I've thought a lot lately about the question of being an atheist versus being a believer. To be an atheist is so simple, but to be a believer involves such a myriad of choices - you know - every proselytizer's brand is the correct one. And what about those who don't evangelize, who don't force their beliefs, their faiths, down your throat? Perhaps they do have the goods, what about them?
I was always afraid.
What if to be an atheist means, as they say, that you would go to hell?
Oh my. I got so tired of the fear-mongering from those, who quite frankly, were outsiders, mere silly stompers to the one I really feared, my paternal grandmother.
My beloved grandmothers paid a lot of attention to me - my mother could not - I know now it was the disease, the multiple sclerosis, that took all her energy, but that does not dissuade the desire, the hunger, the needs, of a child who wants her mother.
The stronger grandma was the most intensely religious, who took me under her wing and by dint of her personality, expected me to believe as she taught me - it annoyed her to no end that my father attended a more mild-mannered church with my mother, a woman who made her own choices about her beliefs at the age of five. Good for her. Good for her for not capitulating to my grandmother, whose might made right.
It isn't lost on me that grandma made such a play for me, the first daughter, to steal my mind and heart from mom, who had had the temerity of all things to steal her one and only son from her.
The intensity of her brand of religion was such that no human intervention was truly acceptable: if you truly believed, god healed all; any manifestation of disease was truly in your head; no medicine, no drugs; their use was only a sign of the weakness of your mind. You stand accused of weak faith.
So that was that.
The multiple sclerosis was "all in your head." Grandma's colon cancer also could not be overcome with her faith, or the faith healers, or later, of course too late, the surgery or other therapy. Irony.
The bottom line, which I could not perceive except in a foggy way in those years, is that I cannot believe.
I practiced my grandma's faith until she died. I learned "by heart," by memory, all the important parts of the bible. I attended, with great ennui, my parents' church. I tried other approaches that were not Christian; I argued; I didn't argue; I accepted friends for whatever they believed. I read. I struggled to read great works by the world's greatest philosophical minds without much comprehension or understanding.
I used the idea of a power greater than myself to make great strides in my personal problems; I attended a wonderful church for 18 years, carrying the Eucharist to those who were hospitalized and shut-in, knowing that I was completely unworthy and a fraud, no matter what good people thought I did, no matter what benefit they thought they received. I told myself "god just works through me," but I felt nothing.
Because I cannot believe.
I was nearly 30 when I began college. I was delighted to find that science does not require belief - it requires no faith to comprehend, to understand, to learn, to progress, to accomplish, to study, research or teach.
What an incredible relief.
It only requires one work hard and persist: two things I am very good at.
Still, all these years, the question of faith and belief has persisted. Superstitious thinking abounds.
The tenets of any religion, of any system based on faith and belief, are nothing more than mythology, of superstitious thinking.
I have come in the last two years to abandon superstitious hope, that irrational endeavor, because the void I thought I had to fill with faith and belief is no longer there. It no longer matters to me if there is a god. It doesn't matter to me if you believe. It matters not if I'm going to hell for not believing. It is like shrugging off the coat of despair - a great weight is gone.
It doesn't affect my moral character at all: what I know to be right or wrong doesn't fail me based on what some ancient Jews or ancient Olympians or wise old Buddists or budding Christians or authoritative grandparent or lost parent can set down to be correct - my moral code is entirely separate. My intuition is intact. My instincts and intelligence are reliable.
I feel comfort in my belief in myself, for once, and for once, I think, for always.
Welcome to Hell! You are not alone, and you'll feel increasingly liberated.
Your insight "I cannot believe" was the key for me as well. I could not, hard as I tried, and if there was a God, he'd understand why, and would not accept me pretending to believe anyway.
There is no God, but be good anyway.
I've never believed because I was never indoctrinated into belief. So, it was always easy for me to just explore religious and other beliefs, maintain a healthy detachment and not force myself to believe in anything that didn't make sense to me.
Reading stories like yours and others has given me a real insight into the strength and character that many atheists who are ex-theists have to have in order to maintain their independence and their personal integrity.
Good for you!
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