On July 8th, 2000–fifteen years ago today–I stopped believing in God. I didn’t think I was going to write about this. I’ve neglected the blog lately, and there were so many things I could have written about instead–much nicer things to dwell on after a long hiatus. But writers don’t always get to choose what they write about. And a damaged writer probably has less choice than most.
(This may or may not be an actual photo of my camp, stolen from a stranger’s Myspace.)
I bought a pack of cigarettes today for the first time in six months. I’ve smoked about half of them, which means I’m going to be sick as a dog in the morning (nicotine poisoning is not remotely to be fucked with). It’s also been about a year since my one and only romantic relationship to date came to an end, and the pointy, hollow weight of that loss has been particularly pointy and hollow today. But it wasn’t until I was listening to a song by The Mountain Goats that I found myself opening up a blank document and pouring my feelings out to God in a way I hadn’t done since I was in high school.
As a Christian teenager, I was metaphorically on my knees night and day trying to figure out thorny theological problems like how to honor a parent who was abusing me. My tone as I approached the page today was quite different, but I was surprised how much the present pain felt like the old pain. It wasn’t until after I’d written several bitter, abandoned paragraphs to the God of my childhood that I thought to check the date and saw that it was the 8th of July. (Dates are easy to lose track of when you’re an underemployed freelancer.) Once I did see the date, though, it didn’t feel all that surprising that my whole body seemed to be reacting to this anniversary even before my brain was aware of it.
The conventional verbs we use to talk about religious belief are almost useless to convey the reality they attempt to describe, at least for those of us who are, or were, true believers in our hearts and guts and nerves. When speaking casually, I say that I stopped believing in God as though my transition from believer to nonbeliever was an action equal to other actions that take that particular verb, such as: I stopped for the red light at a crosswalk, I stopped pouring water into a glass before it ran over. To stop is active; it implies that I made a conscious decision to lose faith in God, and thus dismantle my entire world.
The reality is that I stopped believing in God,15 years ago, at the age of 18, in much the same way that, had I been brutally stabbed that night, I would have stopped beating my heart. You see the linguistic problem. I did not stop believing; unbelief happened to me. Sometimes, when I’m especially maudlin, I feel that belief was stolen from me, but the language is wrong there as well.
I could (and on other occasions, have) blamed the pastoral staff of my old church for writing me off as eccentric and socially awkward instead of probing deeper into my inability to connect with my peers, but the difference, it seems, between this 15 year anniversary and the 5 or 10 year anniversary is that I’ve forgotten all about the people who failed me. I don’t even know that they did fail me anymore. There were no thieves; there was only me, becoming more myself, a process I would undergo innumerable times as the years went by. I wasn’t new to disappointment, loss, abandonment, or even transformation, but that night they assumed breathtaking new dimensions. I was playing for keeps suddenly, like grown ups do.
Writing this now, I am conscious of a desire to paint my loss of faith as an inevitable product of maturation, even though it was anything but. I’m not the kind of atheist who views religious faith in adults as something akin to neurological dysfunction, or at least I haven’t felt that since my early 20s. Maybe the age I have attained now (33, the age of Christ, the age my mother was when I was born) is marked by a desire to soften old blows in the retelling, by depicting them as somehow inevitable.
But there was nothing soft or gentle about what happened in my head and in my heart, in my mind, in my body, in my vision, in my gut, in my nerves, the night my faith in God was snatched away from me.
If I am to make you understand any part of what it was like, I must find a way to write in three dimensions, to seize you by every sensory organ you possess. I don’t even know if the sympathetic nervous symptom of a person who hasn’t undergone the process is capable of empathizing. Every metaphor my powers of invention can produce sound risible to me. Losing your god isn’t like losing a spouse, a lover, a parent, a child, a friend, or even all of those things combined. (I don’t wish to minimize or disrespect those kinds of loss; I’m trying to make a comparison of kind rather than degree.) Losing your God is more like losing gravity, classical mechanics, arithmetic, and the belief that every person you meet has the capacity for great kindness, all while having a heart attack.
And it was anything but inevitable. I know there was a moment–I can’t remember at what point during the night it occurred, but there was certainly a moment, when I could have paved over the rapidly spidering cracks in my universe with denial and desperation and the need to believe that all my suffering, my entire life’s worth of suffering, hadn’t really gone unwitnessed, hadn’t really happened in secret and shadows, hadn’t really been wasted.
I don’t know why I didn’t try to fix it. Maybe I was too stunned to notice my chance before I lost it. Maybe I’ve always had a sick curiosity to find out what’s the very worst I can survive.
When you live on the internet, like I do, atheists are plentiful as cockroaches and generally twice as boring. I don’t feel that I have anything in common with people who came by their atheism gently, like an intellectual merit badge for smugness. Maybe humans did invent God; why should that make God any less vast? Surely that just means his vastness is inside us. Religious people are no more likely to be intellectual giants than non-believers, but they deserves something better than contempt, especially from those who have never wrestled these questions into the long hours of the night.
In my first reeling moments of God’s absence, I stumbled down to the dock by the lake; I was a counselor at a church summer camp, and the 11 year olds I supervised were in bed. I collapsed on my back on the pier with my arms outstretched and my eyes dry from sobbing. Smooth black water lay below me and a vast sky full of stars, such as you only see in places like the mountains, wheeled overhead. I was suspended in a dark-bright emptiness; and even as I felt myself burning alive, I felt that bright darkness entering me.
I’d been hollowed out. There were soaring heights inside me now, like cathedral arches. I had a fleeting thought–one that comes back to me occasionally, though I never dwell on it for very long–that maybe what I lost that night was everything but God, that he was there in that vastness I found inside myself. That he was the vastness. I don’t think about it very much, because I think I might be right, and I think a God you can only get to know once you’ve been scooped hollow like a pumpkin is welcome to go his own way, and let me go mine.
In any case, it doesn’t stop me mourning my own tiny lost God, the invisible eye who started watching over me when I was about three, the one who saw everything they did to me and promised, cross his heart, that one day I would find out why it had to happen, that one day it would all mean something, that one day I would be loved.
I never wanted to be an apostate. I was bold and courageous and unashamed before men. I would have been an extraordinary martyr, redeemed by the fire.
Amy Carmichael once wrote of John of Patmos that he was entrusted with “the long martyrdom of life.” Of course, he went a little bit crazy in his old age, as is well known. But we also know that he saw fantastic visions of heaven and earth unmade and remade before he died. Maybe the lunacy was the price of admission; or maybe it was a reward for having subjected himself to so many radical transformations. The older I get, the fonder I am of my occasional breaks from reality, so I could see it going either way.
I scarcely know how to end this one. I don’t usually cut this close to the bone here at Language and Light, so apologies if this turned out not to be the droid you were looking for. I’ll just leave this last titbit here. Over the years I’ve come up with my own home-tailored version of Pascal’s wager. It goes like this:
1. If God exists, and is everything he’s cracked up to be, then he knows exactly how I feel about him and why.
2. If he’s the kind of God worth believing in, he’d never hold that against me, and we’re gonna be right with each other when it matters.
3. If he does hold it against me, then screw him. He’s no kind of God at all and I’d be ashamed to wear his name.
Amen, I guess.