I've dithered about posting this. What I have to say here is a very big deal for me. I think, though, that it needs to be said.
When I was nineteen, I had a religious experience. Two, in fact, one a few weeks after the other. The second was in a church, but this wasn’t directly relevant as the first was on a beach. Both involved an intense appreciation of the beauty of the created world (a particularly fine sunset, a woman’s singing voice) which opened up into a transcendent sense of joy, in which I had a profound sense of the Creator who’d worked the beauty I was observing.
It’s fair to say that this pair of experiences was fundamental in maintaining my Christian faith over the following couple of decades. As I came to understand the Bible as an assorted collection of disparate ancient texts whose context we could only attempt to reconstruct; as I became fascinated by other faiths and the alternative truths they represented; as I came to realise that much of traditional Christianity, at least as popularly understood by my contemporaries, was anathema to me; as I became embroiled in more and more discussions with atheists who insisted that faith was a delusion, a self-deception, a complete denial of reason and science, I had this to hang on to: I know God. God must exist, because it’s something I’ve experienced for myself.
I derived a theology based on that premise which was rational and satisfying, at least to me: a theology which acknowledged the many reasons for not believing, but combined them with my certain knowledge that God did exist. It was liberal, allowing the inner light of individual conscience to dispel the shadows of biblical and traditional authority. It was apophatic, maintaining that language, logical propositions and the like simply didn’t apply to God because they were invented to describe the created world. It was pluralist, accepting truths from all faiths while privileging Jesus’s interpretation of the divine truth.
It was -- I’m still convinced, given the premises I was working from -- quite rational.
I understood, of course, that there might be sound biochemical or neurological explanations for those foundational experiences which had no need to invoke the divine. I felt that to accept these would be... I’d have to use the word unfaithful: it would be untrue to the quality of the experience, disloyal to the Person with whom I felt the experience had placed me in contact. Having experienced that transcendence, attributing it to a glitch in my brain chemistry would have felt simply dishonest.
What changed my mind (and here I’m doubly outing myself, compounding my newfound atheism with an admission of mental illness) was my experience of clinical depression. In a diffuse way this is something I’ve suffered from, in retrospect, for my entire life since puberty, and perhaps earlier; but it was the total disruption of all my established habits and coping strategies following the birth of my son which brought it out into the open. It’s a hellish condition, blotting out all happiness and love from life for days or weeks at a time.
I want to be clear about one thing. This isn’t one of those anti-testimonials that runs ‘I believed in God, but then he didn’t help me in my personal tragedy, so I gave up on him’. I wasn’t the kind of naïve, arrogant Christian who cheerily assumes the Problem of Pain doesn’t apply to them, and is gobsmacked to discover that suddenly it does. (There are solutions to the Problem which strike me as intellectually satisfying, and solutions which strike me as emotionally satisfying, but I’ve never seen one which managed to be both. Nonetheless, I didn’t assume that my satisfaction was the most important criterion, or -- given the whole apophatic issue -- that the ‘true’ solution was susceptible to being understood in human terms.)
For a couple of years as I suffered from depression, I integrated it smoothly into my Christian faith -- not in any special way as ‘my cross to bear’, but on what seemed to me the obvious basis that shit happens, I’m bloody lucky I don’t live in Darfur, and this is still a world in which God exists.
Then one day, I wondered what it would take for my depression actually to destroy my faith. And almost at once I came to the conclusion that the only way it could do that would be to make me disbelieve in the reality of those experiences of transcendent joy, back in my teens.
This was followed, seconds later, by the realisation that depression is a state of transcendent misery, every bit as all-encompassing and world-obscuring as those fleeting crises of euphoria. And if I could believe -- as I do, of course -- that my depression came from my aberrant brain-chemistry, how could I any longer deny that those earlier experiences could have arisen the same way, in the strange turmoil of my late teens?
If I had never, in fact, been in contact with the divine, if that sense of transcendence had in fact been a neurological artefact, then all my theology was built on a false foundation, and the many perfectly sensible arguments that God was not a necessary proposition to hold to would have to come powerfully into effect.
One solution, of course, would have been immediately to ascribe depression to the Devil. But Satan had never had a place in my theology, and I couldn’t seriously consider introducing him merely in order that I could go on believing in God.
I’d always maintained that faith is not an irrational phenomenon; that it can be as sensible and sane a philosophy as any secular one; that fear of death, desire for reward and punishment, and submission to authority were not among my reasons for belief; that the desire to believe, no matter that I felt it, was not sufficient reason to believe; and that if I ever became convinced through reason that my faith was invalid, I would abandon it.
It lasted twenty years.
But it would be dishonest -- it would be unfaithful to the truth as I perceive it -- to cling on to it any longer.
I have more to say about the consequences of this, about how my thinking has been and will be affected by this, about the kind of atheist I intend to be, and the kind I intend never to become -- and, perhaps, about the kind of Christian I might conceivably still be. But this is long enough to be getting on with, I think.