This page in brief
Phil Hemsley was not brought up to be a christian. He thought science had disproved God, and religion was a delusion, a crutch for weak people. He lived until he was 40 with these views. But then, slowly but unexpectedly, he changed his mind.
Here Phil tells his own story and his own journey.
An irreligious upbringing
When I was a child, I wasn’t taught about God. I did have RE (religious education), which told me lots of incredible (i.e. not credible) stories. These strengthened my slowly developing idea that religion was just a crutch that simple people needed in difficult circumstances; a delusion to help them cope.
I knew that science had disproved God, and that the idea of worshiping something supernatural was outdated. So at about the age of 14, I and some friends decided to ‘worship’ the ‘Lord High Tiggywinkle’ who lived in the fire extinguisher outside our classroom. Every time we passed we would say ‘Hail to Lord High Tiggywinkle’.
I only passed my RE O-level by skiving off school the day before and reading the gospels to cram with the stories. I was so confident that all religion was rubbish that I stopped entering into serious discussion with Christians, I knew that I could disprove their ideas but since they must need the emotional crutch I didn’t want to take that away from them.
So for over twenty years I never had a serious discussion about God, my life was generally fine and comfortable and I had no need or desire to find out about God.
There was a very difficult time when my father was dying of prostate cancer, and when my wife and I lost our first child, who died at birth. I wept, but dealt with it myself and with the help of my wife. I didn’t have or know any God to help me. I didn’t miss him.
How did I come to change my mind?
Some years later I made the mistake of joining in a discussion around our kitchen table about why people weren’t attracted to church, and started to explain why not. They listened, but my open-mindedness was challenged. I was challenged by a christian friend to wonder why otherwise sane people seemed happy to believe in a God, and to explore whether there was actually any sense behind this Christianity business. And to do that properly I had to at least accept that there was a possibility that it might be correct, rather than just trying to pick holes in it.
I had to admit that I didn’t really know what Christianity was, I’d only seen the cringe-worthy outside view – the street preacher telling me I was going to hell, the ‘songs of praise’ slot, the open sandals and tambourines.
Checking the facts
So I started as best I could to find out if there was anything behind the awful image, and the friend from the discussion leant me a book, ‘Beyond Belief’, which gave me an introduction to Christianity. I thought that I’d start to write the counter argument, and that began a process of reading and analysing different books, eventually reading the gospels (I felt that the Old Testament is much more likely to be myth, and not the place to start), and really thinking about what my outlook on life was, and writing a ‘real time’ journal of my investigations.
I decided science can’t prove that there isn’t a God, nor that there is. Science and the existence of a God can co-exist. However, an individual’s belief must therefore be based on a balance of probability, of personal experience, and of how one feels.
I questioned lots of things about the church – being dictated to by a hierarchy of ’wise old men’ (the pope, the bishops) and by years of tradition; the emphasis on worship rather than morality – and I had questions about prayer.
I thought about the amount of evil in the world, but realised that without both evil and good we would have no choice which to be. The existence of evil says nothing about whether God exists or not.
Gandhi and Jesus
I think it’s fair to say that the guy Jesus touched my heart. Someone who goes to the trouble of allowing himself to be nailed to a cross at least deserves a hearing, and I found that he came across as a pretty decent chap. I especially appreciated his insistence that we don’t judge others and his emphasis on forgiveness. I began to wonder why today everyone seemed to dislike him. Perhaps it was as Gandhi said
I like your Christ, I don’t like your Christians.
So there began an attraction to Jesus, but I needed to know whether there was any factual basis too. I was surprised to find that there was a lot of archaeological evidence for what was written in the bible, and I came across a reasonable sounding scientific explanation for the plagues of Egypt.
I found it impossible to doubt that Jesus’ tomb was empty a few days after he was crucified, and it seemed clear that neither side could have taken the body – it just didn’t match their behaviour or subsequent events. I came from a background of ‘miracles don’t happen’ and so this was quite a challenge. But I began to realise that if God created everything then he could do what he liked – like a computer programmer who planted an ‘easter egg’ in Excel for instance.
Time to decide
Eventually in my journal I asked myself the question
so what have I decided? It was time to get off the fence. So I wrote that I would ‘give God a chance’. And at that moment it seemed like a great weight had lifted off me, and I felt an overwhelming experience of ‘coming home’. The process had taken something like a year.
Beyond the intellectual stalemate
For forty years I had built a consistent worldview from the atheist/agnostic side of the fence, and since 2001 I have built a consistent worldview from the Christian side of the fence. I can see that both are ‘intellectually’ possible and consistent, but at the end of the day my heart knows and my mind sees that there is a creator, and that Jesus is central. I enter the arena of science and religion, god or atheism, not to win arguments, but because I long for others to be able to have the same experience that I’ve had.