So for the past week, NPR’s Morning Edition has been running this series about the changing face of religion in America. Today, they were interviewing atheists who have lost loved ones, examining the ways in which they have tried to find comfort in the absence of faith. And despite the fact that I find the title of this series (“Losing Our Religion“) so infuriatingly twee that every time I hear it I want to line up Robert Siegel and all the members of REM and execute a chain dopeslap Three Stooges-style, I have to admit it has made me think some thinks.
I stopped believing in the Christian version of “God” when I was very young. This wasn’t the result of any kind of dramatic spiritual rupture—my mom took us regularly to a very good liberal church full of kind and loving people, and my experience with organized religion was, and continues to be, very positive. But, being a born cynic, the sheer ridiculousness of the proposition I was being asked to swallow put me off from the get-go. I was supposed to believe that there was some old invisible bearded old guy who ran the universe? That all humanity came from two people? (I clearly remember asking the classic Sunday School question about where the “other” people, the ones that Adam and Eve’s grandkids married, came from—I don’t remember the response, which suggests that I was fobbed off with some vague, equally non-satisfying line of malarkey.) And beyond the stuff that just didn’t make any damn sense, there was all this incomprehensible brutality, the kind found in the stories of Isaac and Lot and Job. Being told to slice up your only kid just to make God happy? Humbly submitting to torture because God and Satan have a bet going? C’mon. Seriously. I knew I wouldn’t ever do things that cruel, so what did that mean, that I was nicer than God? Kinder and more compassionate than this supposedly all-loving, all-caring being?
I got along quite nicely without God until I was an adolescent, at which point I began experiencing severe and intense bouts of existential angst. I would lay in bed at night shaking with terror, pondering the huge size of the universe, and how there was no “outside” to it … and even if there was an “outside”, what was “outside” of the “outside”? I would work myself up into huge sobbing anxiety attacks over these questions. I realized that no one, not even my parents, could do anything about the state of existence I found myself trapped within, a system from which there was absolutely no escape because there was nowhere to escape to.
I remember working through all the afterlife scenarios one sleepless night, trying to land on one that made sense. Heaven was easily discarded; I found the idea of going to Heaven pretty awful. Sit around on clouds playing harps for all eternity? It felt stifled and small, and I knew the Universe wasn’t that small. And what about pets? And what about people who had been bad but didn’t know it? What about objectively good people that I didn’t personally like—did I have to spend all eternity with them? Or would the very fact that I didn’t like them, and didn’t want to spend eternity with them, mean that I would get disbarred from Heaven for not being a team player? It was all conundrums, all the way down.
The concept of reincarnation was worse; its horrors went beyond harps and eternally insufferable boors. If you just kept living and dying, living and dying, forever and ever and ever, then everything bad that could happen—the absolute worst experiences you could imagine, the most painful forms of torture, brutality, loss, pain, suffering—were not just possible, they were inevitable. And in infinite amounts (since it’s eternity we’re talking about.) Reincarnation sounded nice until you realized it meant you had an infinity of future agony just waiting for you. Your math dollars at work.
Well, maybe the infinity of misery, pain, and suffering gets less as you go on, I suggested to myself. Maybe I’ve already experienced most of that infinite agony in my past lives, and it’s going to get easier in my future rebirths. I mean, look at me right now. I’m laying in bed, staring up at the ceiling; my head is racing, but no one is shoving bamboo spikes under my fingernails. So maybe I’ve progressed past the bamboo-spike-shoving portion of my existence-stream. Maybe those infinite numbers of reincarnations represent some kind of journey, some kind of progression …
But progression presupposes a goal, and an ultimate destination, and an ultimate “end” … and that just leads us right back to “Heaven.” And wouldn’t it be just as boring sitting around in the lotus position radiating enlightened bliss for all eternity as it would be sitting around playing harps on clouds?
Clearly, an eternity of boredom of any kind was unsatisfactory. So I proceeded to toy with the idea of just dying and being dead. But clearly, since we arose from nothingness into somethingness, why would we subside into nothingness and that be the end of it? The two sides of the equation didn’t balance. But at least this solution had the potential of being comforting, because it carried an important concept within it that my father always presented thusly:
“Was it so terrible before you were born?”
And of course I’d say (irritably, I imagine) I don’t know, I can’t remember. And then he’d offer the irrefutable conclusion, “So why should it be any different after you die?”
This tidy little squib, while quite cute and all, was easily dismissed with a teenager’s snotty answer: Well, how do you know that before we were born it wasn’t all pain and suffering and agony, and we just don’t remember it? But ultimately, it did turn out to be my dad’s framework (slightly modified) that I ultimately adopted. But not until I’d applied it not to myself, but to my dog, the little German Shepherdish mutt who was my rock during adolescence.
Whenever I would get scared about something (a noise, a “ghost” in my room, whatever) I would find reassurance in her calm demeanor. She was an alarm barker, and if there was something going down, she’d jump off the foot of my bed and bark her head off. But if she was just laying there snoring, if she wasn’t worried about the [noise/ghost/whatever], I knew I had nothing to worry about.
I remember thinking how it sucked that I couldn’t use this tactic to soothe my existential fears. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could count on my dog to alert me if there was some kind of eternal horror waiting to swallow me postmortem? But of course, that would never happen, because my dog wasn’t the least bit concerned about eternity. She wasn’t aware of the terrible situation all living things shared just by virtue of inhabiting the physical realm of existence; she couldn’t comprehend the enormity of the problem facing her, facing me, facing all of us.
But if she couldn’t comprehend it, what made me did I think I could?
Sure, I was smarter than her. I could do things like math and algebra. A dog would never understand algebra. That dog could be the lovechild of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, you could train him all day and all night, all his life … and he would never, ever, ever understand algebra.
So. If my dog existed within a set of cognitive limits that she could never, ever, ever overcome … limits so hard and fast that she couldn’t even conceive of having them … then surely I existed within similar limits. Surely, there were not only things that I couldn’t understand, but that I couldn’t even understand that I wasn’t understanding. Sudden awareness of my own infinite incapacity allowed me to dismiss a whole entire class of worries. Death. Afterlife. Eternity. The existence of God. I just couldn’t know. I was incapable of knowing. I’d created an algebra book so heavy I couldn’t lift it. That was that.
Which brings me back to the atheists I heard on the radio this morning. So much of their pain seemed to stem from the belief that they could know, that they could be certain. But how is there any more intellectual integrity in the certainty that there isn’t a God than in the certainty that there is? How is saying “God doesn’t exist, we all live in a meaningless random universe, and when you’re dead you’re dead and that’s it” any less dogmatic?
I guess, in the end, I have ended up with a kind of faith: faith in the perfection of my cognitive insufficiency. I have sacrificed my desire for understanding on the cross of uncertainty. And for my reward, I get to hope that there is an answer to all this, that makes sense, that is perfectly right, despite the fact that I will never know what it is, or even if there is one at all.