so last night, bill nye debated the creator of the “creation museum,” whatever kind of foolishness that is, regarding evolution vs. creationism. i go back and forth on whether or not this was an awesome display of the power of the mind over braindead slavishness to a fairy-story view of the world, or whether it was an exercise in futility because no one involved will ever switch sides. but every time someone eloquently advocates for logic and reason over mysticism and delusion, i am happy.
i am an atheist. an out-in-the-open, full-on, will-bring-it-up-as-small-talk atheist. i am not a polemicist, usually; i am way more hemant mehta than i am sam harris. but i read atheist blogs. i attended the reason rally two years back when it happened and was OVERJOYED to be in a happy, welcoming crew of fellow non-believers. i am married to a non-believer as well, and we are planning to raise our future progeny in a big ol’ warm friendly atheist family.
i was not always like this. once, in high school, a friend of my mom’s encouraged me to think about starting a free-thinker club in high school. the kids at my high school were pretty noncommittal on such things – they were either protestant-ish or catholic-ish, unless they were part of the super-christian clique. but unlike a lot of stereotypical bible-belt cliches, even the christian kids weren’t super-dominating. it was easy to breathe. but it might’ve also been easy to breathe because, aside from refusing to say “under god” as part of the pledge, i didn’t ruffle feathers on the religion thing. (i rabble-roused against things like the dress code instead.)
when i met my ex-husband in college, he was a good little hippie-granola indigo-girls-style episcopalian. he carried a small metal cross in his pocket, for the love of god. (ha.) when we got together, he was still very interested in christianity. four weeks or so before we all moved into our dorms, he had completed a summer of camp-counseling at a sleepaway hippie-granola episcopalian camp at which many choruses of “michael row your boat ashore” and whatnot were sung. so when he went to the christian group at school, i said, what the hell, i’ll go too. it appears to be important to him.
["it's important to the man in my life, so i'll try to learn to like it" is a central tenet of my life as a partner to the various boys and men i've partnered with. i believe that learning to pleasantly tolerate things that are major-league important to your partner is vital to at least try to do in order to ensure a healthy relationship. we'll unpack it another time, but just go with it for now. but i digress.]
and for several years thereafter, i tried to be christian. we gave up on the christian group in short order because it was a little too “hands UP for god!” for us (as one of my friends in high school described charismatic worship). but for a number of years, i soldiered through and pretended that the deeply satisfying christianity that my ex enjoyed was satisfying to me too. but friends, it was really, really not. prayer never worked. church was nice sometimes, but i never felt anything. i thought, well, maybe religion comes with practice. hell, my mom was a presbyterian from the word jump and she seemed pretty comfortable in her faith. maybe it just takes time.
and then, on february 3, 2008, my mom died.
one of my principal complaints with religion, christianity in particular, is its inability to explain the purpose of tragedy and suffering. the final 15 years or so of my mother’s life was riddled with mental illness and a continuous degradation of quality of life as a result. she’d wrestled with mental illness, which she self-medicated through alcohol that led to an addiction she battled with varying success throughout her life. and then, once she’d finally got into treatment (after a remand to a live-in program by the state of florida), she died of a massive stroke. and you know what religion says about this?
“god has a plan.”
yeah, you know what? NOT ADEQUATE. my mother’s death unlocked a lot of things in me, some of which i am only just now starting to understand six years later. but the second thing that smacked me in the face in the aftermath, right behind “i refuse to settle for ANYTHING that does not work for me anymore,” is “i don’t think there’s a god.” and with that, the pretense dropped, and i was not a christian anymore, not even in name only.
giving up religion was such a phenomenally great decision for me. it was the most intellectually freeing experience i have ever had. i was no longer beholden to the myth of redemptive suffering. i was no longer tied to the construction that this life is merely an antechamber for the eternity awaiting after death. i could fully embrace doubt, mystery and uncertainty. logic and reason, things that law school had already started refining in me, became the underlying theme in my life in a way they just weren’t when i was pretending at religion.
and strangely enough, i gained a much more intense appreciation for and respect for the finite bounds of human life. i see anti-choice zealots screeching about the culture of life. i have met one – ONE – person who is anti-choice and completely consistent about his dedication to what he views as the completeness of respect for “life.” on the day when anti-choice zealots spent their time lining the sidewalks of women’s health centers yelling hostile threats at women exercising their right to medical care, this man posted a request on facebook for prayer for the soul of a man condemned to execution by the state of texas. i have a disagreement with this friend about the starting point and ending point of life, but he consistently applies his principles. i give him a TON of credit for that.
but generally speaking, people who profess dedication to the “culture of life” for religious reasons have the cheapest, chintziest view of human life that i can ever imagine. these people are SO OBSESSED with zygotes and fetuses, and that obsession with life ends at the moment of birth. these folks then lose all interest in temporal reality, viewing it as merely pledgeship. after all, how many times have you heard a devout believer say, “oh, your reward’s in heaven!” these people literally do not care about improving human existence, because it’s just a test to see if you qualify to get into the great country club in the sky.
my atheism has taught me that there is nothing more precious than the time you have. after all, it’s all we have. life begins, life ends. it is a closed universe. because of this, we owe it to ourselves to take care of the earth and our fellow humans. we are all we have. there is no watchmaker/caretaker/angry daddy watching over us and pulling strings. we are it.
and no, i don’t know how we got here. i’m not sure that answer can ever be known. but i know this: you are not gonna find these answers in any book of mythology currently being propagated as a constitutionally-protected tax shelter (otherwise known as a “religion”). atheism allows you the freedom to say, “i don’t know, and that’s okay; some things haven’t been discovered yet.” doubt is okay. chaos is a real thing. suffering is not magically redemptive. you are not guaranteed eternal comfort for bowing your head and obediently taking the abuses the powerful lump upon you in the name of the sky-daddy.
so yes, being a non-believer is amazing. i highly recommend it. the kind of liberation i have experienced in owning my atheism has given me the comfort to make my life – this life, my one shot at existence – as grand and wonderful as possible. i act without fear, without limits. and when chaos overwhelms me, i understand that it is a cyclical part of living. i do not pray harder or give more money to a man in a nice suit. i just embrace it and move forward.