I’ve always taken religion very seriously, and that’s probably how I ended up spending a third of my life as a staunch atheist.
As a kid, I swung between abject fear that I had committed the unpardonable sin (for things like pointing out at the age of seven that a picture of the Crucifixion made it look like Jesus was wearing underwear) and humorless skepticism, like ruining Christmas for my cousins by insisting to everyone that Santa was really Grandpa. I can’t remember ever believing in Santa, which kind of makes me sad. I believed fervently in the message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, though. Even today, I feel weird about calling the church out by name. We grew up to be proud of our relatively small but growing sect, and offer it only good press.
But this isn’t about giving my religion of origin bad press. I just outgrew that literalist way of reading the Bible — the six-day Creation, the interpretation of prophecies in Daniel and Revelation as describing late 20th Century geopolitics. The first domino to fall was when I found serious reason to doubt the prophet status of the church’s founder, and then, in surprisingly rapid succession, fell the Trinity, the afterlife, a personal God, an immortal soul.
It was the summer I turned 26; I was living in my own tiny apartment and in a great new relationship with the person I would marry. He brought over books from the library by New Atheists and they made good sense to me. They were also a relief and a pleasure to read after spending the last few years in college as an English lit major/Philosophy minor trying to get my head around post-structuralist theory. I read Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine” and she seemed to be saying the same thing over and over, in “Dick and Jane”-style prose, but the ideas contained within seemed revolutionary and they turned my world on its head — same thing with Richard Dawkins. Daniel Dennett was a little thicker, but still comprehensible. I didn’t miss Derrida, Kristeva or Lacan at all. Why had I worked so hard, spending almost a whole summer trying to understand a few paragraphs? Maybe the world was a simpler place than I’d thought.
But now I was swinging between two aspects of myself, the person who spent her school years afraid of science and was now embracing a scientifically grounded worldview and trying to learn everything I could about it, and the person who considered herself primarily a poet and was working on an MFA in poetry, and trying to publish and to run a literary journal — a feminist literary journal, even. So I had to pretend not to see that in the New Atheist community, as a woman, I was a rarity; as a literary/artistic type, I was a rarity. As a white person, I was not a rarity, but that was problematic, too. Were these my people? For the most part, I liked those I knew. They were geeks. I was a geek, too, but maybe a different sort. OK, I was a nerd. Some people make a distinction. It took most of a year immersed in a philosophy group online (where once again, as a woman, I was a rarity) to realize that I had bought into “scientism,” that I had traded one “true religion” for another.
But my scientism had been a good religion, for a while. It didn’t exacerbate my OCD and other neurotic tendencies the way my quasi-fundamentalist religion had. It made me feel safe in an intelligible or at least theoretically intelligible world no longer haunted by demons. I had lost my terror at the thought of Descartes’ evil genie. And when I faced a number of years struggling with infertility and IVF treatment, I believed that science would carry me through. I trusted in what it had to offer, and kept the faith. Like any good “true religion,” it provided solid ground. I don’t regret that I had it with me in those years.
Having kids can do things to a person, though. For me, who had gone through most of my life not wanting to be a mother and then suddenly realizing how much I did want to be, it brought, first, joy that I couldn’t have imagined, and secondly, a complete breakdown in self-confidence. And I was never a very self-confident person to begin with, to say the least. I thought I’d lacked confidence before, but I’d had no idea. Motherhood showed up my flaws, each in fine detail. But on the positive end, it also gave me a great drive to do something in the world, not for glory or recognition, which I had once associated with the dream of a successful writing career (so far elusive) but to be of use, to make my years lived worthwhile, to make the energy the universe expended on me not for naught, and, I suppose behind that, also, to make my kids proud.
Motherhood was lonely, though, especially that first year. I spent a lot of time listening to podcasts and audiobooks and staring at the changing seasons through a top-floor window, baby in my lap. I grew all too acquainted with what it was like to “feel existential.” Not depression as I’d known it for almost seven straight years in my late 20s and 30s to varying degrees, not angst as I’d known it often before, but a “lightness of being” that seemed almost unbearable, to borrow from the title of the Milan Kundera novel (the best title ever, I think.) Sometimes I felt inclined to doubt that I really existed. When I started to delve into philosophy the next year, I realized that loneliness really can do this. We seem to need the shared, if arbitrary, “ground” of “intersubjectivity” to really feel our existence as subjects.
In the midst of this loneliness, I realized that I was starting to require more from my religion than I had in the last decade and a half. It needed to be more than just an intellectual comfort, more than just a balm for my neuroses. I needed it to help me figure out how I could make my life really matter. I needed those I shared it with to care about that, too, and to care about those who were truly suffering, in all sorts of ways, all over the world. It seemed to matter a lot less that those I shared a worldview with didn’t believe in ridiculous things, or waste our time in unnecessary rituals. My parents told me that as a kid I used to ask incessantly, “What does it mean?” I’d always had an interest in this question, but for a while I’d put it on the back burner, and now it had placed itself front-and-center again.
I’ve had a longtime interest in Buddhism, and that subject should probably have its own post because my respect for Zen especially is immense, and I still practice meditation with a Zen Order of Interbeing group. Zen started to clue me into the idea that maybe asking about meaning was the wrong question. But I’ll cut to the chase and say that there was still a “Christian story” in me that needed re-assessing. Maybe some of the reason for healthy skepticism of Westerners who choose “Western Buddhism” over a re-examination of their own traditions is that it can feel like fleeing from something that isn’t “over” yet, psychologically speaking. And that was probably the case with me when I chose Buddhism over an evolving understanding of Christianity. But of course Buddhism as a philosophy and spiritual practice offers things unique to it, not found in other religions, and I believe there’s value to a syncretic approach. But I came to realize I had some work to do in the Christianity department that could no longer be neglected.
This wasn’t one of those realizations I came to on my own, and I probably would have muddled on for at least a year or two longer without addressing it if I hadn’t decided to take part in a Facebook conversation with two people I knew from elementary school but who had never been close friends (probably closer friends on Facebook now than back in the day.) One of them had posted an article about the limitations of the prosperity gospel which led to a discussion of more interesting takes on Christianity. She mentioned Rob Bell’s conversation with Peter Rollins on his RobCast. I had never heard of either of those people (I was familiar with Ryan Bell, the Adventist-pastor-turned-atheist-for-a year-plus, but not Rob Bell.) I mentioned Don Cupitt, who I’d just discovered recently, and agreed to check out Peter Rollins. I listened to the podcast very skeptically, but something touched a nerve. This dude wasn’t out to convert anyone; he was saying it was OK to be an atheist. In fact, he was offering advice on how to be a better atheist, by looking honestly at one’s inner theist. Did I still have one of those somewhere? Maybe so. There was mention of Atheism For Lent, but I didn’t look into it at the time.
My curiosity was piqued, though, and I started following Pete Rollins on Facebook, listened to some other podcasts he was on, read his book “The Idolatry of God” and signed up for The Omega Course. What I heard provoked and challenged me. There was also a lot of philosophy, accessible but not dumbed down, and I liked that. There’s the expression “The way to his heart is through his stomach,” and with me being the nerdy ultra-introvert I am, sometimes the way to my soul is through my brain. That may not be the “best” way to be, but it is what it is. Someone finally explained a difficult thinker like Lacan in a way that made sense to me and actually seemed applicable to my life (I could have used the idea of “lack” during those seven years of chronic depression), and I liked this earthy, existential approach to — what do you even call it — religion? No. Spirituality? Maybe, but without “spirits.” The depth dimension of life? Whatever it was, I was game to explore it.
And that’s what prompted me toward the end of The Omega Course this past summer to join a group called “Exploring God for Faith Explorers” (later known as The Way Station) even though I wasn’t sure about what exploring God would mean, and I was very wary about joining a group that — well, mostly, I was wary about joining a group, any group. I’m not a joiner. Theory, sure. I may lack knowledge or fumble with my half-baked ideas, but at the end of the day, I could leave a discussion of theory with my sense of safety, that thick ultra-introvert wall, mostly intact. Intimate sharing, that’s more difficult. So instead of thinking it over too hard, I just dove in, and deferred the “thinking it over” part. I’m still deferring the decision to join, to some future date when I can decide whether or not I’ve been too heedless in becoming a part of this crazy, wonderful experiment. And I’m still working on the intimate sharing. This is the beginning of a start.