Thursday, November 5, 2009


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.


Dee said...

I wish I had a wise response or even a tiny inkling of an answer for you--but I'm still trying to figure this all out too.
In the beginning the different tribes had different beliefs, thus countries have their own beliefs and religions. Horrible crimes have been committed in the name of religion and how the justification for that is realized is beyond me.

I do believe in God and know that he doesn't "babysit" every decision nor happening of and to every being in the Universe. But there is comfort in talking to Him, praying and making the effort to be good to others. However, one doesn't have to believe in God to be a good person---you are a prime example of that.

It is not a waste of time to take a few moments ( when no one is looking )to pray .

tallulah said...

Amen sista!

Anonymous said...

I'm an atheist too but many of the people I love deeply are religious. We are ALL people of faith because I cannot "prove" there is no God to a believer any more than they can "prove" there is one.

That said, I pray every single night. Every stinkin' one. I didn't say I was completely logical, just that I don't believe in God.

P.S. It's funny that we both had Annie Lamott on the brain today. Or maybe not, since she's a genius.

robyn said...

I'm exactly where you were 4-5 years ago.

Great post. The Bill Gates quote is fantastic.

Jodi said...

Good post sister! Actually though, I didn't "become more faithful" when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Never once have I prayed for myself. Never. I feel that is selfish. When I do pray, it's for others that I desperately wish I could help in some way, but I can't so I pray when people ask me to, such as my prayers for Pam who is having a terrible time with her ovarian cancer, and your friend C.

I guess my main reason for being a believer is because I have such deep belief in the afterlife. I don't know what it's like but I know with every fiber of my being that there are people we love who watch over us.

I can't imagine going through my life having faith in no one but myself. Now THAT would scare the shit of me!

Jodi said...

Oh, and I liked your quote from Bill Gates. It reminded me of something I had framed and kept on my desk when I started working at Fish and Game in the 80s and still had it when I left State Police 20 years later.

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Ok, the older I get, the harder it is to live by that "finding the best in others" part. But the rest I really do try to live by.

David said...

Great post love. As you know I'm not a religious person and not one for prayer, although that is changing.

Here's my latest prayer "O Great Creator please don't let Kate break anything else!"

Seriously though, I don't expect anyone to save me or anyone else, so what's the point of prayer?

For others if prayer makes them feel more grounded than it works no matter the result. I try to stay grounded using the buddhist approach - that life is really about loving kindness and being present.