Sunday, May 2, 2010

Atheism -- My Path

     One of my favorite quotes about atheism comes from a man named Don Hirschberg, who said, in a letter to Ann Landers, “Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.”  As it happens, I am both -- bald and an atheist.  I came to be an atheist in my late teens.  Earlier I’d had a Univeralist epiphany, when I decided that I could not believe in a God who had a place called Hell, which was used as a personal torture chamber from which there could be no forgiveness or escape.  It was a short leap of logic from there to believing in no god at all.  This is the only view that makes sense to me.  I know that many of my friends and family find it difficult to understand.  Which I don't really get.  We are all atheists, in a way; I just happen to believe in one fewer god than they do.  To paraphrase Stephen Roberts, when they understand why they dismiss all the other possible gods, maybe they will understand why I dismiss their god.  I have only to look at the headlines to believe that no loving deity could possibly allow the world to exist in such a state.  War?  AIDS?  Cancer?  Please.  I can no more believe in a god who allows such things than I can believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  (And by the way, you should check out, the website of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  No matter what you believe.  It’s a lot of fun.)  

     No, like it or not, I have come to believe that all we have is ourselves, and all we get is this one life.  And that’s enough for me.  I don’t find atheism cold and comfortless.  I do not miss believing in an afterlife in heaven.  And I don't particularly fear death.  I believe that, like Mark Twain, "I was dead for billions of years before being born and I have not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."  And I can appreciate the beauty of the structure of our magnificent universe without feeling a need to attribute it to an Architect.  As Douglas Adams said, "I will take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day."

  When my mother was dying of cancer, I had the atheist’s equivalent of a crisis of faith.  That’s when I was most tempted to believe in a supernatural power with whom I could bargain for a better outcome.  I desperately wanted things to work out for my mother.  They didn’t. Ovarian cancer thirty-some years ago almost never did.  I think that was the last time I was tempted to believe in a Greater Power.

  After my mother’s death, I remember huge arguments with my family, mostly after a memorial service which repeatedly told me that my mother was in a better place, was in the arms of Jesus, and with her loved ones in Heaven.  They asked me, “How can you stand there and say that her soul is not with God?”  In point of fact, I had said no such thing to any of them, but my beliefs were an easy target during a time of much suffering for all of us.  It was very hard for me not to be able to grieve for my mother in my own way, with the support of my family.  They simply did not seem to understand how difficult it was for me, believing as I did that her death was the end of her.  Like all intolerance, theirs was brutal.

  In my research for this entry I have read that there are some atheists who want to throw away the crutch of churchgoing, free up their Sundays, sleep in, do the crossword puzzle and face the godless, empty universe with a positive, “can-do” attitude.  

     No, really.  

     So why do I come to church?  Why do I bother, if I have no belief in god, or an afterlife, or the search for the capital-A Answers to any of the so-called Great Questions?  Well, I come for many reasons.  I come for the opportunity to join with people in morally meaningful activity.  I believe that two hands actually working do more good than a hundred hands folded in prayer.  I think that, when I come to church, I am offered valuable lessons in the way religion brings people together with beautiful music and art.  I learn how such a coming together can result in good works and social justice.  And frankly, I also come for help.  Not answers, help.  I come for the support which I find there.  I believe that whatever immortality any of us has is in the minds and memories of those who know and love us.  I believe that when I die, that's the only immortality for which I can hope.  If I want Heaven, I need to help build it it here.  And if I want immortality, I need to live a life that will have meaning and so will be remembered in my community.  And I want God to be simply a metaphor for all that is good and kind and wise in each of us.  I can do those things where I go to church, at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg.  Where atheists, pagans, Jews, secular humanists, Christians, Buddhists, and every other color in the religious spectrum can get together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding and actually do some good in an otherwise maddening world.  Because for all of the pain and horror and suffering that the world can have, there is also incredible beauty and love and joy to be found.  I just have to remember to be open to it.  Thanks for reading.

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