Monday, June 16, 2014

Confessions of an Accidental Atheist

by Holly West

When I first dipped my toes into the writing community, a fellow writer expressed surprise that I identified myself as an atheist in my Facebook profile. He wondered if I was concerned about the possible negative repercussions of it. Back then, my main concern was just finishing my damned novel--my author platform was minuscule and I hadn't given any thought to the ramifications of being honest about my "religious beliefs" on Facebook. Why should it matter, anyway? There's no shame in being an atheist.

I've since realized that identifying oneself as an atheist to the world at large might be somewhat akin to being openly gay: "I have no problem with atheists, but why do they have to keep forcing it down our throats?" Of course, I have no interest in "forcing" my atheism on anyone, but being open about it is important to me.

When I refer to myself as an atheist, I'm not claiming that god doesn't exist--I'm simply acknowledging that there is, at this point in human history, no sufficient evidence that God exists. On this basis, atheism is, for me, a lack of belief in a god or gods, but I don't explicitly deny god's existence. It's an important distinction, and one that sometimes gets overlooked, ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented.

With that in mind, I'd like to say this to all those who believe:

1) My rejection of religion and the concept of God is not a rejection of you personally.

2) I realize that your prayer offerings for me are heartfelt and I appreciate them as such.

3) My atheism is well-considered and not taken lightly, though even if it wasn't, it wouldn't make it less valid.

4) I respect your belief in God and will not try to "convert" you to atheism. I expect the same respect in return.

5) You can discuss your beliefs with me. Though I may disagree with you (and say so), I will not mock or otherwise shame you in any way.

My path to atheism was not an easy one. I was raised in a religious (Catholic) household, and while there were some aspects of it I resented growing up (what kid looks forward to going to church every Sunday morning?), my relationships with God and Jesus were precious to me. My parents (especially my mother) instilled a sense of joy in our worship--it wasn't about what terrible thing would happen to you if you didn't believe in God, it was about the happiness that having God in your life brings. Jesus was my friend, and I say this with no sarcasm or irony.

Children on their First Communion, 1949
In my twenties, I sought to strengthen my relationship with Jesus by embarking on a spiritual journey to better understand my faith. I started with Catholic doctrine because I'd been brought up in the religion, but soon became disillusioned. The history, hierarchy, and policies of the Church didn't jive with what I'd come to believe about God and Jesus. I then turned to the Bible itself, hoping it would supply answers. Instead, it only prompted more questions. Much of it made no sense to me. My intent was to find truth; I had no inkling that my faith might not hold up to such scrutiny.

I didn't choose atheism. It's the only conclusion I could draw after so much contemplation, honest searching and yes, even prayer. In fact, the moment when I finally let go of God was excruciating. I was 30 and visiting London for the first time. For a variety of reasons, I didn't sleep well on that trip, and one night, I woke up in the wee hours and couldn't get back to sleep. We'd visited Westminster Abbey that day, and though I loved it, all those graves and effigies kind of freaked me out, I think.

Tomb effigy of Mary, Queen of Scots
By that point in my life, I'd given up religion completely, but I still believed in God and an afterlife. I still prayed. I'd listened to the stories of people who'd had near-death experiences, and their accounts of walking into the white light and seeing their deceased loved ones welcoming them with open arms resonated with me. I'd always considered them proof that God existed, despite what I'd come to think about religion. But that night, I suddenly realized that those anecdotes were just that, anecdotes, and that the near-death experience they were describing was part of the brain's natural process of dying.

When I was a kid, maybe 10 or so, I remember questioning my grandmother about her beliefs. I'm not sure how the subject came up, but at some point I asked her if she believed in Heaven and she said no. The revelation astonished me.

"What do you think happens to us when we die?" I pressed.

"Nothing happens," she said. "You just die."

"That's it? You believe we just get buried and turn to dirt?"

She more or less admitted that yes, that's what she believed. That dying was like going to sleep but never waking up. It was a depressing (and incomprehensible) thought then, and at that moment in London when I came to the very same conclusion myself, I cried the sort of choking, gut-wrenching tears that come with great loss. Because I had lost something profound that night, something I knew I'd never get back.

I think about it sometimes, the idea that there's nothing to stop me from believing in God again. Except that in doing so, I'd be willfully denying everything that I currently understand to be true in life. You can't, as they say, un-ring a bell. And honestly, I don't want to. My journey has been painful but it's of great value to me. I'm more compassionate and less selfish because, as I see it, if all we have is this life, then we damned sure better make the most of it and that includes being kind to each other. This, above all other things, is crystal clear to me in a way it never was before.

For me, being an atheist isn't a ticket to the All-You-Can-Eat-If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It buffet. It's the knowledge that we must all strive to make this life better, not just for ourselves and our families, but for all people, everywhere. It's the understanding that the poverty-stricken and suffering among us will not find their reward in Heaven and that the meek are not blessed, they are exploited. It's the responsibility we have to future generations to take care of this planet because odds are, we're not getting another one. Finally, it's the realization that we are all we have, so we'd better get out there and make it count.

Actually, that's something we should all probably remember, regardless of what we believe or don't believe: Whatever you do, make it count.

Holly West is a crime fiction writer based in Los Angeles. She’s the author of the Mistress of Fortune series, set in late 17th London and featuring amateur sleuth Isabel Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II who secretly makes her living as a fortuneteller. The first in the series, Mistress of Fortune, was published by Harlequin’s Carina Press in February 2014 and its sequel, Mistress of Lies, is forthcoming in Fall 2014.


Peter Hogenkamp said...

Holly, I enjoyed this well-written post. And, no, you didn't convert me to atheism--but, then again, you weren't trying to. I do very much agree with your conclusions, however, that looking to the next life misses the point that we should be making the most of this one. peter

Susan Clayton-Goldner said...

A brave commentary, Holly. Well stated and respectful of those who do believe. Thanks.

Eric Beetner said...

Is it okay to say Amen? Well said all around.

Ron Earl Phillips said...

Who'd a thunk? Nicely written post. I've grappled with this cosmic joke known as life, and cannot say I've made every moment count. Making it count, however, is all we can do regardless of your faith.

Holly West said...

There was a nod to you in there, you know. ;-)

Holly West said...

Heh heh, if only I made every moment count, I'd at least have a lot more books written! But alas, no. It's an admirable goal though.

Holly West said...

Thank you, Peter. I'm glad you took away the most important message.

Holly West said...

Thank you, Susan!

Susan C Shea said...

Well said, Holly. I'm an atheist too and believe that this is the time we have to do what's right and good. Richard Dawkins answered a questioner, at a lecture I went to, who said, "But doesn't that depress you to think it's over when you die?" by saying, and I paraphrase, Not at all, I can't believe my good fortune that the combination of cells that is me wound up forming into a being located in Earth, conscious, able to appreciate this beautiful planet for any amount of time. I'm saying it badly, but his point was, Look, I could have been a speck of dust floating in space - this is a thrilling experience!

Holly West said...

Susan, yes! I Although I do still find the idea of my own death and the death of my loved ones depressing, the world is such a wondrous place, I've no need to bring the supernatural into it.

Leigh Anne Jasheway said...

Great post, Holly! As a fellow atheist who cannot "out" herself in certain situations (I once accidentally did so while speaking at a conference and a lovely woman came up after and said, "I didn't hear anything you said after that"), I appreciate your courage. And as a believe in Newton's laws, I don't think we disappear after death because energy is never lost.

Andrew Jetarski said...

Nice piece of writing, Holly. I wasn't aware of your Catholic background. Your description of your 'crisis of faith' was done with an open heart - the most we can hope for in our writing.