Nothing sends off fireworks in the brain for religious people quite like an admission of atheism. It’s scary, in my beloved religious community, to admit that I don’t believe in God. I’ve had some unexpectedly unpleasant conversations with friends — conversations that suddenly dipped into ferocious defensiveness, in which they assumed a lot about what I believe and don’t believe.
So, allow me to explain what I mean when I say I don’t believe in God.
Around this time last year, I buried my cousin. Ian was a vegan, atheist, and environmentalist so dedicated to the cause of caring for the earth that his principles extended even to his death. After a physicist gave a science lesson on what would happen to Ian’s body, and how he would nourish the tree that would be planted over him, we took shovels and buried what was left of Ian. He was wrapped in purple linen, and the cancer had reduced his frame to a frail shadow of his former fit, powerful, athletic self.
The ceremony was void of any spirit, symbol, or God. I was disquieted by the that, and yet I was moved. I was moved by Ian’s commitment to science, and his care for the earth. I was tempted to call the funeral hopeless, but realized that wasn’t right. The funeral was full of love, conviction, and hope, and didn’t need to say anything about an afterlife. That wasn’t the point of Ian’s life – Ian was about the here and now, the earth, the injustices that plagued the planet now. He didn’t believe in the afterlife, and that lack of belief thrust him headfirst into the present. Plus, it wasn’t my funeral. Who was I to cast judgement on Ian’s wishes? That would be tasteless.
My faith is evolving from a religion of revealed truth to a religion of language and symbol. The faith of my childhood and young adulthood – taking for granted that a personal God is real, that scripture is God breathed, and that there is an after life – is now effectively dead. I question all of that, now. I don’t know what happens after I die, but I think “nothing happens” is the most likely answer. My understanding of God has expanding into something so abstract and impersonal that I can hardly call it God at all, and the personal God of my old faith is long gone.
I’m the middle of a fascinating book called Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. Author Joseph Laycock explores, with great detail and insight, the parallel worlds of role-playing games and religion. For three decades, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were at the center of a moral panic involving everything from fears of cults, satanists, to a lost generation of super predators. His thesis is that role-playing games were threatening to the religious right because, if communities could create such intricate, imagined, and meaning-making worlds through games, does that mean that religion itself is a sort of game? But beneath this initial thesis lie some profound insights for people like me who still greatly value religion, even as I doubt the existence of a personal God.
For the past year or so now, I’ve been caught in the strange, lonely, interstitial space of no longer believing in the existence of a personal God but still deeply valuing the role of religion in my life.
Looking back, I realize that I’ve been quietly grieving for my faith in a literal, personal God for most of my twenties, and that it was only in 2017 that I finally accepted the death of my personal God. It took a long time to grieve, to even to build up the courage to pull the covers back and peak into a world without God. God felt more fundamental than my skin, breath, and blood. To lose Him felt like the loss of everything.
Last week, as I was talking to another fellow deconstruction survivor, I had a realization. I suddenly understood that what made my falling apart of faith so painful, so overwhelming, was not just the trauma of an unprecedented paradigm shift, but a breaking of myself.
It is early morning as I write this, and I have just completed praying the Episcopalian Office. As always, it’s left me feeling full, centered, and comforted. I pray the Office every morning and night, and it’s become one a pillar that brings me deep pleasure.
I’ve written a lot about faith and doubt within Christianity over the past year or so. Doubt has been my constant, dark companion. I can understand now why Martin Luther (according to myth) hurled a bottle of ink at a devil that was taunting him. I’ve been hurling my own ink, trying to fend off the monster.
I could easily shrug off the doubt and turn to the warm light of my faith, stuffing all the questions back into the box, but I can’t do that. My understanding of integrity doesn’t let me shrug off genuine questions. I know that I need to value truth, and that truth requires certain proofs to be true. I know that humility, asking questions, and accepting my capacity to be wrong is integral to living a good, upright life.
I’m happy as a gay man. In fact, with the exception of when I sit down to write about it, I rarely think about being gay. It’s simply a fact, fading into the details of life. I think of myself as simply Stephen, with a myriad of interests, and I think of my partner as my partner, whom I love dearly. Very rarely now do I ever stop to consider that we are both men. I love my partner’s masculinity (I am gay, after all) but that doesn’t mean I stop to dwell on the fact. This lack of dwelling is a mark of happiness and freedom for me.