From the archive: From would-be nun to atheist
FOR the summer 2001 edition of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist, BARBARA SMOKER, now 94, penned an article entitled ‘From Would-be Nun to Atheist’
Oh, yes – I once had an orthodox creed. I was brought up in a devout Roman Catholic family, and had an old-style convent education – and throughout my childhood and adolescence I was a steadfast believer. That was in the days (before the Second Vatican Council) when the Catholic Church was still Catholic and the Pope was infallible – so I was given absolute certitude about God and the universe and my place in it. But in the end – and it took me a very long while – I grew up.
At home I was regarded as the pious one of the family – which is saying a great deal – and the nuns at my first convent school seem to have cast me in the role of a future saint.
As my sexual urges developed, I got all my sexual kicks out of contemplating the sufferings of Jesus and out of the masochism engendered by Christianity. Of course, I would have been horrified had I realised that this had anything to do with feelings associated with parts of the body that one was supposed not to notice. At that time, never having experienced orgasm in any context other than prayer and religious meditation, I interpreted it as one of the “consolations of religion” – a phrase that I had often come across in the lives of the saints. Indeed, I still think that that is precisely what most of them meant by it.
Nowadays it is commonplace to say that religious emotions are akin to sexual feelings. But they are not just akin to them: in my experience, they are indistinguishable.
At my secondary school – also a convent – the other pupils laughingly referred to me as “the saint”, but I was fortunate in that somehow my piety did not make me unpopular.
By the time I was fourteen, I had no wish to be anything but a nun – not in a teaching order, but in the Carmelite (enclosed) order. I was already saving up half my pocket money towards my dowry – and I would gladly have entered at fifteen, as St Thérèse did. But my mother said I must wait until the age of nineteen, and then see if I felt the same.
I was sixteen when I left school and went out first into the world of work and then into the Women’s Royal Naval Service. By the age of twenty, I was in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where I served king and country for the next eighteen months. There I not only mixed with non-Catholic Christians, with some of whom I used to discuss moral theology, but I also visited Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, and so widened my perspective on religion. Consequently, by the time I returned home after the war, I was no longer sure I wanted to be a nun, though I was still a staunch believer. However, my theological doubts now began to build up, and became more and more insistent.
At school, we had been taught that there is no such thing as an atheist – and to some extent I think the nuns were right in this, because they took the word “atheist” to mean someone who categorically denies the existence of any kind of god. Obviously, it must depend on the definition of the word “god”, which can mean anything from the very human and immoral Old Testament god, Jehovah, to some sort of abstract god, such as Bernard Shaw’s Life Force, or even something as indisputable as the whole of existence.
The only objection one can make to that last god-concept is to the confusing use of the word “god” as a synonym for everything.
As for the idea that the universe was deliberately created, which is intended to explain existence, it manifestly fails to do so – for one is still left with the question of God’s existence. It is less complicated to suppose that particles of matter and waves of energy have always existed than to suppose they were made out of nothing by a being who had always existed.
Besides, the idea of deliberate creation raises the moral problem of all the suffering there is in life – for so many people, and also for animals. I am ashamed, in retrospect, that I ever found it possible to worship the supposed creator of over-reproduction, sentient food, disease and natural disasters.
In the late 1940s, however, I was still trying to reconcile belief in his existence with the nature of the world around me. I read book after book – mainly books written by Catholic apologists, but also some by atheist philosophers. And the more I read, the less I could believe.
Finally, one Saturday morning in November 1949, actually standing by the philosophy shelves of my local public library, I suddenly said to myself, with a tremendous flood of relief, “I am no longer a Catholic.”
And that, for me, meant I was no longer a Christian or a theist of any kind.
After so much mental turmoil, I did not imagine at first that I had really come to the end of it: I expected to go on having doubts – doubts now about my disbelief. But in fact this never happened. I have never for one moment found any reason to suppose that my decision that morning almost 52 years ago was a mistake.
That is not to say that I have not sometimes hankered after my old childhood comforter – but it is no more possible for me to go back to believing in a god and a heaven than it is to go back to the belief that an old red-coated gentleman climbs down chimneys with presents on Christmas Eve.