Saturday, November 10, 2012

No voices in the sky: On my atheism

 Is the sky just the sky?

"Some people say the sky is just the sky, but I say why? Why deny the obvious child?" - Paul Simon ("The Obvious Child")
I am an atheist.

I say that with neither pride nor shame. I don't feel like I've "won" something by declaring my atheism or that I'm "smarter" than you are if you're religious. I don't feel like I've moved on to some more advanced level of thought by giving up a belief in an omniscient, omnipotent creator. I will not quote The God Delusion at you. Relax. Everything's fine. I'm not about to get all Richard Dawkins on your ass. And I'm not going to link to a Ricky Gervais or David Cross monologue either. Yes, I've heard what Gervais and Cross have to say about religion, and I've found humor in their words. But there is more than a touch of "I know better" smugness to these comedians, and that's a trait I'm trying to avoid.

A factory producing atheists.
I come by my atheism naturally, having been raised Catholic. I think the Catholic Church might be the greatest manufacturer of atheists the world has ever known. Have you ever sat through one of our masses? It amuses me that some people think of the Catholics as a weird, mysterious cult with bizarre beliefs and sinister rituals. In truth, an hour spent in a Catholic church on a Sunday will likely be one of the most boring experiences of your life. I should know. I attended them for over twenty years. Once you've gone to, let's say, a year of Catholic masses, you've heard everything the church has to say. The rest is just repetition. Years and years and years of repetition. It's been a decade since I was a practicing (though non-believing) Catholic, and I can still recite some of those prayers. The same few readings from the Bible are trotted out again and again. These readings represent a tiny fraction of that book; the rest simply goes uncovered. As a kid bored out of his mind in church and wishing the ceiling would cave in just for variety's sake, I wondered why we never got to hear about David and Goliath or Cain slaying Abel or even about Noah's ark. Later, thanks to Ken's Guide to the Bible by Ken Smith, I learned there was all kinds of juicy stuff in the Good Book: sex, violence, and just general weirdness. You'd never guess that from attending mass. Even the homily, the portion of the service in which the priest gets to divert from the text and speak directly to the congregation, is apt to be boring. As a Catholic kid, you hope that at least the priest will throw in a few good jokes along with the message. Some priests are genuinely funny, engaging speakers, but many are dull and rambling. And then there's the music! Oh, dear lord, the music in a Catholic mass is the worst, most dispiriting stuff you've ever heard in your life. Every song becomes a dirge. It blew my mind to learn that other religions had "catchy" music. Much of what we know today as rock and R&B music, after all, has its roots in the church. When I hear a gospel group like the Soul Stirrers, it makes me want to believe.

It's important for you to know that we were a Catholic family, but it was Catholicism with a small c. I know there are some horror stories out there, but I didn't experience any of that. I was never molested by priests or beaten by nuns. I only ever attended one year of Catholic school -- kindergarten -- and my memories of it are positive. We had a young, pretty teacher, Miss Smith, and my strongest memory is that she once played us "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen because it was the Detroit Lions' theme song that year (1980). Isn't that weird? The first time I ever heard Freddie Mercury was in Catholic school. You can't make this stuff up, folks. My older sister got as far as second grade in that institution, and she grew up to be healthy, normal, and well-adjusted. After that, we both attended public school.

Who's down with CCD?
Catholic kids who don't go to Catholic school are expected to attend something called CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine). It's basically "Catholic night school," and you go once a week. Now this I truly hated. I just felt it was pointless and juvenile, and eventually I refused to attend. With great reluctance, my parents agreed to this. It was literally the only argument we ever had about religion. My parents were admirably open-minded about all of it. They had pretty left-leaning political views and thus disagreed with many of the Church's policies. Truth be told, religion hardly ever came up as a topic of discussion in our household. We attended the services both on Sundays and on holy days, and we observed Lent, but that's pretty much it. We didn't pray before meals, and there were no crucifixes or images of Jesus on our walls. My mother inherited the religion from her mother, who was from a family of Sicilian immigrants. My father was raised without religion but converted to Catholicism in order to marry my mother. To this day, twenty years after her death, he still attends the masses out of loyalty to her. I personally attended the masses with him until 2001 when I moved to Illinois and started living independently. Since then, I've been a full-on atheist. The only time I ever set foot in a church is when my community band plays a concert in one. Some of the buildings are magnificent, by the way, and have terrific acoustics. The church I attended for 20 years, though, was just a utilitarian, barn-like structure. You'd probably call it ugly.

But we're avoiding the bigger issue. Did I ever believe? I don't know. Maybe a little when I was very young. In fact, when I was about 8 or 9, the topic of God actually did come up in a discussion with other neighborhood kids, and one boy said something dismissive like, "Everyone knows God is just some imaginary fairy in the sky." I remember getting briefly defensive about it, but it didn't last. By the time I was an adolescent, I was a confirmed non-believer. I attended the services strictly out of obedience to my parents. My sister, somehow, managed to talk her way out of them, and I was envious of her for that. Ironically, she went through the Sacrament of Confirmation, and I didn't. I did get First Communion in, though.

God: A class act all the way!
Here's the bottom line: I think it's much more likely that we created God than the other way around. I think as human beings, we hate and fear what we don't understand. We couldn't deal with a universe that we could not comprehend, so we came up with a creation myth to explain it away. We've been elaborating on that myth for centuries and arguing (sometimes with deadly consequences) over the specifics. In a way, it gives us some freedom. The bigger issues of life are all sorted out in our minds, so we can focus on living day to day. Religion handles the big stuff, while we cope with the details. And it works! Some of the happiest, best-adjusted people I know are religious, while I am neurotic and insecure. It did not surprise me to learn that atheists are, in general, better-informed about religion than the average, God-fearing citizen. It's because atheists think about this stuff a lot, while believers simply accept and move on with their lives. There are many times when I wish I could join them. And I will admit that in moments of extreme fear and anxiety, I pray. Still to this day, I have the nervous tic of making the sign of the cross when I experience relief.

There is clearly more to be said on this issue, and this is far from the last word. If there is sufficient interest among my readers, we can discuss why I feel there is no moral basis for worshiping an omnipotent deity. But I think I've said enough for now. I'll leave you with a song by Motorhead,  the British heavy metal group led by avowed atheist Lemmy Kilmister. It's called "No Voices in the Sky." (Warning: LOUD!)

P.S. - The lyrics are tough to decipher, thanks to Lemmy's accent and the sheer volume of the guitars. Here they are. Keep in mind that these are Mr. Kilmister's views, not necessarily my own.
Nobody gives a damn about anybody else
Think everyone should feel the way they feel themselves
Rich men think that happiness is a million dollar bills
So how come half of them O.D. on sleeping pills?
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, you all know what I mean
What's the use of a cry for help, if no one hears the screams
No one hears the screams
No voices in the sky, confusion blinds the eye
Can't take it with you when you die
No voices in the sky

The ones who dedicate the flags to make you brave

They also consecrate the headstone on your grave
Ritual remembrance when no one knows your name
Don't help a single widow learn to fight the pain

Politicians kissing babies for good luck

T.V. preachers sell salvation for a buck
You don't need no golden cross, to tell you wrong from right
The world's worst murderers were those who saw the light

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