Confessions of an Australian Atheist
During the Sydney Olympics, Australian slang became the focus of many a newspaper article. So perhaps you may have already come across the word wowser. Wowser is one of those old fashioned words that nobody really uses anymore, but its existence still speaks volumes about Australian society. So what does it mean? According to Eugene Gorman Q.C. wowser is, "a simple, succinct, single word which aptly distinguishes the whole race of windy, watery, cantankerous, snuffling Chadbands, Stiggingses, Holy-Joes and scripture spouting sneaks, hypocritical humbugs, and unctuous dirty-minded rotters, who spend time interfering with the healthy instincts and recreations of healthy-minded, honest humanity."
I just thought I’d share that with you. Even if you’ve heard the word before, you probably got the censored version — because these days it wouldn’t do to offend the tourists. Personally, though, I prefer the spitting, contemptuous, bile-soaked original. It reminds me of the days when Australians had a healthy suspicion of authority, be it the authority of the church, or the state.
I was born at the end of that irreverent era, before tourism and the global village sanitized and homogenized Australian culture. I grew up in that atmosphere, when Australians had a reputation for speaking bluntly, and when we made fun of people in authority. I’m old enough (just) to remember something called the "Naked Vicar Show" — a television comedy series whose very name mocks the dignity of religion. Then, in the early eighties, there were many more comedians who made a career lampooning politicians, authority figures, and anyone else with pretensions.
On top of that, my parents are not religious, and have not been since long before I arrived. They started off devoutly enough. They were born into a very different Australia — the conservative, pious Australia of the 1940’s and 50’s — and they grew up with the values of that culture. But my father was an intelligent man, and he lost his faith in the institution where many intelligent men lose their faith: the seminary. After they left the church, my parents were married and moved to Sydney. By the time I was born they were effectively atheists (though my father is still uncomfortable with that term).
So, you see, I was never truly a Christian. I am not baptized. I did not go to Sunday school. To this day, I have never been to a regular church service (weddings and funerals not withstanding). No one can rightly accuse me of straying from the flock; I was never in it. No one can rightly accuse me of betraying God; I have no contract with Him. I am not angry with God, because I have never really believed in him. I think, deep down, I have always been an atheist, though I have not always thought of myself as such.
I do have religious relatives, but religion is a taboo topic at our family gatherings (it’s more peaceful that way). My parents did not talk about religion at all. So I first came into contact with religion at school. Once a week in Australian schools "approved" people come to give religious instruction. This is perfectly legal and constitutional, because in Australia there is no separation between church and state. I would sit in a classroom with a bunch of other kids while a woman, who seemed to me a younger version of my grandmother, read us Bible stories. Then she would talk about God and Jesus, a little breathlessly, in that faraway slightly zonked out state of mind that passes for Christian love. It was all fairly harmless. And it had no chance at all of converting me to religion.
I don’t say this because I was the world’s most precociously skeptical seven year old. I wasn’t. In fact, I was more like a sponge. I soaked up everything I saw and everything I was told. It didn’t occur to me to question anything, because I had no grasp of wrong. No one had ever explained to me that some things are right, and therefore good, are other things are wrong, and therefore evil. (Of course, I knew there were things I should not do, like hit my sister, or leave my toys all over the house; but rules that my parents made up, and rules that society makes up are not the same thing as the universal dichotomy of right and wrong, which supposedly exists outside of any context. To this day I believe there should be rules, and I remain unconvinced that absolute truths exist.)
Since I had no reason to judge things in terms of good and evil or right and wrong, I took everything onboard. But not everything was relevant to me, and not everything made sense. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I stored those irrelevant and nonsensical things away for future consideration, and promptly forgot about them. This was true of Bible stories, some of which, I remember, got a skeptical response from the class. Both the stories and the skeptical responses were filed away for future consideration. I didn’t believe them, but I didn’t exactly disbelieve them either. If you had asked me whether I believed God was real, I probably wouldn’t have understood the question.
As far as I remember, I only once ever came close to believing in God, and that was the day I decided to test His reality. At the time I really wanted a bike, but a bike was the one thing my parents would positively not buy me (because we lived on a busy road, and it was too dangerous). So I decided to pray for one. I closed my eyes and said, "God, if you really exist, give me a bike. Make it appear right now in the laundry." I waited for a little while, then I went into the laundry to look. There was no bike. I felt a little foolish, standing there looking at a blank wall, because my prayer had been quite sincere. I had taken the exercise seriously. If there had actually been a bike in the laundry, for whatever reason, I might well have become a Christian (now there’s a scary thought). As it was, I decided that God probably didn’t exist, or perhaps, just wasn’t relevant to me. And this is significant, because this is the first time I remember deciding the truth of something for myself.
Strangely enough, my conclusion that day did not turn me instantly into a religious skeptic. Or perhaps it’s not so strange, because when you think about it, God is only a vague concept in Christianity. He only exists as the abstract justification for religious authority. The substance of the Christian religion lies more in the Bible stories, the uplifting feeling of religious ecstasy, and the promise of eternal life. This is how it appeared to me, anyway. And in the following years, my experiences with religion centered on the first two aspects. (Eternal life was never much of an issue for me, I didn’t have to face mortality at all until I was 18, by which time I identified myself as an atheist.)
When I went to high school I became an accidental Catholic. This happened because, while filling in forms, I came across one that asked me my religious denomination. And I could not, for the life of me, remember which one I nominally belonged to. After all, my only involvement with religion was the religious classes at school — I wasn’t really a Christian at all, but an atheist. Still, to have to admit I did not know which religious class I had belonged to all throughout primary school was embarrassing, so I took a guess. I got it wrong.
I quickly learned that pretending to be a Catholic was a lot more involved than pretending to be some other kind of Christian. Catholics did strange things. They crossed themselves and said prayers you had to participate in, giving the right response at the right moment. And I guess my ignorance must have shown, because a few weeks in, the old guy who took the class asked me if I had ever been to church, and had confession, and whatever else it is you’re supposed to do when you’re Catholic. I admitted I hadn’t. He asked me if it would help if he had a word with my parents. I said no, it probably wouldn’t.
I figured I would get into trouble for being a fake. But this didn’t happen. Instead, they seemed rather impressed that I was pretending to be a Catholic, rather than pretending to be a Christian of some other denomination. A year later, the same guy confidently predicted that I would one day be a priest. And from then on, I could do no wrong. Suddenly I was the head of the class. It was all rather peculiar. One day, we had a Bible knowledge test, and I set out with the intent to deliberately fail. At the end, I handed back the test paper with about two correct answers, and a dozen more false or incomplete answers. I made some disappointed noises about how difficult I found it, and thought nothing more of it… until we got the results back the next week.
I had come top of the class. When the test paper was returned, I found it mysteriously completed. At first, I thought the old guy had just written the correct answers in, like you would when you’re marking a test paper — as though to say, look, here is the correct answer, get it right next time. But then I noticed that he had tried to imitate my hand writing, and that my actual answers didn’t tally with the result at the top of the page. I was very much taken aback by this. I am not the sort of person who cheats in exams. Nor am I the sort of person who would remove the cash from a lost wallet before I returned it to its owner. Like I said before, I believe in rules.
At the end of that year I won an award for excellence in religion, which I had to collect in front of the whole school. I found this quite embarrassing, because I still didn’t consider myself a believer, or a Catholic. I wasn’t religious, in the same way that other people were religious, like the one’s who had joined the Christian fellowship group in our school. Religious instruction did not continue in the senior years, so all involvement I had with religion ended then and there. In all that time, I never once attended a church service, and (with the exception I mentioned above) did not seriously believe in the existence of God. I remained an atheist throughout, and yet I got a taste of religion.
I have sampled religious ecstasy. Perhaps not the full blown, speaking-in-tongues kind of ecstasy, but enough to understand why people feel that way. I have sampled that sense of belonging, and the vicarious pleasure of religious pomp and ceremony. I have seen and felt all of those things while I was technically an atheist, without the help of belief, without being a member of the church in question, and without the intent to join any religious congregation of any denomination. I must conclude that these experiences, which some people claim as proof of God, must, in reality, be the product of the human mind and human activity. This is one reason why I do not, in myself, fear that atheism might be wrong. According to my own experience, it isn’t.
Things might have ended there. I might have remained an apathetic atheist for the rest of my life. I might never have written a single word on the subject. Only, after terminating my flirtation with religion at the age of sixteen, several things occurred. These events caused me to look at religion from an entirely different perspective.
First, a friend introduced me to role playing games, and for several years I was an avid gamer. At that time, role playing was at the peak of its popularity. Computer games were still too primitive to compete, and the hobby companies were discovering the commercial possibilities. Now, you can say a lot of things about role playing games as they were back then. Yes, they were a pastime for nerds. Yes, they were rather militaristic. And yes, teenage boys spent way too many hours drooling over pictures of scantily clad warrior women. But the one thing role playing games demanded of their players was a bit of intelligence, and a lot of imagination.
I’m sure there are many gamers of the period who firmly believe that this requirement for intelligence and imagination is what brought role playing to the attention of religious fundamentalists. Whatever the reason, extremist Christians attempted to redefine simple, harmless games, played mostly by middle class boys between the ages of twelve and eighteen, as recruiting tools for Satanism. It was the typical Fundy hatchet job. Spurious links were made between role playing and depression, or role playing and suicide. Slanderous and misleading literature was distributed through pressure groups like BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons).
The upshot of all this was that a large number of intelligent, academically inclined and largely blameless teenagers got a first hand lesson in religious bigotry. Suddenly they found their favorite game was banned in school, and that their gaming group was no longer welcome to play in the church hall of a Tuesday evening. And judging by the letters they wrote to gaming magazines at the time, gamers found it extremely frustrating when people preferred the sensational lies to the reality of role playing as they knew it to be. I wonder how many people were influenced by this incident, as I was? It was the first time I realized that religious extremists, far from being harmless cranks, actually have the power to materially disrupt people’s lives.
The second thing that made me see religion in a different light was the Bible. I don’t recall what it was that caused me to actually sit down and read the Bible. It was possibly an interview with a science fiction writer who claimed the King James version as his stylistic influence. All I remember is that I wanted to see, once and for all, what all the fuss was about. It started out innocently enough. There were the well-known passages out of genesis: the creation, the garden of Eden, the tower of Babel, the flood. It all struck me as terribly childish. There was a story about some middle eastern guy, pretending that his wife was his sister, and running away from everywhere because he was paranoid about people trying to kill him — very childish. But then again, lots of things struck me as childish when I was seventeen. I suspect seventeen may well be the natural age of the critic.
The book of Exodus was where I really started having trouble. In chapter two verse one, we are introduced to the character of Moses. By the end of verse twelve, he has committed his first murder. And all throughout the rest of the book, he inspired no reverent thoughts in me, only disgust. He is not a sympathetic character. Reading about Moses with the Israelites in Exodus is like watching a cat torment a mouse to death. If there really was a person called Moses, the Bible maligns him. When I reached Joshua, I had to put the book down. As a seventeen year old (and not even a particularly squeamish seventeen year old), it shook me to the core. Reading Joshua is like reading the testimonial of a serial killer. It describes each fresh atrocity in loving detail, and attempts to justify it with spurious rationalization. It made me ill. So I put the Bible down, and I didn’t pick it up again for several years.
I was in my twenties when I started to read the Bible over again, and I did so in a reasonable mood. I wanted to give it every chance, and I knew that Jesus is meant to be more humane than the Old Testament God. This time I disciplined myself. I read one book a night (except for some of the longer books), and I did actually make it all the way through — from Genesis to Revelation in a few short months. My opinion of it, though, did not change.
At a second reading, I did notice that the last part of Genesis actually tells an interesting (if barbaric) story. But the historical books (Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles) are most unconvincing in the way they attribute every success to the will of God, and every failure to the stubbornness of the people or the evil of the Kings. The Psalms aren’t particularly evocative, and the Proverbs aren’t particularly wise. The Song of Solomon is allegedly a great poetic work. But it didn’t impress me, especially with passages like, "Your teeth are as white as sheep… Not one of them is missing; they are all perfectly matched." [Song 4:2] What’s all this stuff about teeth? Is he writing a love song, or is he selling a horse? The prophets were all mad. I don’t blame the Israelites for ignoring them, as they apparently did. And in the end, the Israelites were right, because even though Fundamentalist Christians have tried to rewrite history, the prophets’ strike rate seems rather unimpressive.
When I got around to reading the New Testament, I did find some small improvement. At least the writer of Luke and Acts could string together a coherent story, even if it does contradict all the other gospels. But then I came across passages like the one at Mark 13:30: "Remember that all these things will happen before the people now living have all died." In other words, Jesus Christ prophesied the end of the world, in the clearest possible words, and he set a date on it. Two-thousand years on, this prophecy has obviously failed, and for me, the credibility of Jesus Christ disappeared in a puff of hubris.
When I started reading, I expected the Bible to challenge my non-belief. Instead, I found in those pages the confirmation of my atheism. That is the lesson the Bible taught me.
The Internet was the third thing that made me see religion in a different light. You see, in Sydney, genuine fire-breathing fundamentalists keep to themselves. There’s something about the diversity of the place that discourages public displays of bigotry and extremism. And I suppose it’s difficult to condemn the infidel when the infidel are close at hand and taking notes. But on the Internet, the fundy’s proliferate like mice in a grain store. And the anonymity of this medium gives them the courage to write what they really think. I must say that this surprised me. Till then, I had thought fundamentalists a dying breed. I had never guessed that in the United States, of all places, they had crawled out from beneath their rock and were pretending to be respectable.
Ordinarily, this would be none of my business. I don’t believe it is my place to impose my own values on other people, particularly when they live overseas in an entirely different cultural environment. But from my point of view, the real problem is that everything American tends to be imported into Australia. American fundamentalist Christianity is no exception to this. Once the pattern became familiar, I began to see that there were Australian fundamentalists only too willing to follow the lead of their American counterparts. And when I looked closer still, I found that Australian churches (including the Catholics and the Anglicans) have far more influence over our secular government than I feel comfortable with.
I object to fundamentalists, not because of anything to do with atheism or the truth. I don’t care the slightest about what people choose to believe, if it doesn’t effect others. Rather, I object to fundamentalists because they are wowsers. And they are wowsers. They can’t stand the thought of other people having fun. They can’t stand the thought of their relative unimportance in the scheme of things. They believe it is their right to interfere with other people’s lives, and they demand others adhere to their small-minded beliefs. But like all true wowsers, they are hypocrites. They don’t even try to live up to their own high expectations, and yet they can’t understand why people don’t take them seriously.
These wowser fundamentalists offend my sense of justice, not simply because they exist, but because they have taken to gathering and wielding political influence. I am an atheist. I am not, nor have I ever been, a practicing Christian. When I looked at the Bible, I found it without merit. Today, when I look at the doctrines of various religions drawn from the Bible, I also find them without merit. I have totally rejected religion as a viable way of living my life. And yet I find these very same religious groups influencing the political processes of my country. And I find that there are laws on the statutes that place numerous religion-inspired restrictions upon me.
Yet, the fact that I totally reject the authority underlying these laws does not exempt me from them. This is not just. I feel my morality is being legislated by people who are my moral inferiors. This is not fair. I know for a fact that the Australians who actually belong to the two churches with the greatest political influence are in the minority. This is not democratic. And this is why, in 1998, I felt it necessary to come out as an atheist. Many Australians ask me why I bother; after all, Australia is largely a secular nation. I write things in defense of atheism (such as this testimonial) because, for me, it is a matter of principle, and because, for me, it is safe to do so. In Sydney, unlike some parts of the world, I can call myself an atheist without fearing for my life.
But, of course, there is another reason why I am writing this. I would like to see a full-blooded, international revival of the word "wowser". After all, it’s been a long time since I last called someone a dingy, stingy, carping, cringing, whingeing, whining, wowser.