Stacey and I were introduced by mutual friends around six years ago at a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford. I was a Christian at the time, and Stacey was not. Faith, the meaning of life, and the supernatural have served as the focus of many conversations between us, and since the deconstruction of my own faith, I’ve found that we have journeyed from different places to arrive at similar perspectives on these topics. I figured that it was about time we got together to explore Stacey’s experiences and thoughts on the big questions of life. We met in the evening on the hottest day of June, and found shelter in a spot of shade under a series of large trees, a stone’s throw from the river. Stacey had brought some grapes; I provided the fizzy watermelon sweets. This first part of the interview takes a look at Stacey’s journey to understand her own worldview, and how that has been impacted by her upbringing, her friends, and the events and experiences that life has thrown at her.
How would you describe your current worldview?
If we’re using terms like, ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’, or a particular religion, I would say agnostic. I grew up completely atheist - believing there was nothing apart from what you could see and feel and hear and touch and taste - and in the last five to ten years I have explored my own views of how I feel about the world, and certain events have made me feel like I’m not sure.
I don’t believe that there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, human-like god or deity, but there could be more than just what I hear and touch and feel and taste; there could be a higher level or a higher order of something that influenced how the world was created, or possibly influences how the world is now and how humans interact.
Would you say it’s appropriate to describe such an entity as a god?
I think that would be an inappropriate term to use, because I feel like that gives whatever I think of in my head - as potentially a creator or influencer of the world - too much power.
Could you take me through the journey from your initial atheism through to what you now characterize as agnosticism?
Yes, so I grew up completely atheist; my mum was completely atheist, and as I was in a single parent family and living hundreds of miles away from the rest of my family and friends, she was the only influence on my cultural, societal and religious beliefs. She was very cynical as well, and quite a logical person, and for most of my childhood probably felt quite hard done by, so probably wasn’t at all open to a religious way of exploring anything she felt about the world.
I’d always seen it as: grandmas are religious, we’re not. And then my friend introduced me to this new Christianity.
Then I went to secondary school and I met what was my best friend for about three or four years, Jess, and she was incredibly religious. She very much saw it as her mission to convert people to the way of Christianity, and it was opening a whole new world to me, because at primary school we’d sung hymns and we’d said the Lord’s Prayer, but it was very rote. I’d always seen it as: grandmas are religious, we’re not. And then my friend introduced me to this new Christianity.
We went to Girls’ Brigade together, which I didn’t actually realise until I’d been there for a few weeks was a religious-based entity; I’d thought it was a bit like Scouts or Cubs, just a group to hang out with. I went to a Baptist church with Jess and her family, and I went to a Soul Survivor camp one year and met Daniel Beddingfield. Jess’ take on Christianity was very much, you need to believe as soon as you can, because the rapture is coming, Hell is a real place, and you will go there if you don’t believe now. And for a while, I sort of did, I think.
But when I say I believed, I believed in Jesus, not God.
So what did you believe about Jesus? Did you believe that he was God?
I believe - and I still believe now - that he was a real person that existed and is incredibly well documented. At the time I believed that he was someone you could talk to, I used to pray to him directly. He felt like this kind, lovely being, who was kind of like my older Santa Claus, or older Tooth-Fairy. And he felt like a saving grace from this very powerful, fearful, hell-and-rapture creator. And, I don’t want to blame my friend, but I think that was the way she presented God to me.
Around that time, at that age, I was very concerned about believing, but not being able to fully believe, and I was forcing myself to try to believe because I was fearful. And ultimately, my friend’s trying to make me believe backfired, because I think it went too far the other way. I got to the point at the age of about fifteen or sixteen when I started to branch out and have different friends, and I thought, why am I sitting awake worrying and scared of this Christian God, who, for all intents and purposes, I didn’t have for thirteen years of my life, then got introduced to me and was suddenly this thing that I needed to be scared of?
The kind of god I learned about in Christianity having power scares me. A lot.
I got to the point where I thought, I am a nice human anyway, I didn’t need religion to tell me to be nice to people. And it started to make me question, how nice was my friend if she needed moral direction from an ancient text and going to church on Sundays? That was probably a bit of a dark thing to think about another person, but actually we stopped being friends not long after that. I realised that she was quite controlling in a lot of aspects of life; I wasn’t allowed to have other friends, I was very much guilted because I wasn’t talking to my mum and spreading the word that she wanted me to spread. I remember one Saturday me and my sister were going to go out, and Jess wanted me to come and help out at Girls’ Brigade, and I didn’t, and she sent me quite a lot of abusive messages about it. So I stopped. I stopped being friends with her. I stopped going to church.
Do you think those beliefs lingered on, did you still believe that there was a god that would punish you?
This is something I’m still struggling with today, and probably why I said I don’t like giving power to whatever I believe created the world or might have an influence on it now. Because the kind of god I learned about in Christianity having power scares me. A lot. But only when I think about it, which isn’t very often now.
So you prefer just to push those thoughts out of your mind? Is that what you were doing after you left Jess’ group?
No, I would say that when I was sixteen it just went. It just went. Because the whole lot of Christianity was tied up in this friendship that had become quite toxic in various ways. And it went, straight away, and I got on with Sixth Form. I went to University, nothing. I didn’t really think about it at all; vaguely, in the very deep depths of my mind, occasionally, but very rarely if ever.
When did anything change?
When I met you! Because I remember we went to Wetherspoons, I don’t think it had been very long since I had met you guys, and someone said something about reading the Bible, and I said, ‘Why would you want to read that? It’s a whole load of ancient twaddle.’ And then someone said, ‘Logan is a Christian’. I didn’t know you at the time at all, so I didn’t know if that was massively offensive to you, and after someone had told me, I went to the toilet and I felt awful.
If it helps, I don’t remember that, it feels like new information to me.
Oh! Did you not? I’ve felt really bad about it for literally years.
So, what happened from there? Did that experience change anything?
No, not for me directly, I kind of carried on how I was feeling, I suppose by accident I surrounded myself with people that don’t really have a religion. I think that you introduced Christianity to me in a slightly different way, you were more like: Oh, you’re not a Christian, whatever, I am, but that doesn’t mean anything significant for you. I do know that the occasional time we’d go to church I would feel like I was feeling something, but then I didn’t ever know if it was just because it’s an emotive place; lots of people coming together and singing, or praying, or being mindful together is going to make you feel a certain way anyway.
How would you describe the feelings?
Tearful. I would get the feeling that I wanted to well up but not be able to, and I don’t know why I felt like that.
Had it brought up any particular memories or associations? Or did it just feel like an odd, out-of-nowhere tearfulness?
It brought up one thing that I still can’t explain to this day, and is probably a little bit why I am agnostic, or part of the contributing factor. When I was deep in this friendship with Jess, we went to another friend’s house, and she had an older sister who was into devil worship. We didn’t know this at the time. We were in the downstairs kitchen having food and I went upstairs to use the toilet, and I accidentally took a wrong turning and I went into this older sister’s room, and when I was trying to cross the doorway, I had probably the only moment – sober moment – that I have been out of control of my own body, and my own mind. And I remember it to this day.
As I tried to walk through the door, I went completely stiff. I couldn’t move. I felt like I was under anesthetic, you know? Where you can see your body but you can’t move it, and my mind just went blank. I can’t even explain what it was like; it wasn’t like white, because that is a thing, it just had nothing in it. Apparently I screamed, because my friend and her mum came running upstairs and were like, ‘Are you ok? What’s happened, what’s happened? And for me it felt like a millisecond of my life.
Afterwards we realised that the room obviously belonged to the older sister and had loads of stuff in it, like a Ouija board and devil stuff, and… I don’t know the paraphernalia of a devil worshipper. My friend, Jess, explained it very much that God didn’t want me to go in that room; either that he didn’t want me to go in, or potentially I had been at risk of being possessed by a demon, and it’s still something I’ve never been able to explain. I don’t know what it was.
So, she explained what happened to you as an act of God preventing something rather than something bad taking place?
She said it could be either/or. She said it was either God stopping me from going in the room, which I take issue with, because why would he stop me going in? Why was I the chosen one, when my friend’s sister lived in that room and did the things that she did? She said it was either that, or that there was potentially a demon trying to get in me. But I take issue with that too, because they wouldn’t just come and chill in the bedroom that had the Ouija board and the devil-worship stuff. But maybe they would, I don’t know.
As I’ve gotten older there have been more things that are difficult to explain away with science and logic and physics.
But that’s the only thing that’s ever stuck with me, and so when I met you and we went to church a few times, it’s the thing that sometimes comes up in my head as the only niggling doubt as to why I can’t just completely shut the door and say I’m definitely an atheist. The other part being that I haven’t made my mind up about ghosts. And if ghosts are a thing, then that opens up a whole new door of souls, and why certain people come back and certain people don’t. And if you believe in souls and potentially in ghosts, then you might have to believe in a creator or decider.
When you say ‘ghosts’, do you conflate that with demons? Or is that something separate?
No, that’s very separate. I don’t really believe in demons. I don’t think that they’re a real thing. Whenever I think of ghosts, I think of them as just like, lost souls. But that is a whole other chapter I suppose. But that’s probably why I’m agnostic rather than atheist, because as I’ve gotten older there have been more things that are difficult to explain away with science and logic and physics.
Would you like to unpack some of them?
Not everyone in the world that has ever had an out-of-body experience or a thing that they can’t explain can be lying, surely? And people that are close to me have had certain things that I would hope they weren’t just making up for the sake of, well, what would be the purpose of making them up? So, the fact that there is stuff that I can’t explain through science or logic - and I don’t just mean me personally, because people cleverer than me can’t necessarily explain them either - makes me questions whether there is something.
What kind of things have your friends experienced?
Well, it’s not so much my friends, but when me, my mum and my sister went on holiday to Cornwall, we stayed in this really old farmhouse that was on its own. And one night we went to bed, and both me and my mum were woken up by some quite loud, Glenn Miller music playing from a corner where there’s an old barn. I checked the next day; I went around thinking that maybe there was an additional house that we didn’t see. Both me and my mum remember it to this day.
And it couldn’t have been just some kids hanging out and playing music?
Well, technically it could have been, but I question the motive to get up at two in the morning and go two or three miles outside of the nearest town and bring a boom box with some Glenn Miller on it. But that could happen.
So, going back to the church services which brought up these associations, do you know why tears would have been your reaction?
I think it’s because I am a reasonably emotive person; if one of my friends is upset I can get upset. I don’t think it’s a divine spirit coming and filling me with joy or the Holy Spirit or anything, I don’t. I really don’t believe that at all.
I digress a lot there, but life carried on. But you and someone I’ve met reasonably recently have made me think that actually there isn’t a massive pressure for me to decide; if I die in-between then it is what it is, but why did I have to force myself going from a completely non-religious background to having all the answers worked out? Which is why I’ve landed where I am today.
You’ve touched on several events and experiences; to add more pieces to the puzzle, are there any others that have made you question or reconsider your beliefs?
I’ll tell you the other two things that I’ve thought of. One of which is for, one of which is against.
In the traditional Christian sense, God is a man. He’s a male pronoun. I have not had the best experiences with men in general. I don’t mean anything really horrible, but my dad left when I was three. That’s probably brought up some abandonment issues. And my experiences with men since that have not been the best. And so I think it added a layer on top of my thirteen or fourteen year old’s idea of God being this big scary guy that must be feared and is reasonably vengeful to, on top of that, he’s kind of remote and doesn’t treat you very nicely.
Also, my best friend, Becky, passed away very suddenly in a car crash when she was twenty-four. On the night after she died, I went for a walk with my dog at about four in the morning because I couldn’t sleep at all, and I realised I was talking to him. I walked a really long way, I don’t even really remember where I walked; I remember getting so far and then realizing I was about five miles from my house and I ought to turn back. But I was talking to Harvey, I was talking to him about how I felt and about how unfair everything was and asking for help, and I realised that I wasn’t necessary talking to Harvey - because he was a dog, and lovely as he was - I was talking to something outside of the physical world to help me.
I want there to be a point to that pain and that loss. I want to think she is somewhere nice. But it can’t be Christianity...
I don’t know if I’m generalizing, but I feel as though a lot of people who were religious before something like that happens, often turn away. If anything, it drew me closer to wanting there to be something else. And probably for the first time ever, instead of coming to religion or spiritual things in a ‘I must believe this because someone’s told me’ or ‘I must believe it because there will be consequences if I don’t’ way, I felt like it was the first time I was wanting spirituality or wanting a religion.
Probably the biggest part of why I’m no longer atheist is because I don’t want to believe Becky is nowhere. Which, if I, hand on heart, really think about it scientifically, is what I do believe happens after you die. But I still talk to Becky all the time to this day. And I want there to be a point to that pain and that loss. I want to think she is somewhere nice. But it can’t be Christianity, because if it is, then Christianity essentially dictates that she would not be in the nice place, which is even worse to think about.
In the second part of our conversation, Stacey will discuss her own principles and values, the dangers and benefits of organized religion, what a ‘good god’ would look like, and her recent experiences on an Alpha course designed to explore the big questions of life.