myself & my actions much as in the Budhist mode of belief, but deep down I have an uncomfortable need & I surpose fear of “The what”

  2. Brummie says:

    Have bought and read Barbara’s book “Freethoughts”and can highly recommend it. My Catholic brainwashing lasted until I was 26. Outsiders don’t realise how powerful it is when it pervades all actions from the age of 5.

  3. Cali Ron says:

    @Brummie: I do. I was indoctrinated into the Assembly of God church pretty much from birth and was a whole hearted believer until I was 17. Very powerful indeed!

  4. dennis says:

    Ms Barbara Smoker I lived your life in the southern baptist hell fire and brimstone but my wonderfully happy release happened at 16 years and I was calling my self an atheist at that age. my mom would say “o’ fuwwe, Dennis” and move on to her domestic duties. I was told to keep my mouth shut around relatives about religion, but when with just cousins we talked about the illogic reasoning and science of it all. Freedom from controlled stupidity that has allowed me to live my life with simply logic reason and science leading my way. WOW!

  5. Well done Barbara!

    “I am ashamed, in retrospect, that I ever found it possible to worship the supposed creator of over-reproduction, sentient food, disease, and natural disasters. If I still believed in an omnipotent creator, I would have to heap curses on him”.

    I love these lines. They simply express the assumption that instead of trying to make out a baby’s terrible suffering is allowed to happen for a good reason by God you help the baby. Do not waste any of your care on God and bestow it all on the baby. If hypothetically we have to help the baby for her own sake or for God’s (because he wants us to help others not because they need it but out of devotion for him and he commands it) and it has to be one or the other who should we choose? If we say God then it follows that there is some misanthropy in us. Human nature needs an outlet for its dark side. Some would say that the saints were able to be so good because their outlet for evil was in condoning the sick and twisted ways of God and of those lousy enough to back him up. Not so good underneath it all then…

  6. Sarah says:

    Psalm 14:1 The fool hath said in his heart there is no God. Looking at Creation proves this, and the bible says people will be without excuse. Romans 1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
    May I also say that atheism is a religion as well, and is by faith. Also, as far as the comment about other religions, if you look at most of them, they realize there is a creator, that they are in trouble, and there needs to be a sacrifice. Do some research on some of the religions in the most remote places like jungles and such. Boy, kinda sounds like Christianity, they have a deep seated need, but don’t know who they are praying to. But I wanted to tell you I believe the Catholic church is a big cult, and people are not taught to think but to follow. I do admire that you were not willing to participate in seeing that it is definitely hypocrisy. It is a damnable man made religion. I understand your feelings here though, you’ve been taught a lie, and so many have. My friend was raised as a Catholic, and then became an atheist because it was such Hypocrisy. She was an evolutionary biologist, and never wanted children, in fact the idea disgusted her. However, when she became pregnant with her first son, she realized it couldn’t be on chance, and that there was a designer involved. She came to know the real Lord Jesus Christ after that and ended up getting saved. Catholicism is not Christianity. If you look up your history you would see that the Catholics actually persecuted Christians, They were brutal and bloody. They did unbelievable things to Christians. Do your research, you would be amazed at the torture. Catholicism is a mix of Christianity and paganism. It was not the first church, and it came much later. Read about the churches in the new testament, they weren’t Catholic. The Catholic religion also worships idols, which is forbidden by God via the first and second commandment. It is full of Satanic symbols. The upsidedown cross on the Popes “throne”, the bent cross. The eucherist, which is cannibalism, which Christ never sanctioned. Why do they worship Mary when she was a sinner herself. They have no idea what the bible says, and are kept in bondage by thinking they can get to God through some man. The Pope is no God, oops sorry if I have offended(Not really). Hogwash. And as far as the great whore of Babylon, I believe that will be the Catholic church. It is blinding the minds of many people. My mom brought me up to believe in Santa Clause, and I was devastated when I found out he wasn’t real. But I did not use that as a way to discredit there being a God. God did not come up with that religion man did, and God certainly didn’t come up with Santa Clause. Oh, and by the way we cannot see atoms or gravity, but they still exist) I don’t teach my children there is a Santa Clause simply because I don’t want them to think that way about God. I know Catholicism is a cult, and they leave it up to some man, but that is not God. I was never a Catholic, thank God, I had my own set of issues, but I have seen what the Catholic religion does. Take the time to look at a bible. In there it is Jesus from front to back. You’d be surprised what you might find, if you are willing to look, and get past any pride. God wants you saved, not some dead religion. Ist God says in Romans 3:23 There is none righteous no not one. Then he goes on to say in For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The bible says we are all separated from God because of our sins. Then it says in Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. So because we sin (every person sins), God says we must pay for those by dying and spending an eternity in hell. Revelation 19:14,15 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire, this is the second death, and whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. He created us for a relationship with him, and we try to give him religion (works) to appease him (this didn’t work with Cain and Abel, Abel brought a sacrifice signifying what it would take (a beautiful picture of Christ) and Cain brought the works of his hands via religion, where we try to come to God with what we have. It doesn’t work. Have you ever tried to keep all the commandments. We can’t, we will always fall short, it is impossible! Romans 5:8 For God commendeth his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. I ask so many Catholics why Christ had to die, and they really can’t explain it except for key phrases, they don’t know. Either you were going to have to die and spend an eternity in hell (sorry no purgatory) or someone had to do it for you. Christ paid our sin payment in full on the cross of Calvary so you could go to be with him in Heaven someday because he loves you that much. John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish but have everlasting life. How do we obtain this gift Romans 10:9,10,13 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. You cannot merit heaven by your own good deeds because we fall short all of the time, God had to do it for us. I don’t go to church, and read my bible because I want to get to heaven, I do it because of a love for the Lord who paid my price on the cross, shedding his blood for me. We love him, because he first loved us 1 John 4:19. If ye love me, keep my commandments John 14:15. He wants us to repent from our sins, and put our trust and faith in him. Repenting means a turning away from the way we were headed, to a turning to what God wants. When I got saved I gave him the control. I realized I was rotten, evil, and no different from a murder theif etc. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. I was brought up in a non religious home, so I cannot use that as an excuse for my salvation. And if you don’t see yourself that way, then you are prideful, wanting to be better than everyone else. We have all committed sin, lets be honest. Anyway, If you look from the beginning to the end the bible is about Jesus. It is a love letter from God, sent to man. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance 2 Peter 3:9. I beg of you to listen. if you are such a freethinker you will check this out for yourself. God is not through with you and loves you deeply. And by the way as far as your sex comment, God was the creator of sex. He just designed it for a special purpose between a man and a woman, who were married, and if you look in the bible it wasn’t just for children, and it wasn’t dirty. We make it that way, and pervert it. Read the Song of Solomon. It is between a husband and wife, it will make you blush. But it is within God’s protective bound which is the marriage bed which is “undefiled”. God created sex to be enjoyed between husband and wife. Don’t let your Catholic past dictate your future with God, and if you are such a freethinker you will check it out yourself. Get a kjv and go for it. You would be amazed at all of the lies that have been believed. And by the way, being an atheist is not free thinking. Look at socialism and tell me if that is a free thinker. How about Communism, facism, Marxism. Marx’s children suffered horribly. Actually you are putting yourself into more bondage, and the herd mentality. Marx, Stalin, Hilter and so on. You need to research. Oh how God loves you!

  7. Sarah says:

    By the way Eve lived by logic too, that is why we are in this mess. Check out Genesis 3, when Eve took the forbidden fruit, twisting what God had said. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. Genesis 3:6. She thought she’d be pretty smart. She thought and she reasoned. When I read some of these comments on here I shudder. God loves you, and his ways are not grevious.

  8. C. Flynn says:

    So what did Barbara do for the rest of her life after she became an atheist? Significantly she does not say. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. All of the atheists I have known or read about have had lives dogged by mental illness, failed relationships and addictions.

  9. Barry Duke says:

    @ C. Flynn, clearly you are either too stupid or too lazy to use Google. Had you done so you would have discovered that Barbara Smoker, whom I have known and worked with for over 40 years, has packed a great deal into her life.

    Apart from having served as President of the National Secular Society for 25 years, at 92 she is still a prolific writer and campaigner for the atheist movement. As a public speaker she was in constant demand for decades, and much of her time was spent conducting non-religious funerals, weddings and other ceremonies.She has also authored three books.

    She was active in various social campaigns, such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament, legalisation of abortion and was chair of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now Dignity in Dying.)

    She is also current Honorary Vice President of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association in the United Kingdom.

    What, pray tell, have you done with your life, C Flynn?

  10. AgentCormac says:

    ‘I had my own set of issues.’
    Not altogether sure why you used the past tense there – seems to me you still have enough issues to fill a swimming pool. Most of them pertaining to delusion. And by the way, precisley which god is it that loves me? I’d love to know. Clearly it isn’t the catholic god as one of your biggest issues seems to be with that particualr brand of christianity. Perhaps you have a god all of your own that loves me?

  11. Stephen Mynett says:

    Good response Barry. The usual religionist guff from the two above, I only skimmed Sarah’s diatribe once I spotted the bit about atheism being a religion it was obvious we were dealing with someone too indoctrinated or deluded to argue rationally.
    Hopefully they are just another of the drive by trolls we get a few of and won’t be seen again.

  12. Stuart H. says:

    As it happens, most of the people I’ve known with lives dogged by mental illness, failed relationships and addictions got that way due to warped ideas implanted during an over-harsh religious upbringing. Once able to put some distance between themselves and the root cause of their problems they usually improve.
    I’d also have to consider over-dependence on religion as a type of addiction, and one where the drug dealers are far nastier and harder to escape. Having lived in several run down inner city areas where drug dealing was rife, I can honestly say I’ve never met a smack dealer brazen enough to say his product offers life after death.

  13. HVillar says:

    Sarah, what an excellent post. It touches on so many important topics relevant to today’s society. It is a prime example of how humans can become completely deluded, like yourself. I don’t know what you have done, but comparing yourself to thieves and murderers?
    Also, if, like you state, we should follow the instructions of 1 John 4:19 (If ye love me, keep my commandments) shouldn’t we be stoning millions of people to death (including women and children;especially women) on a daily basis? Doesn’t sound very loving to me. Actually, it sounds like a load of BS.I could go on but see no point here.

  14. David Anderson says:

    I didn’t get past “May I say that atheism is a religión as well, and is by faith.” on that wall of text by Sarah. You can say it but it guarantees that what comes after will be bollocks.

  15. barriejohn says:

    As it happens, most of the people I’ve known with lives dogged by mental illness, failed relationships and addictions got that way due to warped ideas implanted during an over-harsh religious upbringing.

    My experience exactly, in evangelical circles. You took the words out of my mouth!

    I didn’t have the patience to wade through Sarah’s bullshit either, and it was precisely at the “atheism is a religion” point that I gave up reading as well.

  16. barriejohn says:

    Great riposte, Barry. I’m ashamed when I consider how I wasted my life and talents as a Christian. If only I had achieved half as much!

    Info on Barbara Smoker, for those who prefer information to innuendo:

  17. Cali Ron says:

    @C. Flynn: Haven’t actually known any atheist, have you? Recent studies that were not biased towards christians have all indicated that their is no discernible difference in mental health between believers and atheists. It is the conceit of the religious that want to believe that being so somehow makes them better, superior to atheists, but there is no data or facts to support that assumption.

    @Sarah; Your long winded, meandering tome of a comment was all based on a god that cannot be proven to exist and the bible which is filled with contradictions, inaccuracies and can’t be traced to any of the supposed original authors. If you spent as much time researching god and the bible from a scientific and logic viewpoint as you did writing your comments you might see the complete lack of reason in your statements

  18. Brian Jordan says:

    “May I also say that atheism is a religion as well”
    Perhaps you’re a Young Earth creationist: they say evolution is a religion as well!