the story of a faithful childhood
and doubtful adolesence
‘“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong” - Bertrand Russell’.
The words lingered over me as I waited for the class to begin. I was sixteen, and it was my
first week at my new sixth form college. The class was taking place in a Portakabin that had seen better days. Quotes from famous philosophers were hung up strategically to cover the cracks in the walls. Our teacher had arrived a few minutes earlier but had scurried off to change out of his cycling gear.
I pondered Russell’s statement. A curious, almost paradoxical mix of intellectual humility and arrogance. It felt like a test.
As the daughter of a vicar, I had spent many hours in Sunday school by this point in my life. I knew God gave tests of faith. In the Old Testament Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac, which he was prepared to do, until God intervened at the last moment and rewarded Abraham for his obedience. Faith without doubt is the goal for us Christians – ‘But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind’ (James 1:6).
The twelve words from Russell, a highly influential 20th Century thinker known for his advancement of philosophical logic, sprung a deviant alternative worldview. Doubt sounded necessary and omnipresent. This seemed terrifyingly radical and contrary to everything I had known, and yet here I was sitting in a philosophy classroom tempted by what it could be like to be Russell: to recognise the limits of your own understanding and be at peace with the tossing of the wind.
I told my friends and family that I had chosen to study philosophy on a whim, because I had enjoyed debating ethical dilemmas in a taster class a few weeks earlier. Secretly, though, I had other plans for philosophy. I was desperate to unpick the mess of concepts and beliefs that were constantly bumping up against each other in my anxious teenage mind. In this crumbling hut on a warm September morning, I feared I had stumbled into a crossroads.
My classmates were busy chatting away, and I wondered whether they were prepared to subject themselves to this level of scrutiny. Maybe they were braver than me, or perhaps they had less to lose.
Growing up in a religious family we often discussed Big Ideas at the dinner table. We would workshop my dad’s sermons on resurrection, free will, hell, and the Holy Trinity. We unpicked the differences between denominations, and I would ask again for the story of how my quiet Anglican father ended up marrying my joyful evangelical mother (a Christian summer camp in America, years of letters, and one eventual fateful visit to England). We laughed about the silliness of church drama which served as my own personal soap opera. Was the choirmaster still planning to debut his self-written hymn at the upcoming carol concert? Was God really sending messages to Barbara the churchwarden over which colour to paint the vestry?
It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a religious childhood is a strict and serious affair. For some it is, but I was lucky. Childhood was a happy mix of services, jumble sales, summer fêtes and carol concerts. Alongside a favourite Disney movie and pop star I had a favourite hymn, bible story, and moral principle. Every life event was judged in relation to how much it resembled Christmas, the pinnacle of the family calendar. Attending four services within 24 hours was standard, and on Christmas morning when the elderly members of the congregation would give me and my sister small gifts and compliment our singing in the choir I felt like a local celebrity.
Such an upbringing was not without its quirks. I learnt from an early age that it is best to be on standby for emergencies, such as when the boy playing Joseph fell ill right before the commencement of the nativity play, leading to my starring role in an unintentionally modern yuletide gender-bending performance. I fondly remember one warm Saturday in April when the precious, metre-long Easter candle had been left in the boot of our car the day before its church debut. I stood over the hob for hours as my mum and I tried to slowly melt the giant wax crescent back into a straight line. Our patience softened quicker than the candle, and in a moment of undue pressure, it snapped in half. Or there was the time my schoolfriend Jenny visited and our game of SingStar was rudely interrupted by a representative from the local crematorium. My dad was out, so in his absence I was introduced to a much-loved local community member whose remains were presented to me in a shiny red gift bag.
Whenever Christianity was mentioned at school and amongst friends, I was the authoritative representative. Christianity was my mastermind specialist subject, and if I had to endure so much time at church, I was at least going to maximise opportunities to show off the liturgical understanding I’d accumulated. I was self-aware enough to recognise that this wasn’t cool, but perhaps it would make me seem quirky, or smart. But then one day, when I was about eleven, my dad came into school and conducted his first of many school assemblies. He did a great job, fluid and engaging without being overly preachy, but it was still too much for the bullies who had just been handed the new material they craved.
I had never adopted a particularly evangelical approach to religious faith, but in the years that followed I tried harder to minimise any semblance of difference. My approach was disrupted by a new frontier emerging in the world at large, in the form of the New Atheist movement. According to New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, religious belief was no longer just incorrect, but in many cases immoral and needed to be confronted.
Relative to other faiths, Christianity got off lightly during this period, and I was never subject to the more pernicious hatred and ignorance that young people from other faiths experienced. However, as designated religious person I was the go-to for sharing the soundbite YouTube takedowns and belittling quotes. The bullying I experienced as a younger child had been given the moral authority and intellectual superiority it needed to legitimise itself as something objective.
Everything was a debate, and if I couldn’t be sure of winning, I wasn’t sure that meant for the life I had known thus far. Was God just a fantasy, as Dawkins said—no more real than the fairies at the bottom of the garden? Did that make my life so far pointless—built on nothing more than collective wishful ignorance? What about the happy memories—were these just delusions in the cult of religion? I felt wholly unequipped to defend myself and my family against stereotypes and misinformation that were framed as hard-hitting truth. I was also terrified about what it would mean if the criticisms were true. I lay awake retracing my words, considering what more I could have done to defend us.
I started preparing for battle, devouring critiques of New Atheism and the original works that had inspired them. If the New Atheists wanted to make this into a fight, I would win it. At night, I would withdraw The God Delusion, Dawkins’ latest polemic, from under my bed, turning pages with heat rising in my chest, making mental notes of the flaws in the arguments and drafting rebuttals to deploy.
The first thing I noticed when reading these works was how little the caricatures of close-minded and judgmental religious people matched with my own experiences of the people I knew and loved. I had passed through many churches and met people who were intelligent, kind, generous, and reflective. Some were also selfish, rude, and close-minded. They were people. Multi-faceted, complex people with their own values, beliefs, and motivations, much like the authors of the books I continued to sift through.
The most infuriating chapters were those about the harms of forcing young people to grow up in religious families with a religious identity. The irony was not lost that Dawkins was talking about children like me: and whilst I had struggled with aspects of my upbringing, there was little recognition of the complexities and nuances that arise from raising children in line with personal values and cultures – an area that all parents must navigate, and one where no-one is ever completely neutral. There is also no recognition of what is lost by giving up religion, particularly for those whose religion and culture are so intertwined. It annoyed me that people like me were being used as case studies for the New Atheist attacks, when in fact it was New Atheism, and not religion, that was making my life more difficult.
And yet, despite taking up the mantle to defend the Christian cause, disquiet was bubbling even further below the surface. In parallel to my growing dislike of atheism, I was increasingly concerned that certain ideas and values that had become important to me didn’t neatly fit into the Christian doctrine taught in some of the religious contexts I was familiar with. In high school, I had a growing number of LGBT+ friends who had experienced everything from dismissal to outright hatred from mainstream religious institutions. Whilst I knew that not all religious people thought and acted this way, the seminars I attended on reconciling genuine LGBT+ equality with modern evangelical Christianity did not provide much solace to my conflicted heart and mind, and those who were fighting to speed up progress faced many hurdles in their path. Even if it was possible to reconcile these values with a new understanding of Christianity, I wasn’t sure if I was committed enough to fight.
My feminist consciousness was also developing fast, and my previous simplistic ideas about abortion, women’s representation, marriage, and sex grew more complex in ways I wasn’t sure the churches I attended would accommodate. Increasingly, it felt like there were two paths ahead of me. In one, I stay committed to church, religious beliefs and practices, and my friendships and family life are simple. Looking to the future, I could see a film reel where I study theology at university and meet a nice Christian boy, we get married and have a nice Christian family and everyone compliments my parents on how well I turned out. In the other, I make a departure from what I have known and forge my own way to an unknown destination, trying to untangle which of my beliefs and values belong to a religious framework I may no longer be committed to, and which if any are left over. There was no film reel. It was not a life I had ever dreamt about.
A new chapter arrived at the perfect time. High school was concluding and there was a chance to start afresh in sixth form, where local high schools merged and uniforms were set aside along with what we were before. A clean slate to redefine ourselves for a new era of adolescence, where greater anonymity leads to more freedom. It was a gift not to be wasted. Sitting on my sister’s bed, we flicked through the prospectus as she helped me decide what subjects I should take. She read out the names and I responded with a Yes or No for whether I would consider a taster class. Philosophy. We paused. I had no idea what that was. “I think it involves discussing ideas and asking big questions about life,” my sister said. I decided to try it.
On the first proper day in September, I arrived with an open-minded lightness, cautious optimism, and a new wardrobe that featured a lot of corduroy. That summer I had taken up the intellectual pursuits of photography and listening to Bon Iver. New year, new me. At lunchtime on the first day, I was chatting with some new classmates who seemed nice and cool. A boy from a different high school casually chipped in to mention he’d heard something about me. What could that possibly be? I wondered, as panic started to set in. It turned out he had heard a rumour that I was a nun.
Eventually my teacher arrived at our philosophy class in his crinkled shirt, and over the coming months my new friends and I would debate various philosophical ideas and expand our comprehension of how little we really knew about ourselves and the world. In these classes I met kind people with brilliant minds who shared a mutual curiosity and cared about understanding each different perspective, regardless of whether it matched their own. Our discussions helped to unpack and slowly reconcile what had previously felt muddled. Philosophy class was a therapy where doubt was safe, and questions without answers were welcomed. In the little hut, I found the space I needed to begin developing a set of values and beliefs that felt authentically my own.
The summer after my first year in college, a few friends from the church I was attending invited me to a summer camp. I had embarrassingly few plans, and camping suited my new era of hobbies, so I said yes. The camp was far more evangelical than the churches I had grown up in, and I was not prepared for the intensity of the worship. One day we were asked to take out our phones and text five friends who were not Christian about how much God loved them and invite them to church. Personal traumas were uncomfortably drawn out of vulnerable teenagers by adults in front of thousands of their peers in the hopes of being miraculously healed. I listened to multiple talks on the dangers of doubt and the punishment of sinners. We were encouraged in workshops to develop a plan for how we would spend our lives serving God. At another point, we had to raise our hands in front of everybody only if we had truly and honestly accepted God into our hearts. The weight of pressure was immense. I joined in. By the end of that week, the alternative path that stood before me had grown over to the point of vanishing.
The months that followed the camp were difficult. The second I left the camp bubble everything came flooding back but I’d already agreed to attend the youth groups I had tried to distance myself from. My parents were excited that the camp had reinvigorated my desire to study theology at university—an outcome of the career-planning workshop. A few weeks before the deadline, in a moment of panic, I binned the personal statement I had written for theology and hurriedly drafted a new one for philosophy.
With university around the corner, I was excited about another opportunity to start afresh, but I also knew that with this came the probability of lying to my parents about my involvement in church and the Christian Union, as well as the conventional undergraduate activities. I could try to keep skirting around the edges. Slowly becoming less and less involved until they stopped noticing. Except of course they would notice.
A joke I heard growing up was that the children of vicars either become vicars themselves or end up in prison. My biggest fear was that my family would view me as someone fundamentally different to the person they knew Before, and that to my Christian friends I would become a project to be fixed. Disclosing my identity crisis could be seen as a betrayal of what our family represented. I had visions of being disowned and having to move into a friend’s house. The anxiety and panic overrode all my knowledge of my family as loving, kind and understanding people.
One day I was sitting in the bath in silence, and the realisation that I had to tell my parents struck me like a stone. I knew I was at the point of no return. It was a matter of when rather than if, and after that moment, life might never be the same. I sat in the quiet, tears streaming down my face as I contemplated everything that could follow.
One dinnertime, after we’d finished eating, I summoned up the courage. I explained how my finely balanced pyramid of beliefs, fears, obligations, and doubts had fallen over. I was slowly reviewing and building them back up from the bottom and I wasn’t sure what would be left at the end. I didn’t know if I still wanted to go to church or continue with Bible studies. I was scared that they would consider this change to be their failure rather than what felt like mine. Through tears, I blubbered that this timing was deliberate, because I didn’t want them to think that it was university that had corrupted me. I didn’t want them to change their perception of me as their daughter.
My poor parents were understandably taken aback by such an unexpectedly dramatic and sprawling monologue. After a few more tears from everyone, they generously, graciously, and lovingly accepted the small chasm that now existed between our worldviews and lived up to what I should have expected all along, as they promised to love me all the same.
Whilst the New Atheist zeal in popular culture seems to be waning, and a growing wave of progressive Christians continue to fight for inclusion for all people within the Church, the values of inclusion, pluralism and multiculturalism remain under threat. Exclusion and intolerance are on the rise for many groups of people and across a range of ideological persuasions. These sentiments have real and harmful consequences for people’s lives, whether arising from national discourse, within our local communities, or within our own families.
Dinnertime discussions are still a welcome feature of my family gatherings, as are Christmas services and last-minute choir stand-ins. As time has passed, I have come to see just how lucky I am to have a family that prioritised my happiness over their personal expectations. I long for everyone to experience the same.
It is the pain of growing up that time often accelerates quicker than our ability to find answers to life’s questions. The right people in the right place allowed me to catch my breath. In a world that often rewards answers over questions, there can be a comfort in the humility of recognising that sometimes we just don't know.
I still don’t. I don’t know, for example, what I think about Russell’s words now. I’ve learned that his quote was from a newspaper interview rather than a defining premise of a philosophical theory, so I was perhaps unfair to treat it as a profound philosophical doctrine that unpinned his worldview. Either way, though, I think it misses something.
Russell is right to imply that critical thinking and interrogation of our beliefs should be encouraged. It helps to avoid dogmatism, reduce our biases and hopefully become more open-minded to different perspectives.
But I think it is also fair to say that this is not as simple as Russell’s words might imply. The contexts we exist in can make alternative belief systems much more difficult to adopt, regardless of the forcefulness and persuasive rhetoric through which they are presented. Our social conditions positively and negatively shape and maintain worldviews that cannot easily be set aside. The doubt was important for me, but it was also scary and painful. There is an alternative world where I took the other path, where the film reel plays out and perhaps my life is the happier for it. I think recognising this complexity has encouraged me to try and be a little more understanding towards those with differing beliefs to mine. Maybe even Dawkins.
LISA NELLE lives in London with a day job as a policy researcher in social inequalities. She enjoys writing on feminism, philosophy, and current affairs and has previously published work on the legacies of philosophy's forgotten women.
Image: Doubting Thomas, c.1175 - c.1225. National Museum, Warsaw, Poland.