I shocked my therapist last week. I “came out” to him as an atheist. I have been an atheist for most of my life.
When I was a little girl, my brothers and parents read to me– a lot. The library was my favorite place to go. Dr. Seuss was the most popular children’s author at the time, and among the titles read to me was “Horton Hears a Who” (1954). That story took; it stuck in my head. I thought about it, and thought about it. By the time I was seven, I realized that the Whos were a metaphor for Christianity. And that was the last time that I could believe in a Christian God. I realized, suddenly, that it was turtles, all the way down. (Reference is: “An Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger. When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies “Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down.””
I was raised in a Roman Catholic household. I was baptized shortly after I was born; I went through First Communion and Confirmation. I went to Confession on Saturdays. I went to Catholic education classes on Thursday nights. I was subjected to sexual harassment throughout the classes at the hands of an evil little toad of a classmate. I told my mother I wasn’t going anymore, and she told me that as long as I lived under her roof, I would go. So I went. And learned more about vile and violent sexual deviance than any sixteen year old girl should ever know.
I tried so, so hard to believe in God. I went to those classes, and I went to church twice a weekend, and I sang with the church choir. When I went to college, I sang at four Masses a weekend, sang with the touring musical group at the church, prayed so hard every day. And I Never. Once. Felt. It. I never felt it was real. I never felt a calling. I couldn’t believe, because the logical part of my brain kept pointing out how illogical the entire thing was. I got married to a Catholic as a recovering Catholic in a Methodist church by an Episcopal priest with a Lutheran and an agnostic as our witnesses.
I explored alternate religions. I looked at Wicca. I looked at Neo-paganism. My husband pushed for Judaism. I subscribed to magazines and newspapers. I read, read, read. I attended services. I tried to find something in which I could believe on more than an intellectual level. Nothing ever grabbed my faith. My husband continued to go to various Catholic churches around town, never finding a parish that really suited him.
When I became pregnant with my first baby, my middle brother told me that a religious upbringing was important to children. So I tried going to church with my dad to his Anglican and Episcopalian services. People there were nice to me. They were welcoming and friendly in a way that the Catholics had never been. I told my brother. He asked why them. I said, “Because I can’t abide by the horrible things that the Catholic church has done to women over time. ” He pointed out that the Anglicans didn’t have any better a track record. Good points, I thought. So I joined with most of my friends at the Unitarian Universalist church, and there I found my spiritual home.
Now, Unitarian Universalists churches are not Christian. They were founded by Christians, in a fashion, both the Unitarians and the Universalists (they didn’t merge until 1961.) You can read about the individual churches on the Wikipedia page linked above. And before those churches were officially founded, the people that participated in them would be names with which you would be familiar: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Quincy Adams. Yes, *those* people. The founding fathers of the United States. One of whom, John Adams, had this to say:
Sarah Palin vs. John Adams, President of the USA
So it absolutely makes me sick when someone swears on “The Founding Fathers” that the Pledge of Allegiance has “always” had “under God” in it, because that’s only been since 1954. Hmm, this is interesting: “The Pledge was supposed to be quick and to the point. Bellamy designed it to be recited in 15 seconds. As a socialist, he had initially also considered using the words equality and fraternity but decided against it – knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans. ” Bellamy sounds like a good guy. Maybe even– gasp! a Unitarian or Universalist? 🙂
Anyway, I allowed my first two children to be baptized Catholic by their Catholic father and his Catholic parents. I’m sorry now that I did it. I certainly had as much right to the decision as they did. The third one, I refused. I had her dedicated at a really great UU church instead. My friend was the only one in attendance; my family was as offended as if I’d said I’d decided to make a virgin sacrifice of her. The ceremony was really sweet. Of course, I’d been to dedications before, so I knew what it would be like. Later, I had all three dedicated at our local UU congregation in a delightful ceremony in which I also became a member of the congregation. We went to church every week; my kids attended religion classes (and, consequently, know way more about the Christian religion than any of their Catholic classmates do– true facts.) We participated in community events and social concerns around our town (like park clean-ups and fundraisers and anti-war marches) and really got into the community. My second marriage occurred at this church. Eventually, I was hired to do office and computer work there, and did for several years.
Oh, eventually the politics changed and we stopped going. But my kids have a firm and solid basis in this faith, which I owe to my brother for even suggesting. My kids are moral, compassionate and kind– more than I can say about most people their age. And this poster
sums up everything that I was never taught: That there is more than one path to the truth, that people believe different things, and that simply being different doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
When my third child was born, I had a near-death experience. By this, I do not mean a close brush with death where my life flashed before my eyes (as another friend had.) I mean the whole “light at the end of the tunnel” thing. I mean the whole “looking down on your body” thing. Out of body experience. Clinically dead. I wrote a paper about it. When I told my therapist, he asked why I didn’t experience a religious conversion. I didn’t because I’m not religious. Nearly dying didn’t make me more religious. Here, read the paper in its entirety:
I Died That Day
I first heard about near-death experiences in the 1970s, probably on “60 Minutes” or another news program. At the time, I was curious, but not too curious. I certainly never considered the possibility of something like that happening to me!
They, however, had long fascinated my husband. He wanted an NDE, but not enough to attempt having one. He read every book he could find on the topic, starting with Closer to the Light by Betty Eadie, to feed his intense interest.
What I mean by near-death experience, by the way, is not having a close brush with death, as in seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes during an auto accident. I am referring to an out-of-body experience precipitated by the physiological death of the body.
My NDEoccurred when my third child was born. She was 11 lbs. 6 oz., a big baby, and my poor, over-stretched uterus was unable to contract like it must after a baby is born to stem the flow of blood. My little one was born at home, and my husband did not want me to get into the family car, as bloody as I was. The ambulance took a very long time– over an hour– to arrive, and we had waited until late to call it. I lost about three and a half quarts of blood that were measured– there was more blood on the walls, floor and bedding. The human body holds about five quarts of blood, a little more when pregnant. I had lost more than half of my blood volume. As I was lying there, I realized that I was dying. It was obvious. I kept looking at my little girls (four, two and new) and thinking, “Well, I got the three girls I wanted. And now I’m going to die and not even see them go to Prom.” And then I remember thinking how dumb that was: I never cared about Prom when it was me doing the going!
When the ambulance arrived, it carried three newEMT-Bs, the most basic of emergency care technicians. They did not want to carry me, so they tried to get me to walk to the ambulance. I realize now that the reason they didn’t want to touch me must have been a fear of all the blood and the potential diseases, such as AIDS and hepatitis, that it might theoretically have carried. I was probably already in shock at this point. I was very calm. Anyway, I stood at the side of the bed, and the next thing I remember was floating upward, fast, through the ceiling.
Then I found myself walking in a tunnel– a long, dark tunnel with fluorescent lighting and a light at the end. It looked like the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jerseydoes on television. I was arm in arm with two young men, all dressed in black with black leather jackets. I was not afraid, just curious. If I were a religious person, I almost certainly would have experienced a religious conversion. But I am not, and I did not. It was just another interesting experience in my life. It seemed very real, and I could feel the pavement under my shoes and the coolness of the tunnel. We walked without speaking for several minutes and were about halfway down the tunnel when, all of a sudden, I was drawn backward away from the young men through the tunnel at increasing velocity, back and back and back and back until WHAM! I was back in my body again with the EMTwoman called Mouse, who breathed terrible middle-of-the-night coffee breath in my face, said, “Oh! We thought we’d lost you!” I never told her that they had.
The EMTs finally got a gurney and put me on it. They dropped me in the hallway, on the dining room floor and on the deck. They took me outside, naked, in the March rain; it could not have been over 40 degrees. How I longed for a blanket! Yet obviously I survived the experience, and the baby is now seven, smart, healthy and growing.
I saw a program about near-death experiences on “Oprah” after I had mine. It was eerily accurate, and I liked how the presenter, neurologist Raymond Moody, carefully explained the phenomena of which people who describe NDEs speak, such as the tunnel with the bright light and the end, and so forth, in neurological terms. The descriptions were very interesting to me.
I came to the realization of what had happened to me, and just how close I had been to dying, a few days after the experience. When I finally told my husband about the near-death experience, he was apoplectic with anger. I am sure that, in part, my relating the NDE to him precipitated my divorce. He was so jealous of my having the experience he wanted that it was more than he could do to contain his rage.
But even his jealousy and the subsequent divorce cannot dim how valuable this memory is to me. I am so fortunate to be alive. If I had ever considered suicide (as I had occasionally toyed with as a teen and young adult), I would never seriously contemplate that now. Life is a gift, and I am choosing to stay a part of it.
While my ideas about death, dying and suicide have certainly changed, my ideas about what happens after death have not. I think that when you reach the end of that tunnel, everything fades away like a candle burning out and that’s it. And I’m fine with that. I don’t find it depressing. It’s just them way things are. So I don’t worry about what will happen to me after I die. I worry about what will happen to the people I leave behind. I am not sad and sorry to be an atheist. I’m glad that I am capable of rational thought, that I don’t have to believe “Iron Age fairy tales”. I find comfort in odd places. Watch this video, read the lyrics, listen to the music to understand me perhaps a little better.
(Carl Sagan’s lyrics written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter)
When you are studying any matter
Or considering any philosophy
Ask yourself only: what are the facts,
And what is the truth that the facts bear out
Science is more than a body of knowledge
It’s a way of thinking
A way of skeptically interrogating the universe
If we are not able to ask skeptical questions
To be skeptical of those in authority
Then we’re up for grabs
In all of science we’re looking for a balance
between data and theory
You don’t have to delude yourself
With Iron Age fairy tales
The same spiritual fulfillment
That people find in religion
Can be found in science
By coming to know, if you will, the mind of God
The real world, as it actually is,
Is not evil, it’s remarkable
And the way to understand the physical world
is to use science
There is a new wave of reason
Sweeping across America, Britain, Europe, Australia
South America, the Middle East and Africa
There is a new wave of reason
Where superstition had a firm hold
Teach a man to reason
And he’ll think for a lifetime
Cosmology brings us face to face with the deepest mysteries
With questions that were once treated only
in religion and myth
The desire to be connected with the cosmos
Reflects a profound reality
But we are connected; not in the trivial ways
That Astrology promises, but in the deepest ways
I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up
About our relationship to the universe at large
Look at what’s out there; it isn’t in proportion
Never let yourself be diverted
By what you wish to believe
But look only and surely
At what are the facts
Enjoy the fantasy, the fun, the stories
But make sure that there’s a clear sharp line
Drawn on the floor
To do otherwise is to embrace madness
“A Wave of Reason” is the seventh installment in the Symphony of Science music video series. It is intended to promote scientific reasoning and skepticism in the face of growing amounts of pseudoscientific pursuits, such as Astrology and Homeopathy, and also to promote the scientific worldview as equally enlightening as religion. It features Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, Carolyn Porco, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Phil Plait, and James Randi.
Yes, I can reason, and I will think for a lifetime. And that is why I can’t be anything but atheist.