AT SOME point whilst I was still at school my heart began to turn away from Christianity. I believe a large part of this was teenage selfishness – seeing life in a wholly negative light, despite its reality. And maybe, too, there was a shyness of my beliefs. I remember Frasier from St. Andrews congratulating me on my confirmation one lunchtime at school and feeling a little embarrassed by it.
This was a great contrast to my ways at Hessle Mount, where I would censure friends who would say ‘Oh my God,’ following Rena Downing’s words at Sunday School, or one afternoon in the Junior School at Hymers. I remember one hot day at the end of afternoon break, a boy called Kristian asked me to cover for him for some reason or other. ‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘I’m Christian,’ I replied. ‘Well, so am I,’ he said, unable to understand what that had to do with not lying. It only dawned on me years later that maybe he was making fun of me, his name being what it was.
I recall that on the adventure holiday in Windermere I attended one year, I was uncomfortable with the Christian fellowship shown there. I have often identified my second trip to Iona as the source of my disbelief, but I think the doubts and my shyness in faith were with me for at least two years before that. It was, however, on Iona that I formalised my atheism. I think it was my second visit, though I’m not exactly sure. I recall it quite well. Most people who go there seem to end up in a state of high emotion, because the music was really beautiful and there is an acute sense of isolation. A few other people would speak of their confusion, their alienation and their disbelief when I returned a year later. I think, though, I was just looking for excuses. We had an evening session one day considering the blessings which God had granted us. In my selfishness I had convinced myself that life was terrible because I had so few friends at school. And that night I decided that I didn’t believe in God any more. I stood half way up Dun-Í in the darkness, making myself cry, telling God that he wasn’t real. It was very artificial.
On my return home, I met mum in the utility room whilst she was doing the washing and announced that I didn’t believe in God any more. I can’t recall exactly what the response was, but I know the Bishop of Durham came in somewhere. Over the next few months I began wondering about things which my mind was too small to comprehend. Like whether the nothingness outside the universe was of the same substance as that which made up the nothingness in-between all the matter within it. There wasn’t any point to it, but then nor was there any point to my atheism. I would invent ideas about the universe and ponder on them. It seemed to be mainly at tea time on Sundays when I would bring up my foolish questions about God, which could only offend.
I cannot recall the order of things in any detail. I don’t recall when I was first uncomfortable about going to church; whether it was before or after that visit to Iona. I remember there was a phase when I would sit right at the back because of my discomfort with my lack of faith. I don’t remember when my belief in God returned, but I know it did because for a long time I used only to utter a portion of the Nicene Creed. I would say, ‘I believe in one God, creator of Heaven and Earth,’ I think, and then only the ‘Amen’ after that. I didn’t like to sing the hymns if they involved the worship of Jesus, and for a while I was satisfied with being in the music group for Come and Celebrate because it meant avoiding the words altogether. At another time I would avoid church where possible claiming tiredness, because I never had the courage to inform everyone that I did not share their beliefs (my earlier attempt had only met with unspoken disapproval).
For the majority of the time from the point of my rejection of belief, I did actually believe in God. Occasionally I would find myself without any faith at all, but on the whole I did believe in God. I did not, however, believe that Jesus was God. Many people talk about not understanding the Trinity. My problem was much more elementary. I just did not believe that Jesus was God; as simple as that. Innately I was uncomfortable with any worship of him. I did not have any deep philosophical reason for this. It was simply a strong feeling inside that God was completely separate. There is no lie in this, and God is my witness.
It was after my first year at university that I began to feel the need to find the ‘Truth’. I did not have a brilliant time that year. I was insecure and unable to fit into the way of life of others my age. Though I was agnostic, I retained my Christian morals, which clashed heavily with the outlook of those around me of my age. So instead of waiting for them to get bored of seeing who they could get to spend the night with them, I migrated towards the company of some ‘mature’ students. Most of them were around the age I am now, but he with whom I spent most of my time was ten years older than me. I didn’t particularly choose this course; I think it chose me. I knew him because we had met on the day of our interview.
It turned out over the course of the year that he was a bit of an alcoholic. If I have a hatred of alcohol today, this could be said to be a major factor. He got me into drinking, sometimes with insane heaviness, even though, as you will recall, I did not drink when I first arrived. I had confrontations with other students and, by the end of the year, I was far from happy. Towards the end of the year, I would withdraw from almost everyone and in May I promised myself that I would never drink another drop of alcohol, because I didn’t like what friends became in their drunkenness, nor what I became. I only really had one friend my own age at that time and he was a Muslim, though he wasn’t practising at that time. We would just play pool together, whilst every now and then he would quote obscure words from the Book of Proverbs.
Over the summer I attended a service at All Souls with Granny Oxborrow, the sermon delivered by John Stott. I was quite impressed by what I heard and it inspired me to reform myself. I had told numerous lies at the end of the year because my life had turned into such a disaster area, but now I was set to correct that. With the start of the new term I only had one thing on my mind, and that was searching for the Truth.
I began attending All Souls church every Sunday just to listen to the sermon (and perhaps to get a good lunch). This went on for some time until the preacher said something which really put me off. One day he invited all those who were still unsure of what he was saying to stay behind after the service and he would explain it. So I did, for that was my reason for being there. But his explanation was the most pathetic I have ever heard. I was so angry with the laziness of his explanation that I decided not to return the following week. My objection was still the same; I did not believe that Jesus was God; but I had been making an effort to find the truth.
At university I had disassociated myself from those I had known the previous term and kept myself to myself. I had been influenced by friends into foolish ways in the first year, but now I wanted nothing more to do with it. I didn’t even go to sit in the pub any more. I think, perhaps, I became obsessed with my search for the Truth. I would talk religion with my Muslim friend quite a lot and ask questions of him.
I am not actually capable any longer of recounting the details of this journey or the order in which things came, or when I first started thinking about Islam along side Christianity. All I can really say (and all I need to say) is that during that time, trying to determine what was truth and what was falsehood became all I would think about and talk about. When I finally came to believe in Islam it was as the Truth. It was not an issue of choosing a religion which suited me. I wanted the Truth whatever it might be.
So how did I come to believe in Islam? It came out of my agnosticism, my discomfort with myself and my feeling that I had to reform. It came out of my failure to believe that Jesus is God. It came from my single-minded pursuit of the Truth, when I realised that I could not rely on my friends, but I could rely on God. I came to accept Islam as my path for no other reason than believing it to be the True religion of God. I didn’t accept it because of people, but because I believe it is from God. It is as simple as that.