Wednesday, May 28, 2008
In search of God and a half pound of chopped meat
Being an atheist is not easy. We are only 4% of the population, for one thing.
I've felt a bit more comfortable since the spate of books about atheism that we've seen in the last few years. There's Sam Harris, whom I love having on "my side" with his "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation" and his willingness to engage in debate with people totally opposed to him and stay in good cheer. There's Dawkins, a noted scientist, who wrote "The God Delusion", which appeals to a different set, is English, and somewhat more serious in tone. And then there's Christopher Hitchins, who came out with "Why God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything", another crankier than thou piece of writing by this perennially obnoxious writer.
But still, I'm glad it's there. Anyway, every point of view needs a smattering of curmudgeons, snobs and other disagreeable sorts.
I was incredibly surprised, when on a layover stop at the Atlanta airport, the "God Delusion" was a featured book at the small bookstore where I sat and had a coffee. Somehow, just seeing this unabashedly atheist statement sitting high up on the stacks, with its "Featured Title - 30% Off" sign made me feel a bit more hopeful about the fate of mankind (at least for twenty minutes or so).
I have never believed in god. I wasn't brought up with religion, so the concept of a god was never instilled into my once quite malleable brain.
Oh, I wanted to believe, even desperately at times. I looked around at other people, my street, my town, my country, the entire world, and it appeared that every one else believed in some god or another. What was wrong with my family? I wanted to belong and I did not.
When school was out because of a religious holiday, I would feel at wit's end. We would do nothing, like any other Sunday when we didn't go to church (or Saturdays that we didn't go to a synagogue).
I went to Mass with my Catholic neighbors for years. I didn't believe a word the Priest said. Again, I yearned to believe, but it all seemed too ridiculous to me. Yet, I kept going. At one point, I got it in my head that if I took communion I would be convinced or at least have some kind of epiphany (though I doubt I knew that word at the time). I waited in line to accept the wafer and a sip of wine, all the while accompanied by my anxious 9 year old friend, whose anxiety was mounting and mounting as she whispered different things to me like, "You can't take communion 'cause you weren't baptised" or "You haven't been confirmed" (confirmed as what?) I waited. I was anxious, too, for I wanted it so badly. Perhaps there would be thunder in the sky, a bolt of lightening, something, anything, just to let me believe for once and for all that there might be a possibility of a god, and that I could stop feeling alienated from the rest of humanity. But I never got that wafer or that wine, for when I was about to kneel beneath the Priest, my friend yelled out "Stop. She's Jewish!"
I suppose she thought there could be lighting or thunder, too, but it wouldn't be a good thing, only a sign from her god that she was going to hell in a handbasket.
In retrospect, I think it would have been the right thing for that Priest to have given me communion, in spite of the rules and the rituals. I mean, how many ten year old kids are that hungry for the experience? What would have been the harm, really?
But no, it wasn't done and so I stopped going. I was bored there after the novelty of the rituals wore off and my communion was denied. I even wanted to go to confession. It seemed like a wonderful idea, especially to a kid who was milk fed on guilt every day. What a fantastic thing: you feel bad about something. You tell the priest (who doesn't even see you!) You say a certain amount of Hail Marys or Our Fathers and it's over and done with. No residual guilt. No nothing. You slate is clean. Great idea. They should have 'em on street corners of bad neighborhoods.
But my brush with Catholicism was over. Protestants had all sorts of variations and I thought I'd try 'em all.
The first thing I realized I needed was a bible. Being as ignorant as I was, I didn't think you could buy one in a bookstore. They were religious objects, sacred, very special. It never occurred to me that you could get one in a big drug store or alongside romance novels and magazines.
So, I went to a church and asked for a bible. Oh, that minister was as pleased as punch! He most happily gave this young girl her first bible. He also told me, that yes, I could have gotten one at a bookstore, but coming to the church showed how serious I was and that it was "god's will". Seriously, once I found out that I could have chosen from dozens of translations, I thought it was more a question of my own ignorance than any will of a supernatural being, but I let that happy minister believe what he liked. I was getting a free bible, after all.
Parenthetically, this reminds me of a story, totally unrelated: One christmas, when I was 18 or 19 (and I looked all of 12), I went to the supermarket to get some chopped meat to make myself a hamburger. All the packages were just too big for one little me and so I asked if they'd make me up a half pound package. I waited a bit and this woman came out with a 10 pound slab of chopped meat. On it was a sticker that said "Special" in bright red. The price was the same as half a pound of chuck.
I was puzzled. I asked for a half a pound and I got ten. I had no where to put it for I had one of those little refrigerators with enough room in the freezer for two ice cube trays and a perhaps one box of frozen spinach if one bothered to manually defrost it (which I did not).
I said there must be some mistake but the butcher pushed that big package at me and said, "Take this, dear, back to your family. I know no one likes charity, but it's Christmas time. Give it to your mother and say Merry Christmas." I started to explain, "But no, I live alone. . ." I could see she could not believe me, did not want to believe and needed to believe that she was doing this very good deed. So, I took the chopped meat home with me. I made a hamburger. I have no idea what happened to the other nine and a half pounds of meat.
Back in those days, I got a lot of free food. I looked like a waif. And I was poor, and so, when I looked at a menu in a restaurant and asked, oh, "Is it possible to get a half portion of pancakes?" I'd usually wind up with a double portion at half the price. It got to be a regular thing with me (and no, I'm not proud). One day my brother suggested I was scamming people, which I was (though making them feel good in the process) and he shamed me sufficiently to make me stop this charade.
What does this have to do with believing in God? Oh, nothing much, except for the fact that that Minister was delighted to have a kid show up at his church asking for a bible. I was always keenly aware of other peoples' desire to do good works, as deluded as they might be.
I've tried to believe in god. I've gotten down on my knees and prayed and I've prayed hard and I prayed for years. But there was always a resounding silence. Absolutely nothing convinced me that there was a shred of evidence for the existence of god, or for heaven or hell or the devil or any of the other faith-based ideas, places, dates and events.
And if there was a god, what kind of monster was he? He let good people perish while others lied, cheated, stole, murdered and raped? For what purpose? He asked Abraham to kill his first born son? He let his son die on a cross?
If he was so powerful, why was he so insecure and jealous? I mean, he's god, for god's sake: he could kill you with a flick of his wrist (or whatever) if you even thought a naughty thought! Why was he so keen on having humans prove their devotion?
These were my childish thoughts, but they aren't so far from what I believe today. Perhaps today, my feelings are more nuanced, but they are essentially the same.
It saddens me, in a way, that it seemingly takes a lot of guts to admit to being an atheist. People are scared of admitting it. It's abnormal. It's suspect. So, it seems to me, most folks say they're agnostic. Perhaps they are agnostic and are hedging their bets. I mean, if I really wasn't sure, I would be afraid of going to hell. And a part of me says "Hey, maybe you are!" But really, show me where hell is or where heaven is, when we've explored space, been to the moon and sent probes even further. Where is it? Is it in a parallel universe? Where are the fiery pits that hold the trillions of damned people?
If someone could point these two places out to me on a map, maybe I'd be an agnostic, but only then.
Painting Note:William-Adolphe Bougereau's Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850
This, depending on the viewer, may either look like heaven or something one would go to hell for, not indulge in once there.