I used to be a Christian. I now call myself a humanist but I grew up in a conventional Church of Scotland family; we went to our local church in rural Angus every Sunday; my father was an elder and my brother and I went to Sunday school as a matter of course. The church itself was a plain but well-designed 18th-century building; it could seat about 300 people and all the regular attenders sat in the same seats every week. An elderly woman, an incomer, with a beautiful soprano voice was informed that it wasn't done to sing as loudly as she did.
There was nothing to stimulate me there until I was around 13. The minister retired and for a few months a lay preacher called Ken Mathers came out from Dundee to take the services. He was in his late 20s and was rather inspirational. I remember a particular sermon about the parable of feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fishes. The story was well known but his focus was not on a divine, inexplicable miracle but on the results of members of the multitude sharing what they had with each other. I don't remember any of his other specific sermons but I remember that his general theme was about the potential of human beings to improve the world by acting collectively. I became more interested in reflecting on the moral and social realities of the world around me than anything that might be deemed divine. But I was still a Christian.
When I went to university, I became involved in the Student Christian Movement (SCM) which was interested in engaging with things like racism and sexual morality. Some of its members had connections with the Iona Community, which had a commitment to the pursuit of peace and social justice as well as the renewal of worship. It was only at this point that I realised that Ken Mathers had been a member of the community and had been the warden at Iona Abbey shortly after I had known him. I never saw him again and never got the chance to tell him that I continued to be influenced by the ideas which he had preached about. I got the chance, however, to take part in a week-long visit, organised by SCM, to Iona. It proved to be a lovely week and, like all good memories from one's youth, it was marked by lovely weather. While I was there, my beliefs were subjected to what Christians like to call a test.
The man who was recognised as the founder of the Iona Community was George MacLeod, a charismatic and maverick figure who had previously been a minister in Govan. One night, all the young visitors were ushered into a room to hear him speak. I don't actually remember what his address was about but I do remember that he decided, in a room full of about 100 people, to criticise me for the expression on my face. I have no idea what the expression was indicating but I know that I felt totally humiliated; 18-year-olds were unlikely to answer their elders back in the early 60s and I remained totally silent. The next day I bumped into him in a less formal setting; he could have ignored me; he could have begun a reconciliatory conversation; instead he said: 'It's you again!'
It's difficult to imagine what his dislike for my facial expression could have been about. I am not even going to speculate about it. But I do understand more now about the multiplicity of ways in which people can be bullied than I did back then; bullying in a public space was not something that had even occurred to me. What is important is that I was able to separate my anger about his behaviour from the values which had brought me to Iona. I was able to walk away from my memory of Mr MacLeod but I did not walk away from the values of the Iona Community and I continued to be involved in the pursuit of social justice in SCM.
Over the years, I have participated in the gay liberation movement, in trade unions, in a number of organisations and campaigns opposed to apartheid and more local manifestations of racism, among others. I used to be a troublemaker. But, despite all my political activity, I never aspired to a political career for myself. I don't think I ever had the temperament for that kind of life and I probably would have drunk too much.
Eventually, I realised that I had stopped being a Christian. There was no Damascene moment; it was more of a gradual process. There were always people with religious beliefs in the campaigns I was involved in: Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Quakers, Hindus, Anglicans, Methodists, Sikhs, Presbyterians and so on. There would have been disagreements on questions of belief but the campaigns I chose to be involved in were about specific aims and objectives in relation to social justice and that was what we talked about, as well as the humdrum of our daily lives. The important thing was not that people suppressed mentioning their faiths but that no-one tried to convert me.
When I came across writers who described their values as being inspired by humanism, I decided this was a club that I wanted to belong to. I particularly valued their emphasis on evidence, rather than religious faith, as the basis for social action; apart from anything else, I just didn't have any faith any more although I could appreciate some of the stories and parables that were touted around by people who did have faith.
Some of their public figures are hardly renowned for their humility and I suspect that I might have found Richard Dawkins as problematic at an inter-personal level as George MacLeod, but it has never been put to the test. There can be a worrying intolerance among the faithless about the faithful and, for some reason, it often expresses itself through contempt or 'humour' about the clothes that some people with religion may wear. I have no more truck with these views when they are coming from the mouth of a humanist any more than I do when they are coming from the mouth of a member of a racist party.
I don't believe that there is a god but I don't describe myself as an atheist because I see no point in defining myself by what I don't believe in; I prefer to use the term humanist, which focuses on human potential. The number of people who identify as living with no religion has increased; the most recent UK figures tell us that 48.5% describe themselves as having no religion; in the 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey the figure for those with no religion is 52%. So, I seem to be part of a growing minority that may soon become the majority.
The parable of the loaves and fishes has not, however, left me. I make regular donations to a refugee food bank near me. There is something rather ecumenical about a humanist handing over food to a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the hall of a Catholic Church. It does provide a good reminder that the loaves and fishes story belongs to everyone, whether they are living with a religious faith or not.