Sunday, January 3, 2010

Inkhat Meditates on Atheism (But Mostly Just Ends Up Telling A Story)!

Classes start Monday and I have spent the day drowning my nerves in drawing, writing, and reading random blog posts on the interwebs. I came across PZ Myers, who is, apparently, famous and who I have never heard of. I guess he’s an atheist or something.

Recently a friend came out atheist. It never occurred to me that this was something one would have to ‘come out’ about. It amused me for a moment to turn the meaning on its head and imagine him as a budding debutant, a new atheist grown into maturity. I imagined pomp and circumstance, the other adults of the atheist community asking the newly emerged young person meditative questions under a crystalline chandelier nibbling on finger sandwiches. There would be lace and comber buns and courtesies.

Focus, Leslie.

Anyway, my friend pointed out that atheism in America really is still held in a negative light. Like many things, my childhood assumptions that people’s faith, or disbelief was their own personal issue, turned out to be wrong. He pointed out that, while there were protections, both legal and social, for religious groups and beliefs, the equal did not exist for atheism. Separation between Church and State is the Pegasus of our legal system. Because it’s a myth. Get it? Not cause it’s a winged horse who sprang from Thomas Jefferson’s blood.

I can understand, however, his feelings of abandonment and betrayal by his religion. I found many parts of his story mirrored my own. (The main part where we diverged was his questioning creation vs science. I never had a problem with this. Looking back this seems odd, and I can attribute only to my weird ability to believe two seemingly contradictory things at the same time (I do this with due dates to finish papers early), or my early introduction to literature and art. I could see the Bible as True to the author’s intent as a poem or painting is Truth. This was a very long aside).

When I was young I lived a life of almost absolute seclusion in my catholic school. I found solace in reading, drawing, and religion. I was attracted to religion by the sense of inclusion, of course. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see why the promise of an everlasting place of belonging where the meek would be not only included but lauded would appeal to a lonely child. But it wasn’t just that. The church protected literature and art. It was a fountainhead for artistic expression for hundreds of years. Being born with art appreciation literally ingrained in my genetic code, this was something I could love. Naturally, I wanted to stay there forever.

One afternoon one of the priests came across the street (our church was literally across from the school) to speak to us about the priesthood. This, of course, was a normal part of his job. The church always needs more priests. He described what made a good priest. Humility, love, creativity, sympathy for your fellow man, enjoying speaking, creating, writing, reading, interest in hard study over your whole life. Me! I wanted to yell. Me! Me! I can do all these things. I would love to do all these things. I still remember how excited I was that day, having finally found my profession. I felt, (I was so sure) that I had been called to do this thing. I held it as the torch of my life.

It never occurred to me that he wasn’t speaking to me. It never occurred to me that I was excluded. How could anyone exclude me? How could religion exclude anyone?

For those who do not know, Roman Catholicism does not allow women to join the priesthood. That is gentle wording, of course. In truth, we are actively barred. (The reason I was given for this, when I asked, was that only men followed Jesus and were told to go preach. I guess Mary Magdalene and the rest of the women didn't count. Kay).

Even after I learned that I was not called to do anything, (but isn’t that cute), I still huddled in Catholicism for warmth. Surely they would come around eventually. I even thought, for a short period, that I could change their minds. The slow death of my warm, fuzzy inclusion in Catholicism started on a school trip my sophomore year of high school.

It was on the beach. The sun was going down and I wandered into a conversation between two of the other students on the trip. One, who I knew, was a self proclaimed atheist and intellectual. I had always been jealous of his sureness in this position; of how grounded he seemed without a death grip on belief. He was talking to a girl I did not know, whose name I have forgotten. Let’s call her Sarah.

Sarah had, she told us, led a hard life. She had been saved by religion. She was arguing with my friend about heaven, or, more specifically, about judgment. It has become a familiar argument. I am sure everyone has encountered it, and I feel no need to reenact the entire thing, though I remember it almost word for word. It was the ending that got me. It was the last thing she said to me, smiling.

“It makes me sad sometimes, that my friends are going to hell.”

“Well what if they’re good people?” I countered, thinking of all my lovely, sweet, non-religious high school friends who adopted the rather damaged me and loved me instantly. Surely for that one act of kindness – like the single acts of kindness in parables – they would be saved?

“Oh yes. They can’t go to heaven unless they’re saved. I know it’s hard.” She added, sympathetically.

“I think God would forgive them.” I countered.

“Isn’t that a sort of selfish way to look at God?” She asked, still smiling.

That question bored its self into my brain, and I often reflect on it, even now. I am convinced, even more now, that she was wrong. It is, in fact, the other way around. It is a selfless thought. I am not special. God does not love me more. Everyone is going. This was my first interaction with the two differing definitions of 'saved.' One meant, safe, removed from danger. The other meant 'one of us.' Religion should be a roof, not a gate, and I certainly want nothing to do with a heaven that is not more forgiving than the humans it supposedly created. It took a few more years, but that night I began to realize I wanted nothing to do with the whole mess.

So what am I now? I’ve been asked this question as if I am a new species, asked to please classify myself so that I fit easily into the biology books. I have no answer for them. I cannot completely dismiss a higher power, nor do I disbelieve the clear logic of the scientific process. Usually I shrug the question off, a practice I plan to continue. I can say that I do not believe in _______ism, even the ‘Athe’ variety. It is, after all, another form of that angry exclusion of ‘we’re right and you’re wrong.’

Though it is difficult to believe, I find comfort in not knowing. It’s probably the same part of me that can believe that my essay is due Monday and also tomorrow. I enjoy the debate and I don’t know. Absolutely anything is possible. Isn’t that kind of fantastic?


  1. I remember you wanting to be a priest. I remember your sincere conflict and anger. Religion is a grounding point of sorts. If you are not given it to begin with you cannot drift from it or stay away or return.

  2. I think that's very true. I certainly have no regrets about it.

  3. As an anonymous Christian who found this blog by accident and loved reading your story, I just had to add my two cents.

    You wrote: "Religion should be a roof, not a gate, and I certainly want nothing to do with a heaven that is not more forgiving than the humans it supposedly created."

    I believe that God IS this forgiving, and more. But what I think you didn't mention is that forgiveness is actually a two-way street. How can someone be forgiven if they don't first acknowledge that they've done wrong and then ask for forgiveness? Catholic or not (I'm a free-lance protestant myself), don't you think it's fair for God to expect just a little something from us, the people who have fallen short but still want to spend eternity in paradise?

  4. Yet, at the same time, if someone does us wrong we are asked to, 'be the bigger person,' and forgive them regardless. I don't think it's so odd to expect that God is a better person than us.

  5. I wish I knew who the atheist from HS was you were talking about, I probably could've used some of their thoughts at that time as well.

    I had the perhaps common experience of being brought up by Sunday Christians. As I got older, I realized that my mother didn't believe in the rigidity of any kind of church and that my father clung to an ideal from his childhood that he couldn't quite swallow.

    I've known some pretty rocking Christians, and some pretty rocking Atheists, what I believe is that religion does exist to include people, but unfortunately, people like to feel exclusive. I have yet to meet anyone who can honestly and openly say that they will and do include everyone, there's always someone that a given person wants to exclude.

    As long as people are free to research and make their own informed decisions, I am comfortable with it. I will be happier if/when the USofA takes its separation laws seriously.

    Although, if Margaret Atwood was right, I'm running for Alaska.

  6. @inkhat - from the same 'anonymous' person -

    I guess I just define forgiveness differently. I see it as a mutual kind of agreement, that one has to want to be forgiven and the other then forgives. In the case of God, sending Jesus as atonement for people's sins proves that he's already being the bigger person, because he set up all that was necessary for forgiveness, and now he's waiting for us to ask for it.

    But if most people don't want forgiveness, then how can God do the forgiveness-agreement alone? As I see it, God already loves people infinitely and unconditionally, agape, regardless of their (our) actions. God wants love to be a two-way street, but he'll keep on loving even if it isn't.

    But forgiveness is a kind of pact, an agreement, a meeting. The person needing the forgiveness has to be part of it, or the forgiveness doesn't really mean anything. Forgiveness has to be a relationship.