How did I get this way?


I’ve struggled with religion for 54 years, which was when I was 11 and entertained my first serious doubt upon reading about a God-ordained massacre in the Old Testament. From there it was downhill all the way, but I couldn’t let go. I would ask for faith, and then open my Bible at random and point to a verse with my eyes closed, but I never felt that God guided my finger. A concrete statue of Jesus stood in a cemetery near my house, and I would talk to that statue, but I never felt God’s presence through it. I could beg, cajole, or curse, but God never once gave me reason to think he was there, so I came to hate him even as I lost more and more faith in his existence.

When I was 17, I decided that my church—the fundamentalist Church of Christ—was too conservative, so I optimistically set about to liberalize it by writing articles for the newsletter, but my articles were never published, and no one seemed to care when I stopped attending, although some people I had been close to never spoke to me again. I visited over fifty denominations looking for one to join, but only the Episcopal Church appealed to me, but I didn't go much. When I was 18, I started taking theology courses at a Methodist college, thinking that they would satisfy my doubts, but my questions were unwelcome, and what I learned caused me to have more doubts. My favorite professor urged me again and again to give myself to Jesus, so again and again, I gave myself to Jesus, but I never felt his presence, and the professor always seemed disappointed in my efforts.

Captivated by its rituals and loved by a priest who said I was like a son to him, I finally joined the Episcopal Church when I was 23, but my doubts continued to grow. When the priest was transferred, and I didn’t like the new priest, I stopped attending. At age thirty, I joined American Atheists, drove 100 miles to New Orleans for chapter meetings, and wrote for the national magazine. I was named a non-resident editor and Madalyn Murray O’Hair asked me to call her Grandma.

When I wase 39, Peggy and I moved to Minnesota, and I joined the overtly atheistic First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. I missed it terribly when we moved to Oregon two years later. When I was 42, I attended a Quaker Meeting with an atheist friend for several months, but found it boring. At age 48, during a time of emotional upheaval, I became a Catholic in the hope that the act of joining would magically cause me to feel differently about religion, but it didn’t, so I lost interest almost immediately.

In my upper fifties, I became the leader of a local atheist group. The meetings were too left-brained and too much dominated by the most talkative members to hold my interest, so when the group got too big to meet at my house, I stopped attending. It now has hundreds of members, but I have only retained my friendship with two. They have a 17-month-old daughter, and, since they were both rejected by their Jehovah’s Witness parents (who haven't asked to visit their granddaughter), they named Peggy and me as Sidney's grandparents. Other than Peggy, they are the nearest thing to family I have, and I worry that my current foray into Episcopalianism will alienate them. After all, religion has never brought anything into their lives but weirdness, heartbreak, alienation, and abandonment, and my unstable behavior hardly gives them reason to see things differently.

Three years ago, I attended an Episcopal church as an open atheist. I was initially made to feel welcome, but by the time I left, people were glad to see me go. I can see how I bear part of the blame for this, but I was also surprised at how quickly they turned against me. I’ve thought of writing to the ones I was closest to about the possibility of us getting together for a talk, but I wouldn’t anticipate my overture being welcomed.

While I was writing the above, Father Brent from Resurrection Episcopal came for a visit. He initiated it, so I thought that maybe he had an agenda in mind, but he didn’t beyond wanting to know more about me and to reiterate that I’m welcome at his church. I’ve either emailed or told Brent everything in this post and more—in other words, I’ve gone out of my way to point out that I’m nutty as a fruitcake, probably won’t be around for long, am only there for utterly selfish reasons, and have nothing to offer his church—but he continues to be so welcoming that I feel as if I’m being courted. I’ve known five Episcopal priests well enough to have an opinion of them. Counting Brent, I’ve respected one, adored one, hated one, thought the fourth was childish and superficial, and considered the fifth neurotically petty. I guess two out of five isn't bad.

Brent said he knows a couple of atheists at Resurrection, and he described himself as an agnostic. As he put it, “When I pray, I don’t know that there’s anybody out there listening, but I hope there is.” When I told him about my feelings regarding universal consciousness, he suggested that maybe I too am agnostic, but I said that this depends upon how God is defined, and since the word normally points to the supernatural, I regard myself as an atheist. My problem is that liberal Episcopalians define God in various ways, not all of them involving the supernatural, so I can see how the word atheist would be more confusing than clarifying, so I won’t be making a point of using it as I did at St. Marys.

Brent also said that the creeds need not be taken literally. I already knew that few Episcopalians take every word of them literally. The trouble is that I find it impossible to interpret them metaphorically. I guess theologian Marcus Borg does too, because he compared saying them to a lodge ritual in which members hold their hands on either side of their heads in imitation of a moose. In other words, they’re an act that binds without its content being rational. Brent said that, for him, they also represent subjection to an ancient order, and that he finds the subjection itself of value.

I can’t tell if such thinking is a reason or a rationalization. I just know that the creeds are a problem for me, but then a lot of things about church are a problem for me, yet I can’t let it go. I think it likely that thousands of Episcopalians can relate. As Brent said, it’s a “non-confessing church,” meaning that members don’t have to believe anything in particular. I said that I worry less about being welcome than about myself eventually falling victim to cognitive dissonanceCognitive dissonance” is a term that doesn’t get used much anymore, Brent said, and I wondered why nothing has replaced it.

I then remembered the drug trip from Easy Rider, and it reminded me of what I love about the creeds: they’re ancient; they’re musical; they've been a part of my heritage for a hundred generations; they're said or sung by millions of people in thousands of situations day in and day out, century after century; and they paint a world as insanely fantastic as that of a demon, a gargoyle, a succubus, or a painting by Bosch or Beksinski. If other Episcopalians can say them without believing them, why shouldn't I? Why must I be rational when rationality seems so profoundly unrewarding, especially now that Peggy and I aren't so very many years away from dying? 

21 comments:

All Consuming said...

First of all I so wish you'd had no religion in your life as a child, because a seed was planted that has led to some real torture for you. Those who believe in God would say that you' should just accept Jesus or the like I imagine. However, so, so many people I know have been damaged mentally through their religious beginnings, such a thing should be a choice, one made when old enough to do so knowing ones own mind, as much as anyone can, certainly once an adult anyway,

Secondly, it is, as I'm sure you know, very common for people who feel they are nearing death, or know they are, or just want out, to turn to religion for comfort. You envy this comfort and seem to have no peace without being in a place mentally where you can join them and believe too. But the sane part of your brain, your rational part is having some huge unholy ding-dong with the side that wants answers, wants some security of mind some of that comfort, and it's causing such torment it's just bloody awful.

Thirdly, has it occurred to you that the anti deps, which have helped you so much since you started taking them, may be instrumental in this latest leaning towards church again? Just a thought.

I really despise the attitude of many who profess to believe, who call themselves Christians, and all the misery they and their ilk inflict, and have inflicted upon the world in the history of humanity, but I'll tell you what, I hope you can find a place with the church in some way because somewhere within you, it is absolutely what you want, and if you could you might find some peace. I should say I have no issue with people finding peace this way, I jut don't think they have the right to look down on anyone who disagrees, or abuse them. Which does happen as we know.

If I lived near you I'd use every penny of my savings to pay for some kind of therapy for you instead mind you. EVERY PENNY. It would be well spent to give you some release from this fight within you, and would have more chance of actually working too I reckon.

However, If you decide to stand half in the church and half out, and the priest chap is fine with that, and you will get no flack from the congregation then you'll get no complInts nor recriminations from me, nor any of your other friends I'm sure. You have so many other things to feel crap about you can do without the God angle man. Love, M X

kj said...

dying?!

i think you and i are about the same age and barring unknown circumstances, i have enough problems living (well) without feeling close to dying.

i do know what you mean, snow. I do think about how things can change in a flash because i now know they can.

but close to dying? i hope not.

and i hope at some juncture you reconcile your beliefs or non beliefs. you put a lot of thought into religion :^)

love
kj

Furry Bottoms said...

Maybe you are over thinking the presence of God or a higher power. I can only describe it as a decision you make that brings joy into your heart. If you're not feeling that then I can't blame ya for being an atheist. Each person has a different experience, they are as individual as fingerprints. So there is no one way to say do this or that, feel this or that, whatever this or that. There are so many denominations out there that it can get really confusing and frustrating. When it feels like that, you may be interpreting things too literally. Just go with what your gut and heart tells you. If Atheist is right, then atheist it is. I like you just the same!

Stephen Hayes said...

I'm not the great thinker you are so I haven't spent a whole lot of time studying religion, other than the cultural and historical elements. I think there are things we humans aren't intended to know. I sometimes think that we're cursed with the knowledge of our existence, along with its brevity, and this only makes us inferior to animals, who don't seem troubled by these spiritual questions. I can tell from following your blog that you are determined to make sense of spirituality, but I'm not convinced this is possible. In truth, the Pope doesn't know any more about what follows life than you or I do.

Take care. I mean it sincerely when I say I hope you find the peace and understanding you're looking for.

Paula Kaye said...

“When I pray, I don’t know that there’s anybody out there listening, but I hope there is.” That is exactly how I feel. I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to read the Bible, in a year, in chronological order. It has been a tough challenge for me. I think that I have told you before that I was raised in the Quaker faith. I don't consider myself a Quaker anymore. I just say that I am a Christian. But reading the Old Testaments and having just lost my husband, I certainly have a lot of questions. I have not consulted anyone for the answers. I don't feel that I am searching. I just think I have hit against a wall in my beliefs.

Elephant's Child said...

Oh Snow.
You epitomise 'seeker after truth' for me.
Not a restful or comfortable place all too often. Hugs.

Snowbrush said...

"I so wish you'd had no religion in your life as a child, because a seed was planted that has led to some real torture for you."

My church was very intense and literalistic baptism by immersion, God's dislike for instrumental music, the necessity of women remaining silent, and so forth. It also emphasized that the only thing between a good life and a miserable life was a strong belief in God. I've wondered how much all that affected me, what with me being the most religious person in my family.

"You envy this comfort and seem to have no peace without being in a place mentally where you can join them and believe too."

I can't believe in any standardized kind of way, so I'm not even trying. Take the creeds for example. There's NOTHING in them that I have the least thought that it might be true. Talk of the virgin birth, the atonement for sin, the coming again in glory, etc. is just so much silliness to me. My only encouragement in that regard is that many, if not most, liberal Episcopalians don't think any too highly of them either, so there is a fair amount of relevant dialogue.

"Thirdly, has it occurred to you that the anti deps, which have helped you so much since you started taking them, may be instrumental in this latest leaning towards church again?"

Right now, I wish they were helping a lot more because I can't even tell them I'm taking them. As for a connection between them and going to church, who knows? I can only say that George's funeral was the apparent impetus, but maybe they helped tip the balance in direction of me actually going because I haven't been to any kind of group event for at least two years now.

"I really despise the attitude of many who profess to believe, who call themselves Christians, and all the misery they and their ilk inflict, and have inflicted upon the world..."

There are many Christians in America who are as extreme as those Moslems who favor Sharia law, meaning that the government should take orders from the church, evolution shouldn't be taught, school prayer should be compulsory, homosexuality should be a criminal offense, women should be subservient, and so on. The fact that so very many American Christians lean in this direction makes the word Christ stick in my throat. Like one Episcopalian said, "Christ comes with too much baggage."

Joe Pereira said...

I'm sorry to read you're caught between a rock and a hard place, Snow. I'm sure you'll follow your instincts and do what you must to find the comfort you deserve. I often think about my eventual demise but, as luck would have it, I force myself to think about how wonderful it is to be here and how I must make the most of it. Stay strong Snow

lotta joy said...


I would much rather be loved, or hated, than to be viewed as meaningless. By Brent's own words, "the creeds need not be taken literally" he holds the creeds he represents as truth to be of varying degrees of nonsense.

To me, I'd rather be hounded by a persistent pentecostal than to realize a man in church authority has ambivalent feelings regarding honesty and is a hypocrite to boot!

Charles Gramlich said...

now that would be an interesting story, about you knowing O'Hair.

Snowbrush said...

"i have enough problems living (well) without feeling close to dying."

You might say that my biggest problem with living well is the proximity of dying, not just for me but for Peggy.

"By Brent's own words, 'the creeds need not be taken literally' he holds the creeds he represents as truth to be of varying degrees of nonsense."

I disagree, but I often have to respond to comments in installments because Blogger limits how much space I can use. To respond to your comment, I would need maybe ten installments, so I think it better that I answer you with a post.

"Maybe you are over thinking the presence of God or a higher power."

Fair enough, but not necessarily for the reasons you think, i.e. "There are so many denominations out there that it can get really confusing and frustrating." I don't think I'm confused, and I actually find many of the differences among denominations more interesting than frustrating. My problem might be more that there are times and places where rational thought enhances one's experience and times and places where it's a liability. If I approach a church service as I would approach music, art, or the beauty of mountain scenery, I do better than if I analyze it rationally because, while it feeds me on one level, I destroy all that it can give me if I insist that it make sense to my rational mind.

The Blog Fodder said...

Snow, this is a great article to make me think. I too went to the church I was born into for 52 years before finally packing it in because even though I went through the motions and the emotions nothing came of it. I think all of us are who we are with or without religion. Unlike you I am not seeking truth. I hope you find it but I doubt it will be related to anything remotely connected to religion. Christians are rarely Christ-like.

kylie said...

just relax into what holds meaning for you. it doesnt matter if it seems rational- the only difference between rational and not is what we are currently able to explain

xo

Linda said...

I, too, went to a Bible College. Being a woman, I suppose, I found my questions unwelcome. The preacher boys looked at me like I had horns. Maybe they had the same thoughts. The professors just turned away, literally, and continued as though I had never spoken.

I have no hope there is a God or anything after this life. But, I intend not to spend this life pining after a childish thought. The CoC is one of the most vile churches around. They are the worst hypocrites.

Those thoughts and emotions evoked by the church services and even earlier attendance at VBS can be conjured up if I wish. Some times, I do wish to think back to being four and how wonderful church was to me. Mama relented once and took me to the Pentecostal church. She refused to ever take me again after I begged and told her how I loved to go there. For her refusal I am forever grateful.

I remember believing when I went to a Christian Church, supposedly non-denominational. However, I never had the feelings I was supposed to have or the feelings as described by others.

Now, I can intellectually examine my reasons for going to church. Really, I believed in Heaven and Hell because my mother said it was true, not because of any preacher. That hour on Sunday was a respite from a violent father and tumultuous home life. There was music, singing, and acceptance.

I miss singing, music, the atmosphere of peace, and the acceptance. I would probably throw up if I had to listen to the preacher since my preacher husband that I divorced was the epitome of evil in my life and the lives of my children.

When you said you went to the Episcopalian church, I was stunned as that is the church I have considered attending--only for friends and belonging to a group, nothing else. I expect no spiritual enlightenment. I hate the rituals there and the guy in a dress, all so foreign to me. Those two elements will keep me from ever hoping for spiritual thoughts.

Nothing will come of this experience except what I want. I can no longer be suckered into feeling anything spiritual inside a church. The minister seems rather nice. No one wants to give me a hug. No one talks religion. Now, I have gone here for two years or more for the once-monthly lunch they serve.

There are truly hungry people who come, but most seem to think of it as a social outing. Most of the attendees are retired. At the weekly Tuesday dinner, there are mostly toothless, nasty misfits of society. That's okay, but I go for the conversation and there is never anything resembling conversation amongst the attendees and me.

The church members who deign to sit at the table where I sit are okay. My favorite is a friend whose wife is in the nursing home. THAT relationship with him, purely platonic, had caused the dregs of the earth to spread lies about us. Those dregs are so pious in front of church members, and gossips and liars otherwise.

It seems you are tortured by thoughts in your head as opposed to my being tortured by direct confrontation with people who attack me in the name of Christ.

Strayer said...

Love the Easy Rider quote. Why be the rational in the intensely insane world of human thought? You are right! Go for it! Live that irrational dream! Ride that bus!

PhilipH said...

FFS stop trying to think about religion, it is doing your head in.

Just look at what's going on in the world today; death and destruction all in the name of some potty religious belief. That alone should make anybody with an ounce of common sense see how idiotic these divers belief are.

Sorry for you Snowy. Sad that a man with your intellect keeps banging on about this crap.

Snowbrush said...

"I can tell from following your blog that you are determined to make sense of spirituality, but I'm not convinced this is possible."

I rather see my challenge as trying to reconcile parts of myself. Thus far, I'm tried to subjugate (annihilate, really) one to the other in the belief that the one was inferior, the other superior, and that the two couldn't be reconciled. After decades of trying, I'm forced to admit that It's not working. I go along more or less okay until something happens--like George's funeral--that throws me for a loop, and then I'm off again. So, my friend, it's ME that I'm trying to harmonize rather than people's views about spirituality.

"I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to read the Bible, in a year, in chronological order. It has been a tough challenge for me."

The Bible is a major force for putting people on the road to atheism. You might try reading Marcus Borg, writings of the other Jesus Institute scholars, archaeological analyses of the Bible, or talking about what your reading brings up for you with a liberal minister. I'll just say briefly that liberal Christians tend to view the Bible either as containing a mixture of God's word and human foolishness, or else as being nothing more than people's thoughts about God. In either case, they don't regard it as God's final word about anything, and, unlike fundamentalists, they are only too aware of its problems.

I'm sorry that I'm taking so long to respond to comments, and I'm afraid that I'm going to get more behind, but I will get them answered.

Moi

Snowbrush said...

"just relax into what holds meaning for you. it doesnt matter if it seems rational- the only difference between rational and not is what we are currently able to explain."

I agree with your first sentence. As for the second, it seems to hold that the irrational equals the rational but is currently unexplainable. I think that things which are irrational cover a bit too much ground for that to hold true in the broad sense, although I think it is true that some seemingly irrational things will eventually be rationally validated.

"I think all of us are who we are with or without religion. Unlike you I am not seeking truth. I hope you find it but I doubt it will be related to anything remotely connected to religion. Christians are rarely Christ-like."

I think that religion typically hardens people, makes them hate their neighbors, and inspires them to do evil. Furthermore, it doesn't tend to grow in awareness but to boast of the fact that it doesn't grow because it imagines whatever authority it lives by to be perfect and complete. True, Christians are rarely Christ-like, but he could sometimes be as bigoted and hateful as most of them are. I don't see him as a positive role-model, but, of course, no one even knows how much he really said of the things he is quoted as having said.

"Love the Easy Rider quote. Why be the rational in the intensely insane world of human thought? You are right! Go for it! Live that irrational dream! Ride that bus!"

I didn't quote Easy Rider. I originally posted this with a video from the movie, but I replaced the video with the painting, which leaves the reference not making a lot of sense.

"FFS stop trying to think about religion, it is doing your head in."

I addressed your comment (and Lotta Joy's comment) in my next post.

"I, too, went to a Bible College. Being a woman, I suppose, I found my questions unwelcome."

No one's probing questions are welcome at a Bible College.

"The CoC is one of the most vile churches around. They are the worst hypocrites."

I have childhood memories of a lot of kind people, but of course I don't know if they would be so kind to me now. I know that they among who were still alive when I left the church cut me out of their lives--totally and in a heart-beat; they didn't even try to win me back to the Church of Christ.


"I hate the rituals there and the guy in a dress, all so foreign to me."

They are no less foreign to my childhood experiences, but that's one reason I love them--they represent what I wanted then and couldn't have.

"It seems you are tortured by thoughts in your head as opposed to my being tortured by direct confrontation with people who attack me in the name of Christ."

I have been shunned rather than attacked, although I was rapped on the head for not standing for prayer when I was on jury duty in Mississippi.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

The atheists I know struggle more with religion than folks I know who are religious... I find this odd. If, you don't believe, why it another thought?

Jen Myers said...

I went through years not believing in God. But, he decided to show me was wrong. Now,I live my life for God. l know him. I would like for you to read my blog and see if you feel any dout that you may be wrong.
www.hismessychild.blogspot.com

Snowbrush said...

"If, you don't believe, why it another thought?"

I haven't observed that most atheists give much thought to religion per se, but rather to its violent and oppressive tendencies. I've written a fair amount about this, but for now will just refer you to the Republican Party's stand on abortion, creationism, gay marriage, and school prayer.

"I would like for you to read my blog and see if you feel any doubt that you may be wrong."

Hi, Jen, you wrote that it's your blog, but you're a female and the author of the blog is a man named Scott who has only posted once in the past six years, so I'm a bit confused.