As a comment to my last post titled "It sure would be nice to believe in God right now", my sister asked "what is the harm in believing"?
On Monday, the day a few of us were reeling from the news of C.'s latest diagnosis, my friend Laura sent, to everyone BUT me, an interview with Anne Lamott, wherein she talks about God. Laura mentioned the video clip in conversation, and I said I wanted to see it, as Anne Lamott is one of my all-time favorite authors. Laura expressed shock, because the last several books of Anne's have been about faith and said "You want to see it, even though it's all about God stuff?"
Here is my response to both of those questions. My atheism came gradually; it wasn't a lightening-bolt reaction to something I read or an experience I had. I considered myself "spiritual" up until probably 4-5 ago. If someone had asked me if I believed in God, I would have said yes. True, I didn't believe in "the God up in the sky, sitting on a cloud, watching and judging us all." Nor did I believe that s/he heard and answered every prayer. But at the time I found comfort in believing that something, someone was "in charge". It was reassuring to "know" that there was a higher-power, someone I could (and did) turn to when something scary happened and I felt out of control. I'd never felt the need for my "faith" to make sense to anyone other than myself; I certainly didn't need it to fit into the box of any organized religion.
I never, however, believed that the bible was anything other than a folk-tale of sorts, written by regular, mortal men. I was also leery of organized religion, how many of its followers used the bible as justification for hatred and intolerance. Many people who call themselves "Christians" are horribly hypocritical; watching the nightly news will confirm that. I also always wondered how and why each religion had a different god, that, for them, was "the one", and anyone putting faith in another god was wrong and would suffer whatever horrible fate their particular religion believed in.
I can't pinpoint exactly when or why I started putting less and less faith into "God". I know that I certainly questioned "Him" when those planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11th. How could a loving, benevolent god bring me a baby or help someone win a football game but allow thousands and thousands of innocent people to die in such a horrific way? The prayers must have been literally deafening that day.
Ironically, the other important event that played a roll in my letting go of my "faith": the same sister mentioned above was diagnosed with breast cancer. While she and my mom became more faithful, prayer, to me, felt especially empty at that time. I was not about to sit back and pray to some god who may or my not feel like answering my prayers that day. It felt way too passive. I began to read everything I could get my hands on to educate myself about breast cancer and what we, as women (and men), needed to do to cure it and, in my case, to try to avoid it in the future. I began to feel stronger, more confident in my own knowledge and ability; that we, as individuals, are in control of our bodies, our lives, our future. True, we can't control whether or not we get cancer, but we sure as hell control what we do about it. We choose to have surgery and chemotherapy or we choose to visit a shaman in Mongolia or we put our faith in a Chinese herbalist, or whatever. It is up to us, regular, mortal, terrified, powerful, strong, faithful, flawed individuals to control our own destiny. I can't tell you how incredibly empowering it is to know that.
Around this same time I did read some things that further allowed me to feel ok about being a non-believer. Julia Sweeny's "Letting Go of God" felt like an epiphany; she was questioning and feeling all the exact same things I felt. And it did feel like a "letting go", like throwing away the crutches. Or rather, the crutch. As time wore on, and I didn't need to convince myself that there is a "higher power", I allowed myself to believe what I'd always really known in my heart: I can not and do not believe in god, no more than I can or do believe in Santa Clause. So in answer to my sister's quesiton: there is no "harm" in believing; I just don't. Sure, sometimes I wish I did; occassionally, like when someone I love is facing something terrifying, I wish I could believe that some higher power will just step in and save the day. But I can't.
The thing I want to make clear, though, is that I do not judge others who do believe. I don't shun people who do, nor do I avoid reading books about faith. I actually find it all incredibly fascinating, learning what others believe. True, I probably wouldn't choose to hang out with a fundamentalist Christian, simply because we wouldn't have much to talk about after awhile. But the people I know who believe in God are reasonable enough to admit that there are inconsistencies in the bible, and that believing does require a certain amount of blind faith, so to speak. But for them, the comfort of believing in a higher power outweighs the questions, and I can certainly understand and relate to that, and them.
What matters is that we each find the story that makes the most sense to us, whether it is God, or Buddha, or The Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the belief that we are in control; we each need to find the thing that brings us the most comfort and hold on to it for dear life. We must honor and respect each other for our differences and to use our own belief system, whatever it is, to make the world a better place. I saw a quote the other day, in my doctor's office. It was from Bill Gates and it said "At the end of your life, it doesn't matter how you lived. What matters is how others lived because of you." That is what I believe in.