“I had atheist tendencies from a very young age. In fact some of my earliest memories are intense feelings of atheist desire. When I was about four I had a beautiful babysitter who would read me stories and then go down stairs and watch TV. One night I peeked through the living room door and saw that she was watching a saucy atheist physics documentary. When I saw those glimmering stars hanging in empty, godless space, and heard the presenter’s tired yet melodic voice, I felt something slot into place. I had not yet learned to feel ashamed of my atheism. At that stage I didn’t even know what atheism was.
“My secondary school was a religious place. One teacher told me that atheism did not exist. Another, that it was a mental disease like psychosis or schizophrenia. The mainstream view at the school was that atheism was a choice and that anybody who acted out on their atheist urges would go to hell. It was there that I developed an abiding sense of shame about my atheism. One day after church a boy asked me to go have a religious experience with him. I tried faking it, and I told him that it was my first time, and then I cried. He sent me to the church-approved doctor, who told my parents that I should probably find another school.
“It was only at university that I began to come to terms with what it means to be an atheist. To understand that non-belief comes in many forms. I joined the AAPD society – Atheist Agnostic Pantheist Deist society. We’d get pissed and go to burlesque comedy nights and shout things like “show us your soul!” to the performers. We were garish but we were free.
“It’s sometimes hard to imagine in a (relatively) atheist-friendly country like modern Britain, but across much of the world, atheism is still regarded as sinful. Young men and women are frequently stoned for atheism, and girls in particular are raped as a “cure” for their belief that there is no such thing as a loving God. But what we don’t believe is not a choice.
“Now I know that some people who call themselves ‘atheist’ are to some extent agnostic and can move between belief and non-belief, or combine the two. This does not mean that all atheism is a choice, any more than believing you are not tall is, or believing you don’t have ginger hair.
“Fortunately these days atheists have plenty of celebrity role models – actors, scientists and even politicians. I hope that any atheists reading this will appreciate that they are not alone. Whether you have told anyone, or you have not, you’re an atheist and that’s okay. I’m an atheist too. And God loves me.”