My aunt and I were at the solicitor’s office because my grandfather had nominated us as executors of his will, and there was paperwork to attend to.
As part of that, we were both asked to swear on the Bible that we would undertake our duties as executors to the best of our abilities.
My aunt swore first, but when it was my turn, I asked if there was another oath I could take — because I was an atheist.
The truth is, I was born atheist, as indeed we all are, and I have never been a believer.
My mother was raised Roman Catholic (the same as my aunt and all their side of the family), while my father claimed to be some sort of Scottish Protestant — but neither of them were the slightest bit religious. For example, they never went to church, and we didn’t pray or say grace at home either.
I was sent to a public boarding school that was Church of England, but again, it wasn’t an overly religious school, even though we did have lessons about religion (well, only Christianity, of course), and had to go to chapel once a week for a service.
I was even confirmed when I was in junior school — but I’ll be honest, it was mainly because all the other boys in my class were, and, as a bonus, we got one additional day out of school, which was a big deal then because we were only allowed to leave the school grounds on four days per term, so that was a 25% increase.
At the time, none of what we were taught in Divinity (aka Religious Knowledge) lessons made any sense, but I just kept quiet, not wanting to rock the boat.
However, I never told anybody about my non-belief — I’m not even sure I knew the word “atheist” back then. Even if I had mentioned it to my parents, I don’t think it would have surprised them anyway.
So, back to the solicitor’s.
I was probably 18 or 19 when my maternal grandfather died, so I’d been out of school for a year or two, and this was my first experience of being in a solicitor’s office, and I hadn’t known what to expect.
And when I was handed the Bible and asked to swear the oath, I still don’t know why I chose that moment to reveal my lack of belief.
I hadn’t planned it that way — because as I said, I didn’t know I would be called on to swear an oath. The words just sort of came out, almost by themselves.
The solicitor didn’t bat an eyelid — he was, presumably, used to dealing with this matter, although possibly not that often as the town I was brought up in was, and had been for centuries, predominantly Roman Catholic — but my aunt was visibly startled.
She said nothing at the time, probably because there was business to attend to, but, surprisingly, she didn’t mention it on the drive home either, as I’d expected.
I think the reason may have been in part that, even though the United Kingdom does have an official state religion, with the Queen being head of the church, it is simply not as big a deal there as it is in the USA where I now live.
For example, I never heard of children being disowned and/or thrown out of their parent’s home for the “sin” of not believing in God, as does happen in the USA.
In many ways, then, I was lucky that my “coming out” was such a non-event — but even if it had been, I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have suddenly believed, just to keep a roof over my head.
I’m not the sort of person who can just believe something without good reason — and I have yet to see or hear good reason for believing in any of the hundreds or thousands of gods that people have worshipped, or still do.
Many of those gods have fallen by the wayside, for the most part (because there are likely a relatively small number of people who do still believe in them), which is why we talk about Greek and Roman and Norse mythology, and, one day, I’m sure the Christian God (and other current deities) will be referred to in a similar way.
I accept that faith can be comforting to some, but it’s worth bearing in mind that being an atheist (or following the “wrong” religion) in some countries still carries the death penalty.
Consider that for a moment though — people are being murdered because of a thought crime, something that is basically saying they are not convinced about the existence of a deity.
If you agree with such laws and want to live in a world where what you think (even if you don’t act on those thoughts) can cause you to be punished or killed, then I truly feel sorry for you, because you have apparently lost your humanity.
However, the main thing I learned that day in the solicitor’s office was to have the courage of my convictions.
And ever since that day, I have stood up for my right not to be subjected to other people’s religious beliefs. If your Bible (or other holy book) tells you not to do something, then fine, don’t do it — but you should not be telling others who do not share your beliefs they cannot do it either (unless, of course, it’s part of the law of the land).