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Being there

I remember standing in the pulpit of an Oxford church, reading a passage from the New Testament in my 9 year-old voice, while my classmates laughed as I mispronounced the names and stumbled over the places. I had never really read the Bible, although I'd had little pieces of it read to me at school. I was gamely trying, but intention was worthless. I wasn't a part of the club. I didn't go to church every Sunday; I didn't learn Bible stories at home; and worst of all, I didn't believe.

Unlike the US, where separation of church and state is enshrined in law, Britain is still a Christian country. Some of the schools - in fact, for most of my school career, the best schools - are cofunded with the Church of England. Anybody from any faith (or in my case, no faith) can attend for free, just as they can at a secular state school. But make no mistake: hymns will be sung and Bible lessons will be told.

In truth, I found it kind of fun. They're fascinating stories, after all. Somewhere there's footage of me singing in a choir as part of Songs of Praise, the BBC's weekly celebration of Christian faith. I can also report that at my school they took great care to teach us about all major faiths without prejudice, and we visited mosques, synagogues, and temples.

Of course, it was Christianity, rather than any other religion, that we were surrounded with every day. To this day, I can probably recite six or seven childrens' songs about Jesus, and in doing so, recall the smell of the varnished wood in the school hall and the feeling of my crossed legs slowly going numb. I remember coming home and earnestly telling my mother that "the Bible isn't just one book; it's a whole library". There was certainly a division between the kids who went to church in their own time - who were actually a part of the culture imparted by the school - and those of us who were tourists.

I don't believe it did me harm - nor did I actually realize until I was a much older child that people believed these stories were true - but I also don't think these schools should exist. I have nothing against religion or people who believe in it, but I do believe in the American idea that church and state should not mix. Should I have children, I would not bring them up in a religious context at all.

Still, I would make sure they understood religion, and could make their own decisions for themselves when they were older. I came away with a real appreciation for the community that people build through faith. It provides a kind of social glue, and a safety net. I'm not a believer, and I have serious problems with religion's imperative to unquestioningly accept what you're told, but I appreciate and envy those things. I can also see that there's great comfort in the concept of an afterlife.

For me, there's nothing after you die. Consciousness fades to black, your body decomposes, and its component chemicals find its way back into the ground. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust; a transient sentience returned to the whole of the earth except as memories held by the transiently sentient beings whose lives you were lucky enough to touch.

My sister, who is cut from the same ideological cloth but with far greater creativity, turned this idea into a song. Our mother has asked that it be played at her funeral.

For the last month, I've spent a lot of my time at the hospital, at my mother's side. It's serious. I've been privilege to be able to be there and spend time with her; we've all come together to support her, which I think says wonderful things about my immediate family. There have been operations and blood transfusions and scary, touch-and-go moments. And there have been stories and laughter and shared memories.

It's hard for me to think of much else. My concentration is shot. I can feel the cortisol in my limbs. It's been one of the hardest periods of my life.

And I find myself wishing that I believed. For the comforting idea of the afterlife, sure, but also for the community that belief can bring you. A sense of belonging outside of a family structure. A sense that someone is looking out for you.

Those things aren't enough for me to believe in themselves: there's no deity or magic in my worldview. And I'm fully aware that for many people, particularly in vulnerable communities, a church is not at all a comforting space, and organized religion can often be a safe haven for bigotry. So I'm not missing a church as such. But I do feel a need for more connectedness, and for some kind of safety.

Really, I wish I could wave a magic wand and have everyone I love be healthy again, and have life go back to normal, and enjoy their company forever, and go about doing all the things that normal people do. I wish I could call on a supernatural power to fix everything. Instead, all I can do - the very most that's in my power - is be present, try to comfort, and remember.