Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

21 June 2012

Atheist Stories IV

More atheist stories for your enjoyment. This edition is especially Catholic, I feel.

In my life, I've made a lot of mistakes, and a few were of the religious sort. My parents never pressured me about religion, they were both of them disenchanted with the belief systems they came from. But I have always been very curious, and I have always loved magic. As a kid, I was taken to church by various matriarchs but I never much cared for it. A bit later I wanted to fight vampires, so I went to the Catholic church and asked for holy water and a few pointers. They wouldn't help on either count, but did offer to talk to me about things that were vastly less interesting to a young boy.

So I began to do my own research, and I learned a lot more than all the best ways to kill a vampire properly. I learned about the witch hunts, how the church would torture and rape women for no reason I could understand. To my young Superman-impressed mind, there was no good damn reason at all for any of that sort of thing and it made me angry. Then I read about the Inquisition. The Crusades and the Child Wars. I didn't know much back then, but I knew enough to know those were bad people, and their institution was evil. I swore never to set foot in a church again, and since then I haven't – except during funerals, out of respect for the family of the dead.

But that didn't mean the Church left me alone. Oh, no my dear friend they did not. I had the misfortune of moving to one of the most religious and conservative places in northern California at the ripe old age of 16. I was already full of fire and rage, and it didn't take long for the zealots around me to throw down the gauntlet.

In high school, my best friend was a bisexual Wiccan girl. She left the school I went to and went to another, because the girls in the Christian club would beat her and even set her locker on fire once. There was a girl I liked, and she used to pass me notes. Then she told me to cut my hair and come to church with her. I did once, because I was young and horny. They paraded cripples around and sang about Jesus, then they corned me in a room and tried to scare Christ into me.

I've had girlfriends' parents refuse to let their daughter date me unless I converted. In the Army, I got in trouble for calling one of my sergeants a dickhead because he was making fun of a private who had a twitch. They sent me to the chaplain, and after an hour of conversation, he determined that I was possessed by demons. I laughed and said there was no such thing, to which he replied, No, I've seen them before, even smelled them. I told my Sergeant Major. He laughed and told me to ignore the fucker.

This sort of nonsense continued for most of my life, I seemed to be a magnet for these people. All it did was encourage me to learn more and more about religion, and the affect it had on people and society. I argued and fought with them, and it got me exactly nowhere. During most of this time, I was a practicing Pagan. It taught me a lot, it made me a feminist, and showed me how to break my own perception of reality. But it still lacked sincerity, it still seemed like play pretend and I couldn't suspend my disbelief.

Rationalism is the only tool we have to understand reality, and if one is at all interested in such a thing, rationalism is the best tool to start with. Which means giving up believing in things because you want to, or because it feels good, and being honest with yourself no matter how hard it is. I read Bertrand Russell, Helen Ellerbe, and Christopher Hitchens. I watched videos by thunderf00t, nonstampcollector, and The Athiest Experience. This was a process, and mistakes were made but I learned from them, so I feel good about it.

I would say that I had been agnostic long before I ever admitted it to myself. We used to make jokes: Yeah I'm gonna use that virgin birth story on my dad and see if it flies, things of that nature. I stopped believing in Hell probably during grade school – I never could believe that a God who loved us would create people and then condemn them to burning fires for all eternity, free will aside. It's the argument about the omnipotent, omniscient and all-good God, and I was thinking about it from a very early age. I've always thought that Christian biblical literalists were ludicrous – how they selectively take the quotes they like from the Bible (while ignoring those regarding, say, the eating of pork) and claim that they are divine truths has always seemed ridiculous to me, when even the revered King James version represents several generations of translations from different languages of stories originally passed down by oral tradition. And of course as a Catholic there is a lot of defensiveness about things like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Borgias (to say nothing of child molestation). A lot of this early thinking was more about rejecting the non-essential traditions: if the church itself can decide it really doesn't make you a better or worse Christian if you eat meat on Friday, then surely clothing, or even how often you pray isn't determinative.

But then I discovered the discrepancies in the Bible, learned of ancient religious traditions such as associating a miraculous birth to a holy man, and how the early church had huge fights and controversies about critical points of theology that are so basic to the religion, such as the divinity of Jesus. The Divinity of Jesus. Seriously. This was hashed out at the First Council of Nicaea, 325 years after his birth. I read Saint Augustine's writings about how he shopped religions and decided on Christianity, and how as one of the early church fathers he influenced theology. I felt he that he often made arguments to fight what he felt were serious heretical beliefs prevalent at the time, but ended up backing the church into some positions that became hard to reconcile with the entire body of thought. In other words, these guys were making it up as they went along. I then turned to atheist authors such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins. I read Ayn Rand years ago (and Tolkein too!), so I'm sure there were many other thinkers that influenced me over a period of time.

Even with all this skepticism and study, it was still hard for me to admit to myself that I no longer believed in God although I was having a hard time saying I was truly a Christian. What finally pushed me over the edge was a remark Russell made about how our thoughts consist of electrochemical signals passed between brain cells, so how could they continue to function and allow us sentient awareness after death? My belief in God and an afterlife crumbled to dust. This also meant to me that no religion was correct, not just Catholicism or Christianity. And it left me feeling empty and alone. Belief in God was so deeply ingrained in me and I think I really wanted to believe there is a grand design and someone looking over us. God was always the safety net, and gave me the hope and courage to carry on. Without God I had to take complete responsibility for my life, make informed and reasoned decisions about moral issues, and decide for myself what kind of person to become. I had to be a grown-up. Think about it: God the father, children of God, watch over us and guide us, a list of rules to follow without questioning, being obedient. A lot of people do not want to make decisions and take responsibility for the outcome. They want to be told what to do, handed their pay and go home to watch TV. Taking charge of your own life is scary.

Baruch Spinoza
The best part of religion for me was always the ethical guidance, and I didn't want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Non-belief in God doesn't equate to immorality and heedlessness, nor does saying you don't believe in God mean the same as admitting you are evil. I think that is a stumbling block to many people struggling to come to terms with realizing they no longer believe in God when they have had a strong religious upbringing. And we have all been talking about losing our Christian faith, but Christianity isn't the only source of ethical teachings by far. Command the good and forbid the evil in all spheres of life - Islamic ethics. Non-violence toward every living thing - Buddhist ethics. All good ideas. Pagan thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero were thinking and talking about ethical and moral issues and what makes a life worth living long before Christianity put its stamp on western thinking. Modern philosophers continue the conversation. There are plenty of moral and ethical traditions that work equally well to give one guidance through the course of ones life - many of them having nothing to do with religion. But we were taught from an early age that it was "Christian" to act such and such a way, implying of course that if you were not Christian, you were bad. Which leads directly to the worst part of religion - the intolerance it breeds.

I now prefer to think of myself as pro-humanist rather than anti-religious. I believe that considering what is best for humankind is a better approach to life and leads to better ethical and moral decisions than  following translated ancient writings directed at a particular culture in a technologically primitive society thousands of years ago. Or perhaps I just don't care to be grouped with strident atheists any more than I care to be grouped with fanatic religious types. And here's a fun list of famous atheists.

If I were to pen my atheist memoirs, I would title the tome Summer Camp. A characteristic trope of the "American Upbringing", camp seems as natural a setting as any for a loss of god. However, I woefully did not participate in this device amongst the bucolic (and most importantly, secular) encampments of Camp Waziyatah in Waterford, Maine (if you were a child still in the late-nineties, you're with me). My parents dutifully boarded me each summer at the acutely sacred campus of St. John's University of Collegeville, Minnesota, enrolling me annually in the National Catholic Youth Choir. We sang, we prayed, we attended catechetical lectures led by Benedictine Brothers of Christ, we sang, and we prayed some more. We participated in mass daily, and a thrilling excursion might include a visit to local churches and cathedrals or a "special talk" with the most reverend Bishop John C. Nienstedt of the sprawling arch diocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The experience was far from hellish. I wasn't just involved, I was engulfed. I felt closer to this god than any other point in my childhood. I felt as though I understood him, the church, and my place in it. My mission and purpose seemed laid before me. The campus was intensely Catholic in its own right. Below the abbey resided a hidden chapel that in the Roman Catholic vernacular is known as a reliquary. This reliquary is one of the most important holdings of Catholic relics in the United States: a hair of St. Therese of Lisieux, the remains of St. Marian’s feet, the entire, decaying body of St. Peregrine the Martyr, and yes, a splinter of the true cross of Jesus Christ, housed in a 24-carat gold monstrance. We only took vespers in the reliquary once, but it had a profound and lasting effect on the group.

Following that pivotal visit, one night after curfew, I awoke to the sound of my roommate and fellow fourteen-year-old choir member, Grant, rustling in the dark. He was far and away the most devout and pious in the choir and had already promised his diocese to fulfill its need for a priest when he turned eighteen. We were all quite impressed and deferred to him on all matters canonical in class (naturally).

So as I said, he was... rustling... and as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I caught him departing, fully clothed, from our cell. Without a thought, I dressed and, unbeknownst to him, followed. I exited the the dormitory of St. Thomas Aquinas and, peering into the semi-dark of the moon, I found him disappearing already over the far hill that lead to the Abbey. Quickening my pace, barefoot in the balmy summer-eve, I reached the door of the Abbey and upon entrance heard the remaining echo of footsteps on the stone steps to the right of the baptismal font. He was entering the reliquary.

I emerged from the incommodious stairwell and stumbled upon Grant’s body... prostrate in humility before the crystal-encased body of St. Peregrine the Martyr. Breath held instinctively, I stared in disbelief as he muttered the prayers of the Benedictine Night Office. I stood witness for what seemed like hours but was in fact minutes before softly retreating up the steps, silent as the grave of St. Peregrine. Once safely outside the Abbey, I stood still in the half-light of the quad; staring ahead as one in trauma. The world went still.

I thought, I will never be that boy. That boy is lying on the ground in front of a dead man’s body, surrounding by the bones, toenails and hairs of many other dead men and women. He is muttering to no one and I will never be that boy. Christ be damned and his dead corpse as well, wherever it resides.

I did not understand atheism as a concept until much later in my life. But my course shifted that evening in Collegeville. My atheistic conversion was not one of loss, in fact. I gained something quite powerful from Grant. I wanted, desperately wanted, the level of severe devotion he had mustered at such a young age. However, I wanted to devote myself to something alive, something living, something that, like myself that evening in the reliquary, could gain from me in return.

In case you missed them:
Part I.