If you’re like me, you have probably heard that people think you have actively chosen to disbelieve in God.
They insinuate that it’s just trendy right now. Like one day, you said, “Yes, I actually want to be the least trusted demographic in America. It’ll be cool.”
They propose that a belief in a higher power is the natural state of things, that babies are born believing, that it is as elemental as breathing. Their solution for your fall from grace is to simply submit to the balance of the universe, turn back to God, and “let” yourself believe in their particular recommended religion. Sounds easy, right?
Obviously, to that, any halfway respectable, sarcastic atheist would immediately challenge, “Please, for the sake of your argument, show me and choose to believe that dragons, griffons, and satyrs exist. Plenty of books throughout history, including the Bible, include accounts of these creatures!”
Enter the cognitive dissonance, and most of the time, the conversation will abruptly end with, “Oh, now you’re just being silly.”
Well, here is the story of the time I chose to believe in God. Maybe it will help you understand that, for most of us, being an atheist was never a choice. It, in fact, was the natural state of things.
Unlike many of you, I am not an escapee from a traumatic religious upbringing. My family never shoved it down my throat, but I was actively involved in church. I never believed in the supernatural elements of it, though. Even in the earliest years, I was suspicious of the little gifts the youth preacher would hand out to all the children if we obediently listened to his stories about Jesus. I asked my mother why we got presents just for paying attention to stories from the Bible. Poor mom. I was five years old, and already realizing that perhaps there was an agenda afoot.
Anyway, I enjoyed parts of going to church. The children’s choir was fun. Vacation bible summer camp was great! Wednesday night spaghetti dinners were the bomb. Unlimited garlic bread? Hell yeah! Mostly, church was the time I got to see my best friend who lived across town. We would sneak out the back, crawling low behind the pews, to go practice making friendship bracelets and giggle over River Phoenix pictures in our Teen Beat magazines.
Oh my, the irony of seeing Kirk Cameron here is flipping my shit!
Anyway, you see what I’m getting at? Even in the most reverent, ritualized, honored moments, such as confirmation or communion, I was just going through the ropes because that’s what I had to do to hang out with my friends.
And that, honestly, is what church really is to many, many Americans. A social scene. What is expected of us in our communities. I’m sure you are familiar with the irrational feelings of guilt and shame when a smiling busy-body would approach you after church and say, “We haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been? We’d love to see more of you at church, ya hear?” Fuck you, Phyllis, I was hungover last Sunday!
Even as a child, I always hoped no one would realize that when I bowed my head to pray, I felt like I was just talking to myself and making selfish wishes in my head.
So one day, all us kids went off to a church weekend retreat. There was singing of Cumbaya all around. There were hand jobs under jackets during movies, drinking, and recreational drug use all around, too. Those religious kids. Don’t let ‘em fool you, parents!
On the last day, something happened. All of a sudden, the camp counselors came in carrying decorated bags, one for each of us. As we looked around, perplexed, while the counselors sung Jesus hymns, we saw that in those bags were hundreds of sentiments of love, cards, photographs, letters, small gifts, from every single person in our lives.
I saw a boy collapse crying after he read an apology from his abusive father. I saw a girl burst into tears when she read a loving plea for a truce from a sister with whom she fought constantly. I received a long, carefully written letter from the teacher who first took me under her wing when I was only three years old, who has followed me to this day with love and guidance. They were all there. Family, community leaders, long-lost friends, teachers. Somehow over the preceding months, our families had scoured our pasts to seek these words of encouragement and uplifting affection. And here it all was, poured out of colored sacks in our laps. It was one of the most moving moments of my adolescence.
The tears and emotion in the room were thick. Not one of us kids, just before sarcastic teenagers, now blubbering children, was unaffected. It was an intense group experience.
And just like speaking in tongues, just like witnessing a faith healing, just like when a virgin Mary statue cries real tears, our emotions had rendered us ready and willing.
We were instructed to leave the camper’s lounge and go out onto the campgrounds to find God’s love and thank Him for all the joy that we had just witnessed in our lives. We were forbidden to talk to anyone until the church bell rang, an hour later. The kids spread out, sniffling and red-eyed, to find their own solitary spot under a tree, on a fallen log, in a lone canoe in the middle of the lake, or huddled up in the fetal position like when your sparkly vampire boyfriend left you, to find God.
I remember my first thoughts were that finally today I might actually believe, and wouldn’t that be great? I would finally fit in with my church friends!
I chose a pine tree and sat under it. I listened to the birds, watched the clouds, and realized just how long one hour is when you are sitting under a tree and you are fourteen years old. I chose, right then, finally, to feel God. I willed it.
When my parents came to pick me up from camp that evening, among the goodbyes, hugs, and wishes of “Go with God,” I think, for the first time, I believed.
It was a great feeling! It was like a high. I kept replaying the emotional scene, re-reading those letters from all my friends and loved ones, pouring over the memories of how special all those words made me feel. I remember spreading those cards and presents out all over my bed the next week, and marveling at how many people loved me. I really was special, and it must be because of God!
I chose to trust what I had heard, that it was all because of God, even though something inside of me was trying to poke its head in and tell me, “Yes, you are special. You are loved. But you knew that already. And it doesn’t take a belief in Jesus for you to understand that you are a good person who will never be alone in this world.”
One week later, the feeling was gone.
I still treasured that experience, but not for the reasons they told me to. Not because there was something higher than myself and the amazing people who came to my side to make that day happen. In fact, I realized that, whatever the answers to the mysteries of life, whether there is a God or not, no one knows, it is how you live your life, what mark you leave on others, that counts.
Do you think you could find enough people in this world to write enough words of love and encouragement to fill a large canvas bag for you?
“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” — Thomas Paine