After Atheism

My Story

The following is a excerpt from my book, Old Bug, that will give you a sense of where I’m coming from regarding religion, atheism, and science…

I have little patience for, much less belief in, any form of organized religion. I suppose I fall into the category of lapsed Catholic. As I’ve said, I was educated in parochial schools and grew up believing in the invisible empire of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and a large supporting cast of saints and angels. Midway through high school, faced with the well-documented doubts raised by science, philosophy, history and common sense, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to remain aboard Catholicism’s leaky ship if I didn’t want to. And so I jumped.

I can remember the precise moment it happened. One spring morning when I was fifteen, I was walking to school. Along my route there was an old oak tree that had been hit by lightning sometime the previous winter. The tree had fallen, taking with it a section of the cyclone fence that bordered the school’s outer athletic fields, creating a convenient shortcut that saved me from hauling myself and my armload of schoolbooks another three blocks to the street gate.

That particular morning, my head tangled in I-can’t-remember-what adolescent turmoil, I climbed up on that fallen tree and found my balance, high enough to see the school in the misty distance. That’s when it hit me. A realization as bright and stunning as an unexpected firecracker: Belief is a choice. And I could choose not to believe.

Rather than continue trying to resolve the many conflicts between what I had been brought up to believe and what I was discovering about the world around me, I could simply stop believing. Stop trying to strain experience through the wringer of religion.
And so, that’s what I did. I snuffed the fading candle out. As I jumped off that uprooted tree, I felt a rush of exhilaration, like trapped bird finding its way free of a dark barn. My life was now mine. And that was that.

It is the oft-acknowledged plight of the once Catholic, from James Joyce to Madonna, to have experienced the awe and wonder, the strength and the humility that come from belief in a higher power, then lost the belief that inspired those emotions. The believer inside us, like the child inside us, never quite dies. Call it the residue of lost faith. I was still stirred by sacred places, by the silence of cathedrals, by the meditative trance of a medieval chant, by the ancient power of ritual, the smell of incense, the flicker of candlelight, the crack of dawn. I would see the calm assuredness in the eyes of the wise believer, the tales of spiritual guidance and strength, and I’d wonder: maybe there is something to all this. Maybe in my efforts to unmask religion, I’d been struck by a kind of blindness. Maybe, in my eagerness to flee religion’s grip, I’d denied myself the comfort of its embrace. Maybe, behind all the smoke and mirrors, behind all the righteousness and the hypocrisy, behind all the charlatans and shenanigans, there was something there that might be of value to me.

This suspicion kept me hovering at the peripheries, circling the tent, reading Otto and Armstrong and Durkheim, listening to Bach and admiring Michelangelo. It kept me from closing my ears to all discussion of spirituality and signing on as a full-fl edged atheist, impatiently explaining how religion was just a con game for the dimwitted masses, studiously picking apart the philosophical arguments offered over the years for God’s existence, getting all indignant over school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. For some reason, I just couldn’t go there.

I mean, come on: every human society ever known (as far as I am aware) has practiced some form of religion. Throughout history, in every corner of the world, multitudes of people have considered their faith in God—or at least in a spiritual power beyond the surface of reality—to be at the core of their very being. Something has to be driving that impulse. Even if you dismiss what’s on the surface—all those Sacred Heart of Jesus pictures and happy Buddha statues and Holy Day yarmulkes—I cannot accept that there’s not something to it, something deep down in common core of what it means to be human.

To dismiss a billion worshipers, a million houses of worship, holy books and statues and candles flickering beyond count, as merely the artifacts of millennia-long mass delusion, anachronisms left over from a simpler time, felt more like hubris than wisdom. Like I was somehow missing the point. What that point was, I did not know. But I was not willing to deny the possibility of its existence. The idea of a spiritual journey re-awakened a question that had been buzzing in my head, on and off, for much of my adult life. Not in any debilitating, neurotic way. And not all the time. Just occasionally. Like a housefly on a summer’s night when you’re trying to sleep, circling unseen in the darkness, buzzing.

The question was this: if I don’t, or can’t, or won’t believe in the core assumptions of religion, namely that the world was created and is controlled by an unseen power called God, who has revealed himself to us in holy scriptures, who expects us to live by certain rules, and who passes judgment over us in this life and in the next, then what do I believe?

Religion, whatever its downsides, personal or historical, brings certain benefits to the believer. It provides community, ethical guidance, strength in the face of adversity, consolation in the face of death, a basis for hope, a path to forgiveness, a sense of higher purpose, and a connection to something beyond one’s self, to something infinite and eternal.

The nonbeliever’s predicament, at least in my case, was that once you cancel the policy, you also lose the benefits. And life without religion does not mean life without quandaries. I still had my moral dilemmas, my struggles to forgive, my moments of despair, my fear of death. Faced with suffering, I still sought hope. I still yearned for the reassurance of meaning and purpose. I still wanted to feel part of something greater than myself. Who doesn’t? But where do I turn for answers?

Science, which played a considerable role in undermining the basic foundations my faith, provided little to replace them. Science is basically a process of coming to conclusions that are free of individual bias and political agenda. It’s a method for getting to the truth by way of observation, hypothesis and experiment (versus superstition, rhetoric and reliance on sacred texts.)

Overall, science has had an incredible success rate, revolutionizing the world and the way we live. In a thousand ways, it has allowed the human race to harness the earth to a breathtaking degree. It has cured diseases, fed the multitudes, offered up a wealth of solutions for our every basic—and not so basic—need. It has vastly expanded the horizons of perception, from the nucleus of an atom to the edge of the universe. Over the last five hundred years, science has almost entirely usurped religion’s role of explaining how the world works. When the theories of science have butted heads with the assertions of religion, from heliocentric vs. geocentric to evolution vs. creationism, science has always gotten my vote.

But there was one thing that science lacked: In its desire to be objective, science tends to avoid things it can’t measure—like the stuff that goes on inside our heads. Scientists avoid theories about the meaning and purpose of life, about good and evil, about how to endure injustice and suffering, about how to find hope or face death… the hard-to-quantify, subjective experience of being human. Science is not much help in navigating inner life’s troubled waters. When it comes to matters relating to that part of experience variously referred to as the soul, the spirit, the heart, science has never succeeded in finding substitutes for religion. So where is a seeker supposed to turn, when neither science nor religion have all the answers?


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