Why my atheist parents brought me up Christian

I was a mixed-up mixed race kid. My mum was Parsi – a kind of Indian that originates from Iran – although she was born in East Africa and came to Britain when she was 16. My dad was American, but retained his US citizenship and never became British despite living in Britain for the last 45 years of his life.

13.jpg[Me, aged three. There’s a photo of me somewhere aged 14 where I look just the same.]

In terms of religion, my mum was technically Zoroastrian and my dad was a Unitarian Universalist (a wishy-washy, pluralistic kind of Christian) but both were non-practising. And, I later discovered, though they didn’t identify as such, they both held atheist beliefs – which makes sense, as they were highly-educated academics. So why the hell did they send me to church and Sunday school until I was 8?

It all goes back to Auntie Dolly.

I was middle-named after my Asian grandmother, Shirin (there are half a dozen different spellings of Sherine, including Shirin, Shireen, Shereen and Sherin). Anyhow, Nana Shirin had five siblings – two female, two male – with the unusual names of Dolly, Bapsy, Temi and Ferdoon. I think she drew the long straw with Shirin!

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[Me and my tiny little Asian Nan, Shirin, in 2009. I hope I look as good as her when I’m old! She’s 94 now and doesn’t look any different.]

Auntie Dolly was a Jehovah’s Witness. She would go door-to-door trying to convert non-believers. Before she died ten years ago, she would call Nan daily to tell her the End Times were coming, and that she had to become a JW if she didn’t want to go to hell. Poor Nan was very gullible, and this frightened her. My mum would then have to go round and de-program Nan, telling her Auntie Dolly was talking nonsense!

Anyhow, my mum was determined that I shouldn’t grow up and become a born-again Christian or Jehovah’s Witness like Auntie D. She always insisted I was ‘C of E’ – which, for years, I thought was one word (‘seervee’). My mum thought that by sending me and my brother to church and Sunday school, she would ‘inoculate’ us against religion, as we’d realise how boring it was. All I can say is, in my case, it worked better than she could have hoped!

But not initially. I grew up believing in God. I got a load of God at school, too – our ‘broadly Christian’ assemblies were full of hymns and prayers – though, ever the joker, I used to bellow the hymns loudly in a very strong Indian accent, making all the other kids laugh. My teacher Miss Buckley would be furious, and snap, ‘Sing in your normal voice!’ And I would say back in my Indian voice, with a head wobble: ‘But I am Indian!’ She was so angry, but couldn’t really send a note home to my Indian mum saying ‘Your daughter is singing in an Indian accent!’

At school, we studied all the world religions in Religious Studies, but never atheism or humanism. Until quite late, I don’t even remember knowing there was a name for people who didn’t believe in God.

Just because I had faith, though, it didn’t mean I wasn’t skeptical. It never seemed fair that my mum was going to hell for being the ‘wrong’ religion – or, if Zoroastrianism were ‘right’, then me and my brother and dad were. At times, that made me feel like rejecting the whole thing.

I also asked my mum, ‘Is there really a God?’ In response, she told me about Pascal’s Wager: that you had nothing to lose by believing in God, but if you didn’t and He existed, you were in trouble.

Even though my faith wavered at times, I ticked ‘C of E’ on the 2001 census. I remember a guy at university saying he was an atheist. I was shocked, and told him ‘You’re a blasphemer!’ To his credit, he was fairly unfazed by my rather melodramatic assertion.

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I was also very pro-life – life was sacred, right? I used to say primly, ‘Other women can do what they want, but would never have an abortion.’ Ironically, I knew nothing at all about abortion until I was 24 and was put in the horrendous situation of my boyfriend turning violent while I was pregnant.

When I googled ‘abortion’, I was faced with pages and pages of Catholic propaganda: hugely enlarged pictures of foetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb, and websites that said if I had a termination I would become infertile, get breast cancer and go to hell.

Because of my pro-life principles, I agonised for three weeks about what to do, as the baby inside me grew and grew. In the end, I was too late to take the abortion pills on the NHS, and had to go private to terminate the pregnancy I so desperately wanted to keep. Directly after the abortion, I told my mother I wanted to visit the vicar down the road and ask for his forgiveness.

She scoffed at me: ‘Don’t be so stupid!’

After the abortion, I was too scared to fall asleep in case I died in my sleep and went to hell. I was incredibly depressed and anxious.

Six months later, I started dating a lovely atheist and he told me there was no evidence for God’s existence. I started reading up on science and religion, and eventually concluded he was right. I became really angry about the Catholic propaganda I’d been confronted with at the most vulnerable time of my life.

These days, of course, I’m a resolutely pro-choice atheist – but it’s sad that it took experiencing how pernicious religion could be to change my views.

I don’t blame my mum for sending me to church and Sunday school. She was right that they were very boring – and, of course, I never became a Jehovah’s Witness. But indoctrinating kids with lies is wrong – and in my case, it led to a lot of pain and suffering before I finally emerged an atheist.

ABC

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 19

Me: 12st 8.2lbs (total loss in 19 days: 6lbs)

Boom! 2lbs off in one day. That’s how to do it!

John: 14st 1.5lbs (total loss in 19 days): 6lbs

We are neck and neck!

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Ding-dongs and diet wrongs

Someone asked on Twitter, ‘Ever had a fight with a celebrity?’ To be honest, I’ve had a few, but the one which really stands out was my appearance on The Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV1 in March 2010, just before my nervous breakdown. It was a debate about whether it was a shame that Britons are less aware of the Easter story these days – and it wasn’t a fair debate, either, because it was three Christians (Alan himself, Gloria Hunniford and some arse from Christian radio) against me. This was over nine years ago, so I’m trying to dredge up all the depressing details from the bit of my brain where I’ve repressed them – apologies in advance for any inaccuracies.

I will never forget that Alan, Gloria and The Arse were all horrible and made it very clear that they didn’t like atheists at all. They were making jokes and exchanging pointed glances at my expense, and I felt very isolated and upset. There was literally no one in my corner. If I had been cool-headed when the cameras were rolling, I would have made Barack Obama’s point that ‘We are no longer just a Christian nation, but also a nation of Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and non-believers’ (I’m paraphrasing here). I would have asked Gloria, Alan and The Arse from Christian Radio whether they were aware of, say, Zoroastrian stories, or stories of all the other religions – and if not, why was it more of a shame that Britons of other faiths weren’t aware of the details of the Easter story than vice versa?

But prior to the debate, the producer had tried to polarise it and take all the nuance out of it, insisting I ‘go in really hard – it was great when you said on the phone that religion was stupid’. Worse, none of the other participants would talk to me when I tried to be friendly, and then Alan grimly deigned to tell me in a threatening way that the debate would be ‘VERY feisty, VERY feisty indeed.’ When I was introduced as an atheist, I got roundly booed by the blue rinse brigade audience, and Alan joked that the response ‘wasn’t very Christian’, but I could tell that he was loving it. I tried to laugh it off, but was rattled. Then I completely lost my thread during the debate, and said that the Easter story was effectively a snuff movie, but I wasn’t as articulate and cogent as I would have liked to be, as they were all ganging up on me. It was a pretty dreadful performance on my part.

Afterwards, off-camera, Gloria and The Arse laid into me, laughing smugly that I was ‘awful and scary’ and ‘showed atheists in a very poor light’, and I snapped at all three of them that they were ‘fucking arseholes!’ and walked away shaking. My brain was telling me that I was hated and that someone out there was going to kill me, and days later I became suicidal – and the suicidal ideation lasted for over a year. I also refused to appear on telly again for a ridiculous number of years (eight? I’m not sure). However, I’ve never blamed my nervous breakdown on my appearance on the show, because though it was probably a contributory factor, my mental health was already very poor and this was just the last straw.

I can see, though, that being ganged up on 3-1 (plus factoring in the 200-strong elderly Christian audience, who were clearly the last remaining churchgoers in the UK) was not right. Producers have a duty of care and I wasn’t taken care of at all – I guess they thought I could fend for myself, but they were totally wrong. So I can completely understand why there have been suicides after similarly combative shows such as Jeremy Kyle. Leaving a show with the idea that everyone hates you is horrendous, especially in the age of social media.

Alan was right when he said the show would be feisty, but he could also have applied the adjective to me – though very mentally ill and anxious, I am simultaneously quite hot-tempered. I come across as placid and easygoing, but if something riles me, I see red. So during and after filming, I was experiencing a very intense, confusing mixture of anger and fear. They say that all anger is really fear, and they’re probably right, though I was also harbouring fantasies of channelling Rocky. I didn’t kick Gloria in the fanny, Alan in the balls or The Arse in the arse though, even though I really wanted to, as I didn’t want my foot to smell.

*

Anyhow, fast-forwarding nine years to yesterday, I had an awful heated row about money with my ex-husband. We both dredged up lots of bitterness and resentment from our marriage (though friends, we both hold serious grudges and keep score massively. Some therapy would really help right now if either of us could afford it). He apologised for ‘being a dong’, though not before I had a huge emotional binge on all the junk food in the kitchen. So I’m back up to 13 stone again today and feeling very ashamed, which is miserable – but not as miserable as appearing on The Alan Titchmarsh Show.

I swear he’s the subconscious reason I don’t like gardening and have decked my whole back yard.

MY DAILY STATS

Weight: 13st (goal weight: 7st 11lbs)

Waist: 36.5″ (goal: 25″)

Bust: 43″ (goal: 32″)

This post has been made possible by my Patreon supporters Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Lucy Spencer, Mark White, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of amazing rewards in addition to this credit! Please support me on Patreon.