My mother and father couldn’t agree on where to have me christened. Neither one of them was especially religious but, like circumcision, baptism was one of those forms that parents in the 80s felt they had to honour. Mum was raised Methodist – had even been a Sunday school teacher – but after a crisis had abandoned her faith. Dad was raised Catholic, and though he still identifies as one it’s more for the form of the thing than any compelling felt reality. Both Mum and Dad had been married and divorced when they decided to marry, which made finding a venue for that event a challenge, too. Mum had inherited her father’s Freemason suspicion of Catholics: when she discovered that the Catholic Church would only marry them behind the altar, it confirmed her in her bias. Dad could not countenance being married in a Protestant church. In the end they settled on the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross – neutral, ecumenical ground. This too is where they had me christened. It took me some time to appreciate the way this placed me – broadly within the Christian tradition, but without a strong attachment to any one denomination. If I do not belong to any church, exactly, I am also free to learn from them all.

It’s hard to disentangle our experience of religion from our experience of family. Those who are religious generally encounter religion first through their families. Family is Christianity’s dominant metaphor. God is the Father, Christ the Son; Catholicism makes up for the patriarchal one-sidedness of this by emphasising the role of Mary the Mother. And though these relationships are intended as metaphor, it’s on this level that many of us experience religion. I’ve been struck by the mixture of hope and exasperation in the responses to the new Pope Francis: hope at the new notes he strikes in his rhetoric, exasperation at the bigoted attitudes he continues to endorse. It’s much like the adults who persist with the families that damaged them as children: unwilling (or unable) to swear off the relationship entirely, perceiving value and potential in their difficult relations. Religion marks you as surely and as permanently as does family.

When my parents separated I sided entirely with my mother. Mum had abandoned her faith after watching her grandmother die slowly and painfully: she could not square that protracted suffering with the existence of God. The end of my parents’ relationship had a similar effect on me: it so polluted the family metaphor that I wanted nothing more to do with it. My newfound atheism doubled as a handy way to mortify Dad. It upset him to think that his son was growing up Godless. As an eight-year-old, I took pleasure in the consternation I was causing him – felt it as a kind of power. It also struck me as a grave and momentous decision – the beginning of autonomy. When I ended up at an Anglican school, it became a point of pride to refuse to bow my head for prayer, to stand silent during hymns. I would not observe any form that I felt to be false. It made me stand out. It made me original.

If you take the Bible at its word, God is a terrible parent. When the human race is in its infancy, he responds to its first mistake not with rebuke or correction but with exile and permanent disfigurement. He sets one child over another. He orders a father to murder his son as a spiritual test. Again and again, God puts his offended sense of righteousness above love for his creation. This is the ugliness at the centre of the great Christian transaction: the way Christ is supposed to have died for our sins. If our offences are against God, then it is for God to forgive them: to require the death of his son for the sake of form – to balance the ledger – puts ceremony before feeling as surely as the murder of Iphigeneia on the altar at Aulis. As Patti Smith said, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” I repudiated that bargain.

Looking back, it’s clear to me how much my feelings about God the Father were bound up with my ambivalence about Dad. We continued to live in the same big house when Mum and Dad split up, but on very different terms. Dad kept Mum on as a paid housekeeper, and she moved into a smaller room at the other end of the house. The big house wasn’t ours: Mum was the housekeeper and I was the housekeeper’s son. Dad was home only infrequently, and in his comings and goings I saw the arbitrary will of God. His bedroom became a sort of shrine, hallowed ground that I visited quietly, looking for clues to the mysterious deity. In particular I loved his walk-in robe: the ranks of gleaming leather shoes, the different colours and fabrics of his suits. They were religious relics. If I could not have contact with him, then these things at least had touched him. It was the next best thing.

The religious impulse found expression in other ways. Even as I emphatically denied the existence of God, I fell in love with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, and with Aslan the lion especially. I loved the tactile relationship that the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had with Aslan: the way that Lucy ran her hands through his mane, the gentle understanding in his eyes and voice. With no idea that the books were intended as a Christian allegory – that Aslan was a Christ figure – I began to cultivate my own relationship to Aslan, to pray to him. Even when I had most consciously struck out from God, I found my way back to him in fiction.