Can an Atheist Have a Crisis of Faith?
If you’ve read anything I’ve had to say about religion, you probably know I identify as an atheist. While I’ve come out in strong support of religious freedom – up to and including teaching biblical creationism in school (just not in science classrooms) – I’ve always maintained a distance between myself and religious expression. Well, by “always,” I mean consistently for the past umpteen years.
There isn’t really a reason to recap my entire history with religion here. Suffice to say, I was raised Lutheran, but left the church after I graduated high school. I experimented with different religions and faiths – some Christian-based, some not – over the years, before deciding I didn’t believe in God at all. That’s been my stance for years, and I’ve been quite happy with it.
When I “came out” as a conservative, the only thing that made me uncomfortable was the number of religious people I started dealing with. I don’t mean spiritual people, or people of faith, but hard line, church going, Bible thumping literalists. Of course, the vast majority of these people turned out to be loving and accepting folks who, while they may not have approved of everything I say or do, showed me honest friendship and compassion.
Of course, there were also the Joseph Farah’s of the world, who reminded me what I hated organized religion, but I’ve always seen his brand of intolerance and hate as antithetical to an understanding of God under any definition given by Judaism or Christianity.
I’m already rambling and I didn’t want to do that.
As you may know, I recently lost a very dear friend to cancer. For several months prior to his death, and the weeks since, I’ve been one of two people responsible for his welfare and taking care of his remaining business. And, since I lived in the same apartment building as him, I was the first responder to any emergency, as well as being the one who was there for him every day until he was too ill to remain at home.
Sure, it was a difficult thing to do, but not only did I view it as the least I could do for a friend, it was important to me on another level. I’ve never been around when anyone died before. I’ve always been absent or involved with other things when loved ones passed. When I learned that David was dying, I made a solemn vow to be there. Not only for him, but for myself. I’m not afraid of death, but I’ve always just … missed it. I wanted to be a good friend, a mensch, and I also wanted to prove to myself I didn’t have some strange head trip of which I was unaware.
Little things started happening. I couldn’t list them all. Some of them were truly insignificant in and of themselves: feelings, thoughts, certain words jumping out at me off the printed page or a web page. Eventually, I began to be aware of a series of synchronicities involving David’s death, and also faith.
For example, I’ve been on a waiting list for a particular apartment building for two years. The place I’m staying now is temporary. David and I understood if I got an apartment at the new building, I’d have to move. But we both hoped, especially me, that I’d be able to stay here and provide aide to David until he was gone. Less than a week after David died, I got a call from the management company saying they had an apartment for me. While this by itself could be chocked up to coincidence, what makes it more than that to me is the fact I was number 56 on the waiting list. Everyone in front of me suddenly had apartments, couldn’t be contacted or were no longer interested for other reasons. I could see that at number 5 on the list. But 55 people all waiting for an apartment and all suddenly not needing one?
I wrote about how I lost a partner to AIDS in the very early 90’s. I’ve had contact with his family off and on over the years, but haven’t heard from them since roughly 2005 of 2006. David’s death, while he was a platonic friend, took me back in my head to those days. My partner’s mother contacted me out of the blue on Facebook, also about a week after David passed.
I had no contact information for many of David’s friends. Last week, there was some particularly nice weather. I was sitting outside for about 10 minutes talking to another friend, when one of David’s oldest friends who hadn’t been here in months just happened to stop by. She didn’t know that he had died. What makes this coincidental is that I rarely sit outside any more. I’ve taken to doing so more in the past couple weeks, but it’s still a rare occurrence. Also, this friend of David had no idea which apartment was mine. Had I not been there, she would have knocked on David’s door and probably gone away not knowing what had happened. She just happened to arrive at just the right time. I told her of David’s passing, and that resulted in a three hour conversation in which we got to know each other and comfort each other. It was a very healing and cathartic. It was much needed by both of us.
Then, of course, the biggest of them all. David’s other best friend and myself both promised David we would be there when he died. When he could no longer function by himself and needed full time care, I had him moved to the hospital. This made it much more difficult to insure we could actually be by his side when the big moment came. The night he died, we went to visit him. There were traffic backups through downtown and on the freeway. She was running late to begin with. We arrived much, much later than we had intended, given the hospital’s visiting hours policy. As we entered David’s room, a nurse was standing over him with a stethoscope pressed to his chest. She informed us he had just stopped breathing. His heart was still beating. David had been moved around between the hospital and an adult care facility. We hadn’t been able to see him every day. We had no way of knowing he was going to die that evening. And yet, we just happened to walk into his room in time to gather around his bed, hold his hands and tell him we loved him as his heart beat to a stop. What are the odds?
Also about a week after David died, an online acquaintance contacted me. She wanted my perspective on a lecture given by Father Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice. It was on the issue of homosexuality. While I didn’t agree with his points of view, I found him to be compassionate, honest, warm, loving: in short, everything I ever thought a Christian should be. Staunch in his views, but supremely concerned for the well being of others.
I started recognizing a pattern. It was as if someone was trying to get my attention. A question began to form in my head, and it was this: how many synchronicities does it take to make one miracle? Because, you see, I’ve been telling people for years the only way I’d even consider the possibility God existed was if a giant hand appeared in the sky, pointed a heavenly finger at me, and a loud booming voice proclaimed: believe!
Then, this past Tuesday, I sat down to watch Glee. I know, I know. What can I say? I was in jazz choir in high school. I love that stuff, despite it’s left wing sucker punches at people like Sarah Palin. At any rate, this latest episode was all about questioning faith. A young man, who lost his mother at an early age, is now in danger of losing his father. He’s an atheist. He struggles to accept his circumstances, as well as the faith of all those around him who want to offers prayers and spiritual support. Sure, there were the typical mixed message: religion is bad, faith is bad. But faith is good and one can find comfort in the church. It’s a silly show that often makes vapid and progressive points interspersed with lots of teenage angst and show tunes. But just when I needed it, it dealt with the exact subject I was pondering.
Finally, yesterday I went to start the final paperwork on the new apartment. On the bus, I saw an advertisement from the Seattle Atheists. It contained contact information and the following quote from Carl Sagan
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
I thought to myself: I agree. But maybe, just maybe, grasping the Universe is also a personal process, not just one of “objective” observation and measurement. Then I remembered Contact, a book and subsequent film that deals with first alien contact, written by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan. If you remember the film, the main character – an atheist – was challenged when her own personal experiences couldn’t be objectively proven.
I doubt the Seattle Atheists would like it that their advertisement was the last (so far) in a long line of “coincidences” leading me to wonder if I haven’t had a personal experience with God. I don’t know what I believe now. Maybe this all will fade and I will look back on this series of events as merely a serendipitous string of occurrences, but ultimately meaningless.
On the other hand, perhaps the past year of my life that has lead me to stand up for freedom or religion – and freedom of faith – has all been a setup. What is the famous quote? Minds are like parachutes: they function only when open?
Funny. I never thought an atheist could have a crisis of faith.