Friday, May 31, 2013

How I Stopped Being an Atheist

I stopped being an atheist in 2006, or 2007, or maybe 2008; I can't really remember. I should point out that I didn't come to a robust faith at this time. I hit a devastating spiritual crisis a few months later (or maybe it was a few years later), from which I eventually emerged with a sturdy and reflective belief in God.

But my original lapse from atheism happened like this. I was invited to a party that was taking place in a house I had been lodging in some months previously. I'd actually ended up spending as much time in my family home as I did in the lodging; so that my landlady (I'll call her Sheila) use to haggle me down from the rent I was paying. We were briefly colleagues and I was also good friends with a couple who knew her, who were also at the party.

Everybody there was about ten to thirty years older than me. That's how I like parties, anyway.

The first fellow to arrive was a man I'll call Barry, who might have been in his forties. As soon as he arrived, he began to talk to me about a chest-of-drawers (or maybe it was a bedside table) that he had seen on sale in one shop at a price far higher than it had been on sale in another shop. He told me how he had taken the sales people to task about this descrepancy. I later learned that finding bargains was a near-obsession with him. He was a pleasant kind of chap, though his eagerness to launch into such a specific topic as soon as he met me rather took me aback.

Than more people began to arrive. It wasn't a big party; there were probably no more than eight people in total. I seem to remember there was a programme about the poet John Betjeman on Sheila's big colour TV.

That was the night I had my first brandy mixed with Bailey's Irish cream. I had been a teetotaller until I was 27, when two female friends solemnly initiated me into the pleasures of alcohol by buying me a Stella Artois. I didn't think much of it, and it took me a little while to find my personal poison, which was (and is) brandy. I always mix it with cola, which I call a brandola; I can't abide it straight. That evening, however, I learned that it was very nice mixed with Bailey's Irish Cream-- although something of a waste, since both drinks are pleasing in themselves.

I drank a lot of brandy and Bailey's that night. I think I was trying to get drunk, which was something I had never achieved before.

I can't remember what the conversation was about until it turned to the subject of religion. I learned that Barry, the hunter of bargains, was a born-again Christian. This seemed incongrous to me as he seemed like the least otherworldly person you could imagine. (He was wearing a cosy sweater, though, which is apparently de rigeur for born again Christians.) Soon he began to discuss his beliefs with a mixture of assertion and defensiveness, and since it was as good a topic as any to get the party going, we all got talking about religion.

Barry set his sights on me. Maybe I looked like a potential convert. I can remember him asking, with obvious conviction, "What would you think if I told you the world is going to end probably within the next twenty years?". I tried to say something tactful. He asked me if I was a Catholic (in a tone that made plain that he wasn't one). I said that I was. I may have been an atheist, but I always knew which side I was on when it came to the battle for civilization.

After a while, Barry seemed to give up on me. "You're obviously a very logical person", he said, graciously, which sticks in my mind because the last thing I ever think I am is logical.

The theological discussion was raging on all sides. One middle-aged lady (who I subsequently heard was mortified at her drunkenness that night, which seemed entirely unnecessary to me), kept repeating over and over: "I think it's a load of b------", with great solemnity and deliberation, as though she was delivering a very carefully-thought out philosophical thesis.

My friend Adam (not his real name), who was the person there I had known the longest, and who constantly surprises everyone by being in his sixties when he doesn't look a day over forty-five, was challenged about his spiritual beliefs. He was very drunk at his stage. He spread his arms and declared-- no, declaimed-- "I believe that Jesus Christ is my Messiah", with a broad grin on his face. This surprised me a lot. I had spoken to Adam for hours upon hours upon hours, over several years-- library work leaves a lot of opportunity for chatting-- and he never mentioned any religious beliefs. I would have sworn he was an agnostic at the most. I soon discovered that he was Church of England, which explained a lot. All the same, I was still surprised.

The party kept going well into the small hours, Eventually, people began drifted from the house, with the usual emotional embraces that drunkenness inspires. (At least, I think so. I don't really remember too well.) I was staying over for the night-- one final sleep in my old lodging. So was Barry, who got my old bed, while I made do with the couch.

I'm pretty sure I slept soundly, because I always sleep soundly.

The next morning brought my usual struggle with the front door; I had struggled with the knob every morning that I'd lodged there, meaning Sheila had to come downstairs in her bath-robe every morning and let me out. It had become a running joke. I was constantly reassured that it was a tricky lock and lots of people struggled with it.

As I was walking out the garden gate, I heard my name called, and turned around. Barry was standing at the upstairs bedroom window, waving me goodbye. He'd got out of bed to do so.

It was a Sunday morning, and I took the long, long bus journey into the city centre. This had been the bus journey I'd taken every morning I'd lodged in that house, and it was ridiculously long. Even when I got the earliest bus, I was in danger of being late for work. I think I re-read most of David Copperfield on that bus. I also made a start on The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, though a start was all I made. It was always packed. Today it was especially busy, because there was a big sports game in the city.

I remember looking out the window of the bus at a Gaelic games pitch (Gaelic games are Gaelic football and hurling; the goal-posts are the same for both, and they look rather like rugby goal-posts). I was staring at the goal-posts when I realized-- like someone hearing the vote of a meeting from which he'd been excluded-- that I could believe in God. I decided that I did believe in God. It was like the moment nausea disappears all of a sudden, or oppressive hot weather breaks.

I remember standing on Dublin's main street, waiting for my second bus back to my home. I don't remember what I felt. I do remember that there was a two euro coin lying on the pavement-- this was at the height of Ireland's economic boom. I watched in fascination as person after person, in the crowded street, simply walked past it, for five or ten minutes at least. I don't remember if it was ever picked up, before my bus arrived.

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