Don’t Be A Dick: On Atheism, Cruelty and Kindness

The New Statesman set its contributors a challenge of writing about the Ten Commandments, and the full piece is available online now – but here’s my little essay, which went in a very different direction from the one I expected. 

Follow the mantra of online gamers

The sun is blazing over the smoky mountains as I sit down to eat my lunch on the “thou” of “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. The words are hammered into the North Carolina hillside above a natural amphitheatre a hundred feet high. I have come to the World’s Largest Ten Commandments, a roadside attraction and religious theme park, to make some healthy British fun of bonkers American Christianity and to amuse myself by walking all over the word of God. Quite literally, in fact – the barrier is broken, and there is no sign saying, “Thou shalt not wander on to the Ten Commandments and eat a peanut butter sandwich.” Which is what I do.

Making fun of Bible-bashing Yanks is a standard tourist activity for British expats. This is a country marinated in Christianity, a country where some believers open fire in women’s health clinics and others dedicate their lives to social justice in the name of a dead Palestinian. Americans are not perturbed by the violent absurdity of Christianity, whereas the British have had too many centuries of mad aristocrats roasting each other alive for reciting the wrong catechism to be anything else. It is no accident that most of the high priests of world atheism are British – not when our major exports are intellectual snobbery, religious discomfort and passive aggression.

The Ten Commandments theme park is relentlessly mockable. The gift shop features so many weak attempts at wacky religious wordplay that it should be called a punnery. You can buy a ten-inch plastic ruler that says “He is the Ruler” and a T-shirt with an owl on it that says “God is Good Owl the Time”. There are books of prayer specifically for the followers of various sports teams. There’s a plaque acknowledging the sponsorship of the Church of God of Florida, a mysterious cult that surely involves the worship of a giant alligator. I could go on.

There are countries and communities in the world where being an atheist takes true courage – but I did not grow up in one, and neither did most of us in the West. There are situations where it’s fine to laugh at religion, where religion is used as an excuse to terrorise the vulnerable and oppress minorities. But religion does not have a monopoly on those excuses. To my surprise, browsing in the awful gift shop, I find myself thinking of the “ultimate commandment” of Jesus. The one he is supposed to have invented for a follower who found ten too many to handle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

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People are often surprised by how well I know the Bible. As a child, I briefly attended an evangelical boarding school – an unusual phenomenon in godless Britain, especially for the atheist child of a lapsed Jew and a lapsed Catholic.

There were daily Bible lessons, and I was a swot. It was a point of pride to me to get the top marks in every scripture class, despite thinking the whole thing was silly and not being afraid to say so.

I had about as much fun at that school as you might expect. Once, after midnight, I was shaken awake and led into a bathroom where eight other 11-year-old girls were clutching Bibles and praying for my soul. There followed a long session of prepubes­cent proselytising about how terrible it was that I was going to burn in hell for all eternity. My overwhelming memory of that night is of shame, not about my sinfulness, but about how badly I needed to wee. The toilets were right there and the girls wouldn’t let me go because they were too concerned about my eternal soul, whereas I was worried about the immediate possibility of wetting my pyjamas.

Kids are mean, especially when someone gives them a book of rules telling them that they’re allowed to be mean for somebody else’s own good. So are adults. I got into trouble with the kids for being a weirdo, and I got into trouble with the teachers for arguing about evolution. I got into trouble for questioning the school uniform and asking why there were different rules for boys and girls.

Getting into trouble for those things didn’t make me feel good – it made me feel righteous. I knew I had the right answers, unlike my poor, deluded, hymn-singing and hand-waving classmates. Having the right answers meant that I was smarter than they were, and that meant that I was better than they were, and that was a small comfort while they were pouring orange juice in my schoolbag.

I did have one friend, a girl who was sometimes kind to me and invited me to her house to listen to Sugar Ray while her brother shot crows in the back garden. We didn’t have much in common, but if it hadn’t been for her, my lonely childhood would have been far lonelier, though I never found the courage to say so at the time. When we had rows, like little girls do, it was always about Jesus.

We were both convinced that we were right and the other was dangerously stupid, but somehow we stayed friends. She got sick, and I visited her in hospital and made her mix tapes until she got better. When she was well, she gave me a copy of Left Behind, the evangelical novel about the Rapture. I interpreted this as a catty comment about my sinfulness and never opened it.

In senior school, my friend began to make new friends, girls with shiny hair and social skills. Instead of telling her how hurt I was, I picked fights about God to push her further away. Once I made her cry in the middle of double English by calling her a religious hysteric. I was right and she was wrong, so of course I didn’t think of myself as a bully. I was only telling her those things for her own good.

We grew up, like little girls do, and lost what touch we still had. Years later, packing my books to move house, I opened that copy of Left Behind – and found a note in curly, childish handwriting, thanking me for being a good friend.

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Goodness is not about what a person believes, but how a person behaves.

I no longer think it’s a good use of my time to mock other people simply because they believe silly things. I believe a lot of silly things, myself. I believe that human beings are basically decent, and that if we learn to take better care of one another there’s a good chance the species will survive the century. I believe that scientific progress can solve structural problems. I believe that one day Doctor Who will be good again. I believe in such things as justice and mercy, which are impossible to see or touch or quantify, and if I didn’t, I don’t know quite how I’d carry on.

I don’t like rules. I prefer guidelines. But if I had to come up with a commandment, it would be: “Don’t be a dick.” This mantra of the online gaming world actually works rather better than “Do unto others”, which relies on people thinking that they deserve to be treated with kindness, when even the most devout people can find it hard to believe in their own worth.

I learned, as I’ve grown and travelled, that people often see God not as he is, but as they are. I’ve learned that being right and being good aren’t always the same, although I’d rather be both. I still think that the Bible is a patriarchal fairy tale that can be poison in the hands of bigots. I’m not sorry about that. I am sorry for being a dick to my friend when I was 13. I was right, but I was also wrong.

“Don’t be a dick” covers the important bases. It probably includes not making public fun of people’s profound beliefs simply because that makes you feel superior. I am an atheist. I believe that all we’ve got is this world, and each other. All the more reason, then, to be kind.

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