Category Archives: Personal

Time machine: January 22, 2008

I haven’t been an atheist for long, really.

Back at the beginning of 2008, on an old (and long-since-defunct) blog of mine, I posted the following. It was one of the last things I wrote publicly as a believer, and I was barely a believer at that. I was on a lot of online forums, arguing with devout believers about the things they believed that didn’t make sense to me.

It’s interesting to look back on it now and see myself struggling with different ideas. I’ve overcome the challenges I faced then and become a much more content person, but this little glimpse into the past could provide some helpful insight, I think, to people who wonder what it’s like to go from believer to nonbeliever. (By April of the next year, I’d posted about why I was an atheist. Somewhere in the middle of that, I’d lost the last dregs of my faith.)

Without further ado:

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Inconvenient truths

Lately I’ve been catching up on Godless Bitches, a fantastic podcast put out by a few members of the Atheist Community of Austin (of The Atheist Experience and The Non-Prophets fame). The show focuses on feminist issues from an atheist perspective. And in listening to it, I’ve realized some uncomfortable facts about myself.

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What I just wrote on Facebook…

As a result of where my mind has gone tonight – considering the death of my grandmother, Christopher Hitchens, and others – I posted the following on Facebook tonight:

What I’m going to say here will probably bother some people I love, and for that I’m sorry; more than anything I’m sorry that it bothers you to read what I have to say.

I see death as a real, final thing. I don’t find consolation in the hope that I’ll see my loved ones again when they’re gone. From all the evidence I see, everything that we are is contained within our physical selves, and beyond that, only the memories of others can keep us alive in any meaningful sense. When our brains die, we die, and we’re lost for good, outside of the simulacra of ourselves that are kept alive in the memories of our loved ones. In terms of an afterlife, the best we can hope for is that the people we love remember the best part of us that they can and forget the rest.

I’ve seen a fair share of death in my life, and the more of it that I see, the more sure I am that I’m right. Maybe you find solace in the idea that some part of us lives on after our bodies die; I don’t. I find appeals to a future joyful life to be hollow, based mostly on wishful thinking rather than an appreciation of the world as it really is.

Where’s the joy in this view? Simply, it’s in the idea that grief draws us closer to those who are left behind, and tightens the bonds of family. The more we lose, the more we realize that we have to gain in the recognition that those who still live are important in ways we might not acknowledge every day.

So to all of my loved ones: I cherish every moment I share with you. Cherish the time spent with those whose lives you impact. Someday you will be gone, and all they can be sure of is the memories of you that they have. In this life, I don’t think we can really hope for anything more.

We’ll see where it goes.

Where have I been?

If you follow me here on my blog or on Twitter, you might’ve noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. So… what gives?

Well, several things. First, I missed out on several nights of my latest Alpha course, either because I was sick, or I was out of town for the holidays, or because I was attending my grandmother’s funeral. Yeah… so that happened.

My dad’s mom was sick in various ways for a long time. She was a diabetic lady who smoked for several decades, and for many reasons (genetic, behavioral, environmental, etc.) wound up suffering from emphysema, osteoporosis, and a myriad other maladies that all conspired to end her life. For years, though, she survived nonetheless; her indomitable spirit (and I daresay even her faith) kept her going long into the twilight years of her life, through several admissions to the hospital that led us to fear for the worst each time. Eventually, though, just shy of two weeks before Thanksgiving, she was admitted to the hospital one last time for severe pneumonia, where a body scan revealed a 5-inch tumor in one of her lungs. After the doctors struggled to stabilize her enough to perform a biopsy on the tumor, a chain reaction of terrible things took place. During the biopsy process (in which a long needle was inserted into her lung), her heart stopped, cutting off the oxygen flow to her brain long enough to cause a stroke. The stroke left her unconscious for the next several days, until the point that my dad and his four siblings agreed (through tears and prayer) that, given the damage that had been done to her brain, it would be better to sign a DNR and remove life support than to let her linger for months, unconscious and absent, until her body finally shut down on its own.

I find myself crying now as I write this, so you’ll have to forgive me if my prose isn’t exactly at its best.

Anyway… my grandmother had a huge influence in not only my family’s religious upbringing, but that of several people in her community as well. Though she hadn’t attended church in several years (making the weekly televised church services her ‘home’ instead), she still had strong ties to the church she’d attended decades ago, having helped raise the man who now acts as minister there. She was your typical ‘black church lady’ – very devout in her faith, and eager to impress it upon her kids. As a result, her funeral was loaded to the gills with Christianity. This led to a weird problem for me: most of the people there were Christians, who sincerely believed that she wasn’t dead but instead was now waiting for them in a paradise that they would see themselves upon their deaths. Meanwhile, as a purely materialist atheist, I was alone in thinking that she was really, absolutely gone, never to be seen again in this or any other world. I could draw no consolation at all from a funeral service that talked about how she had “gone home” and how we’d see her again “by and by.”

In fact, it was at this funeral that I truly realized that there is no consolation at all that can be given about the death of a loved one. When a person dies, they’re gone. Nothing can salvage the relationship you had with them. Your only hope of retaining any semblance of that relationship is to draw upon whatever memories you can of them, and even this is nothing but a pale shade of the person they were. Their mind is gone. All their hopes, dreams, memories, and secrets are lost with them. The simulacrum we build of them is not them, but as time goes on the differences will likely fade unless we try very hard to remember them as they were rather than as we believe they were. Even then, the best we can do is remember the things we want to remember, and forget both the things we don’t want to remember and the things we never knew.

So… the long and short of it is that my grandmother is gone for good, and this really bothers me. But I think it’s good that it bothers me; after all, if our loved ones’ deaths didn’t bother us, then I don’t think we could really claim them as loved ones.

And all this rumination on death must, of course, if only briefly, make mention of the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Hitch, as his fans knew him, was an ardent defender of freedom of speech and of freethought, and was unapologetic in his opposition not just to theism but to the very idea of gods. Love him or loathe him, the man had a way with words that’s rare these days and is not soon to be replaced. Here, in an issue of Vanity Fair to be published after his death, is his last article for the magazine. Plenty of other bloggers have written more eloquent eulogies, but none can truly capture the essence of the man.

Having said all this… I think I’m going to get back in the blogging habit now. All it takes is a single post to get things flowing again, after all. I do have one last post to make about the Alpha course, which ended on a surprisingly positive and agreeable note.

Am I smarter as an atheist than I was as a Christian?

Reader Alex recently asked a question in a comment on an older post:

Hi Mike, I’m sorry for my hard words, but there is no other way to tell it. I just read what you say in “About Me”. The very important question that you should pose to yourself some day, when you feel strong, is the following: Considering that just very recently I was stupid enough to be fundamentalist Christian, how can I be now so sure that being an Atheist is very intelligent?

In other words, if I was so wrong before, how can I know I’m right now? It’s a perfectly fair question, and it’s one I’ve asked myself several times. And there are several reasons I think I’m smarter now.

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Pray if you must, but actually do something, too.

One of my friends was recently diagnosed with a relapse of breast cancer. All her Facebook friends are pledging her their prayers. That’s all well and good, but like the saying goes, prayer and an aspirin will cure your headache.

As an atheist, of course, I don’t pray. I know it won’t do any real good. But I still have an urge to show some sort of sign of commiseration  with my friend. “Sending good thoughts” isn’t much better; it’s just another way of saying “praying” without getting a god into it. On that note, I’ll be making a donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, since a good portion of their funds actually go toward research, education, and patient care. I urge everyone who can to donate something, because at this point, it’s basically a given that you have known, currently know, or will know someone with breast cancer. Our money can do real good in this case.