I was brought up in Christchurch New Zealand by very loving and caring parents but they were in a very fundamentalist so called 'christian' church known as the Exclusive Brethren and exclusive it was. We had no radio, no TV, no friends from school home to play, we couldn't have a meal with anyone outside the church. It was as a consequence a VERY close knit community. Life in the church is total commitment – a church service each day and 5 times on Sunday. I grew up believing in the truth of their doctrines and arguing with anyone the justification of their 'Truth'. The effect of all this was for me to erect a psychological wall around me to ward 'outsiders' off. I have battled with that all my life.
I always did well at school and wanted to go to university but universities were frowned on as the source of many evil ideas. They (the elders and my parents) finally allowed me to go as long as I took a practical course like engineering. My inclinations were science and mathematics.
I was able to commence the engineering degree at year 2 as a result of Scholarship exams I sat during the last high school year. I ended up doing years 2 and 3 of the engineering degree then changing over to an honours course in mathematics and even threw in some philosophy for interest. I still however believed in the rightness of what I had been taught.
After finishing university at 20, I started work at a software services company commencing as a programmer. This job quickly moved from programming to systems design and I was asked to move to Wellington in New Zealand to assist with their new branch operation and help in the development of new systems for the insurance industry. This led me to some decisions as the Brethren do not move from city to city. The only way then to move city was when you got married. I had been interested in this girl who was a friend of my brother’s wife. She was in Auckland about 1000km from Christchurch. I decided to move things forward and visited Auckland while making my interest known. At first she was slow to respond since she had only recently been in a relationship that did not work out. After about 6 months courting she decided that I was the right one for her (I knew this all along of course).
After our engagement I moved to Wellington and boarded with some relatives. I worked hard at the new job but also looked around for land or a house to live in. In the end we decided to rent for a few months. I married about 6 months later at 21. She was my first love and a very deep love. We had a son about 18 months later. We bought a house 6 months after our son was born.
Over the next few years the brethren went through a number of crises. Power struggles within a very close and tightly controlled community erupted and I found I was losing my faith in their teachings. They were talking the talk but not walking the walk.
I shared some of my feelings with my wife but carefully. She too had become somewhat disillusioned. After several months of discussion and personal soul searching I found I had totally changed direction in relation to the Exclusive Brethren beliefs. Their exclusiveness was a form of self righteous snobbery which I now found abhorrent. My wife went along with me but not with the same conviction. Finally we agreed to hand in our resignation. This was a drastic step. It meant cutting ourselves off from our parents and family from both sides. Any one who leaves the church is considered worse than the worst outside the church and there is absolutely no contact allowed.
After our decision and conveying it to the elders all hell broke loose. I had been actively involved in the church including preaching and leading. While I was at work during the day many, including my wife's family, came and visited her to get her to change her mind. I did not realise how effective this was going to be. A month later she told me she could not leave the Brethren. I told her I could no longer believe in their teachings and it would be untenable for me to return. It was either all or nothing.
I agonised over the decision for several weeks. I would go out at night and walk to think about the situation and often would not return until 3 in the morning. Could I go back now after I had stated my new beliefs. She was now as firm as ever about staying in. I knew if I left the church she would leave me no matter how much we loved each other - it has enormous hold over people. During this time me wife thought I had found someone else and was visiting her. No! I was only trying to work out what I should do and if I could accept the consequences.
I made the decision - I couldn't return. The church elders visited me one final time to try and get me to change my mind. I remember the gut wrenching fear as I said to them a final NO. They asked me to attend the ‘Assembly meeting’ which would decide my fate. I would be there in front of several hundred of them including my wife, friends and relations and I knew the pressure they would exert to get me to recant. I felt I could not go, the pressure would be too much to bear. They formally excommunicated me on a Tuesday night in June 1973. That night my wife came home from the meeting and we made love for what would be the last time - we were both in tears.
The next day she left to stay with her family.
I was alone.
More alone than I had been in all my life. I lived on in our house for a while but it was too painful to live there and my wife wanted her share so I put it on the market and sold it. She had come from Auckland so she went back to her parents. I move into an apartment in Wellington for a while and started to learn what life was like outside of the brethren - my first movie, my first live music performance, my first party. I learnt fast, in fact swung to the opposite extreme for a while. I couldn't decide what to do - go to Auckland to be close to my son or move back to Christchurch where I knew a few people outside the church.
I found I couldn’t work effectively during all of this dramatic period, but hoped I could become effective again after the break from the church. I found, however, I couldn’t motivate myself at all and eventually decided to resign from my job and have a complete break. I moved back to Christchurch, rented a house and took a job labouring for a road construction company. I needed a break from the intellectual although I intended to continue with a Masters degree the following year. After renting a house I shared it with a cousin and 2 others. After getting a job for my cousin at the company where I worked (he is a qualified builder) the owner asked us if we would like to stay in his holiday house in the Marlborough Sounds and renovate the place over a 6 week period. This fitted in fine with my plans to go back to university in March so off we went. Only accessible by boat and having free and full use of all the facilities it was like a touch of paradise. We would start work at 6am, break at 11am and then go water skiing and swimming with the dolphins - there are quite a few in the Sounds. At 3pm we would recommence work until 6pm. Then a shower and into the motor boat for the trip over to Picton for dinner and a few drinks at the pub. Life was somewhat different to my former life in the church.
March arrived and it was time to say goodbye to the Marlborough Sounds and move back to Christchurch. I had decided to go full time at university but needed to earn money to support myself and provide for the maintenance payments I was making to my wife. I obtained a night shift job at a cable making factory next door to the house we rented. I worked there from 11pm to 7am, slept for 2 hours, went to lectures and did assignments from 9am to 6pm and then slept until 10:30. After 3 months of this I had had enough.
I had been thinking about what I could do to try and get my wife to change her mind and leave the Brethren. I missed my son enormously and felt I was missing out on so much of his developmental years, so I had another change of direction and moved to Auckland. It was a year after our separation.
After making contact with some distant relations of my fathers who had left the church many years before, I found accommodation with a community home where they took in waifs and strays like me. This was ideal, as I could have my son over every second weekend in a normal family setting. My wife was still strongly committed to the church and would not budge although many of our talks were pretty tearful as we both still strongly loved each other.
It was while in Auckland that I went through my next religious phase (looking back I was like a pendulum for a while) and joined an all singing, all dancing, praise the lord Pentecostal church.
During the next year I did all I could to convince my wife to leave. I even fasted for 10 days (only water) in order to (I don't know how) add weight to my efforts at persuasion.
About 18 months after leaving the Brethren, my brother and his wife left the church. I was delighted and I flew down to Christchurch and on to Timaru where they lived to visit with them. It was so fantastic since I had not been able to speak with my parents or my only brother since I left the church. After I had left the church with the consequent rupture to my marriage, they apparently vowed to each other that if either one left the church the other would leave with them. They had seen how devastated my wife had been.
Toward the end of the second year apart I was giving up all hope of getting back together again with my wife and went out a couple of times with a young lady and we seemed to connect quite well. I felt guilty though about my wife and decided I needed to have one last attempt at reconciliation before giving up completely. I knew that she had gone to visit her sister in Dunedin because I had to miss having my son on one of my scheduled weekends. If there was any chance of influencing my wife it was while she was away from her parents so I decided to fly to Dunedin and talk to her there. After deciding this I was sitting in a park and contemplating what I should do when I had this vision of my wife in Timaru hospital with my mother (my parents had moved there soon after I left home). The vision was so vivid it shocked me and I immediately changed my plans from flying direct to Dunedin to go via Christchurch and Timaru where my brother lived also.
On arriving in Christchurch by plane I rang friends who had left the church many years before. They asked if I had heard the news. No! I had heard nothing! My wife was seriously ill in hospital! She had travelled by train from Dunedin to Timaru and collapsed with a severe headache just before she arrived. I was dumbfounded, especially after seeing that vision. She had suffered an aneurism. I travelled on to Timaru and visited the hospital. At this stage she was recovering and could converse, so we had a long talk. She was still convinced of the rightness of her path.
I picked up my son from my parents (the first time I had seen them since I left) and took him to my brothers. My wife’s parents arrived from Auckland, rang me and insisted that I bring my son back to them. I refused and told them I would look after him while my wife was ill. She knew he would be looked after well and he had his cousins only a year or two older to play with. The next day my wife's father appeared in my brothers backyard unannounced, grabbed my son and started to leave. My brother wife screamed out to me and I managed to get to the gate and block his way out. I refused to let him out until he gave me my son. Finally he relented and left. That afternoon I went to court and brought a restraining order against them and temporary custody of my son until my wife recovered.
Her parents then brought a doctor, from within the church, down from Auckland to Timaru and had my wife discharged from hospital and flown to Auckland. The doctor treating her was horrified but could do nothing as she was lucid and confirmed that it was what she wished. Within an hour of arriving in Auckland she had another severe attack and lapsed into a deep coma. I knew she had left Tinaru but did not know what had happened. I flew back to Auckland with my son two days later. I found out she was in the main Auckland hospital by ringing the hospital and it was only when I took my son in to visit her the next day that the hospital told me what had happened. I spent that night at her bedside and she died peacefully the next morning at sunrise.
The Brethren had a funeral service for my wife the following day. They had security guards and dogs at the gates so I couldn't attend. At the cemetery they formed a ring around the grave so that I with my son in my arms couldn't get near. In fact they physically shouldered us away when I tried to get to the graveside. As soon as they had dedicated the body a front end loader came through their ranks and filled up the grave. It was unbelievable. I left the cemetery, waited until they were gone then came back and placed a rose on the grave site as my last farewell.
I now had to adapt to looking after a 3 1/2 year old child and accept the fact of my wife’s death.
I mentioned that I had gone out a couple of times with a young lady. We now started renewing our relationship, she had a 8 year old son, but had never been married, I had a young son and felt I needed help in bringing him up. Six months later we married at the strong encouragement of the house parents of the community in which we both lived. I have often asked myself why I married so quickly again but a lot of it had to do with caring for my son. My second wife took on my son as a real mother and he gradually recovered from the loss of his mother although it was hard for him.
After about a year we got a notice to say that my first wife's parents were going to apply for custody of my son. I had been considering a job opportunity in Australia so we talked to a lawyer who said ‘Go anyway. They won't follow you over there’ (famous last words). We decided to go. My new wife was 3 months pregnant when we moved to Melbourne. I had organised a job and we settled into a job and home there. My wife’s son and mine got on very well and had both settled well into school. Four months later I was served a subpoena to attend the supreme court in Melbourne to force me to bring my son back to New Zealand for a custody hearing. I challenged their application and employed a solicitor and barrister. When the case was heard they had a QC, Galbally (considered the top barrister in Australia), as their barrister. We lost the case to have the custody heard in Australia and the judge awarded my first wife’s parents temporary custody until the case was heard in New Zealand. I was devastated.
The case in NZ came up in about a month in their county court. I went over about 2 weeks before the case and mustered the best barrister I could afford and witnesses who had been in the Brethren from all over the country. My brother came up from Timaru and we got an affidavit from my first wife's doctor in Timaru that was scathingly critical of what they had done. The grandparents however had engaged the top QC in New Zealand.
The case went for 10 days and in the end the judge asked me how much time I was prepared to let my son spend with his grandparents each year. I said I would be happy with 2 weeks but they had to be separate weeks because of the influence they bring to bear. That is precisely what he granted with the grandparents having to pay all expenses to accompany my son between Melbourne and Auckland twice a year for a week each time. The grandparents immediately appealed to the supreme court and it was to be heard in two weeks. I went home to Melbourne and arrived the night before the birth of what was now my third son.
Ten days later I was back in Auckland preparing for the supreme court case. We did not need to bring any more witnesses but they asked to introduce a new one - my father. I was interrogated by their QC in the witness box and in that session I lost all respect for lawyers. He quoted what I had said in the lower court case and then gave another quote which completely contradicted the first quote. He then accused me of lying. I was silent, I tried to recall saying the first quote and knew I could never have said it or it was out of context so I said 'you obviously have the transcript with you, please read out the section in which I said that first quote because I cannot recall ever saying it or it related to something else'. He changed the subject.
It happened again two more times except I was wise to him this time and asked for the transcript to be read as soon as he asked me the question. Again the subject was changed. Then my father took the stand and in his best ‘preaching’ voice told how I had deserted the faith I had been brought up in, now lived a life of sin and debauchery and was not fit to be a father to my son. I told the judge I was happily married with an elder brother to my son and a newly born young brother. The net result was an unchanged judgement except that the two separate weeks became one visit each year.
Upon returning home to Melbourne with my son I found I had lost my job because I had been away so long. I worked out that the total cost (and I had to pay for the legal costs for both parties after the Australian case) was $20,000. I was broke but the one pervading sense at the time was that I was free. Free of the past, free to live my life with my family, free to be me. It was the end of an era in my life and the beginning of a new era.
My beliefs in god and religion had changed significantly and were still changing.
The god I was brought up to believe in was legalistic, judgemental and humourless. I had peeled away that version of god ( as with an onion) and now there was still a belief in a god, but one that was far less judgemental and less personal.
Over the course of the next 5 years, as I examined critically my beliefs, more layers peeled off and the concept of god became of less and less significance. The next major change was an understanding that god would not interact personally with the universe if it had created it. If rules had been created for it to exist, any breakdown in these rules would contradict the basis upon which it was existed and would inevitably lead to the collapse of that universe.
This then left the question of intelligent design. Could the universe have been created by a highly developed intelligence. There is no answer to that except that there is no tangible evidence of it. In our experience, every artist (creator) leaves some marker which identifies the creator. At this point of time in our knowledge of the universe there is no such marker.
This led, finally, to the last core of the onion being removed – nothing was left – only the fact that the universe exists and life exists. As humans we are no more or less than the rest of life. We are a species which has the cognitive abilities to think about the past and wonder about the future. We may be the only species on planet earth to have these abilities but there could be many such species in the universe.
My belief now is that the essence of our existence is to ensure the survival of our species. We had a tribal past and survived by caring and sharing with the family and tribe. Now, however, with the enormous expansion in the human population localised tribal rivalry with advanced technological skills is too dangerous for the human race and we need to bring all of humanity as think as one tribe.
I guess that my life and personal experience has made me realise how little I know and how much more there is to find out. There is much philosophy I can talk about over many glasses of wine and increasingly I feel how unimportant I am yet how important it is for each of us to add what we can to improve the lot of all human kind.
Atheist Exit Counselling Support Australia