Take that for Jesus!
Newton Emerson on growing up atheist in Northern Ireland
Lately I have started shouting back at Christians. I can tell you exactly when it started. Some months ago I was walking through Portadown minding my own business when the drone of praise suddenly deadened the air, for the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle porta-pulpit was back in town. The porta-pulpit is like one of those trailers country DJs own, with 'Soupy's disco' or (more latterly) 'DJ Soupy' on the side, except that this trailer rolls only for Jesus. "We are all sinners!" yelled some fat guy in a sweater as I walked past and for some reason, after 34 years of ignoring this stuff completely, I turned to him and said "I'm not, and I don't like having your religion forced down my throat." "Ah!" the fat guy in a sweater said with sombre earnestness. "I see you're not saved." Yes it was exactly at that point that I started shouting. It all came out, the years of judgements and condescension and insults, that time in primary school when the headmaster told us God sank the Titanic because a baggage porter said he couldn't, all the sex I never had because nice Tandragee girls don't do that sort of thing he got it with both barrels. And then something amazing happened. The fat guy in the sweater turned around, packed up his portapulpit and left. If only I'd always known it was that easy I might have had an easier time growing up an atheist in Northern Ireland.
I have no idea why my parents don't believe in God they just say they don't and that "there's no point making a religion out of it". Of course there are plenty of people who lose their faith, but to be born into the faithless is something else entirely. I have no sense of disappointment, disillusionment or loss, no sense of the hole in my soul where Jesus should be. I've also long realised that I'm an atheist for the same reason most people around me are Christians, ie I was raised that way so there's not much point in claiming some special insight. Few people are demonstrably religious and I've never felt the need to be demonstrably atheistic. At school I mumbled through a million assemblies and yawned through a thousand RE lessons just like everybody else. I was extremely curious about this strange extra dimension my friends had to their lives, with their BB football teams and youth clubs and trips to Bangor, but when you have been warned from infancy that the Bible is 'just a story' no amount of scripture or ceremony can bring you in to faith's circular argument. Regular attempts were made to convert me and they all went straight over my head.
It was only when I got into my late teens that Christians started to annoy me. By that point I had noticed that while I was morally obliged to 'respect their beliefs' the reverse did not apply. As alcohol and fornication loomed over the spotty horizon my friends acquired an astounding level of expertise at leading double lives, usually managing to wash the vomit out of their hair in time for church on Sunday, although any straying from the path could always be blamed on the heathen in their midst. I also had my first upclose experience of real, nasty and politicallymotivated religious intolerance.
Arnold Hatch, an Ulster Unionist councillor and governor at our school, tried to have Seamus Heaney removed from the literature syllabus on grounds of 'blasphemy'. When some of us kicked up a fuss over this we were slapped down in short order (people have been expelled for getting Portadown College in the papers, don't you know). After that I noticed the nastiness everywhere: a Free Presbyterian friend who only shopped in Free Presbyterian shops; the chemistry teacher who wouldn't keep evolution textbooks in the science library; the fact that everybody hated the Methodists and that the feeling was mutual; the Portadown priest who introduced my girlfriend to every available Catholic male in a ten mile radius; the Brethren father who called me up to enquire as to the whereabouts of his daughter by asking "What sort of person are you?" I wouldn't have minded that one so much if she'd actually slept with me.
Christianity in Northern Ireland is above all else a cult of respectability and so adult life only raises the stakes. One by one those around you fall.
Formerly wild couples suddenly marry in church and order you to do likewise, relatives worry rather too loudly about how you'll raise your children, friends and colleagues and strangers express medieval opinions that you must agree with and finally, the last straw, a fat man in a sweater shouts his judgements and insults at the blameless shoppers of Portadown. He made me see the light. Because the simple truth is that Christians are just fucking rude. And from now on, I'm going to be rude right back.