Monday, April 22, 2013


So, how does one move from Christian guilt to being an Atheist?

Everybody's journey is different. Some can just say "Bollocks" and shed it all. While I'll admit to some doubt about those people, I'm sure some can - and stick with it. Really, it's hitting indoctrination and superstition with a sledgehammer of logic and just shattering the shell and walking out.

For me... not so much.

I did manage to make church basically not a part of my life. As I mentioned in the first part, I'd have called myself a "nonreligious baptist" at the time, as much a contradiction as that might be. I lived on my own a little (well, in my brother's apartment,) and really between school and jobs didn't have time for much besides eating and collapsing, much less religion or socializing all too much.

Eventually, from financial pressures (see also "rent" and "low paying job,") I moved down to Florida to be with my folks (again) and finish school without worrying about rent. I went to church, mostly to keep them happy (and visit, and hey, free food afterward at least once a month - got to love southern Baptist cookouts and pot-lucks!) But really, I didn't believe.

That little time apart shocked me, really, when I saw how into it my parents had gotten. Part of it was social, sure - but this time, there was no dating interest because I couldn't see myself getting involved with someone from the church that was so into the bible and all the ritual and restrictions. That couldn't see the goodness and worth in themselves, and had to take all the blame for the bad things, and give "all the glory to God."

I did agree, once I had a computer and printer hooked up (going to school to be a draftsman, after all) to help them make the church bulletins. And some of the things I saw...

While I was down there, for instance, Disney agreed to extend some recognition and rights to same-sex couples. (Mid 90s, I believe.) Shortly afterward, as usually happens, we had wind and tornadoes hit. Not a surprise. And none of them, I have to note, were anywhere near Disney. However, this didn't stop some of the preachers and televangelists insisting that this was "God loosing his wrath upon Disney."

And I saw this, in my mother's handwriting, in the notes for the bulletin. She had crossed it out before she gave it to me - some logic prevailed, I suppose, or maybe it was just that it was tasteless. But it turned my stomach to think that this - which did affect some people I knew, not gay, by the way - had been turned to serve the purposes of hate and bigotry.

Worse, that this example had crossed the mind of the otherwise sweet, loving, caring woman who was my mother long enough for her to think it was appropriate and write it down in a bulletin to be handed out to others.

I stared at it a while, feeling sick and angry, debating if I should confront her over how sick that was. Finally - half for not wanting to cause a scene, half knowing I WAS angry and it would be bad to face her that way with this - I passed over it and finished the bulletin.

I never did confront her about that. Time passed. And she still held very anti-gay biases - if she met anybody she suspected of being gay, or knew he was (always he, I don't think she ever really pictured lesbians) I'd hear about the "oh so feminine" guy. Even the server at one of the restaurants we went to regularly, later in life - if someone fit a gay stereotype (a bit of speech, lip gloss, walking, kind of "pretty," for lack of a better way of putting it) it was him without going over the top. She even asked me, talking about him - "Doesn't that bother you?" And just didn't seem to understand how I could say "no, it doesn't."

(For the record, yes, I am straight. Happily so. I love women. I'm turned on by women. As a thought experiment once, after talking to a gay friend of mine, I tried to think of getting involved with a guy. I don't mind seeing guys kissing or holding hands - kissing is a little odd to me. But if I put myself in that situation? Immediate turnoff. Other guys absolutely, positively don't do it for me, no matter who I try to picture. I found it kind of amusing that I couldn't even picture kissing another guy without getting a bit "erg... no." Even without a beard.)

In any case, thanks to the Internet, I met people. Including a woman from Oregon who eventually became my wife. And who I had to lie for as she drove down to move in and get married.

See, she was a witch. A wiccan, if you prefer that term. I'd met her - and her priestess, and others - when I went to oregon... I went there after meeting her online, talking all the time, and falling for her. I mentioned to my cousin she was studying witchcraft. Well, my cousin eventually told her mom, who told her sister (my mom,) and my parents sat down and said "She's not entering this house if she is!"

Knowing nothing about her. Or her religion. Or anything else. Instant ban. Instant dislike. Instant bias.

So, yes, I admit I twisted the truth there. "I said she was studying - as in comparitive religions and mythologies. We talk about it. Obviously someone misunderstood." And when Leah called, I warned her...

Fortunately, we had our own place soon, and were married. She still went to church with my folks, and generally got along with them  - but that always, always hung over my head.

I never did "out" her. Not my place to, after all. It was none of their business, and that hatred made me sick.

I was fairly fed up with Christianity at that point, too. My mom, for instance, earlier had flipped at seeing a hint book for Diablo. Yes, a video game. She didn't want to see "his face" in the house. She was on the edge of grabbing and ripping up the book, I'm sure.

In any case. My wife got sick. The hospitals couldn't say why, even with two spinal taps. We thought it had to be environmental, so - especially after losing my job for having too much time off (going to her father's funeral, her getting sick, finally me getting ill for a bit - none of which I could help) we decided to move back to Oregon. (Big mistake, job/finance wise, but otherwise...)

While there, I joined the coven. I started delving into paganism and Wicca. I met druids. And the people I met were... well, more like the Christian ideal than most Christians I knew. It was weird. And it was... liberating.

At one point, I was sure I had some sort of spiritual insight. That obviously the spiritual truth was like (my oh so clever analogy) a diamond - the whole truth was big, and multifaceted, and changed the way you looked at things so that when you looked in YOUR facet, your belief system, you couldn't see exactly what someone else was seeing! And this explained how nobody had quite the same explanation of god, spirits, the afterlife! It was impossible for us all to see the same thing! If everyone saw that, though, we could get along, hold hands and sing kum-ba-yah!

Yeah, Naiive.

Regardless, they were good people. And fun. Generally poor, but in good spirits anyway.

Then we found out why she was sick.

She had Multiple Sclerosis.

No praying, no laying on of hands, no anything helped her. Still, I could handle that. If we moved back home, where I had family (not FL, but WI, where I grew up) we could get her better care and a caregiver for the time I was working. She agreed - we needed money coming in, after living with her mom. I moved to WI... then it happened.

We called and talked. She always had time, even if I didn't have much to say - work job one, go to job 2, sleep and pay the rent isn't that exciting. Then one day... she didn't. In fact, she didn't answer.  I called her for days trying to get in touch with her, and never got a call back. Why? She had had a grand mal seizure. She was in a coma for several days.

When I finally found out - NOT thanks to her mother, but with friends - I called the hospital nightly. Finally, I got to talk to her, and it was like talking to a 5 year old. And later, someone who was delusional. (The 9/11 attacks happened during one of her stays - she was in and out of the hospital in Oregon - and she had some fairly... trippy conversations after it.)

Unsurprisingly, no amount of praying - even with my folks' church joining in - did anything. Well, it made those praying feel better, I'm sure... did she get out of the hospital? In order to go to a nursing home and rehab for a while, not much of "divine intervention" there. Was she fine afterward? Only until the next seizure. She was in and out of the hospital constantly.

Me, I picked up (fairly rashly) and came back, at a lousy time of year to do it. There was no way she'd be moving cross country - or that I would be able to work and care for her.

Long story short, over time she saw this, and the fact there was no work to be had, stressing me to the point I'd probably be hospitalized myself soon, and started talking about divorce.

With all this, I tried to hold on to some sort of faith. There had to be a reason, right?

Some two years later, my family came together to see my father one last time. And a few months later, to bury him. 

One of the things I see given as a reason to hold on to Christianity, or religion in general, is the "comfort" in times of grief. Dealing with my father's death - I can't say it helped.

It didn't really help with the divorce, either, though by this time I was drifting farther away from religion in general - the social aspect was fine, but as far as the beliefs? The feeling of some "higher power" out there? All the questioning was coming back - and the answers were all pointing at "no." The evidence was getting shakier and shakier.

At this point, I'd moved back in with my mom - after the divorce, I needed time to get back on my feet, find a good job and, as a side benefit, help her out. She was still having a few problems after my dad's death. So it was a good deal for both of us. I helped with some bills, helped out around the house as I could, and we helped each other.

She was still very christian. I went to church with her a few times, but at this time I was fairly... areligious. God no longer seemed like an answer to anything, much less someone or something that would have an impact in life. I was probably closer to how I'd heard deists explained - that, maybe there was a god, but he'd pretty much just set things in motion and stepped away to let things go how they were. We were, basically, a lab experiment. (And by "we" I mean the entire universe. Humans, earth, amoebas, cats, whales, palm trees, ear wax, galaxies, everything.) 

I'd also started re-igniting my love of astronomy. Astronomy is an absolute deathblow for the "specialness" of man, or a tribe of people, for a universe-wide deity. You look up, and the points of light you see in the sky are light that's anywhere from, oh, 18 minutes (if I'm remembering my distance to Mars correctly) to billions of years old. That some of those tiny, tiny points dwarf our sun - and not by a little. Some of those tiny dots are entire galaxies, even clusters of galaxies, with billions of stars of their own. That many of them may well not BE there any more, having used their fuel up before modern humans even poked their noses out of their caves.

I couldn't help but think, in context, how much more sense a "local" god - a god of a city or nation, such as Zeus, who lived "over there on that mountain" made. It made sense that one who lived there and could see you would pick your people as their own, and fight against other gods. It's just like national emblems - Brittania over English troops, for instance. And when the Israelites came up with their god - well, he was an evolution of other national and nature deities that lived nearby. Their idea of the "universe" was a firmament just overhead, after all. So in that worldview, that understanding of the universe, it makes some degree of sense to think an "all powerful" being would look down and say "Huh. Jews. I like them, I'm going to call them my chosen people."

I can't help but wonder if, had they had the knowledge of the universe we do now, if there would be no (religious) jews, just a nationality. Because when you can hop a half-hour ride on a beam of light, look back, and not be able to pick out your home among all the other points of light - and then realise that humanity, ALL of it, is taking up a tiny, tiny fraction of that point of light, and that all these other points of light (some - many, apparnetly - with planets, possibly with life, all mind-numbing distances away)  - I can't help but think they'd think just how silly it would be for not just humanity, but one specific, tiny fraction of humanity, to be "chosen" by that deity. And how foolish it is to fight for whose idea of deities is right.

At some point, I realized I was no longer agnostic. Not even deist. The idea of a god starting things off was just nonsensical - and people using this idea to belittle, even kill others, was abhorrent. That there was no morality in the bible. There were some common-sense, decidedly not divine revelations but common sense means of keeping a community running (do you REALLY need a god to tell you "Hey, dont' kill, don't steal from your neighbor?") That the only thing religion had to offer - not church, which could offer some socialization - was fear, fear that drove this unprovable, improbable idea they were selling of a god and an afterlife.

At that point, I realized I was an atheist. I'd come all the way out. Hell held no fear for me, because it was an improbable, illogical construct. God had no evidence for existing. Heaven? Also made no sense. (Not to mention sounded like torture to feed something else's ego - an eternity, yes, ETERNITY, praising one being? That sounds like hell, frankly.) Ghosts, spirits, and souls? Zero evidence, but plenty of evidence for wishful thinking and what we've discovered about brain chemistry.

I never told my mom. At this point, she was declining. I helped her come to a decision to leave one church where she'd been going, and mostly was going out of loyalty to my deceased father, but was decidedly unhappy, to another where (most importantly to me, given her health and social and mental health,) her friends were. I knew she couldn't accept me being an atheist. I could, of course, afford to move out, get an apartment, take care of my own bills, still come by and see her (once she was no longer angry,) but it was best for our peace to not tell her. She never understood why I didn't enjoy her religiously-based intolerance of gays - pointing out an apparently gay waiter and giving the usual "tsk, that's too bad," making some comment (so out of line with a normally sweet, lovign woman,) and then, seeing my reaction, asking me "doesn't he bother you?" She didn't seem to understand how I could say "No, he doesn't." I'll say she at least honored my decision not to attend church (though the invitations did still come once in a while.)

Eventually, cancer claimed her. At the end, for her frustration with chemo and the like, she - not god, not anything else - made a brave choice to face the inevitable, to not prolong what would not be a happy end to life through more surgeries and less-than-50% chance chemo.

I didn't actually see her leaning on her bible then, either. I saw her strength coming from inside to make it through her last days and weeks.

And of all the times I'd had to face death so far - my ex-wife's seizures and coma, which tore me up, my father's, which lingered with me - I was most able to handle my mother's, this wonderful woman with human flaws, who I was very close to - the best. I knew she had nothing to fear from maybe having messed up and missed her chance at an afterlife, despite being a generally good, helpful, loving person. No "limbo," no "purgatory," not that those were ever part of our lives when we were religious anyway. No, just a woman who'd lived her life, done the best job she could raising her family, and passed away peacefully at the end.

I mourned, of course - but I was most at ease with her death because I knew that was the end of any pain and suffering. Not because of a concept of heaven, but because she was finally done with it. I missed her, of course, but I understood and adjusted, and cherished memories.

I looked back at my own life, and realized I was more at peace with myself and the world, more accepting of others, more driven to create equality and pick others up who'd had trouble, and cherished my loved ones more as an atheist than I ever did as a Christian. I had a drive to make the most of this life. To help others suffer less, because there was no "eternal reward" for them to go to - this was their only shot. To see that there was no "chosen" group - we are all human, all sharing the same DNA, the differences between us so minor that there's no reason to put someone down because of race, or hair color, or being gay, or being a man or woman. Certainly not for our own artificial dividing lines of nation or religion.

And I also realized I had to get that message out.

So here we are. And I hope you get it, and consider it, and what it can do for your life. 

My name is Eric McCann. I'm an Atheist. Let's talk.

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