Joe Collier on being an atheist

Professor Joe Collier My belief that a supernatural power such as a god does not exist (ie, my being an  atheist), is central to the way I think and act, and also determines how I see and relate to others both as individuals and when they function as groups (as in organised religion). But this is no recent conversion. Throughout my life I have lived in an atheist environment, so both my parents were atheists, as are currently my sisters, my wife (I feel sure I could not have married a ‘believer’), my children, and the majority of my close friends.

I did not seriously ponder religion till a teenager (my “age of reason” came late) but little has changed since then. I was not persuaded that a god existed, and there seemed no logical argument for the existence of a soul or of an afterlife; I felt it was crucial that responsibility for the decisions I made was mine and mine alone (there could be no excuses, no appeal to outside forces); I felt that prayer (invoking a power to help me achieve solace or to effect things beyond my own control) was meaningless; and finally I saw organised religion as dangerous partly because it impinged on free thinking and partly because it was the source of so much civil unrest and even warfare.

Many of these ideas were private to me, although confirmed in conversation with my father, but when they were expressed publicly the theist response served merely to entrench me further. There was incredulity that I could be so blind as not to see the arguments for “intelligent design.” There were doubts that I could function without prayer, without the security of life “ever after” or without a greater being to “keep me in my place.” There was disbelief that my personal relationships could include such sentiments as love, friendship, kindness, unselfishness, honour, honesty, sadness, or that I could possibly have a moral code so recognise good, bad and evil.

Finally, there was an assumption that deep down I really did believe there was a god. Ironically, much of my behaviour in later years was aimed at exposing these fallacies.  

It was inevitable that all of these issues would be integrated into a “me” living and working in an academic environment. If nowhere else, universities, and in particular medical schools, should be viewed as environments where beliefs and dogmas are challenged and reformulated, where there is freedom of thought and expression, where individuals should be personally responsible for their actions, and where there cannot afford to be (religious) bigotry.

So, in the last twenty or so years of my career as a teacher, and increasingly as a “figure” and “role model” (like it or not, these are  inevitable as one gains seniority), my atheism has become part of my public persona, such that whenever circumstances would befit my stance was “in-your-face.”

I am not out to convert (although if it happens I am pleased), more to allow people (possibly waverers) to be made aware that neither atheism nor atheists are all bad, and that in an intellectual environment atheism offers real advantages. Perhaps, oddly, I fully respect the right for individuals to practice their beliefs at a personal level. So, several years ago some Muslim students cornered me to ask if I would help them obtain a dedicated prayer room in the medical school (at the time they were either using ad hoc rooms or a dedicated broom cupboard). We hatched a plan, I worked hard on their behalf, and a prayer room materialised. Oh, the luxury of paradox!     

So now, as over the years, if I find myself in a “place of worship”, I would never kneel during “prayers.” If I use a literary term in a lecture or conversation that invoked god, such as “god knows,” or “god forbid,” I would immediately follow it by explaining the meaning I intended, reminding the listeners of the diverse origins of language, and point out that I am an atheist. If students asserted the idea of intelligent design, and despite the genius of my hero Charles Darwin this is not uncommon in medicine at the moment, I would make clear my atheist position and tackle the issue head on. If I overheard religious bigotry, or religious assumptions masquerading as truisms, I would publicly challenge them as an atheist – and so on.

It is clear that a large part of the public “me” strives to challenge any agenda that assumes that religion is natural, is the norm, is a given, is self evident, is the answer, is essential etc, and such challenges I make with vigour. I have long believed that it is individuals who ultimately force change and that it is the responsibility of people like me to make our views heard. Silence would indicate collusion and an endorsement of the religious ethic and this I am not prepared to contemplate. 

Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London.