Jonny Scaramaga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist. If you’ve ever watched God TV, or seen a Creationist trolling a science blog, insisting that the Grand Canyon was carved out in a fortnight by Noah’s Flood, you’ve met my old beliefs.

Because my brand of Christianity was so sectarian and divisive, I’ve rarely been part of any kind of community in my life. I regarded the local Anglican church as a dead form of religion unrelated to True Christianity. But I grew up in a small village, with a C of E school and church, and I saw how the church was a hub for the community. People eating in the deli on weekdays seemed to know each other, neighbours chatted in the village shops, and people said hello in the street. It was the kind of English idyll which isn’t supposed to exist anymore.

Since I became an atheist, I’ve often chatted to friends about ways to build the sense of community which churches are supposed to create. The idea of neighbours not being strangers, of meeting people you otherwise never would, and of doing things to support the community seems completely desirable to me.

I even tried going to church once or twice, but it was all I could do not to vomit. Church has negative associations for me which will probably never go away. But the idea of bringing people together is a good one. I’ve met some secular Quakers who seem like they’re onto a winner. As one of them put it, their philosophy is that it’s “just quite nice to be… quite nice”. Which is better than glassing people in the face. Or telling them they’re going to hell.

I spent some of my teenage summers in America, and fundamentalism is a different beast there. In one town I visited, the largest church was attended by 500 people – 10 per ent of the population. The church was not just about the Sunday services. Major businesses in the town were staffed entirely by church members. People had their whole friendship network within the church. Teens grew up and married there. Now I think that level of division from society at large is unhealthy, but it’s not difficult to see why people don’t leave that kind of church. It’s a shame that, if you’re looking for community, often there is no non-religious option.

For me, back in England, the fundamentalist experience was desperately lonely, but the secular one was even worse, because it involved leaving behind the few friends I did have. I was only able to work through my beliefs and reject my religious past once I got to university and established a friendship group of my own. Even then, when I had big questions, I found myself at a church youth group because there was no other place to discuss them.

I got out of fundamentalism, but I virtually had to pull myself up by my bootstraps to do it. Having escaped, I still got suckered by scams like alternative medicine quackery because of the huge deficit in my critical thinking skills. I would have been grateful for a place that combined a chance to make friends with a place to discuss important questions.