To be honest, I think I was always an atheist deep down, but I deluded myself about it for years.
I was raised in that hazy quasi-christian way that most Americans seem to be, in that we celebrated the Christian holidays but were more or less secular. My father made us observe Lent, but he was agnostic. He just thought it was a healthy thing to do. My mother was an “atheist who hated god” (paraphrasing her own words- I’m aware of the contradiction.) She told her kids that we should believe, but not tell her to believe. As you can imagine, this lack of coherent discourse on religion left me searching, even from a very young age. I distinctly remember thinking about things like the origin of time when I was four years old, in my sesame street pajamas. I asked questions about god all the time.
Most of my religious education up until adolescence came from my grandmother, a fairly liberal Catholic. She was and still is more spiritual than dogmatic, although she was raised during the Depression by strict parents and went to Catholic school, which left its mark in some of her habits. Anyway, she basically taught me 1) God loves you (and so does Mary) 2) good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell 3) you should pray and go to church because it’s good for you and “the spirit world” will help you and 4) someday we’ll all be together in heaven.
As I got older, though, Grammy’s answers to my questions were no longer satisfactory. In looking for better answers, I went to several different churches with several different people over the course of ten years or so- junior high through college.
I believe that by my junior/senior year of college, I’d decided I was firmly Christian. I had gotten into countless passionate discussions about the origin of evil, heated debates about literal vs figurative interpretation of the bible, and structured arguments about suffering, especially nonbelievers going to hell. In the end, though, I felt genuine comfort, and told people that I was spiritual. I prayed nightly, I read the bible (although admittedly, not very astutely- I browsed it- I felt my faith and prayer were strong). I went to a church that I liked; it made me feel good. Somehow, looking back, I feel I tricked myself into believing.
It took a catastrophic event to strip all my illusions away. This event was four years ago almost to the day- September 6th, 2002. Let me go back a few days before that, though. My mother, deeply wounded by her concepts of god and faith, had always – ALWAYS – told me to keep my religious beliefs to myself. She hated hearing about them. She hated the church. But, my belief was that I had to “save” my mother from hell. I wasn’t quite convinced she’d go to hell just for not believing, but looking at the “facts” as presented to me by Christian doctrine, I feared for the possibility. It took a lot of slow, careful prodding, but I finally found an opportunity when she said she’d been wearing a Catholic saint charm necklace and had had good luck ever since. And it’s true, our lives were getting better. I had just days ago passed my nursing exams (praying about them, listening to uplifting Christian music etc in the meantime) and she had just sold our house. My middle brother had just started college. After a lifetime of poverty, our lives were looking up.
I gently, carefully suggested that maybe we could go to church that weekend, to say thanks to god for how well things were going. I reasoned that maybe all our bad luck was finally behind us.
My mother, much to my surprise, was quiet for a minute and said “maybe I will. But no promises.”
Please understand, this was the most open she’d ever been to anything having to do with religion in my entire life. Aside from occasional superstitous behavior, I mean.
Well, on September 6th, she and my brother Jesse- the one who’d just started college- died in a car accident. This was before we ever got to church or anything. Jesse had never even been to church in his life as far as I’m aware.
Naturally, I prayed (a lot) when this first happened. But the very first words out of my mouth when I heard the news were “you can’t do this to me” – directed, inexplicably, at god.
Despite that, for the first couple of days I felt that god “carried” me through it. But my brother, who was a professed agnostic who leaned towards belief in a lot of different gods, was lying brain dead while literally thousands of people prayed for him. We performed, at Grammy’s request, the sacrament of the sick. I watched, knowing with absolute clinical certainty that he was dead, as my family hoped for a miracle. I was the only one who really knew he was gone. I knew from the first day, and it was me who explained things to my father. We made the decision together to remove him from life support. The funeral went by and the shock wore off and with it went the feeling of invincibility, the feeling of being almost wrapped in a protective cocoon, that I had ascribed to God’s grace.
Suddenly, “god’s grace” was nowhere. I can’t even begin to describe what it felt like; a friend of mine, trying to reassure me, said that Job felt the same way, that God was testing me, and that even Jesus had cried out about being forsaken- but he wasn’t. This friend told me this was my gethsemane.
As for the gory details, I prayed, I read the bible, I screamed at god, I threw the bible across the room. I talked to priests and friends who were in seminary. They actually made it worse. I retreived my mother’s lost pendant, the one she’d been looking for days before the accident, and wore it. I threw that across the room too. I felt like I was losing my mind. I went to church and while everyone around me prayed, I had to supress somewhat crazy laughter. I felt that god was real, and was my enemy. I blasphemed like nobody’s business; I told god in no uncertain terms how much I hated him, with lots of elaborate cursing thrown in, and told him I’d rather go to hell than be with someone who would create such a painful reality. I told him that if my mother and brother were in hell just for not believing, then I would go to hell with them. I said “get out of my life, get out of my heart, and stay away. I don’t need you and I don’t want you. I hate you with every fibre of my bei ng and if there were a way to kill you, I would do it.” I don’t think you can get much more blasphemous than that.
Fortunately, this volatile phase eventually passed as well. I got counseling; I needed it. I started exercising and eating better (after losing an unhealthy amount of weight). Lots of other things happened in my life, and I read books about physics, philosophy, eastern religion, etc. I talked to my best friend, a devout christian who remains my best friend today. She still prays for me, but she’s afraid to talk to me about religion because she can’t answer my questions and I think it gets too painful for her. She asked me to read books by C.S. Lewis and things, and I did. She gave up after a while, and will only say “it’s never too late to change you mind.” She’s respectful and supportive, but we cant discuss the issue in any kind of detail. It’s just too much.
I began to uncover what, for me, was a profound truth. Between physics and taoism, I began to feel that I was asking all the wrong questions. The question wasn’t “why.” The questions were “why not?” and “why ask why?” Furthermore I began to realize there didn’t need to be a reason for anything. Most of my belief had been based on the sense that there must be some origin, some reason, some force behind existence. And a little bit on Pascal’s wager, when I’m honest with myself. But during two years of sleepless nights spent reading mind-bending quantum physics and philosophy that I hardly understood, I began to let go of my need to blame some imaginary man in the sky for what had happened. I found I’d long ago lost the need for imaginary comfort, for answers to the unexplained. I’d become incredibly self-reliant. My life was no easier or more difficult for lack of prayer. I gradually saw the humor and futility in it, and I just realized… there is no god. There’s no heaven, no hell, no afterlife, no spirit world, and no point in forcing yourself to believe in it all. It was an epiphany in the truest sense of the word.
I guess I’m a ‘soft’ atheist because I admit the (very slim) possibility that god exists. But I maintain my original assertion from 2002: if there is a god, and he has condemned my mother and brother- who were good people- to hell, then I would refuse heaven even if I still warrant the choice. If god turned out to be real, my anger with him would return, and I wouldnt want to spend eternity with a god who would send good people to suffer torture forever. I would rather be in hell where my family was, even if it was the literal place of fire, darkness, stench and agony. Fortunately, the evidence in favor of hell’s non-existence is strong enough that I see no need to worry.
It took so much anguish before I came to this conclusion that seems so obvious to me now. I’ve found more peace in the lack of god then I ever did back in the days when I thought I was “spiritual.” I’m a stronger person than I ever was, and my life is in much better shape. I’m rational, my emotions are no longer out of control, and I take care of myself – knowing I’m the only one who can.
To be honest, I do feel some lingering animosity towards Christians. I know it’s not a good thing, but I can’t seem to help it. Most of the outspoken Christians I encounter are bigoted and pushy fundamentalists. Even from the ones who aren’t, I get all the “but you HAVE to believe in something!” and “you gotta get yourself back to church” crap you can imagine. I keep telling myself that they’re not all bad, and in fact I know tons of people who are religious (like my Grammy and my best friend) who are wonderful people. I sometimes think “religious people are stupid” despite knowing that’s not true either. I know people with PhDs and IQs in the 150s and higher who believe in God. I don’t honestly think I’m smarter than them. I’m just frustrated because I feel I’ve discovered, through immense pain, an immutable and liberating truth. I wish my best friend would realize what I have, although without having to go through what I did. When I look at her, and her life, it seems to me that religion causes her more doubt and confusion than comfort or guidance. I wish she could be free of it- I wish everyone could.
Since all this happened I’ve also been to Iraq, and now more than ever I feel that religion is one of the biggest causes of voilence and hate in the world. Then I have to admit that I understand why. It hurts to have your beliefs challenged. It hurts when people can’t see your point of view when you feel it’s both true and important. Obviously, trying to force atheism or agnosticism onto others is no better a solution than crusading and jihaading against them.
I wish everyone were an atheist, sometimes. But rationally I know that wouldn’t solve the world’s problems, and that it wouldn’t really be good for everyone. Some people are scared of the idea of nothingness after death, of randomness in the universe, of not knowing the answers. Some people need the comfort of their faith. Those people need their belief to make them feel that all is right with the world.
I don’t know if I have a point to make or not. I just wanted to share my story. Thanks for creating this site, I really do appreciate your positive approach to the subject and the effort you’ve put into it.
I am very, very flattered that you chose to share your story. It is powerful and makes many important points. As I read it, I thought of a great many things I’d like to say about what you went through and the people you describe, but I think I’ll just let your words speak for themselves. Everything worth saying is there.