As these things go, I had a pretty good mid-life crisis. Not that I enjoyed it at the time but, like a long run in the rain, or open-heart surgery, I felt the benefit afterwards.
Looking back, I don't think I chose to have a mid-life crisis, it was more that it chose to have me. That's probably always the way. I mean, I didn't ask my wife to leave; I didn't expect to lose my job; and I didn't want to sell our beautiful family home or give away over half my assets, all within a 12-month period. I'd had better years, to be sure.
Oh, and God. I lost him, too. This is beginning to look more like carelessness than misfortune, isn't it?
At the risk of making this sound like a watered-down version of the story of Job, I have to say that life was pretty sweet for me before it all went horribly wrong. I was earning a six-figure salary doing an interesting and challenging job that I enjoyed; our two children were progressing well through the senior levels of a highly-rated, local private school; we lived in a sumptuously refurbished Edwardian house on the south coast of England; and we were healthy and happy. What could possibly go wrong?
To some extent, the blame has to be laid at God's door. It was his fault for tricking me into thinking he was real and then slowly revealing to me that he wasn't. I had given my heart to Jesus as a thoughtful 16-year-old and, in exchange, he gave me girlfriends. It seemed like a good deal at the time. To be honest, I loved it, and my Christian faith went from strength to strength. At University I became President of the Christian Union and, after graduating, fell in love with a beautiful, lively young woman from my church. We married when I was just 22 (Christians marry young, to legitimise sex!); we ran the church youth group and started a family.
Now, evangelical Christianity makes fabulous, outrageous promises, the most fabulous and most outrageous of which is that you can have a real, personal relationship with Jesus. Imagine that! Access to the creator of the heavens, the ear of the Lord of the Universe! How I wanted that to be true!
I was a Christian for 25 years. In that period, I believed some of it for some of the time. I probably never believed all of it; I don't think any Christians do, in reality, other than those who habitually blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.
My faith gradually declined until in the few years leading up to my Big Surprise - the mid-life crisis - my spiritual life was more or less flat-lining. I had assumed, wrongly as it happened, that my wife's view of our religion was similar to mine: nice idea, shame about the reality. Frustrated by my evident lack of spiritual leadership, she lurched into a frenzied search for God, desperate to prove that the Supreme Being she had believed in all her life could be found. There are always people willing to help those who identify themselves as seekers of the Divine.
She was right, of course, I wasn't showing any spiritual leadership. Stung by her justified criticism, and eager to prove myself better than any self-serving charlatan, I threw myself into my own search. I dusted down the Bible and pored over its extraordinary pages. But the enigmatic Jesus who had seduced me in my youth could not be found, and the questions of a quarter of a century of Christian malpractice could not be silenced. So, I looked elsewhere, to the four horsemen of the apocalypse - Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris - and, as happened to Saul (later the Apostle Paul) the scales fell from my eyes. I finally had to face the truth; in all probability, Jesus and his dad were dead.
Consequently, God and I parted company. It was amicable enough; there didn't seem to be any hard feelings on either side, although I was a little disappointed that he hadn't put up more of a fight to try to keep me. I'd given him the best years of my life; but he allowed me to slink away without even a goodbye kiss (mind you, we all know what happened to the last guy that planted a kiss on the holy cheek).
The fall-out from my marriage crisis was not so easy to deal with. In truth, my rejection of faith got emotionally entangled with my domestic break down and, for a while, I became forcefully evangelical about my new beliefs. There was probably some collateral damage to a few of my relationships - friends and family - and I regret that. Some of my fundamentalist Christian friends interpreted this as anger towards God, but it was never that; I could not be angry with God for not existing any more than I could be angry with Santa Claus for not delivering Christmas presents.
In an attempt to channel my misery into something positive I started to write. This was actually my wife's idea and it proved to be a godsend! I had never written creatively before so I took a couple of courses with the Open College of the Arts and produced, along with some instantly forgettable poetry, a quirky and amusing short story about a pub quiz in heaven with Jesus as a the quiz master. I don't know where that idea came from - a gift from above perhaps! - but I knew I wanted to develop it.
For a long while I had struggled with virtually all of the implications of the Christian fundamentalist view of the Afterlife. I had so many unanswered questions, not just about the food and the weather and the toilets, but more importantly, about the mental state of anyone who found themselves worshipping a Creator who had seen fit to condemn the majority of our species to damnation for all time. It was out of these musings that my debut novel, A Brief Eternity, was born; a satirical parody which, I hope, gets people to laugh and nudges them to think. The good people who run the Dundee International Book Prize must have thought it acquitted itself reasonably well in that regard, as they shortlisted it for their award.
It took me three years to write A Brief Eternity and another two to find a publisher. It probably took another six months to admit that it had been a cathartic experience; my abhorrence of clichés made me deny that for a long time! But, the truth is, I get much less worked up now about religious argument. I still enjoy a good debate, of course, but I'm less vexed about it now. There are more important things than winning an argument, after all, and these days I'm more interested in trying to out-nice my nice Christian friends!
I'm sometime asked if I miss anything from my old Christian life. Although I needed a few years to detox my mind from the turgid boredom of evangelical churches, I do find that I miss the singing of those old Victorian hymns, filled as they were with emotional melody and lachrymose pathos. Churches provide community, too, and when I moved from Southampton, where I had lived for more than three decades, to London, I knew that had I still been a Christian I could have walked into any church and found there a home of sorts. Happily, I discovered the Sunday Assembly instead; a godless congregation that celebrates life and seeks to Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More. They sing pop songs rather than hymns, they don't do religion, and they are never boring! I suppose it's true that all congregations are godless, but the Sunday Assembly admits as much. It feels a bit like church sometimes, but a lot more honest.
I'm the other side of my mid-life crisis now. I lost a wife, a job, a home and God. But I have a new job and a new home, and a lot of new friends. I have a book on my bookshelf with my name on the spine. I am happy. Life is sweet, even if it is no longer eternal. What could possibly go wrong?
Paul Beaumont is the author of A Brief Eternity, published by Dangerous Little Books.