Guns n Roses made me an atheist

It was 1992 and I was 16. I’d been cranking the hell out of Guns n Roses’ latest albums, Use Your Illusion I & II. I’d worshipped the band since being introduced to Appetite For Destruction by friends a year or two earlier. The band appealed to my rebellious streak for many reasons: Axl’s gravelly wail and angry, occasionally hate-filled lyrics seemed like they were specifically tuned in to my undirected teenage rage, Slash’s peerless solos helped me rise above it all and I just loved the raw, grinding guitars and the whole “fuck you” aspect of the band. Really, what more could a 16 year-old want? The Gunners, in the end, were most of the reason I ended up growing my hair and starting a rock band with my mates that same year (a band which still exists to this day – curiously enough we’re working on an album we started recording in 2002 which, if it ever gets finished, is likely to rival Chinese Democracy in terms of completion time). But how did they cause me to leave my faith?

Of all the Gn’f’nR songs I adored, one in particular stood out: Garden of Eden from Use Your Illusion I. Not only is it one of the Gunners’ most balls-out, thrashy rock songs (with one of my favourite silly vids; see below), it contained a particular line that crystallised my slowly growing thoughts about the religion I thought I subscribed to. After the totally awesome solo from Slash, Axl spits out:

Organised religion makes a mockery of humanity

As a teenager with a growing loathing of authority – especially what I saw as the self-appointed, undeserved or entrenched variety – this leaped out at me in neon. First, I already had a chip on my shoulder regarding authority, thanks in large part to my discipline problems and the not-infrequent run-ins with teachers. Second, our high school had compulsory, innocuously-named “Religious Education” seminars. I say “innocuous” because they weren’t education about religion, they were transparent Christian conversion attempts. Until final year, every student was expected to sit there in the library and cop an earful of evangelism from the local Christians once or twice a year – what particular denomination wasn’t clear, but they sure were keen and, I thought, offensively cheerful. At the time, it didn’t trouble me that much that the local God-botherers were invading our library. I had become used to it in primary school where we had weekly Religious Instruction (where I first started having my doubts after hearing about Noah’s Ark – “how did he have time to find koalas and enough eucalyptus to feed them?” I asked myself at age seven – I still haven’t heard a credible answer); besides, the RE sessions at high school filled up an entire double period and gave some of the more smart-arsed among us a chance to ask sticky questions of the groovy youth pastors in the compulsory post-seminar dicussion groups. Even though I considered myself by default a Christian, I wasn’t a churchgoer or Bible-reader and I was suspicious of other Christians who wanted desperately to attract others into their particular brand. “Why,” I thought, “can’t people just speak to God or pray by themselves instead of signing up and joining some flock? If God’s everywhere and knows what I do and what I think, surely churches and priests are redundant?”

So, some time later, after listening to Garden of Eden, I read the lyrics and discovered “organised religion makes a mockery of humanity.” I pondered the meaning of that phrase. I pondered my own religious thoughts. I already had a suspicion that religions, even if they all had a kernel of Truth at their core, were human constructions as much as governments, guilds and golf clubs. Regardless of the original reasons for their creation (which may well have been entirely innocent and pure, I reasoned, giving them the benefit of my ever-growing doubt), they now functioned as highly effective control mechanisms and imposed arbitrary rules on their followers: “eat this, don’t eat that; wear this, not that; wait until marriage to do this, don’t do that at all unless you’re procreating; don’t ever ever do THAT, ever; you may hate these people but not those“. Some, like the Catholic church, sought (and still seek) to impose their particular arbitrary rules on people who weren’t even Catholic! I hadn’t even heard about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition (except through Monty Python) or the Crusades just yet. In fact, I hadn’t heard that much about any of the religious idiocy and violence and hypocrisy that so offends my delicate sensibilities these days. Essentially, I had a small but growing suspicion that religions existed predominantly to further their own survival and would do just about anything to do so. In hindsight I wish I’d realised how Darwinian that seemed to me at the time and I wished I’d thought to point it out during some of those RE discussion groups.

Given my existing suspicion of religions, my distrust of self-imposed authority and my objections to restrictions with no real explanation (why the hell shouldn’t I eat what I want?) I asked myself: “It’s a great sounding phrase, but how exactly does religion mock humanity, Axl?” How indeed. Well, the moment you label every born human a hellbound sinner in need of salvation, you mock their entire existence. As soon as they come out of the womb, you’re essentially calling them worthless before they’ve even done anything or had sufficient time to form their own thoughts or decide their own actions. Noone chooses to be born and judging and labelling a person before they’ve even had a chance to employ the free will supposedly given them by a loving and wise god is the height of mockery. “You’re here, you’re mine, bow down or suffer eternally. Use the “free will” God gave you to make this choice! Hah!” It’s like creating an advanced AI robot just to hang it over a pool of molten steel and demand obedience on pain of instant destruction. How is that even close to a choice? Religion mocks humanity by giving us no real option but to believe then dresses it up as a perfectly legitimate and free choice. What rational person – or even irrational person who nonetheless has a strong self-preservation instinct – when faced with Heaven or Hell (and being unaware of any third possibility) would choose Hell? Religion mocks us by presenting bliss or doom and calling it a “choice”. US voters get a similar “choice” every four years.

At the very core of humanity is the fact that we’re aware of ourselves to a far greater degree than any other organism. We’re so aware we can sit around and think about what it even means to be self-aware and discuss it passionately, clumsily & drunkenly for hours. We’re able to think outside our own heads and empathise with others; we can think abstractly and forecast the likely result of a particular action; we can predict how an action will affect us. The human species is uniquely able to use its brain to, given time, define just about everything and invent just about anything. Religion may claim to provide solace, comfort and even Truth and Salvation, but along with its grand promises come endless catches about behaviour, clothing, food, sex, prayer, genital mutilation and even length and style of hair (cranial and elsewhere). Some rules seem so arbitrary and sexually lop-sided it’s almost as if they were imposed by a dominant patriarchy in order to codify & solidify existing rules, as yet unwritten, and attach to them the claim of Divine Order in order to make them (and their keepers) unassailable in thought, word or deed. Religion mocks our ability to make intelligent, reasoned decisions by essentially overruling them in advance with arbitray restrictions which we are simply expected to follow without question. Religion mocks our very nature by preventing & discouraging honest inquiry.

Humans have a freedom that no other species has: the freedom to think outside the confines of our own experience, our own species, our own planet, our own galaxy – even outside of what we have named “time” and “space”. Religion throughout history has consistently and constantly acted to protect its dogma and to protect its own primacy and in doing so has consistently stood in the way of such human inquiry (think Bruno, Copernicus, Galileo and, more recently, Biblical creationists falsely conflating Darwin and the rise of Nazi eugenics or attempting to smother evolution in schools with Intelligent Design, a blatant mockery of real science if ever there was one). Religion mocks our free will, our inquiring spirit and our intelligence. Religion mocks us by placing itself in an undeserved position of authority in every area of human endeavour and experience. Religion mocks each and every human alive by presuming to know Truths that cannot be known; advance ideas that can be neither proven nor disproven and protecting them and enforcing absolute adherence to them, usually through guilt and fear and occasionally through brutality. To claim that a god has given you your inquiring mind and your free will and then attached endless caveats, disclaimers, restrictions, threats, bribes and occasional actual physical violence to ensure your obedience and prevent from using that mind and that will mocks you, mocks me and every human alive. Indeed, this idea of bestowing upon us an invaluable gift and simultaneously preventing its use mocks the very concept of a benevolent God.

It was a simple line from a Guns N Roses song with an ironic name that started me thinking about what I considered my religion. It was this thinking process that led me to progress from unaffiliated Christian to vague deist and eventually to atheist. It was this initial teenage rebellion and distrust of entrenched authority that led me to ask questions of religion and to question religion itself, much the same way I questioned the authority of my teachers and the relevancy of what we were being taught, both in RE and generally. This line of Axl’s was the catalyst to a reaction that ended up dissolving my faith entirely. And now I mock religion. Eye for an eye, I guess.

Enjoy my catalyst.

[edited for clarity & grammar; not for brevity]