19 June, 2008

The Consolation of Faithlessness

PZ Myers recently posted an email on Pharyngula that reminded me of all I left behind:

I'm tormented.

I appreciate the struggle many creationists are having about evolutionary science. I find myself tormented as I observe the world around me.
Quite the cri de coeur, isn't it? I recognize it well. Now mind you, I was never tormented over evolutionary biology - even in my very brief period of true belief, evolution didn't bother me overmuch. Thought God was great, didn't I? Clever enough bugger to have used evolution to create lil ol' us. My problem with evolution was exactly the same as it is now - I don't know half as much about it as I'd like.

But trust me when I say I was tormented.

Hard not to be, really, when you're a thinking person. I observed the world around me, and found a lot of fuckery that tended to disprove the notion of a loving, personal God. Awful lot of killing, raping, stealing, and so forth going on. Too many Christian sects fighting each other tooth and nail over ridiculous bits of doctrine. Too many other religions out there that had good ideas and good people believing in them. Too many contradictions between the evidence of the Bible and the evidence of my eyes.

Those pat answers about things all being part of God's plan, sometimes the answer to a prayer is "no," bad things happening because of some kind of sin, none of that sat well with me. I couldn't swallow it.

One of the reasons was that my paternal grandmother died in terrible pain. And the more religious I got, the more it didn't make sense. Live a good life and you'll be rewarded. God will take care of you if you only believe. Well, she lived a good life. Never smoked, never drank, never blasphemed. A kind, generous Christian woman got eaten alive by breast cancer. I remember one of her arms swelled up to grotesque proportions because her cancer had metasticized. I remember her pain and hot flashes. And yet she bore it all, and as far as I know never wavered in her faith. How to reconcile that with a God who can perform miracles? I know others manage to explain it away as part of a mysterious Plan, but when I thought about it, I couldn't put my faith in a God who would allow a good woman to die hard.

It wasn't just her.

I had Hindu friends. Fantastic people whom I loved very much. And according to my church, God would condemn them to everlasting torment for worshipping the wrong gods.

My life was suddenly constricted to a list of outmoded moral prohibitions that made about as much sense as putting child rapists in a position of authority over alter boys. Set a foot wrong, and I'd piss off God. And really, who knew what pissed God off? It seemed God was awfully fickle in what was allowed and what wasn't.

We're told to pray about things, and God will provide. Let go and let God. Put your trust in the Lord. Well, that works better if you're getting unequivocal answers. Was it coincidence or God's will that what I prayed for happened? Was it God's will or just the way of things that what I prayed for didn't happen? How the fuck was I supposed to know when the bastard didn't have the decency to tell me outright? Why speak to some people, but not all of us?

I could go on, but any of you who've ever flirted with being a true believer knows exactly what happened. It was probably my writing that saved me from years of torment and cognitive dissonance. You see, I had to study up on science for the worldbuilding, and the more science I read, the more rational my thinking became. Answers I couldn't find through prayer, I could find through science.

It wasn't just science. I wasn't writing a Christian series, and it wasn't like aliens were likely to have heard the gospel of Christ anyway, so I had to study comparative religion to get an idea of what their faith might look like. And a lot of those religions made more sense to me than Christianity. Many didn't claim an omnipotent Creator who liked to poke his nose in and occasionally cock the finger to smite. The Divine suddenly seemed a lot bigger than expected, a lot more remote, and a lot more comfortable.

So some of the torment vanished when I became agnostic. It still didn't go completely away. All religions make claims that you can't prove, many of which don't make any sense. And the more science I read, the more I started seeing that every religion was a set of human ideas. Neurobiology explained a fuck of a lot about why we believe what we do. And that prepared me to finally let go of the need for the Divine.

It's amazing what happened next.

When I lost my faith completely, when I stopped looking for something supernatural behind the curtain, I stopped feeling tormented. The faint worry that I'd earned myself a ticket to a place hotter than Phoenix went away. The conflict between a benevolent Divinity and a harsh world vanished. When there was nothing in my world that wasn't natural, when there wasn't a single thing people did that couldn't be explained by how the brain functions (or doesn't, depending on who you're talking about), things were suddenly easier to take. The evil of the world isn't down to an angry deity or some variety of sin, but is simply a result of humans being humans. And if it's humans, not demons, not Satan, doing the evil, it's humans that can stop it.

We don't have to rely on a deity. We can rely on ourselves.

Some people find that terrifying. They can't take responsibility. But I'm not one of them. I'm fine with it all being down to our own choices. I think we'll do a hell of a lot better doing for ourselves rather than expecting God to do for us. It's too easy to give up when you have a god to rely on. It's too easy to act the child and expect your deity to take care of you when you should be taking care of yourself.

I got to grow up when I accepted the fact that not once scintilla of evidence proved that some sort of Divine Presence existed. I got to take responsibility. It doesn't always work out, but at least I have only myself to blame. It's far, far easier than trying not to blame God.

Not relying on magical thinking gets me to solutions a lot faster. I could do a ritual something to ensure the result I want, or I could take the concrete steps to make it possible. Concrete steps, it turns out, work a fuck of a lot better than magical thinking.

I've discovered a confidence I've never had before, being an atheist. I'm not constantly pestered by a niggling fear that God doesn't want me to know, do or understand something. The limits are gone. Since I no longer believe anything's possible as long as my faith is strong enough, I don't end up doubting myself half as much. Some things aren't possible. Some things are vaguely possible. And some things are probable, especially if I take steps to make them so. If something doesn't turn out the way I wanted it to, I'm not doubting the strength of my faith: I'm laughing at the ineptness of my planning, or the way that life throws up variables that you never even considered, but which turned out to be rather important. There's no faith to be shaken, so I'm not asking "Why?" There's no angry god behind the whys and wherefores, just the vagaries of life.

You can get irritated and angered by, but not at, vagaries of life. Makes it a lot less personal and a lot easier to let go of, that. "I'll know better next time" has become something of a mantra. There's a lot more laughter involved with that way of thinking. A lot more confidence that what fucked up my cunning scheme this time won't happen the next.

There's no more torment. I'm not locked in to a single path with no alternative routes if something goes wrong. That's liberating, that is. And that's why I laugh when people try to tell me I have to have faith.

What possible reason would I have to give up the consolation of my faithlessness? I haven't found one yet. I doubt I ever will.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Dana - a very personal and moving testimony to your journey.

It makes me deeply grateful that I've never had to live in a psychological world dominated by these horrible religious mental limits and judgements. And I'm always impressed by the courage of people who manage to escape and be themselves - can't be an easy process.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad I found this blog, this post was amazing and exactly what I needed to hear today! So much of what you said was very close to what I experienced in my deconversion. I am only now starting to "come out" about being an atheist, and its such an inspiration to know that I'm not alone, it gives a sense of community to others new to atheism.