Saturday, March 27, 2010

I'm An Atheist 1

I've had a number of recent experiences that oblige me to make a public statement in support of atheism. This is going to be one of my long, rambling essays -- what can I say, it's spring and my sap is rising.

Before we get much further, let me make it clear that I'm not trying to convince anyone to share my opinion. Yes, at times there will be harsh language used. A big part of this blog is about me writing casually, writing the way I speak, and I am a blunt and vulgar person. If that bothers you, get the fuck out of here.

I have some things to say about religion that a lot of atheists won't like; other opinions will not please the faithful. I will not write with obnoxious intent, though. I am just going to explain as honestly as I can how I view religion, and how I came to these views. Remember -- it is possible to respect a person even when you cannot respect all of their beliefs. Many of my own beliefs are worthy of scorn; I try to address them, but the damned things are like weeds. Leave your mind alone for a couple of weeks and it's covered in dandelions.

I've intended to write on this subject for some time, but I've been hesitant. I have a number of people in my life who are religious, and I don't want to hurt their feelings. And that desire not to hurt the feelings of the faithful has been a great source of confusion in my life.

During the winter, I traveled to Oregon. My relatives up there are devout Christians. During one conversation with an uncle -- a conversation that showed him to be for the most part a man of uncommon good sense and humanity -- my uncle began to berate the ACLU. When I told him that most of what he was complaining about came down to support for the rights of atheists, not an attack on Christianity.

"Well, who cares what atheists think?" he said, with a note of genuine scorn in his voice. I didn't want to turn a productive discussion into an argument -- and I knew that once I got started on this subject, my temper would become involved. Anyone who's been in my presence when I'm angry knows the experience is unpleasant, and my uncle is a very strong personality in his own right. So I bit my lip -- nothing I like more than those moments when one must choose between being an asshole or a chickenshit.

More recently, on a blog I follow, a simple exchange regarding science and art was interrupted by a comment from an anti-atheist individual who referred to the Kristallnacht in a fashion that made it unclear whether they were accusing my friend and I of being complicit in it -- or if he wished that we would suffer the fate of the Jews in Germany. Context strongly suggests the latter. This person (probably a dude, but it might have been Ann Coulter) was clearly deranged, but still representative of a strong hostility toward atheism in the US, a hostility that joyfully encompasses violence.

So I want to make it absolutely clear to these people that I am an atheist.

A materialist, to be specific -- I see no reason to believe that there are supernatural forces at work in the universe.

My first clear, conscious memories began when I was about three. There is a certain connection between them -- in my mind they are so inextricably linked that I can't write about the one of them that is specific to this subject. Together they explain the roots of my worldview. As you read, consider that I was not a normal child. I was much too smart to be healthy. I thought of myself as an adult, and for the most part the grownups in my life treated me as such.

Let the rambling begin.

I remember lying in my bed at night. My mother had made a banner for the room I shared with my brother; on the side facing his bed was a lion, on the side facing my bed was a toy soldier of the Nutcracker variety, which I thought was bogus and a rip. The lion was way cooler. Anyway, I had to pee -- but I was frightened of the monsters that lurked in the dark. So I wet the bed. As the urine cooled, I felt as though I had betrayed myself. There was no control or dignity in my action. I was scared of the monsters, but I decided never to do that again.

I remember sitting on the dark, unpainted wood of our back porch, looking at the ivy-covered fence and playing with our dog. My cousin came out the back door. She carried a styrofoam tray with raw bones on it. She put the bones under my dog's head, and when the dog tried to get them, my cousin pulled them away and set the tray on top of the dog's head and giggled. "Don't do that," I said. "That's mean." When the dog started growling, I said, "Don't do that. She's getting mad." My cousin was laughing now. I didn't know what she thought was funny.

The dog jerked her head up, scattering the bones, grabbed my cousin by the face, and shook her as she screamed into the dog's mouth. I don't remember if I called for help or ran to get the grownups or just stood there staring.

What I do remember is my emotional state. I was distant from the scene, shocked by the simple fact of violence. I understood that we were all in the jaws of the world. I was crying, but I wasn't scared -- and I felt no sympathy for my cousin. She had acted like a fool, and I knew my dog would pay. I was three, I loved the dog, and I didn't really know my cousin.

(I don't know how badly my cousin was injured, but she did have plastic surgery. She grew into a lovely woman and a good person. We have never discussed this incident -- she's a little younger than me and I don't even know if she remembers it.)

And the third memory...

Our house was on the same block as the Christian Science church my grandmother attended. I was sent to Sunday School by myself, with a quarter for the collection plate. I had a suit that I only wore to church, charcoal gray with pinstripes and short pants. I did not like the suit, and I did not like church. The people were nice, they were polite, but they made me feel as though they didn't respect me.

I tried as hard as I could to figure out what Sunday school was about. They would tell us what were obviously fairy tales, about people who lost their strength if you cut their hair, or talking snakes, or a boat so big that a pair of every kind of animal in the world could live aboard it.

I loved fairy tales, but there was a problem here. These people told me that their stories were real. And when I asked questions and tried to understand why they said that, the answer was always the same.

"You need to have faith."

The story of the Passion enraged me. I knew that I would never, ever want someone to be punished for things that I had done wrong. And I also knew that unless I had actually done something wrong, then punishment was unjust. To be told that I somehow had misbehavior built into me and that a kind man had been nailed to a stick because of it?

Someone was yanking my chain. There was no way anyone could really believe that. It was just a way of making me feel bad so I'd do what they told me to -- and I was already doing that. But I wanted to be in accord with the people around me. I wanted to know the secret. There must be something they weren't telling me, something that would make it all make sense.

One day as I was walking out of church, I had an epiphany in the parking lot. When they said I needed to have faith? What they meant was shut up. They did not have any real reason to believe the things they said were true.

Grownups also played make-believe -- they just played it more seriously, and for higher stakes.

I still feel that moment -- it was my first intellectual orgasm. I didn't get a rush that good until I learned subtraction. But it wasn't just the sense of things clicking into place, of doing something properly.

It was a sense of relief. I didn't have to wrestle with all that crazy stuff anymore. I didn't have to play the game on their level. I could just, you know, make believe. Go to Sunday school when they told me to, listen to the stories, sing the hymns, give 'em the quarter. Like getting up in the night to pee, it was unpleasant, but I was going to do it.

There was consolation. When I got old enough? I wouldn't have to do it anymore.

That's about as sane as I've ever been in my life. Too bad I wasn't able to maintain those beliefs. Once I lost my way, it was a hard road back.


Traumador said...

been meaning to comment on your renewed posts (as i've been reading them... just been busy trying to transplant back home as it were). i have been enjoying them a lot!

very interesting beginning to the story. wondering where it goes next...

Sean Craven said...

Welcome back to the continent, dude!

I'm glad to be back on track. I've actually started compiling and revising my memoir/autobiographical posts with an eye toward some kind of publication, so I feel less guilty about blogging now. Plus,you know. Winter's over.

And my current art project is giving me a background for my icthyosaur reconstruction. I swear, I'll have something this round.

And as for where this goes next, well. I can guarantee a couple of surprises.

robp said...

So, will this be a 26 part series? And when's the offensive stuff begin? And why is there no link to your story on your blog?

Once, as a small lad, I said in my grandma's presence, "I don't believe in God." The only time I can ever remember seeing her get angry. She snarled, "Well you'd better believe in something."

Thing is, I believe in many things. And I'd rather believe in others. But I can usually separate the two. Anyway, the Bible teachings I heard were nothing I wanted to believe. Who created this world, Stephen King?

Sean Craven said...

Well, it's obviously Steven King. Didn't you catch the part where he foreshadowed Cujo?

The offensiveness begins tomorrow. It comes from the Old Testament, of course.

I think it'll take four parts to nail this one.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for your support about that silly Crystal Night guy.

My favourite is your realization about what having faith means.

Gorgeously well-written, and on one of my favourite topics. Can't wait for the rest!

Sean Craven said...

Glad you like it, dude. After that idiot's vaguely threatening horseshit, I'd feel like a total pussy if I didn't declare my atheism.

I suspect this is going to take me a little while to get through... and it'll go places you don't ordinarily see in discussions of atheism.

I'm trying hard to write something that a person of faith wouldn't immediately recoil from, while not trying to be conciliatory. It's tricky -- this is pretty restrained stuff for my blog.

Traumador said...

thanks for the welcome back to north of america...

can't wait to see your ichthyosaur!

also loving this series more and more (just read part 3)