Saturday, June 8, 2013

'This is my church.'

My cousin Andy, who's a Pentecostal preacher, created this video that was played at my granny's funeral last week. (In the still shot below, my popaw and granny are the older couple sitting down on the brick front steps of their home in Hopewell, Virginia, toward the left. My mom is the woman with long blond hair sitting at the far right and holding me as a squirmy baby. The others are my aunts and uncles and older cousins. I think my dad was taking the photo.)


The video is similar to the one that Andy also created, using scanned-in photos that many of us e-mailed to him, for my popaw's funeral, around the end of 2011. I can't watch either of these videos without crying; seriously, tears are dripping down my face right now as I'm typing this because I just re-watched both of them. 


Both of these videos -- my granny's especially -- pay homage to the central role that religion played in their lives. (The song playing in my granny's video is "Give Me Jesus;" I Googled it just now to make sure I had the title right, and the beginning lyrics are: "In the morning, when I rise/In the morning, when I rise/In the morning, when I rise/Give me Jesus...") The videos are beautiful, moving, fitting tributes for each of their lives, and for their shared life together. 

 
My granny wrote this poem, which Andy read aloud at her funeral. It's called "My Eternal Home," and begins: 



"My dearest child, please don't shed
tears for me or be sad.
If you could see my new home I know
you would be glad.
It's just beautiful to see.
The River of Life, the evergreen tree
the walls of jasper, the gates of pearl,
it's so much more than I ever dreamed
of in the other world." 









* * * 

I'm an atheist. I've been an atheist since I was about 20, when I met my then-fiancé's atheist then- best friend, Tim, and started discussing religion with him via e-mail. I've gone into detail about this (de?)conversion before, in a number of places, including a piece I wrote several years ago called "Dissidence" that sums a lot up in its first line: "I'm the lone atheist in a devoutly religious family." I've pasted that essay below; it includes snippets from a short story of mine that, for several personal reasons, I've never published on my fiction site (however, I think the snippets work as illustrative vignettes in the essay, so I've left them in).

During my granny's funeral, I sat inside the South Hopewell Church of God and listened as Andy and my grandparents' preacher said things like, "Her one wish was for everyone in her family to have the close relationship with Jesus that she had." I listened as their preacher asked us all to bow our heads and close our eyes and repeat after him a promise to live our lives as much like good Christians as we could. I sat in a pew and watched my relatives' heads nod every time Andy or my grandparents' preacher said things about Granny and Popaw being in "a better place." 

And I felt a dim sort of shame for living a life that, if my family knew about it, would dismay them. I was also sad about the distance I felt from everybody else in that church except for my (also not religious) boyfriend, sadness at the knowledge that I have to remain unknowable to them in this major way. (Believe me, I've tried to broach the subject before with various members of my family, and it has never gone well. The closest I've gotten to "coming out" was passively allowing a few trusted family members -- my dad, a couple of more open-minded cousins, my compassionate and tolerant sister-in-law, my open-to-counterpoints brother-in-law -- to be able to view my Facebook settings enough to see that under "Religion" I have typed -- clear, unequivocal, unambiguous -- "Atheist.")

"Shame" is perhaps too strong a word; I don't actually feel bad about not having any religious beliefs. The way I see it, it's not a choice that I made -- it's just what I believe, or don't believe. The phrase "lost my faith" feels apt. I don't think I could believe again if I wanted to.

Along with the sadness I felt at the on-opposite-sides-of-an-uncrossable-chasm distance I felt from my family, they who truly believe that we'll have some kind of family reunion up in heaven, they who asked my granny on her deathbed: "Are you ready to go see Popaw?", they who joked with her about how they would have flying races with her as angels... I admit it: I felt something that can only be described as a sort of condescension. 

Yes, I know that's terrible. But as I looked around me at all the nodding heads, especially when their preacher said things along the lines of "Don't be sad; she's in a better place than we are right now, and I for one can't wait to join her" -- so help me, I wondered how anyone could believe that, how anyone couldn't see this as a soothing lie we tell ourselves in order to get through it, in order to be OK with loss. 

By the way, my sincere apologies to any of my religious friends who are reading this, and I wouldn't blame you for thinking that I might be just as myopic to assume that my view is the correct one. I also wouldn't blame you at all for thinking that my version of life is cold and bleak and soulless. I think all of that about my atheism sometimes, too. 

I want to believe that my granny and popaw are now in that place with "the evergreen tree/the walls of jasper, the gates of pearl." I want to believe that they are, as my mother said with tears in her eyes as we stood at my granny's open casket during the viewing at the funeral home, "together now, and they're young and they're perfect." But I just don't.

I don't equate religious belief with ignorance, and will argue with anyone who does. I loved and respected my granny and popaw more than I've loved and respected just about anyone, and I never looked down on them for their lack of formal education. If anything, I was impressed with what all they did in their lives despite how little they were able to attend school in their later childhood and adolescence. 

My granny had to leave school around the sixth grade, both because her grandmother became seriously sick and because my great-grandmother had just had yet another baby. My mom told me just today that my granny was so sad to leave school -- she was bright, and had even been skipped forward a grade when she was younger -- that she just left all her books right there in the school when she had to leave to take care of her family. 

My popaw only got as far as the third grade when his relatives and neighbors pressured him to leave school. The people around my popaw at that time seemed to have scoffed at the very notion of education, as if it were some pretentious, superfluous, frivolous thing -- someone actually said to my popaw: "Boy, you don't need no education to pull a crosscut saw." 

For these reasons, it pains me to say that I view religion -- or an over-strict adherence to it, at least -- as the antithesis of many of the values that are most important to me: open-mindedness, respect for science, the acknowledgment that the world is full of different cultures and belief systems and the one you grew up immersed in might not be right at all. I worry that this makes me sound elitist, that it sounds too much as if I'm saying "Religion is the opiate of the masses!" just like I read in my goddamn Marxism 101 book at the college that I was privileged to attend. 

I feel like a jerk for even typing the words "I'm an atheist" in a blog post that contains my granny and popaw's funeral videos. What greater insult, what greater heartbreak, could there possibly be for them than to know that their granddaughter not only didn't believe in God, but viewed religion of any kind as at best quaint and (my apologies to anyone reading this who isn't an atheist) almost childlike in many ways? 

I knew that I had to write this post, the "How I felt as an atheist at my devoutly Christian granny's funeral" post. I put off writing this post for a while, because I didn't know how or even whether I should write it. But then I thought of something during one of my lunchtime walks around Union Station this week, a tiny, seemingly trivial thing. 

I was thinking back on the obituary that I wrote for my granny, the template-style one that mirrored the one that I wrote for my popaw. I remembered that my granny had asked for her real first name -- "Lottie," a name given to my granny by her mom, a name my granny has always hated -- to be omitted. And my mom had asked me to remove her own (i.e., my mom's) middle name -- "Gayle," a name my mom dislikes so much that she has even sometimes misspelled it on forms as "Gail," a name given to her by her mom -- from the write-up, too. It's not entirely unlike my using my middle name (Lauryn) and my mom's maiden name (Mutter) for my fiction and for the nude and semi-nude photographs that I am proud to have appeared in. It's a tiny thing -- and yet it reassured me that sometimes we all, all three of us, have broken with tradition, have decided that names or (in my case only) religious beliefs handed down to us at birth were not right for us. 

I know that not liking a name is nothing like shrugging off an entire religion that still envelops your entire family, and has done so for hundreds of years. (And will continue to do so, as my cousins become Pentecostal preachers and form new youth-oriented church groups and enroll their children in private Christian schools.) But it gave me the notion that, as fervently as my granny clung to her conviction that there is a God and that Jesus is our savior and that one day she'll be reunited with my popaw in heaven -- that is how fervently I cling to my belief that this world, this lifetime, is all there is. 

It's enough for me, more than enough sometimes, despite the hard and bleak times. 

My friend Dag takes beautiful photographs of scenes that he encounters in nature. I remember his saying one time, of one awe-inducing natural place, "This is my church." And I knew what he meant -- not that particular place, but places like that one, and perhaps he might even extend that to encompass this place, this world, the good parts of it at least. 

And I agree with him -- this world is my church. 


Dissidence

I. One night I just stopped praying.

The topic came up after dinner one night. She was the only one who disagreed. They were talking about evolution and how you can’t believe in it and believe in the Bible at the same time. This was when she had said it.
“But maybe the Bible’s not true.”
Some of them had laughed. Her brother had grown tense; he had suspected her dissidence all along. Tamara had a look of silent suffering. Her mother had said, “You don’t really think that, do you?” with such anguish that she had backpedaled.
“I’m just saying it’s possible that it’s not true.”
Then they had all (except for her) talked of faith, of how God isn’t always clear because He wants to see who will believe in Him no matter what. Proof negated the need for faith, and faith was beautiful. Faith was unconditional, irrational love. The evening’s rough edge got smoothed out in this way.

I'm the lone atheist in a devoutly religious family.
Sometimes I try to figure out why it worked out that way. I was 20 when it happened, and in college. I had met a guy named Tim, whom I wound up dating for a decade. He was an atheist.

She had departed from the rest of them at some point in her college years when an atheist friend had made convincing arguments.

Tim was hyper-intelligent and well-read, an autodidact. His mind was like an encyclopedia. He had an especially good head for science, reading various scientific journals and even ordering college textbooks online to read for the pure pleasure of learning. He was the smartest person I had ever met.
He was also one of the kindest. He had a deep compassion for the small, powerless things of the world. He loved babies and animals. He sympathized with people who were poor or disadvantaged. He treated panhandlers with dignity and always gave them a little of whatever money he had on him.

When I met Tim, I was engaged to his best friend, Greg. The friendship between Tim and Greg was one of those tenuous and tense friendships based on shared history and habit. They knew each other from childhood, their parents lived in the same neighborhood, they both liked comics (although not the same ones), so, they hung out.

The three of us used to spend every Saturday together. Tim would pick us up in his car in the afternoon, and we would drive, going to dinner, going to comic shops and bookstores. Tim and Greg were at opposite ends of the political spectrum and often debated. Although Greg was conservative, he was no Fundamentalist Christian; Greg classified himself as agnostic and seemed to rarely think about the subject of religion enough to make a final determination of whether he was or wasn't religious. He lacked pity for the poor and disadvantaged; he seemed to disdain them. His advice for them (not that he ever associated with them) was: "Pick yourself up by your bootstraps." He disliked children and animals.

My relationship with Greg grew stressed as his behavior toward me turned possessive (perhaps he sensed my growing fondness for Tim), and as he became more alarmed by my increasingly liberal views. 

For a while I struggled to fit the image of the subservient wife he seemed to want me to become -- a woman like his mother who would get the mail then dutifully call Greg's dad at work to report what had arrived, a woman who was told what time to make the reservation for her own birthday dinner because her husband disliked crowds and wanted to get out early before other diners arrived, a woman whose husband said of her often, "Connie, you sure are a dingbat" -- but this role felt suffocating to me. Six months after he had proposed with a diamond ring, in the midst of talking about which church to hold the wedding in and whether to say yes to a kindly relative who had volunteered to make the cake, we broke up.

As I was growing apart from Greg, Tim and I had begun a passionate e-mail correspondence. We talked a lot about religion. He never tried to influence me, but he sent me information when I asked for it, because I was trying to be open to "the other side." He respected religious people--he idolized his late grandfather, a minister who had done social work in Third World countries and knew the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

In my opinion back then (and still, now, in a way), religion was the most important topic of all -- it encompasses your worldview, how you think we got here, what you think happens after we die, how we should live our lives. It encompasses everything. I wanted to make sure that what I thought I believed was really what I believed, not just what I'd been told to believe. I wanted to make sure these beliefs made sense to me, intellectually and emotionally. They had to feel right to me--but I couldn't be sure that they felt right until I truly examined my beliefs, why I had them, and whether they seemed to be the "most right" among all the beliefs (or lack of beliefs) out there.

Fascinated with human nature in that diffuse way that many young college students are, I minored in Sociology. In my classes we learned about foreign cultures and beliefs. I learned about how polytheistic (many gods) and monotheistic (one God) religions developed in different types of societies--often based on facts as terrestrial as whether the society was hunter-gatherer or had agriculture. At the same time that I was corresponding with Tim, I was thinking about religion in a new, global way, almost as a subject that you could slide beneath a microscope and analyze objectively, with corresponding predictable human behavior.  

Tim e-mailed me links to websites (notably, for me, The Skeptic's Annotated Bible) that laid out what the Bible said, translated and critiqued it, highlighting passages that were implausible or contradicted other sections of the Bible. I sat at my computer in my dorm room and I read these passages from the Bible, in their archaic, flowery, authoritative language. I read through the seemingly arbitrary rules, the tedious details of genealogy. I read passages about animal sacrifice for God in the old days, the prismatic accounts of the disciples writing about Jesus in the New Testament.

It was then that I realized -- I had never really read the Bible.

There was this text on which my entire faith was based. You could hold it in your hands. There was this book that was supposedly dictated by God Himself to writer-humans, containing sometimes-coded wisdom as well as rules to live by, directly from the Creator, in words that He had chosen. According to my Christian faith, it was supposed to be The Book--yet I, an avid reader since childhood, had never been able to even make it through Genesis before growing bored and moving on to something else. 

I remember times when I'd sit down with one of my Bibles, all of them gifts (I received a small petal-pink one with my name embossed on it when I was born, one for my 16th birthday, one for high-school graduation), those sanctified pages with gilded edges. Determined to read the Bible all the way through, I would stare at those first words, burning them into my brain, hoping for them to glimmer with hidden insights: "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth..." It always felt like homework, trudging through those leaden, antiquated words. They never moved me. Other things that I read moved me, but the Bible never did. Not once.

I had always figured that I was to blame for my laziness, my lack of discipline or short attention span, my preference for more "entertaining" reading material (I had read literally dozens of volumes in the Sweet Valley Twins and Babysitters' Club series; surely I could get through one volume of the Word of God). But was it my failing that I had never found the Bible to be relevant or resonant for me, or was it the Bible's? 

As I saw parts of the Bible repeatedly refuted and discredited by these websites and in Tim's e-mails, I began to think that the Bible was just a grand (but possibly well-meaning) hoax, a cobbled-together collection of folk tales and fables, an outdated square peg of a text that people were still trying to hammer into the round holes of their modern lives.

***

One night in college, I went to sleep without praying. It was the first time, since I had learned how to pray, that I didn't do so before going to sleep. I had been obsessive about it, superstitious--I never closed my eyes for the night without first saying a prayer.

That night in college was a sort of experiment. Tim and I had been exchanging many e-mails in which I found myself saying things like, "So you believe that after we die, that's just it? We just fade to black? How can you believe that?" and "So you believe that there's nothing watching over us, that nothing created all of this? How can you believe that?" I began to detect a theme in my own questions to Tim--the theme of believing something because I wanted to, because it was comforting. Tim, in his objective and unpushy manner, helped me see that I was misguided to believe something mostly because it was a nice thought.

The first night I went to sleep without praying, I lay in my loft-style bed in my dorm room in the dark. I thought, "I'll just try this out. I'll go without praying or believing in God for one night, one day, maybe two days..." I didn't expect to be struck by lightning, but I expected it to feel wrong. I expected my "big buddy in the sky" to regard the whole incident with a cocked eyebrow and maybe even a smirk, welcoming me back when I came to my senses.

It felt right. I slept soundly through the night. I never prayed again.

II. Micro rather than macro

And she wanted to believe. His beliefs were beautiful. She had wanted to believe that the man at the beach had loved her, that there had been a God in the raining sky. She wanted to believe that Pete would go to his small town to become its preacher and that, in doing so, he would be doing something noble, that he would save souls.
Who was to say it wasn't noble, or that he wouldn't save souls?
"Lord, touch the hearts of those without faith."
She opened her eyes.

I wanted to believe.

My family didn't go to church when I was growing up. A lot of this had to do with my mother's shyness and outright fear of many social situations, but also, I think that as a family we were maybe a little lazy, that we maybe just really liked sleeping in on Sundays. However, my mother is a passionately spiritual person. Her parents are Pentecostal, and we went to their church a few times a year, especially when we visited for Easter. The Pentecostal church services were lively, rapturous events in my childhood, complete with speaking in tongues (at least one person has done this at every service I have ever attended at their church) and revivals. I vividly remember attending one evening revival with my cousin Aimee when I was about 7 years old--the preacher was shouting about how bad hell was, and about how we were all born sinners. Aimee and I had cried and held each other, huddled beneath a pew.

But mostly the services were joyous, marked by the spasms and ululations of people so full of the Holy Spirit that they had to shout about it.

I didn't grow up fearing God. I viewed Him as my friend, and I prayed often. Despite the shouts from my grandparents' preacher about born sinners and the fires of hell, my version of God was mellow and understanding. He silently watched over all that I did but didn't interfere, sometimes watching my more mischievous moments with a bemused smile. My version of God had a sense of humor. He and I had private jokes.
  
***

My younger brother and sister and I grew up in a household in which our father worked a typical office schedule of 9 to 5 (and often later), and our mother stayed at home. My mother was always teaching us about God, about stories from the Bible, about how wonderful heaven would be. It was her beliefs that we were immersed in all the time.

My brother is three years younger and my sister is four years younger than I am. We grew up close to one another, went to the same schools, were surrounded by many of the same people. We're products of the same environment. 

My brother, an engineer with a bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech, is currently getting a master's in "Apologetics" from an online Christian college that's teaching him how to respond, armed with facts, to challenges to the Christian faith. My sister attends church regularly and wears a cross that contains bits of rubble from Jesus' tomb. My brother and sister are still mostly politically conservative like our parents. It seems to me that this might not be a coincidence; politically as well as religiously, my brother and sister remained where our parents are, but I was the one who strayed.

But why me? Why only me in my entire extended family, including grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins? I'm not the only one who went off to college, out of the Christian nest, and met atheists who presented convincing arguments.

Looking back, I chalk up my defection -- and my siblings' conservatism -- mostly to personality differences. I was always a little rebellious. I have long prided myself on my originality, going as far back as elementary school, maybe earlier. You could see it in little things--how I dressed to stand out from my classmates, the "Most Imaginative" class superlative and certificate that my second-grade teacher bestowed on me, my delight in spinning wild stories that were defiantly unlike anyone else's for creative-writing assignments. I have a personal history of associating "different" and "free-thinking" with "good."

This continued into high school. I credit a succession of particularly progressive English teachers for encouraging me to think critically and independently about any information or ideas that were presented to me. (Two of these teachers had graduated from Harvard; one was a man who had -- gasp! -- a ponytail and played the saxophone, and one was a vegetarian Zen Buddhist who later underwent surgery to transform from a man into a woman.)

But again--my brother and sister had the same teachers, those very ones who tried to teach us not to blindly accept ideas without questioning them and deciding for ourselves whether they seemed right.

The difference (or differences), I think, is more personal than anything else--micro rather than macro.

There's my brother, who has always been fiercely loyal and dutiful toward our parents and would defend whatever they told us was right. If I questioned an idea or belief that our mother had, my brother would fight her fight like a guard dog. I think that "duty" is a key word for describing my brother's orientation in life (he's probably an "SJ" in Myers-Briggs parlance). In college, he majored in engineering--not because he particularly liked the subject, at least at first, but because our father is an engineer. He seems to feel a strong compulsion to carry on family traditions, to honor the beliefs of our parents, whatever they are.

When I've raised doubts about religion with my brother, the undertone in his incredulous counter-arguments seems to say: How could you? This is what our family believes. Why are you betraying us?

And there's my sister, who makes many of her worldview-type decisions with her heart, not as much (I don't think) with her mind, or at least, not based on facts. She feels that there's a God out there. She's comforted by the fairy-tale beauty of the neatly packaged Bible lessons that our mother taught us, how the good are rewarded and the bad punished and all of it was planned by a kindly Creator.

When I've raised doubts with my sister (I have done this very rarely with her, and always delicately, as if to avoid waking her from a beautiful dream), she's seemed troubled by the suggestion that this poetic and just vision of life (and afterlife) might not be true. With her, it's less about duty and loyalty to family beliefs. If she were to lose her faith, her world as she knows it would crumble.

III. The Cool Factor
When it comes to how people view their own lives and shape their identities, there's a sort of "cool factor" that comes into play, as facile or People-magazine-article as that might sound. It's hokey as hell when you spell it out, but I think it's true -- people want to be cool, think of themselves as cool, be perceived as cool. I think this partly explains some of the momentum behind Barack Obama’s [first] presidential victory: He was popular, amiable, cool. He was someone for whom many people I know wanted to pull the lever.

And of course, what’s cool varies depending on whom you ask. My idea of cool doesn’t match that of my cousins who live in the rural South, attend church regularly, and listen to country and gospel music. Some of them would list NASCAR, Chick-Fil-A (and its implicit pro-"traditional family" stance), the “Reba” sit-com, pick-up trucks, and local college sports among the things in this world that are cool. In their communities—where family, town, school, and church overlap—there’s a more or less established game plan by which you’re supposed to live your life. You don’t necessarily have to graduate from or even attend college, but you are expected to marry, have children, and at least work toward owning a house. And you’re expected to go to church, or to at least have faith.

Meanwhile, I grew up outside a major city (Washington, DC), and have a starkly different definition of cool. A life that I think of as cool includes traveling around the world and engaging in creative, artistic endeavors. I like the idea of a “city” lifestyle with nights at music clubs and vibrant cultural diversity. I don’t personally aspire to own a house; indeed, I like the idea of freedom, of not being tied to one plot of land, of having the option to bounce from city to city, or even to a foreign country or two at some point in my lifetime. 

In my recent past, I've even liked the idea of being single and having fairly short-lived (as in, not "till death do us part"), passionate encounters with a succession of interesting men; this seemed exciting, somewhat tragically romantic, short-story fodder. (However, this glamorized version of single life probably came to me from the men I knew at that time, many of whom told me outright that they preferred this type of arrangement.) In other words: I was open to less-than-conventional relationships, ones that didn't follow the courtship-engagement-marriage-babies trajectory.

I do want some traditional things—I still secretly harbor the hope of finding my “soul mate,” and even of maybe someday having a baby. But for the most part, for now, what's cool to me is the idea of a somewhat solitary, intellectual existence, as opposed to one in which I’m shuffling children to soccer in a minivan, or attending my high school’s homecoming football game, or cooking brownies for the church bake-off.

For my rural cousins, God fits into their idea of a cool lifestyle. They have friends their age who go to church. They listen to country songs that are frequently about faith. My female relatives read novels from the “religious fiction” section of the bookstore (usually chaste historical romances), or books about the power of prayer. My cousins are steeped in religion, so it meshes seamlessly into their days. They want to lead “good, Christian” lives.

In my case, most of my friends—from high school on, especially—weren’t conspicuously religious, if they were religious at all. I knew lots of “cool” rebellious kids who were outspoken atheists, and who were almost always politically liberal. It was cool at my school to be p.c. and respectful toward the world's abundant cornucopia of religions. (This wasn't just feel-good bunk we were spewing. There was a Buddhist monastery across the street from my high school, and one afternoon my friends and I knocked on the door and a saffron-robed monk let us in and talked to us about their religion. He gave us these tiny, gold-painted Buddhas -- they looked sort of like Pez candies -- and told us to put them in a high place in our homes or rooms. I for one did just that, even though I was technically still a Christian at the time.) A lot of the writers and musicians whom I idolized were either skeptical or not religious at all.

But again—my siblings grew up outside of DC, too, and went to that same liberal high school with the Buddhist English teachers and the purple-haired atheist kids. So why are my brother and sister all Jesus-y and I'm not? 

If you were to zoom in and look closely at where my siblings and I fit in within that liberal, urbane high school, you’d see it.

You’d see my brother, the most popular kid in his class and quite possibly the entire school. You’d see him in the expensive preppy clothing; dating the pretty, smart girls; making the straight A’s; scoring three-pointers for the varsity basketball team. You’d see the enormous pressure he felt to be perfect, and how, instead of rebelling against everyone’s expectations—he strived to be the golden boy that his peers, his community, and his parents wanted him to be.

You’d see my sister, a pretty girl with a mild learning disability, a teenage model bullied by the jealous girls on her soccer team. You’d see her, too, striving to fit in rather than rebel, longing for acceptance. You’d see her finding solace in the gentle, unconditional love of a God who watched over her, a God who would someday hook her up with a loving Christian husband, a God who would one day take her by the hand and lead her into Heaven.

And you’d see me, all fired up at being challenged intellectually by my hippie English teachers (even as I was lax in nearly every other class), inspired by the punky rebellious kids with their rainbow hair and Absurdist humor. You’d see that while I perhaps wanted to “fit in” with people like that, the idea wasn’t to conform—the idea was to blaze your own path as an individual. The idea was to strive for the truth, for originality. The idea was to think for yourself.

IV. I'm a good person because I want to be one.

I have heard religious people say that atheists have flimsy morals. After all, we don't believe that anyone is watching up there. We're unsupervised. There are no cosmic consequences for our actions--no reward (heaven) for being good, no punishment (hell) for being bad.

For years, I've had ready comebacks for things like this: A truly good person will be good whether anyone is watching or not. I am a good person because I care about people, and because I don't like to hurt people--not because I'll be rewarded if I'm good and punished if I'm bad. It's that simple.

But despite the tidiness of these defenses, I might not ever be completely at peace with my atheism. There are moments when I struggle against a nihilistic undertow. It can be depressing to stop and think, "No one is watching over me. I am utterly alone. We are utterly alone in the universe. Whether I'm a good person or a bad person--when I die, I will just blink out. That's it. There's no heaven where my loved ones are waiting for me or will join me. When people die, they're just gone." It's no wonder most people choose to believe something else.

I think that the unpleasantness of these thoughts is at the heart of many people's resilient--sometimes ironclad--religious beliefs. Many people--most people, probably, when you look at the whole planet--have difficult lives; even those of us who are lucky have rough or painful moments and periods. For lots of people, religion is a balm and a lifeline. It gets them through. 

For this reason, I've never tried--and will never try--to take that away from someone. I'm happy to engage in friendly intellectual, philosophical debate, but I do so with respect and humility. 

In fact, often I tend to avoid using the word "atheist;" to me it sounds brash, confrontational (I will readily admit that this perception is irrational; perhaps it's merely the word's similarity to "anarchist" that I find grating). I usually prefer to simply say that I'm not religious. I don't think that's being evasive, although it can make it sound as if I have simply lapsed or stopped going to church. I guess "not religious" seems to me like a nicer, less offensive way to put it.

I don't want to take spirituality away from anyone, as long as no one's being hurt (or maimed, or killed, or disenfranchised...) in the name of religion. All I want is for people who are religious to regard me with the same respect, open-mindedness, and spirit of understanding that I have always tried to give to them, and will always give to them. 

* * * 

Sometimes I wish that I were wrong. I didn't become an atheist because some trauma happened in my life and I grew angry at God, or because I found the Biblical Christian God to be reprehensible. I loved the version of God that I had, the one I prayed to often. I miss him.

I didn't even primarily become an atheist because of scientifically erroneous information presented as facts in the Bible, or contradicting statements in it, or because of anything fact-based--although it's true that learning more about what the Bible actually said, and seeing its flaws pointed out for me, precipitated the skepticism that was the first step toward atheism for me. The Bible's apparent lack of fact-checkers raised an army of little red flags for me, it's true.

But in the end, I simply stopped believing because I stopped believing. I lost my faith.

What I gained, though, was an appreciation for the poignant chaos of this world -- a place that can be confoundingly random but wrenchingly, sometimes accidentally, beautiful. When I was religious, if a child died, I would think, "How could a good, wise, perfect God let things like this happen?" When I was religious, I would look at a sunset over the ocean, or a brilliantly star-studded sky, or a newborn baby, and think, "How can someone look at something this beautiful and not believe in something greater out there?"

Now I think that all of it -- misery and destruction, progress and joy; the majesty of mountains and oceans and comets and the miracle of breathing, thinking creatures that are alive and continue to be born; people who kill one another but also love one another and sometimes perform acts of surpassing altruism, in the name of religion or not -- happens on its own. There's no Creator; our world just does it by itself.  

She looked at the dead fish. There it was, the mortality of animals, the power of large over small, the inevitabilities of biology. Little cruelties that play out, beneath either a God who lets them happen, or no God at all.
She turned away toward the blissful distraction of the honeysuckle, emanating its scent humidly in the dark, intoxicating and sweet, and this, too, beneath a God who had bestowed it, or no God at all.
 

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