What difference does God make? To Ryan Bell, who’s doing an experiment to see whether he can live as an atheist (having formerly been a pastor), apparently not a whole lot.
“…a sense of loss and aloneness that are not entirely new to me.”
Nor me, I’ll confess, when I was living as a functional atheist — that’s Bell’s description of how a lot of people approach religion. His description is spot on: if you don’t pray, you don’t worship somehow, you don’t even really notice how your belief in a god or gods changes your life, how exactly are you different from someone who’s got no religion at all? But when you put that faith and worship and noticing into people instead, what then?
For me, yes. Loss. Aloneness. Long dark teatime of the soul, to snitch from a dear departed author. What I feel when I say that likely has nothing to do with Dirk Gently, but bear with me. You see, I can do faith/worship/noticing of people. I can live that way and sustain myself through sheer cussedness, but in order to be happy, I need also to acknowledge all the oddnesses that could be coincidence but feel like magic. I live in the places where nothing is certain and everything is dream. I live in the places where truth has three sides or more. It isn’t that I need anyone else to live in them with me. It’s that personally I can’t not. Even if it all turns out to be superstitious bunk in the Grand Reckoning, I feel better interpreting said Grand Reckoning the way I do.
I don’t know that any human exists who hasn’t got belief in something, even if it’s something as obvious as the sun rising and setting. (Or if you’re above/below certain parallels, the sun doing what suns will do.) If you put science between yourself and the rawness of what-the-fuck-is-this-life, you still have a belief, something to succor you through the hard times. Atheism isn’t the lack of belief. It’s just the lack of a god. Really and truly, I have not yet met the person who hasn’t got anything to believe in, and it would be interesting to do so, but I suspect I’d be meeting her inside a padded room. How do you process life with no fundamental truths? How do you go on with no touchstone?
I think we skate nearest the lack when we forget to pay attention to where we’ve hammered our truth-stakes into the ground. Is it coincidence that I started questioning everything at the same time as I reached back for old happy beliefs? Is it coincidence that, when I reached out to right myself after the mishegas of Autumn 2012, I reached for Allison and her calm, comforting life as a child of the Christian God? Belief in something, a firm foothold, seemed to me to give Allison security, and I wanted that. A year later, there I was, finally teetering atop the acceptable combination of Progressive, social-justice-oriented ideas, and I realised I’d stacked them haphazardly on a foundation of conformity. That’s not you, said something deep inside, suppressed/repressed for far too long. This tower will fall.
So I looked for ways to anchor the tower instead. All the pieces that had gone into it wanted evaluating. Nothing got to stay by default. Everything in it had to mean something, and I needed to build it on things I counted as true. This is not a short process. It’s still happening.
I am turning up pieces of tower that go nearer the bottom than that shaky pinnacle. Anna, for instance. Quite a lot of Anna mixes into my foundation, in the sense that God/the universe is everywhere at once, inside and out and so big we can’t see for certain what God is. Anna’s representations of divinity on Earth are Mister God, maths, and science. These are how she swallows what is too large to be eaten whole. We are not snakes and the Grandness isn’t an egg. I am also placing faith in people in ways that they can actually live up to, in the fallible humanity we share. Faith in fallibility? But it’s a truth. And mirrors with infinite sides, because there isn’t any one universal truth. (Except maybe that.)
Faith in myself before I started listening to dogma. I had it right, you know, about -isms, to wit, that I didn’t actually grow up with them as defined by people with agendas. When I was a military child, I didn’t see race except as one more attribute: “Oh, yes, Roxana’s a different colour. So is Isaac.” Roxana being a beloved preschool teacher and Isaac the boy of five who declared himself my champion. Gorgeous wonderful Isaac asked my dad “Who you?” when he came to pick me up one day and what did Dad deduce from that? That Isaac must be… the son of an NCO! Nothing more. Because as he put it to me — Dad, not Isaac, obviously — you might come into service thinking black people are below you, but when you fight, that black man you thought was the lowest of the low turns out to be the crack shot that saves your life and it’s hard to keep thinking the old way after that.
Given that childhood, living in a self-segregated town has been weird and sad, and yes, an introduction to those -isms. But if I can get back to the place when I was Isaac’s curly little girl, when I was Anna believing in all the wonders and none of the secondhand smoke, the -isms quit mattering. I see only people again. As an adult, I certainly ask questions about society turning only-people into this and that and angry at each other, and I decide to work toward removing all that stupidity. The girl they all said couldn’t share is actually a woman who wants very much to share. You can take what you want from the way I live. I won’t take what you say I can’t, but I’ll give you what you think is shiny, not because it’s superior in any way (it isn’t) but because you think it’s shiny. I won’t be offended if you leave it all there on the table and go your own way. It’s your own way to go.
As for what I think is shiny, I pick up the pieces I see lying about. You may call it mindfulness; I call it noticing. I noticed the other day that the translation, on a sign at the clinic, for “a woman in labor” was “mujer en dolores de parto.” Which, isn’t that an amazing concept? Dolores de parto. Like dolor, like sadness. Parto, parturition, parting of mother and child. The sadness and pain a woman feels in launching this child forth from her body, no longer cradling it in the safety of her womb. Next to that, labor is a pissy little euphemism. Labor. Hah. Like it’s only work. It’s so much more. I couldn’t do it if you paid me.
Words are to me what numbers were to Anna, you know?
So when I am digging down to the foundation of my condemned tenement, I am finding treasure and not feeling alone or lonely any longer. I hope Ryan Bell can have the same jolly good luck I’ve had. I want him to be happy, and to find for himself the face or faces of that Great Raw Something.