Atheism: Arriving the Long Way Takes a Lifetime
I remember as a boy how surprised I was at Dick McKenna’s appearance as he sped past me on his Hawthorne bicycle. Word was that he had lost his faith. All the guys were talking about it. He’d even been to the rectory to talk to Fr. Jerry. Kids in eighth grade didn’t lose their faith. Not at Sacred Heart Elementary School, where Benedictine nuns taught. Yet Dick had lost his, and at the time, I was sure his terrible fall from grace would show up on his face or somehow in the way he looked. It didn’t. The nuns taught us that losing the faith, atheism, was the worst of all possible tragedies. It meant going to hell for the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.
Doubting was bad enough. It was an occasion of sin, to be avoided as much as the sin itself. If, for example, I questioned that Jesus rose from the dead – if I seriously doubted it, and I knew that my questioning was sincere – then I had to confess it to get the scar against my faith excised from my immortal soul.
Dick must have doubted a lot to have irreversibly lost his faith. What happened to his mind? Perhaps he didn’t look different from the rest of us, but his mind must have been turned into rotten cheese. I wondered whether it was safe to be around him? He was older than I by a couple of years. Maybe that was it. Guys lost their faith when they got older. Maybe life felt different then. Older people thought about different things. Dick was the brightest kid in school. Maybe that was the problem. He thought too much. Perhaps it was better not to be too smart. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time, but I knew I didn’t want to lose my faith. I wanted to be like my friends, grow up, and become a man. Believe in God and all the saints and angels the way my dad did. I knew he believed with all his heart when he’d burst out singing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” in the middle of the day for no reason at all as he walked through the house.
Sins of the Flesh . . .
Years passed. I grew older. I sinned a lot in high school. Mortal sins. Sins of the flesh. I was really weak. But I was honest. I always confessed my transgressions. I’d come out of the confessional, kneel, say my rosary as penance, and then look up to see my girlfriend kneeling near the confessional where the girls liked to go. She was praying fervently also. I wondered if her sin was letting me unhook her bra Friday night we went out together. It could have been. I knew it was a sin for me. I owned up to it.
More years passed. I graduated from college, got married, and went to work supporting my family. My faith felt threatened in those first years of honest-to-goodness adult life. My wife and I discussed it. We had tired of the same rituals every Sunday, year in and year out. Nothing inspired us anymore. We were not feeling God’s love and feeling close to Jesus the way we had at one time. We wanted our faith to inspire us. We decided to change parishes and get a fresh start with congregation more in step with the times, one where they sang contemporary hymns like “Kumbaya, My Lord” and “Michael Row Your Boat to Shore” accompanied by a black guy on guitar. We joined a discussion group.
Our group even went so far as to talk about setting up our own community. We rented a big older hotel on a lake in Wisconsin and vacationed together, children and all. Couples took turns cooking. After supper, we discussed our faith and entertained ourselves with board games. We thought enlisting a priest to say Mass privately for our group would intensify everyone’s resolve. It provided a spark. The feeling of autonomy was new. We had control of our own worship. Our own church – almost. But slowly, all that radicalism faded. Nobody wanted to sell their home and buy into a condo where we would all live as a community. Sharing a garden and a lawnmower sounded great, but too much was getting in the way. We were not cut out to be communal Christians.
Out of Our Comfort Zone . . .
Plans to form our own community were struck down completely when I accepted a transfer to Detroit. It meant a promotion. With five kids to raise, we needed the money. Once settled in our new home, my wife and I tried to pick up with a new parish, but somehow things didn’t feel the same. We made friends, actually became quite well acquainted. The tall guy with the cute wife. Others must have seen us as quite progressive, a phenomenon confirmed one night when the assistant pastor appeared at our door and asked to come in to talk to us.
He walked into our living room, took a seat, and announced he was leaving the priesthood, and he wanted to ask support from people like us. Neither of us knew quite what to say. When he explained that one of the nuns teaching in the parish elementary school was also leaving and they wanted to start a family, we realized we had strayed from our comfort zone. We praised his courage. Wished him well and asked him to give our best to the nun who planned to leave with him.
As I tried to fall asleep that night, I thought of Dick McKenna on his bicycle. Wow! At 12 years of age, he had blown right by the anguish and confusion my wife and I experienced as we struggled to keep the faith. He chucked it and went straight to unencumbered. Maybe I could take an intermediate step, loosen the bridle and maybe spit out the bit. Stay in harness but allow myself a few doubts.
No turning back . . .
My doubts turned into a quest. I found myself on a precipice—no turning back. I was a reasoning human being. Perhaps not the brightest light on the string but intelligent enough to handle most of what life had tossed at me over half a century. What if everything I had been taught was simply not true? Just so much nonsense? Myth. I thought back to my four years in a Catholic college. I had studied theology. I took it seriously. Everything hung together pretty much the same way it does in an amusement park funhouse. It can be exhilarating. Laugh or cry, it has its thrills. But the illusion only lasts as long as the funhouse is accepted as real. Patrons must believe. They must have faith to find enjoyment. As soon as reason enters in and it becomes obvious that it’s all man-made and fake, the fun stops. It’s time to leave. Time to hop on my Hawthorne and peddle away.
It wasn’t as easy as I make it sound. Doubts were okay. I could doubt the Christian myth without giving up on God altogether. I could cling to the morality of the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe there was no proof God existed, but then there was no proof that God didn’t. Agnosticism seemed like an intellectual stance with some integrity to it, a port in the maelstrom of unanswered questions. Not being able to prove something is no proof that an opposing proposition is true
No fanciful dodging around . . .
I found it pretty scary to let go of a system of beliefs I had held all my life. Some seriously brilliant people believed and expanded on the breath of the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Dante, St. Augustine, etc. Francis Cardinal Newman actually argued in his Grammar of Assent that understanding was not necessary for faith. He argued that the faith of those intellectually incapable of understanding was as true and authentic as any theologian. Who then was I, dean’s list notwithstanding, to question these who were among the western world’s greatest thinkers? Who indeed?
I didn’t see myself as an arrogant man. I hope my friends would affirm as much. If anything, I have been a go-along guy, giving in whenever it seemed like too much work to oppose anything, or the cost of conceding was easily less exacting than resisting. My wife accused me of wanting everyone to be my friend. Avowing atheism narrowed the channels for friendship. Being a Druid is less controversial. Atheism somehow got aligned with Communists and godlessness. After all, once something is labeled “godless,” there’s no need to investigate further. You knew all you needed to know. My new perspective put an impediment in the path of exuberant, unrestrained fellowship. People usually reacted as if I had a disease. They felt sorry for me and thought I was missing out on something. I was, of course, I was missing out on all the comfort of assuming all that I endured as suffering was virtuous and all goodness that came my way was a gift of love from the divine.
When I gave up religion and all the trappings, when I stop believing, I had nothing to fall back upon. The world made no sense. Never mind that it hadn’t all along, but I had an organized way of looking at it. There were no benefits in becoming an atheist – except, of course, personal integrity. I didn’t set out to drive a stake into the heart of my parents’ faith and the belief system millions considered the saving of the republic. There was no joy in doing so. It was a loss. Losses became real. No consolations afforded. No fanciful dodging around about God’s mysterious ways. Life goes on until it doesn’t. Life takes more courage than it ever did. Death is final. No god is listening to my appeals to be rescued from a fatal illness, bankruptcy, or false accusation. I was on my own, the final irony being that I continue to need the support of my fellow humans while alienating many because they are uncomfortable about my atheism.
Clouds Did Not Part . . .
Commands to love God come from men, not from God, but men with a vested interest in our doing as they insist. Theologians agree that God, if one exists, is the perfect being, complete unto itself without flaw or desire to be more than it is. Perfect, by definition, is an absolute state. To assert God needs humans to love Him is to admit that He is imperfect. The universe continues to destroy and create indiscriminately.
Very few years are left as things stand. I am not afraid of what lies ahead. The clutter is gone from my mind. For the first time, I have an open heart. I won’t be persuaded anymore that I am a loathsome creature and admitting it is the price for membership in any community that believes in all manner of rituals.
I don’t pray, although the impulse to do so is still there, which is interesting in itself. When I reject recourse to prayer, I feel a powerlessness that all men should feel at times in their lives. Powerlessness over our lives binds us. When we pray, we are risk blunting that awareness. A person’s sense of belonging to the human race gets lost in the narcissistic pleadings that an exception should be made in the playing out of cause and effect in our lives. Compassion is born out of the sense of powerlessness. Love thrives in the awareness that we live in the same moment in the same world, all of us together. We need each other. Belief systems often dilute this awareness, and prayer only assuages the agony and confusion of it all. Life becomes more meaningful when I focus on doing what I can to advance the human race and attend to the needs of my neighbor.
I don’t need to pray to alleviate fear. I don’t want to plead my fate. Nature acts without divine intervention on anyone’s behalf. I don’t want to endure some horrible disease any more than the next guy. I’d choose an easier path if it were up to me. There is nothing redeeming about suffering. Cancer invades the just as well as the unjust. Whatever comes, I have the peace of mind in knowing I have, with intermittent and sometimes flagging passion, slugged it out with life and found the truth matters more than anything.