I was a mixed-up mixed race kid. My mum was Parsi – a kind of Indian that originates from Iran – although she was born in East Africa and came to Britain when she was 16. My dad was American, but retained his US citizenship and never became British despite living in Britain for the last 45 years of his life.
[Me, aged three. There’s a photo of me somewhere aged 14 where I look just the same.]
In terms of religion, my mum was technically Zoroastrian and my dad was a Unitarian Universalist (a wishy-washy, pluralistic kind of Christian) but both were non-practising. And, I later discovered, though they didn’t identify as such, they both held atheist beliefs – which makes sense, as they were highly-educated academics. So why the hell did they send me to church and Sunday school until I was 8?
It all goes back to Auntie Dolly.
I was middle-named after my Asian grandmother, Shirin (there are half a dozen different spellings of Sherine, including Shirin, Shireen, Shereen and Sherin). Anyhow, Nana Shirin had five siblings – two female, two male – with the unusual names of Dolly, Bapsy, Temi and Ferdoon. I think she drew the long straw with Shirin!
[Me and my tiny little Asian Nan, Shirin, in 2009. I hope I look as good as her when I’m old! She’s 94 now and doesn’t look any different.]
Auntie Dolly was a Jehovah’s Witness. She would go door-to-door trying to convert non-believers. Before she died ten years ago, she would call Nan daily to tell her the End Times were coming, and that she had to become a JW if she didn’t want to go to hell. Poor Nan was very gullible, and this frightened her. My mum would then have to go round and de-program Nan, telling her Auntie Dolly was talking nonsense!
Anyhow, my mum was determined that I shouldn’t grow up and become a born-again Christian or Jehovah’s Witness like Auntie D. She always insisted I was ‘C of E’ – which, for years, I thought was one word (‘seervee’). My mum thought that by sending me and my brother to church and Sunday school, she would ‘inoculate’ us against religion, as we’d realise how boring it was. All I can say is, in my case, it worked better than she could have hoped!
But not initially. I grew up believing in God. I got a load of God at school, too – our ‘broadly Christian’ assemblies were full of hymns and prayers – though, ever the joker, I used to bellow the hymns loudly in a very strong Indian accent, making all the other kids laugh. My teacher Miss Buckley would be furious, and snap, ‘Sing in your normal voice!’ And I would say back in my Indian voice, with a head wobble: ‘But I am Indian!’ She was so angry, but couldn’t really send a note home to my Indian mum saying ‘Your daughter is singing in an Indian accent!’
At school, we studied all the world religions in Religious Studies, but never atheism or humanism. Until quite late, I don’t even remember knowing there was a name for people who didn’t believe in God.
Just because I had faith, though, it didn’t mean I wasn’t skeptical. It never seemed fair that my mum was going to hell for being the ‘wrong’ religion – or, if Zoroastrianism were ‘right’, then me and my brother and dad were. At times, that made me feel like rejecting the whole thing.
I also asked my mum, ‘Is there really a God?’ In response, she told me about Pascal’s Wager: that you had nothing to lose by believing in God, but if you didn’t and He existed, you were in trouble.
Even though my faith wavered at times, I ticked ‘C of E’ on the 2001 census. I remember a guy at university saying he was an atheist. I was shocked, and told him ‘You’re a blasphemer!’ To his credit, he was fairly unfazed by my rather melodramatic assertion.
I was also very pro-life – life was sacred, right? I used to say primly, ‘Other women can do what they want, but I would never have an abortion.’ Ironically, I knew nothing at all about abortion until I was 24 and was put in the horrendous situation of my boyfriend turning violent while I was pregnant.
When I googled ‘abortion’, I was faced with pages and pages of Catholic propaganda: hugely enlarged pictures of foetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb, and websites that said if I had a termination I would become infertile, get breast cancer and go to hell.
Because of my pro-life principles, I agonised for three weeks about what to do, as the baby inside me grew and grew. In the end, I was too late to take the abortion pills on the NHS, and had to go private to terminate the pregnancy I so desperately wanted to keep. Directly after the abortion, I told my mother I wanted to visit the vicar down the road and ask for his forgiveness.
She scoffed at me: ‘Don’t be so stupid!’
After the abortion, I was too scared to fall asleep in case I died in my sleep and went to hell. I was incredibly depressed and anxious.
Six months later, I started dating a lovely atheist and he told me there was no evidence for God’s existence. I started reading up on science and religion, and eventually concluded he was right. I became really angry about the Catholic propaganda I’d been confronted with at the most vulnerable time of my life.
These days, of course, I’m a resolutely pro-choice atheist – but it’s sad that it took experiencing how pernicious religion could be to change my views.
I don’t blame my mum for sending me to church and Sunday school. She was right that they were very boring – and, of course, I never became a Jehovah’s Witness. But indoctrinating kids with lies is wrong – and in my case, it led to a lot of pain and suffering before I finally emerged an atheist.
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