An atheist life: Simon’s story

Simon was one of the first people to write to me with his story, and was one of the inspirations behind this whole ‘atheist life’ section. I wanted to understand what it was like growing up in Northern Ireland. Here’s his story:

For 18 years of my life, I lived in Northern Ireland. Most people don’t even know that Northern Ireland is a wholly different country to Ireland. For a seemingly small piece of land with quite a small population (approx. 1.8 million), it has caused quite a furor around the world over the years.

If you don’t know a brief history about Northern Ireland then I encourage that you go and look it up. To put it into basic terms, Protestants have been killing Catholics and Catholics have been killing Protestants for God-knows how long now. The most well known time for this was during a period known as “The Troubles” (1968-1998). One of the most emotional events was what has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” (yes, the song is named after it). On this day, 14 unarmed nationalist civil rights demonstrators were killed by the British Army. The reason this is so significant is that it was carried out by the army, and not a paramilitary organization. It was also carried out in full public and press view. For thirty years, Northern Ireland was effectively a war zone. Tit-for-tat killings were commonplace. More people died during this 30 year period (approx. 3,100) than the September 11th attacks (2,974). Not to take anything away from the suffering of September 11th. I’m trying to put this destruction on a scale for those who may not understand. There were also approximately 47,000 people injured. It was a brutal and bloody period for a country that is supposed to be First World.

Due to this 30 year period, Northern Ireland is a bit behind the times. The UK as a whole is about 72% Christian. I don’t doubt for a minute that those statistics are greatly thrown off by Northern Ireland’s religiousness. The last time a census was taken, 86% of people in Northern Ireland considered themselves Christian (although, according to The Encyclopedia of Christianity by Erwin Fahlbusch, only 1% of people in Northern Ireland do not associate themselves with a religion, as opposed to the 13% in the census). I would personally tend to lean towards believing the 1% figure rather than 13%. I don’t think that if you took a random selection of 10 people on the streets of Belfast that 1.3 of them would be Atheists.

Northern Ireland has what is often known as “nominal Christians”. According to, a nominal Christian “… calls himself a Christian, may even be religious, but does what he wants rather than the Will of God. “He disdains any real spiritual progress because that would demand denying self and he does not like that at all…” This is very common in Northern Ireland. Your denomination is more of a social group rather than what religion you assign yourself to. I can give you an example from personal experience. By the time I had come to terms with my Atheism, it was no secret to anyone. My dad referred to me as a Protestant (as we come from a Protestant family). I told him that I’m not a Protestant, I’m not even a Christian. He proceeded to tell me that if I was in a war between the Catholics and the Protestants, that I would side with the Protestants. It took me a while to explain that Protestantism is a religion, not a social class or group. I still don’t think he understands it. Christians in Northern Ireland are Christians because their parents were Christians, and their parents were Christians, and so on. This is where this deep-rooted segregation in society stems from. Most Protestants and Catholics don’t even know the differences between their denominations, but still they don’t like each other.

Politically, Northern Ireland is “at peace”. However I can speak from experience and say that sectarian violence is still a common event. I remember people my age would go out into the centre of Belfast, looking for people from the other denomination, just so they could fight. That is quite a small-scale and petty example. However there is still this closet-sectarianism that many Northern Irish people have. It would be a taboo in many households if a Protestant were to marry a Catholic. One of the most obvious examples of sectarian violence comes from football (soccer) matches. Protestant and Catholic players have been sent death threats against themselves and their families, simply because they are what they are.

I went to a part-private school. It received some Government funding and also some private funding. The school was very casually Protestant. There were “prayers” every morning which you had to attend, and consisted of a Prefect reading a verse from the Bible and then the Headmaster saying a prayer. I remember when I just started at the school, I would be made to pray. I used to keep my eyes open and my back straightened while everyone else bowed down and shut their eyes. This seemed to anger the patrol of teachers who stood around the “chapel”. I remember being told, via the simple sign language of a finger pointing downwards, that I had to pray. I liked upsetting the status-quo in my school. Perhaps it was out of rebellion, but I was never a stereotypical rebellious teenager. I think my “rebellion” was justified.

In my last few years of school I grew very fond of the subject of Religious Education. This subject had always been more “Christian Education” than anything, I barely remember studying any other religions. I remember being the only Atheist in my class (or, only person who actually knew why they were an Atheist – there was this one guy who said he was an Atheist but said that he accepted that Jesus was both human and divine – he dropped out that year). I was surrounded by religious people with strong prejudices. My teacher was a Baptist, who referred to us as “dirty rotten sinners”. One of my friends from the class was a Presbyterian and used arguments like “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve LOL”, “if you study a well-made banana” and “if we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”. Sadly, he was the second-best student in the class. I say second-best because I was the best, and that’s not even me bragging.

Throughout my last years, I would always get marked down in practice exams, given bad grades in reports and told that I was definitely going to fail in RE. I firmly believe that this was simply because I was an Atheist, and the teachers did not like that an Atheist was the smartest person in the class. I maintain that this is because I was looking from the outside in, rather than the inside out. I showed them though, I got an A in my final year, the first person to do that for 6 years in the school.

The issue of religion became most evident in my school life when I became a Prefect in my final year. As I mentioned before, Prefects read from the Bible during “prayers”. Naturally, I refused to do so when asked. This caused a massive furor in the school, with teachers discussing it with their classes throughout the year groups. My parents were brought in to talk with the Vice-Headmaster about the situation and we did not relent. I had to explain that the issue was not standing up in front of 400 people and reading, it was standing up in front of 400 people and reading from a book that I inherently disagree with. It would be hypocritical of me, to say the least. I remember my history teacher said to me “I teach you about communism, but I’m not a communist”. Firstly, he gets paid to do it. Also, he doesn’t teach us it as if it is the truth. I would be reading from the Bible as if it were the truth, and what I believe. Finally, the school relented and I was told that I didn’t have to read during prayers.

I think that the last example shows quite accurately what the issue of religion is like in Northern Ireland. It is presumed. It is presumed that you are a Christian, and that you will conform. Northern Ireland is one of the most Christian countries in the world and it is not recognized as so. It is a backward country in a quite forward thinking world. I’ll give you an example. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland. It is truly ridiculous that a country that is part of the European Union can still have abortion as illegal. This is one area where religion is clearly affecting the law-making process. Recently there were pushes from Parliament to pass an amendment to the Embryology Bill that would allow abortions, but it was shelved for being “too controversial”.

I think that it is clear to see that Northern Ireland has to make some dramatic changes if it wants to be considered a developed country. Firstly, the people need to shake their allegiances to what religion their father was. Secondly, Parliament has to stop making their laws based on morality. Thirdly, religion can no longer be presumed.

At least that would be a start. I grew up in a country which had been torn in two by religion, and directly saw its effect. Maybe one day the Northern Irish people will wake up and realize that fighting over what building you go to on a Sunday is petty and pointless. I remember my dad telling me that Abortion cheapens life. Abortions or not, life in Northern Ireland is already cheap.

Simon Campbell

Comments (5)

  • avatar


    Thanks for sharing, Simon. It’s always amazing to be reminded that even in the First World, we still have some very primitive problems. And for those who scoff at the idea of comparing Christianity and Islam, the all-out warfare of N. Ireland is a good (terrible) example of how similar the two can be.

    I remember in the 90’s, it was so bad that we actually had North Irish “exchange students” (except, there was no actual exchange) brought over into the States to protect them from the violence and to introduce Protestant and Catholic kids to each other in an inclusive setting, to try to break the indoctrinated prejudices. I think it was a pretty good idea. Do you know anything about it, and did it help at all?

  • avatar

    Simon Campbell

    I didn’t know about Northern Irish students going over to the states to protect them. I was probably too young at the time to see it going on.

    I know there was a lot of attempts to integrate Protestant and Catholics kids over here. The thing was, most of them don’t know what they believe and what the others believe. My primary school (aged 4-12) was an integrated school, but I never knew any Catholic kids (to my knowledge). There was a Catholic school right beside mine and I remember finding it weird that they had a separate school.

    I’m sure it would have helped. If kids are told from a young age that the whole situation is a mess and that there is no reason to hate your classmate because of what title their parents assign to them then I’m sure that would help. Most children aren’t told that. I know I wasn’t.

    But thanks for the comment. It’s nice to hear people who understand the situation to an extent.

  • avatar

    Mr Ulster

    You and I won’t agree on matters epistemological , but I am grateful for you providing me even more reasons for the separation of church and state in schools. I can’t believe these school events happened relatively recently; read more like the 1960s!

    This also reminded me of my experience of a fact-finding trip in Edinburgh, when I realised that there’s no separation of church and state in their schools, either:

  • avatar

    Simon Campbell

    You’re right, it is exactly like something from the 60s. I wouldn’t name the school by name obviously, but it was not exactly a “Christian” school, in the sense that it expressly says that it’s Christian.

    The issue is though, there won’t ever be separation of church and state, because the church is the state, and the state is the church. The Queen is the head of the Church of England, and that’s just the way it is. Some other countries have it good with the Separation of Church and State being written into their constitution.

    I found it fairly humourous how much of a furore that my little simple objection made. It really showed me how religiosity is implied.

  • avatar

    Shaded Spriter

    I always viewed NI as some sort of backwards ultra religious place, sort of how someone in new York might view Alabama.

    I never actually realized how terrible it was there.

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