The second in my “Countdown to 30” series, looking forward to my 30th birthday and back to how I got here. This one provoked heated discussion with my family, so I’ve made some edits to reflect their concerns. I want to make it clear: my family was never poor. What I wanted to convey was that they had made decisions which significantly affected their lifestyle in order to benefit me. I’m grateful for that, but I also recognize that our financial situation was much better than that of many others’.
I have never believed in God. I was raised in a happy nonreligious home. My values come from the rational, pluralistic vision of Star Trek (in fact I’m convinced I’m named not after the King James Bible but after James T Kirk). I used to watch the stars with my grandfather, visit the planetarium with him, listen to Carl Sagan, and contemplate the wonder of the universe—no God included. I like to say I was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan, and Star Trek.
But though my childhood was godless, it was certainly not without a framework of values. My parents raised me with strong moral principles. It was clear that hurting another person in any way was unacceptable – including emotional hurt – and that deceit and dishonesty were very wrong, a value my parents expressed in their own honesty and openness about their lives.
My parents value hard work and have a passionate love of learning and an infectious curiosity that carried us to museums, theatres, galleries and music halls around the world. I loved much of my school experience, and this was largely due to my parents’ constant interest in my progress and achievements, and ceaseless intellectual encouragement. Through this consistent interest in my development they instilled in me the belief that people can improve themselves and, with the help of others, that we can improve the world. My idealism and belief in human progress is in large part down to their example.
My parents are also made me aware of privilege and its role in society. Neither of them is wealthy, or come from wealthy backgrounds – both are solidly middle class, who worked hard to achieve their success. I remember them telling me, solemnly, before I began my first day at the private school I had gained entrance to (St. Paul’s School, Barnes), that I would be surrounded with people much wealthier than we were, and never to be ashamed of that. At the same time, they also encouraged me to realize that in comparison to most people we were extremely well-off, and I was clear from very early on that, just as I had a responsibility to repay my parents’ investment in my education with hard work (the school fees were
crippling extremely steep, and led to many sacrifices in their own comfort), I had a responsibility to repay society for the many privileges it offered me – perhaps my lifelong desire to be an educator stems from my sense of my own privilege.
But perhaps the strongest value I learnt from my parents was acceptance of other people, and a celebration of diversity. Perhaps unsurprisingly for two people who grew up during the heyday of hippies my parents are startlingly non-judgmental, and my home was often a haven for young people who were somehow out of the mainstream – goths, gay kids, those who didn’t get along with their parents, those who hated school. From a very young age I was taught that everyone, regardless of their differences, was deserving of equal dignity and respect, and although that sometimes caused tension in practice, I hold to that value strongly today: you don’t treat people differently just because they are different. Everyone is worthy of equal moral concern and dignity.
All these values were conveyed without the slightest religious overtone: my parents provided me with an ethical example and encouraged me, with great humor and forbearance, to follow it. But despite the lack of significance of religion in my home life, I was not shielded from it. St Paul’s is a religious school, and I attended religious assemblies throughout my time there. Religious Studies is a required part of the UK curriculum, and I was as enthusiastic in my pursuit of knowledge in that subject as in all others. Most importantly, at around 13 I joined the school’s recital choir, which saw me singing in Christian services all through my time at high school – I’ve probably attended more religious services than many Christians – and enabled me to explore a religious congregation from within.
Perhaps surprisingly, I loved it: I loved the sense of ritual, the quiet aura of the space, and especially the singing. I liked the people, how they were friendly toward each other and took an interest in each other’s’ lives, even though they only saw them once a week. Sometimes I even enjoyed the sermons: I found them interesting, challenging, a chance to consider questions I wouldn’t normally think about. But I was never a believer. I was simply never convinced that the stories of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were any different from the stories of Frodo and Gandalf which I so loved. It seemed obvious to me that it wasn’t true, and my increasingly frequent discussions with Christian friends convinced me, even as a teenage student of philosophy, that no solid arguments existed to support God’s existence.
The values I was raised with were more than sufficient to ground my early commitment to educational and social justice activism – I started working with disadvantaged youth and the Liberal Democrat Party in my teens, and began to work teaching Shakespeare in prisons during my University years – and I felt no need to subscribe to a particular metaphysical system to pursue justice in the world. I knew I could be good without god.