Category Archives: Atheism

Atheism and Disability

I was handed money for being disabled a few times when I was a small child. It was always a surreal experience. You would think that for a child any money is good money. I instinctively knew that this was money from people who felt sorry for me, who wanted to ease my burden. That they almost always followed it with a saccharin smile and the words: ‘May God be with you’, gave me a very uneasy feeling. It cemented a connection between religion and personal charity that was misguided at best and incredibly patronising at worst. What these people didn’t know is that I love my life and my disability has never got in the way of a good life.

Please don’t get me wrong, the idea of giving is a wonderful one. It can change lives. The thing is, I didn’t need money as a child. My parents weren’t wealthy then but nor did I want for anything. My father has worked very hard all of his life to provide everything we need. One of my favourite memories as a child is of him carrying me inside from the van when he thought I was asleep. I peeked out through one eye to view the most beautiful starry sky. I also remember him holding me in the sea and alerting me to a group of small fish in front of us that were dancing on the surface of the water. One of my first words was pen. I used to grab at the pen in my Dad’s front pocket when he held me.

My Mum was so much fun growing up. We would laugh together all the time, which was to become invaluable during periods of my life that were frankly horrendous due to painful surgeries and medical complications. I can’t begin to describe the love and support she gave me during those times. My Mum is also the best cook in the whole world. This is an indisputable fact.

Both parents provided us with a good moral compass and a stable home environment in which to grow and flourish.

I also have three younger sisters, all of whom I have always got on with very well and who were and are the best company. They are seriously awesome people.

Ours was a happy, stable and fun household. I was a happy and well adjusted kid. Given all of this, I found it shocking that anybody would feel sorry for me and worse, that they would feel the need to give me money to try to compensate for my terrible life. It simply made no sense.

Since my childhood in the 80s and 90s, there has been a huge leap in knowledge and understanding of disability in the wider community and I have certainly noticed a difference. There is still the propensity for people to feel very sorry for me, but I haven’t been handed money for being disabled for many years. Pity. I could use it now!

There are still the street preachers who tell me that I can be healed if only I believe in Jesus as my personal saviour and who shout after me when I keep wheeling that if I believe hard enough, I can be saved. The idea that I’m not doing enough to please god yet in order to be ‘healed’ just solidifies the idea in my mind that if god does exist, he’s a bit of a bastard.

Far from needing ‘God’, as many people might assume would be the case for a person ‘like me’, I consider myself to be very fortunate. This though is, ironically, due to a combination of accident of birth, ridiculously wonderful family and friends and a lifelong curiosity about the world. I’ve also worked hard to come to a place of understanding and acceptance. I did that myself without the need to tell stories to explain away things that I don’t like.

I have heard many theories based on religion and/or spirituality as to why I was born with Spina Bifida. People like to be able to explain how and why bad things happen in a way that satisfies them and is compatible with their own belief system. Some of the explanations have ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous through to the downright offensive. I won’t go through them all here. I’m sure you can probably imagine. That I’ve been put on the Earth to teach people various things about life seems to be a common one. Karma for bad actions in a past life is another. That I don’t believe any of these ‘theories’ should come as no surprise to you now.

I was born with Spina Bifida and hydrocephalus probably because of a lack of folic acid. It wasn’t well known or publicised around the time before I was born that taking a simple vitamin supplement can reduce the chances of having a baby with Spina Bifida by a really significant margin. There are other factors that may lead to neural tube defects like Spina Bifida such as genetic predisposition and harmful chemicals in the environment during the development of the foetus. These are scientifically proven facts. Anything else is a story used in order to comfort people and to shield them from reality. This concept is anathema to me. None of these stories have ever made any sense to me at all nor have they been of any comfort.

Rational thought is comforting to me. Science makes sense. I look forward to the day when we are grown up enough to let stories be stories and for the pursuit of truth to stand on its own as our greatest comfort in a vast and expanding universe.


Going Without God

I have been an agnostic for most of my life. Around the time I was told Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy are not real, except in my head, I began to think God might not be real, except in my head. As far as I can remember, I did not find this thought nearly as disturbing or mind altering as finding out about Santa.

I became an agnostic atheist proper following a mental health episode, which has never been properly defined for me but I can say it was the most terrifying moment of my life. I say moment; nearly two years would be accurate enough.

10 years ago I was writing a thesis for an MA, or at least I was meant to be. Several factors conspired against me to create the perfect conditions for a mental breakdown of sorts that would put an end to my academic ambitions. I found myself extremely isolated, lonely and stressed. I wasn’t coping with the basics of looking after myself. Because I didn’t receive any treatment for my condition, I cannot define what was going on in my head in any more precise terms.

It began during my honours year. I was studying toward an honours degree in history with papers in women’s studies. There was a lot of work and it was challenging but I loved it. The space to think was wonderful. Reading and analysing challenging texts made me feel properly engaged in academic life. I didn’t even mind the assessments. Despite a decidedly average undergraduate degree, I found myself at or near the top of all of my classes in my honours papers. I graduated with a first class pass, something I’m still very proud of. Unknown to everyone around me, something was making it extremely difficult to retain my good grades. I was beginning to experience my first breaks with reality and most of them were religious in nature; more precisely, Christian.

By the following year, I was having thoughts that made absolutely no logical sense and yet I was convinced that my life would be changed forever because my thinking about the world was clear for the first time. I understood the meaning of life. I understood everything. The problem was I couldn’t explain my epiphanies to anybody: 1. Because I was lucid enough to know I would be thought mad. 2. Even though everything seemed clear to me for the first time and that the truth had been revealed to me, the truth was my thoughts were in such a tangled mess I couldn’t begin to express a single one.

By the end of 2004, I had escaped my ordeal with a fragile grip on reality beginning to take hold again but without an MA. I hadn’t written one word. I had thrown away most of my academic texts thinking they were evil. My thesis topic, which happily coincided with 30 years of Gay Liberation, was to be a history of that movement in New Zealand. My books were evil, my topic was evil, I was evil.

Once I started to trust myself and my thought processes again, one of the first things that happened for me was I became an atheist. Not only could I not be sure God existed, I didn’t believe he existed either; knowledge and belief being the distinction between agnosticism and atheism.

Once I began to recover, my religious delusions seemed ridiculous, implausible and unhealthy. As time has gone on, I have become more interested in atheism and its connection to humanism. As well as an atheist, I consider myself a secular humanist. Carl Sagan is a personal hero. I believe in ethics and morality based on knowledge and reason and an understanding of human nature; I believe in logic and the scientific method as our best tools against the tyranny of ignorance; I believe learning about the world we all share is the best way to combat ignorance. I have become more interested in the contributions of human beings to the shaping of our world. I have much more of an interest in how the world works and what we actually know of how it came to be. The world is a far less scary and more interesting place without god.

Am I saying that being religious is akin to mental illness? Not really. There are many perfectly sane and intelligent individuals to whom religion is extremely important. Had I attached myself to a religious movement at the height of my crisis though, there is no doubt in my mind that my mental breakdown would have been interpreted as religious epiphany and celebrated as such. I’m not at all convinced by the distinction made between religion and mass psychosis.

In my next blog post I will discuss disability and atheism.

Please let me know what you think of this blog post and feel free to share your personal experiences regarding this topic in the comments below.