Going deeper: how I am and how I am not an atheist

“When I consider the brief span of my life, absorbed into the eternity before and after, the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright… The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

I’ll start with a bit of a timeline.

At age eleven, I began to lose my faith in God because of the atrocities that he reportedly committed in the Old Testament. Other reasons for disbelief quickly followed, and when I asked my pastor for answers, I was told that: (a) faith is necessary for salvation; (b) faith is impossible in the presence of knowledge; (c) because faith is impossible in the presence of knowledge, my questions would only be answered in heaven.

In the late 1960s, I left my boyhood church—the fundamentalist Church of Christ in which I sometimes preached—when I was unable to liberalize it, a project that I had initially thought would be easy, what with the truth being so obviously on my side.

In the early 1970s I became an Episcopalian, but gave it up a few years later when I finally had to admit that, theologically speaking, I was at most an agnostic. I had suspected as much for years, but growing up a nonbeliever in the Bible Belt is a little like growing up gay in the Bible Belt: you want so desperately for it to not be true that you keep hoping you will grow out of it.

In the late 1970s I moved rather smoothly from agnosticism to atheism and joined American Atheists. John Marthaler was the lovable, elderly, eccentric president and only member of the South Mississippi Chapter, and Paul Tirmenstein the lovable, elderly, eccentric president and only member of the North Mississippi Chapter, so I drove 100 miles to New Orleans for meetings with the South Louisiana Chapter. I was warmly received, and soon began attending national conventions and writing for the national magazine. After a few years, my romance with American Atheists wore thin because I grew tired of the vitriol against theists despite the fact that I had initially been an enthusiastic contributor to it.

I lived in Minneapolis from 1988 to 1990 and joined the First Unitarian Society, which was very large and very atheistic—even the preacher was an atheist.

In the late 1990s, my personal life was not quite in shambles but close, so in desperation I turned—or tried to turn—to God. Not believing in God naturally posed a problem, so I became a Catholic. I hoped that by joining such an ancient and mystical organization, I could magically recapture the religious faith that I had—for all practical purposes—lost at age eleven.

Before an adult can join the Catholic Church, he must attend months of classes and meet regularly with a sponsor. Since I didn’t know any practicing Catholics, the good father appointed my sponsor. He assured me that Bill and I would get along famously because we were both intellectuals. Alas, Bill and I did not get along famously. Bill had the old fashioned idea that I should believe in God before I joined the church rather than hoping that God would mysteriously reveal himself to me after I joined. He didn’t block my acceptance though, so I became an official card-carrying Roman Catholic (they don’t really give out cards) in a moving ceremony one night before Easter.

I was also a Freemason and an Odd Fellow at the time, and the Catholic Church forbids membership in either, but no one asked if I was a member of any outlaw organizations, and I saw no need to bring it up, so maybe that’s what pissed God off. In any event, I woke up the morning after I became a Catholic with no more faith than I had when I was a card-carrying atheist (they do give out cards), so I gave up on Catholicism a few weeks later.

I was feeling pathetic, ridiculous, and flaky by now, having gone from fundamentalist Christianity to liberal Christianity to agnosticism to atheism to Catholicism. Clearly, I didn’t even have it in me to remain faithful to the faithless. I had become as much of a joke to religion as Elizabeth Taylor did to marriage.

Everything else aside, one of my main problems with Christianity was that I never liked the Biblical god—or Jesus for that matter (who I saw as the intolerant, inconsistent, and bad-tempered protagonist of a pathologically bizarre story about a merciless three-faced monster that imagined himself a deity). Liberal churches try to dress God and Jesus up a little (okay, a lot) by either throwing out much of the Bible or interpreting it metaphorically. Maybe I would have gotten better at this if not for my fundamentalist background, but I just considered it a hell of a strain to be forever trying to reinterpret the Bible to say something other than what it appeared to say.

Besides, I asked myself, if this kinder, gentler version of God is real, where was he when I hid under my bed as a child, crying in terror because of some fire-and-brimstone sermon—why didn’t the God who counts the hairs on everyone’s head and watches all the sparrows fall (but never catches them) comfort me? In all my years of seeking him, he never answered one prayer for faith or gave me one smidgen of encouragement. My entire religious experience from age eleven onward consisted of me trying to force belief down my throat as if it were a fiery poker, while those who never seemed to question anything attacked me for my “refusal to trust God.”

Enough history: where am I now? Well, I’m a member of American Humanists, but I don’t plan to renew because there are no local meetings, and the magazine is a waste of time. I’m still a Freemason and an Odd Fellow (mostly non-attending) because, although both require a belief in God, they don’t define what God is. So what do I think God is?

I’m a pantheist, I suppose, but not a door-to-door street-preaching pantheist. I’m more of a slightly embarrassed pantheist who wonders if it even makes sense to call himself a pantheist. Sometimes, I think yes; other times I think no. My problem is that atheists and pantheists both define the universe in completely naturalistic and scientific terms. The difference is that pantheists call the universe God and worship it, whereas atheists just call the universe the universe and don’t worship it.

When I’m in a cynical mood, this just makes pantheism seem like a way for timid atheists to avoid the negative stigma of being called atheists. Other times, I can look at a cloud, or a baby animal, or even a shrub (a Cascade Mountain snowbrush, for example) and quite literally cry in utter and complete awe at the wonder of existence, and at THOSE times my heart longs for a positive term with which to describe my wonder, and atheist just doesn’t cut it. ALL atheism means is that you think the supernatural is make-believe. Well, I DO think the supernatural is make-believe, yet I ALSO experience worship, or at least something that feels like worship. I could just call the feeling awe, but adoration seems more apt. The feeling is actually more akin to what mystics describe. It’s…how can I put it… I feel overcome by wonder; I feel as if I’m a tiny part of an infinitely vast machine in which every movement of every part is an absolute necessity; I feel at ONE with the universe.

Atheists don’t talk that way. At least, I never heard any of them talk that way, and I think they would probably consider me suspect if they heard me talk that way. They would look at me in the same troubled way that my Catholic sponsor looked at me. Like him, they keep their distance and wonder how long it would take me to realize I wasn’t welcome. In regard to religion, no matter where I am, I don’t belong.

I am a pantheist almost by default. It’s as if I’m a ball-bearing rolling down a conveyer belt at the end of which are all these holes. I see all the other ball-bearings moving in a precise and orderly manner down holes that are meant just for them; only I don’t fit any of the holes, so I just keep being tossed around on top of all the other bearings. You might say I’m a special ball-bearing, or you might say I’m a defective ball-bearing, but one thing is for sure: I can’t be other than what I am. Count them: I’ve belonged to FOUR churches (if you count the Minneapolis Unitarian Society as a church) and hung around the periphery of a few more religious organizations. I’ve also been an atheist, an agnostic, a humanist, and a pantheist.

I’ve been all these things because I wanted so badly to find someplace in which I could feel a sense of peace and belonging, someplace where I would be truly and unreservedly welcome. I never have, and I doubt that I ever will, but I’ve grown to accept that. As a person advances through life and reflects that there is more of it behind him than in front of him, wisdom dictates that he stop expecting much of his fellows, not because he is bitter or cynical, but because he recognizes that the limits he finds within himself are also within them. However unqualified he feels to take full responsibility for his life, he is still better qualified than they to be a leader unto himself.