Friday, October 26, 2007

What is God?

I am an atheist. It's a belief set I acquired later in life, but I don't know why I didn't get there sooner.

My parents tried to raise me Catholic. I went to Catholic school starting with kindergarten. There was First Friday Mass, Holy Days and Mass, May Procession and Mass, confession, sacraments, uniforms, knee socks, and guilt about things I couldn't even understand.

Boys on one side of the room, girls on the other. Boys in one line, girls in the other. Boys on one half of the playground, girls on the other, with some invisible force field keeping the two groups apart. Line up, line up, line up. Shortest in front, everyone in order by height. I was first in line throughout elementary school.

Every school day started with a prayer. Homework was stamped with an inked angel, either lauding "Jesus is happy," or "You can do better." Sometimes my work was only worthy of a big "C" scrawled at the top of the paper, indicating that my work was merely "correct."

Despite years of nun exposure, Catholicism just didn't stick. I was unable to cozy up to a belief system that constantly reiterated that I was and always would be less valuable than a man. I refused to embrace that idea. It seemed to me that in the Catholic world, I was always being berated, told to feel humble, or paying to pray.

During Catholic Mass, the collection basket comes through twice. I suppose that after the sermon, we were supposed to feel so infused with the holy spirit that we would only be able to express it by parting with our hard-earned allowance. One of the things I liked about church was the abundance of candles. They were everywhere and they were usually lit. It wasn't the presence of God's spirit that attracted me to the candles; it was the beautiful, twinkling flames and warm glow of the wax. I was particularly taken with the votives at the front of the church. Rows of little candles in red glass jars were lined up in an ornamental ironwork rack, kneeler in front. Of course, it was the Catholic church, so there was a coin box on the front of the metal rack. If you wanted to light a candle and say a prayer, you were supposed to put some coins in the box as an offering to God. It wasn't until I was much older that I figured out that you didn't actually have to pay to talk to God, and that the candles were supposed to represent a soul lost to this world that we were encouraging to move on into heaven with the help of five cents and a sincere prayer to God or the Virgin Mary. Take your pick.

Throughout my life, I've seen good and bad, wonderful and horrific events. I have suffered and watched others suffer. When I began to question my faith in an all-knowing, all-seeing, all punishing and disdaining God, I was told that believing was critical to my future comfort in this world and the next. When I questioned how God could allow the horrible suffering in our world, I was told that man was given free will. It didn't make sense to me. Nobody I knew would ever choose to suffer, starve, be raped, murdered, or blasted out of their house by a bomb. Where's the free will in that?

Ah, in the Catholic religion, this was God's way of proving that those who just weren't faithful enough could not count on his support. Eventually, I had to discard the willing suspension of disbelief. It wasn't working and my sense of logic far overpowered my desire to feel a connection to a fatherly figure who, if he was overseeing my life, had obviously fallen asleep at the controls.

Around the time I turned 40, my life started to unravel. My mind started to unravel. My finances went to shit, and it seemed as though nothing could go my way. I prayed a lot. I got sicker. I prayed more. My life became even more complicated. My father started dying a slow, agonizing and very undignified death. I prayed for a cure, the right treatment, or his swift death, but was granted none of them. My mind snapped, my brain went to Jello, and God was nowhere to be found. Prayer wasn't worth crap. Maybe I had stopped putting money in the coin slot too soon, but I'd been buying my own candles for so long, the ones at church seemed unnecessary.

Ditching God felt dangerous at first, but eventually, I felt liberated. My life didn't change much post-God, although I suppose the possibility of eternal damnation still awaits me in my as-yet-unproven-to-exist after-life.

I find it interesting that people are always happy to tell you about their religion, or at least to mention which faith they ascribe to, yet any atheist I've ever met has only admitted to their lack of faith in hushed tones or with requests not to divulge the fact. Is there shame in being an atheist? There's no shame in other ideologies, so what's the issue with this one? I am not ashamed. I am proud to know that I can think for myself, draw my own conclusions, and get through life without manufactured guilt.

What do I believe?
  • I believe in science, proof, or at the very least, plausible explanations.
  • I believe it is more important to walk the walk than to pay lip service to something you're supposed to believe.
  • Be fair.
  • Be kind.
  • Help when you can.
  • Try.
  • Be generous.
  • Try to like whomever you can, but just accept that you can't like everyone.
  • Do the right thing.
  • Ethics count.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Listen
  • I believe that what I believe is nobody's business.


Spilling Ink said...

I like your beliefs, May. They are quite similar to my own. The whole catholic bit didn't stick with me, either, thank God! heehee. Who says atheists and agnostics have no humor?!

My grandmother is a retired catholic school teacher and my mother is a zealot. After putting up with that (especially the zealotry), it's amazing I can even joke about it.

May Voirrey said...

My mother is still hyper-Catholic. I thougt she was going to keel over when I said I no longer believed in the possibility of an imaginary-friend style God and definitely not organized religion.

She sai, "You wanted to be a nun! You had a little holy water font in your room!"

"Mom," I said, I was eight." Kids at that age think they want to be like their teacher or their parents. Once I developed the higher-level cognitive skills, including critical thinking, that was that.