Posts Tagged ‘god’

Blogfail, Empty Places and Owning Up: YFNA Attempts to Crawl Out of Her Own Rear End.

I gotta be honest. I feel like a bit of a failure. Blogfail. Um, kind of epic blogfail.

I lost the fire, lost my way, lost hold of the questions I was trying to answer. It happens. There have been at least a dozen post ideas that have flitted non-committally through my head like your winsome, New-Agey friend with all the scarves and divination stones who just wants to borrow your flax oil but can’t stick around to help you move your couch. But I’ve just felt like I haven’t been doing my homework, so I don’t deserve to have a voice.

Wow. That’s one for my therapist, eh?

Anyway. I just chickened out with my “following the music” idea, because frankly I did not think I would be welcome in the kind church that has the music I’m talking about. I fully confess to holding cowardly, preconceived and even bigoted notions about a number of things here: 1) That African American churches are the only ones in this town with good gospel music; 2) That African American congregations would not like an atheist white girl wandering into their midst to feed off their music; 3) That African American churches would be more conservative; 4) That conservative churches would fill me with rage and be therefore utterly intolerable for me to sit through. In all truth it would seem from my research that at least Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notion #1 is most likely true; if there are racially diverse churches with old school gospel in this town I have yet to find them. But then again so much in this town is homogeneous, in a way that continues to gives me the squeebs. Despite its good intentions, Portland has a long, long way to go in the diversity department.

As for Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notions #2 and 3, I have no data there. They are truly born of my own unjustifiable, under-examined biases and microaggressive privilege. I own them, I do not seek to defend them and I humbly commit to working on them.

Cowardly, Preconceived and Even Bigoted Notion #4 is a little harder to process. It was much, much, SO much easier to practice unconditional love and radical acceptance for intolerance disguised as religion when I got to have a party about it every Sunday. It was SO much easier to stay in patience and compassion when I could go and drown in the joy that was balm to all the hurt and rage. I think I could wrangle with #4 if I knew I could tap into the strength afforded by one hundred bodies on either side committed to the same effort. I am not as strong without that.

It needs some thought. Instead of avoidance, I mean. Avoidance has been very effective up till now, but that big achey cavern in my gut where my strange, wobbly, translational spirituality used to lie is still there, just kind of patiently thudding away until I’m ready to attend to it. I think it’s time.

Old Time Religion; Life & Death, Too Close Together.

I’ve been to church a few times since the last post.

A friend of mine invited me to come to Unity Church of Portland, and I went twice; once with her and once without. It is a lovely non-denominational church that emphasizes spirit over any concept of “god”. They talk about “wisdom teachers” such as Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed and the “wisdom texts” they gave to the world. People were very nice to me both times, both as a stranger and as someone introduced by a congregant. There was nothing in the sermon that made me feel particularly out of place in my beliefs. I came home and told my husband that it was very nice, and wandered off with a distracted, unsettled look on my face.

Yesterday I went to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland. Also very nice. Even less about deity – although interestingly they used the word “religion” substantially more than either sermon at Unity, despite the fact that there was less “religious” vocabulary used. They lit a chalice, gonged a Buddhist prayer bell, sang the Quaker hymn “’Tis A Gift To Be Simple”. Several parts of the service had to do with social justice and action, which was refreshing. A very, very white quartet got up and sang a Kenyan feast song. They were all classically trained and had some chops, and were clearly very, very white. The audience – entirely white and primarily over 50 – gently bobbed their heads. I noticed several people falling asleep. When I got home I listened to a recent Glide service in which Pastor Karen Oliveto had everyone dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.


I know that comparing is a wasteful activity, a fool’s game. I was very conscious of that as I sat and listened. I told myself to stop comparing, dammit, and just experience what IS instead of what ISN’T. I tried really, really hard… But hang on a sec. Let me take a moment to let you in on where I’m at, because it’s relevant.

Last week I had a miscarriage.

Now that is a god-awful word if I ever heard one. Like I dropped it perhaps, tripped on uneven pavement and it just – whoops! – flew out of where I was carrying it. Or the phrase “miscarriage of justice” comes to mind. A terrible flub, a travesty perpetrated by an inept and corrupt authority. I don’t know which is worse. Although at the very early stage at which I miscarried the other term for it is a “chemical pregnancy”, which is most decidedly worse than “miscarriage”. As though it were just a fluke of chemistry rather than a heartbreaking end to the confirmed fruition of years of hope and dreaming. However you put it, it freaking sucks.

Yesterday morning when I stepped into the sanctuary, I could really have used a little breakdown space.

Here’s the thing that really struck me as I sat listening to the smooth, un-jarring and un-challenging material of the service: There needs to be a little violence. I know that’s a strange word to use, but it was the one that kept coming to me. I remembered the almost combative physical force of the 100+ voices of the Glide Ensemble; the challenging, questioning, all-fired-up preaching that invited shouts of recognition and urging from the congregation; the confrontation of all my own biases and inhumane discomforts that was the result of standing in a room full of such vastly different individuals who all agree to lift each other up every Sunday, free of charge. All of that stuff – that life-changing, shell-shattering stuff that takes hold of your grief and shakes it like a bone rattle in your chest, makes room for the watershed and strips you bare so that the total stranger standing next to you knows you, sees you, recognizes himself in you and gives you the extra hands you need to keep clinging to the side of the cliff – all of that good, good stuff is, let’s face it, a little violent.

It’s old time religion, y’all. When I think about “old time religion” I think of the wrath of God, the smiting of the wicked, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth. There are times in our lives when our grief so outstrips our capacity to compass it that the only thing that truly reflects our insides is violence. And if we’re lucky we can find that essential violence in a threshing drumbeat or a spine-breaking harmony by a hundred voices. There are ever so many ways of finding death and destruction unfettered, ungrounded, unloved, unmended. What we need is a way of earthing the lightening bolts and feeling the thunder without dying in flames.

So I wanted a little old time religion this Sunday. Unfortunately, what I got was unmoored floaty new-wave complacency.

Next week we’re going to follow the music. Maybe the music is the key. The question is this: will I be able to hear the music and feel welcomed knowing that my atheism is looked upon there as a failure, a deficit, a dearth? How alien will I feel, how much will I have to hide? I don’t know the answer. I only know I haven’t found it yet.

Greetings from Your Newly Northern Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

Bless me, WordPress, for I have sinned. It’s been a year since my last blog post.

We live in Portland now. Our little house is big enough for us and our cats and it sits on a tree-crowded corner of a verdant, safe, funky-in-the-best-way neighborhood. Kids run up and down our street playing riotously joyful games and selling lemonade. We are in the process of trying to make one of our own to add to the clamor. We have built vegetable beds in the back yard (a back yard!!! We’d heard of back yards in San Francisco, but no one we knew had ever seen one) and are watching seedlings grow into salads. I have a fabulous and rewarding job for which I am paid, if not handsomely, then at least adequately enough for the things we want. Every weekend we hang out with my sister and her husband and kids, who are happy and healthy and destined for greatness. As I write this, my husband is making us pancakes with blackberries from the produce cart down the street. Life, she is sweet.

And I miss Glide.

As the weeks and months turn into a year, I become more and more acutely aware of it. I pick apart the longing to try to understand the building blocks of what I’m missing. The people, of course. Beloved friends who I hardly get to speak to anymore, whose faces I once got to see shining with joyful noise every Sunday. Pastors Karen Oliveto and Don Guest, inspiring mentors and cheerleaders who continually reminded me that being there was not in the least bit strange, because once we got past the semantics we were all talking about the same thing, really. And the music. Being one voice in a massive sea of voices, lifting up those big soaring open harmonies that lifted everyone else. The bootie-shaking, rock solid celebration of gospel. And the opportunity to serve. Knowing I was part of a machine that fed, clothed, healed and housed thousands of human beings. Climbing down into the steam and laughter of the cafeteria at the grim crack of dawn and shedding all pretension, maddening self-absorption, anxiety-addled need to make it all about me, picking up a tray of food and delivering it to a hungry woman and her children. Chapping my fingers in bleachy water wiping down the table after a man finishes the only meal he will eat that day. And acceptance. The feeling that whatever broke in me and flooded into tears, whatever shame of the past, whatever cringing hidden need I might battle in the wounded heart of night, I would still be embraced and encouraged and loved. Loved. And celebrated.

And still get to be an atheist.

Last night my husband and I were sifting through all these things, trying to distill and define the formula of Glide in the fantasy that we could somehow find or recreate it here in Stumptown. We found ourselves comparing religion and rock & roll, examining the similarities and differences between them. What we came to was this: Religion provides frequent ecstatic experiences that are shared by a large group of people and creates a context for transcendence. So does rock & roll. We humans search for this, seem to need it quite desperately. But where religion gets tricky is that it requires conformity, insists upon an in-group and an out-group, defines who is acceptable and who is most emphatically not. Rock & roll solves that problem by accepting absolutely anyone, anything, any behavior – the more transgressive the better. It turns the ecstatic and transcendent into a frenetic, explosive expression of self-hood, me-ness, an identity supernova in which all our dirty bits are reified, deified, idolized. Where rock & roll falls short is that it is a completely self-feeding vocation; we get to experience and celebrate our selves but there’s no element of plugging all that energy back into a connected humanity. We need that, too. Without it we become lonely and self-destructive. We long for something bigger than ourselves. Service puts us back into the network of life.

Glide does all of these things – ecstatic transcendence, complete acceptance and plugging in to service – and does them beautifully. It is a magical equation that I am desperate to find again.

I’ve been wanting to go back to writing but I haven’t been an atheist in church for nearly a year and so haven’t had anything to say. And although I am peaceful and content in my life right now, the lack of community is a constant low-level ache that I am hardly aware of until I pass a church and remember what it felt like to be a part of that weekly embrace. And at that moment I feel deeply alone, because I am so sure that there will be no place for me there. I do not believe.

I find myself going back to the angry atheist podcasts, the documentaries about creationism and anti-gay religious groups. I know from experience now that this is a way of staunching the loneliness, a way of wrapping myself in safe certainties about in-groups and out-groups. I am more like the angry atheists than I am like the creationists and anti-gay people. Therefore in order to feel less alone I have to re-position myself so that I can judge Them for what they do to Us. And oh, I just get so disappointed with myself. I know where this goes. It goes away from music, community, service and acceptance. But I don’t know where to find those things here.

Around 1am last night as my husband and I chewed on all these weighty issues I started to form an idea. An experiment. An exercise in blogging. I will visit communities and write about them. Churches, atheist and humanist groups, volunteer organizations. If I stage it as an experiment in my head perhaps I will be able to observe more clearly and judge less harshly. And if I’m really honest with myself, an experiment gives me the excuse to look for what I’m missing.

The Beginning of Goodbye: Hold On, Don’t Let Go.

I have 2 Sundays left before we move up north.

I am in total denial about this, it’s clear. I’ve been trying to say what needs saying, observe what needs observing, be present for what I need presence in. But at the end of the day, when I think about this week and next week and the week after, I unfailingly place myself on the risers at Glide for all Sundays to come.

It was a great honor to lift the offering at Celebration last Sunday. For those of us unschooled in church-ese, that is the brief testimony given by a member of the congregation to inspire folks to join and support the community. As far as I understand it this happens at many churches, but of course, as with all things, it is very different at Glide.

At Glide, people bear witness not just to the influence of deity or the divine in their lives. They bear witness to the dirty, bloody, sweaty, tear-stained work done by the folks providing services at Glide; to the unshakably supportive community of the congregation; to the changes brought by the wisdom and radical love of the pastoral team. Some folks are Christian, some are Jewish, some are Buddhist, some are sort of vaguely spiritual in a way they wouldn’t even be able to describe if you pressed them to it. Many of them tell profound stories of recovery that would not have been possible without the strength they drew from the people standing around them. It would be kind of cliche if it weren’t so incredibly powerful to hear.

My little spiel had to do with everything I’ve said on this blog. I won’t beleaguer the points (you can order the entire service at ; just scroll down to Sunday Celebration DVD/CD and enter 8/22/10, 9am service – you can see the smiling face of Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist at last). I talked about inclusiveness, social justice, the fact that as an atheist I have had access to the community, ritual, music, support that church affords and have still been able to be myself and believe what I believe. If you’ve been following the blog you know roughly what I’m talking about.

After the service there was a flood of people who came up to speak to me. Some pressed the addresses of their churches up in Portland into my hand and welcomed me with love and excitement. Some embraced me and said that even though they’d never spoken to me they’d come to think of me as family and were sad to see me go. But the majority told me something like this: “I’m an atheist and I’ve been coming here for years but I’ve never felt comfortable saying that.” Folks came out of the closet a little bit, and realized they were far more welcomed than they’d thought they were. It was pretty awesome.

Right now I’m having a hard time composing this in a cohesive, slick way, because I’m listening to one of my favorite Ensemble songs:

Every time we do this song I feel the bottoms of my feet lifted up through my belly, and I end up weeping to the point of almost not being able to sing. It epitomizes Glide to me. If you have time, you should listen to it. If you don’t believe in a God, translate the biblical “He” or “Him” to “love”, or “community”, or “family”, or “that thing that passes between human beings in rare moments of openness and courage, when even strangers feel like brothers”. Think about a time when someone or something has grounded you, saved you from drowning, kept your head up, picked up your pieces. If it’s a divine someone or something, cool. If it’s not, cool. The point is that we all need to hear a kind and beautiful voice tell us to “hold on, don’t let go”. I think what I’ve been trying to say in all these many, many words over these many, many months is simply this: Whatever it is that convinces you to hold on, don’t let go, is worthy of praise and respect.

To all my brothers and sisters who are hanging by a thread, hold on. Don’t let go.

YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 2

I want to put forward some of the really chewy ideas I heard tonight, and I will do so in subsequent posts. But first I want to think and talk a little about why it’s useful – or important, or relevant, or not totally insane – for an atheist to read the Bible.

First and foremost, it is a collection of narratives on which nearly all of western culture is built. If you want to fully understand anything painted, carved, written or played in Europe or its colonies since about 300AD, you’d better have some basic biblical literacy.

Case in point: My husband and I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco a week ago and saw this painting, “Portrait of a Lady of the Saxon Court as Judith with the Head of Holofernes”, by Hans Cranach, 1537. If you’re prone to contemplation about these sorts of things, you might find yourself with some questions, the first being who is Judith and what is she doing with this guy’s head? And why would a lush little society dame want to pose as her? What does it say about her, about her family, about her interests? What does it say about the artist? What does it say about the zeitgeist in which she posed and he painted? It’s remarkably postmodernist for a 16th century painting, full of self-referents and mirroring cultural memes. Without an elemental understanding of the central narrative, you can’t even begin the conversation.

Secondly, it is imperative that we understand the language in which the most important social justice issues are being discussed in this country. Marriage equality, reproductive rights, racial and economic justice are all being played out on the stage of religiosity. If we want to stand on the side of human rights, we have to be fluent in the language to which those standing on the side of oppression resort to support their claims. I tell you this now: theirs is not the only interpretation of this book. We must not cede to them its resources, for there is more liberation in it than subjugation.

Thirdly, it is comprised of some of the most moving stories ever recorded. Leave aside for the moment the ontological arguments about its authorship, its veracity and its literal or metaphorical interpretation – this is an intense book. It has stories about working, living, loving, losing, longing, grieving, healing, striving, surviving. Human stories. Stories that have been picked over, assembled, reassembled, reworked, but nevertheless they speak to a common thread of lived experience that stretches back millenia. Look down at your own hand, and then imagine the hands that built the pyramids. There is a narrative that stretches back to those hands and beyond, and the echoes of that narrative are enshrined in the Bible.

I have to tell you that I am so grateful for the opportunity to reread – reclaim – the stories in this book without the crushing, foreclosing oppression with which they were imposed on me as a child. I will be very clear that I read them as myth, not fact. I read them as myth in the way that Pastor Guest defines myth: as “a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.” I do not wish to engage in a debate about the reality or unreality of these stories, because that leads to unproductive suffering. But talking about what they mean to us as people, what they tell us about ourselves and those who we should strive to find love for – that is a conversation that I will geek out on for days.

YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 1

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist is geeking out on the Bible.

I am geeking out on it in the way you’d geek out on Catch 22, or a juicy Jon Krakauer expose, or Harry Potter for that matter; as an astounding collection of histories, cultural tropes and human experiences. Whoever you believe wrote it, it comes from somewhere, and the way we translate, read, quote from and interact with it from generation to generation is simply fascinating to me.

Glide conducts a Bible study group – more accurately called a Sacred Text study group, as I’m told they’ve studied everything from the Bhagavad Gita to the Qur’an – that I’ve been meaning to go to for months now. I’ve even heard rumors that they’ve read some Richard Dawkins, although what he’d say about being included in a list of sacred texts I cannot imagine. Regardless, and true to Glide philosophy, it is radically inclusive, which is why I thought it would be cool to go.

I’ve talked before about the powerful influence of story on the human psyche. Sir Terry Pratchett, the brilliant and uproariously funny British fantasy author, posits an imaginary 118th element he calls “Narrativium”, which he describes thusly: “It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese.” Pastor Don Guest began this evening’s conversation with a similar sentiment: “Myth is a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.”

Next: Why Should an Atheist Read the Bible?

You Too Can Look Cute in a Hairnet: Serving Breakfast at Glide

I finally bit the early morning bullet to volunteer serving breakfast at Glide. I am a little delirious writing this – Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist does not really DO 6am – but maybe delirious is the appropriate state to fully appreciate the churning controlled chaos that takes place below the sanctuary three times a day, every day. It is truly amazing what they accomplish down there, with limited resources and lines that grow by the hundreds of thousands every year.

The thing that was the most striking in my sleep-deprived state was all the smiling. I wouldn’t have expected so much smiling. There were small ruckuses and malcontents – I saw one guy in line kick back with his heel and catch the guy behind him right in the nads – and lots of folks who were too impaired to really interact with their surroundings, but for the most part it was kind of a party. The older gentlemen took great delight in twinkle-eyed flirting with the cute new girl (let me just say that I don’t look half bad in a lunch lady hairnet) and there were kids running pellmell through the cement corridors. Some looked like they’d slept on the street and some like they’d hit on hard times and just needed a meal or two here and there to pull them through the month. But nearly everyone was smiling, joking, calling out to friends, lending each other a hand. It was like all the mistrust and hypervigilance that characterizes the world above got permission for a quick coffee break, and all that was left were folks.

Friends were teasing me last night when I cut out early to go to bed at 9:30 so I could have a hope of making it there this morning. “Gotta go do the Lawd’s work!” they said, because everyone still thinks its pretty funny that my (formerly) grouchy militant staunch atheist behind gets dragged to church every Sunday morning. It is pretty funny. But I wish it didn’t have to be seen as the Lord’s work, wasn’t generally the purview of religious institutions to do this kind of dirty work for the folks who really need it. I wish it could be seen as human work, the work of humanity, the work humans do for other humans. I wish that we as a society could take responsibility for each other without a commandment from on high to do so. Churches shouldn’t be the only organizations sending people to roll bandages in Haiti, to rebuild homes in New Orleans, to staff AIDS clinics in Africa. And really, it doesn’t even have to be that hard. It shouldn’t be that hard to sweat a little in the service of  humanity. One morning a month at your local soup kitchen, your local food bank. We all know we should do it. I’m just not sure why we don’t.

If you – atheist, theist, believer, non-believer, religious, spiritual or undecided – would like to join the party in the world below the sanctuary at Glide, click here and sign up. You don’t have to be a member, but you’ll probably want to be after you hang out for a little while.

I’m going to crawl into the miracle of luck and privilege that is my bed and take a long Sunday afternoon nap. I am so very blessed, though that word has a slightly different meaning to me than it would to someone who believes in God. You don’t have to believe in God to be deeply grateful for things like roofs and beds and food and health care. You just have to spend some time with folks who don’t have them.

Inter-Belief Coalition at Glide

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist has been collaborating with one of the pastors of Glide Memorial Methodist Church to create an inter-belief working group within the congregation. This is the initial proposal; I’m posting it so that folks can give some suggestions about where to take it. Thanks in advance for your help.

“It is my observation that many issues of social justice are placed in a polarizing religious context by the popular media, and as such we often forfeit the opportunity to collaborate with other activists who are working toward the same goals merely because their belief system differs from our own. Glide’s commitment to radical inclusion presents a unique opportunity to bridge this gap to increase our understanding of one another, our strength as activists and our beloved community of compassionate advocates for change.

As an atheist member of the Glide community I have been moved and inspired by the radical activism of people of faith(s) there, and equally dismayed by the occasional negativity with which my involvement has been received by my fellow non-believers. The widespread representation of right-wing conservative religiosity in opposition to human rights, progressive politics and economic justice has produced a climate in which many feel that in order to oppose oppression one must oppose religious and spiritual belief. This division contributes to the obstacles facing those working tirelessly for justice and liberation and must be bridged.

To this end I propose a coalition between believers and non-believers, theists and non-theists, people of any religious or spiritual faith together with people who identify as non-religious or spiritual. We will seek ways of making visible the alliance between faith and non-faith, in order to encourage others to reach across the faith divide. This may take the form of printed literature, art, acts of protest or support, web presence, media representation, and anything else the group creates. It will be a forum for questions and conversations, collaboration and cooperation. We will develop methods of communication and conflict management that can be used to overcome situations in which differences of belief might lead to rupture of partnership. We will visibly and accountably stand together for change rather than allow our differences to divide us.”

Please feel free to leave suggestions and feedback. This is a work in progress.

Sarah, Honey. Let’s Hug it Out.

Palin. Palin, Palin, Palin.

I wish that I didn’t have to talk about Miss Alaska here on my blog, but it seems I do. And all because she has made a big old kablooey fuss about how the laws of this country should be based on the Bible. Oh Sarah. Why you gotta make it so hard?

Or so easy?

The reasons this makes me so angry are manifold. Let us for the moment leave aside the terrifying implications of theocracy and the cringe-worthy hypocrisy of proposing one theocracy (a Christian one) as perfectly acceptable while at the same time excoriating another theocracy (an Islamic one) as threateningly fundamentalist. Let us leave aside the very clear injunction for the separation of church and state in the founding documents of this nation, regardless of the denominations, affiliations or spiritual philosophies of their authors, and the fact that many of those authors questioned the existence of a Christian god entirely. Let us even leave aside the spectacular wrong-headedness of claiming that any religious affiliation should be enforced upon the people of this country, considering the fact that the entire bloody point was to escape theocracy. Let us not even go there, for logic does not disturb the placid waters of Lake Palin. We would merely wear out our boat.

No. The reason this enrages me so is that it makes Christians look even worse to atheists than they already do.

Sarah, honey. You have no idea what a challenge it’s been to convince most of the liberal atheists in my life to even have a conversation with people of faith. To imagine that they are members of the same sentient species at all, let alone abandon the safe encampments of philosophical divide to join forces with them for the betterment of the human condition. I will offer up a painful transparency here, a truth difficult to admit: Many atheists do, in fact, think that people of your faith are dangerously ignorant. It’s a fact. And here I am, striving to challenge the stereotypes of both belief and non-belief, to form a coalition of people who are willing to jettison their biases and make substantive alliances that might begin to heal the wounds of religiosity in this country. And there you are, grinning like a mad moosehunter in a power suit and f*cking it up for all of us.

While I was up north I had lunch with an old friend who was hard-pressed to understand why I, a through-and-through atheist, would get up early Sunday mornings to go to church. His experience of Christians was one of bigotry, intolerance, oppressive rigidity and a total refusal to parlay on the neutral ground of humanism. In a word, Sarah, you. The response that I hadn’t fully formulated in my head at that time but which your most recent squawking has cemented for me is this: Spending time among theists, deists and spiritualists who constantly push themselves to practice unconditional love and acceptance – the gay man who asked me to act with compassion toward the virulent hatemongers of the Phelps klan when they planned to protest a local high school that was putting on a play about murder victim Matthew Shepard; the African American pastor who helped me turn my anger about the racism directed at our President into a deeper empathy for the psychological brokenness of racism itself; the people of the congregation who have showered me with love, real and unconditional love, in full knowledge of and deep respect for my atheism – challenges me to push myself just as hard in the effort to expand my ability to work with people, rather than contract it. Being there begins to soften this terribly hurt place from which I have defended my own beliefs and failed to hear the potential for connection with those of others. It allows me to deal with fundies like you with humanity and compassion, because I am exposed to people whose faith is grounded in humanity and compassion. It reminds me that that which has angered me past the point of reason about religiosity in this country is also that which I myself am in constant peril of doing in the fight against their oppression: not listening.

So I am practising on you, Sarah. I am so very, very angry at you and those you represent, and I am fighting like hell to master it and stay in a position of unconditional love. The problem is that you are so big, so powerful, so entrenched, so impenetrable, that sometimes the fight to stay on the side of love seems utterly futile. What, after all, does it matter to you? Will you ever meet me? Will you ever know I exist? Will you ever be even microscopically aware of my struggle to afford you your humanity in my head? No. No you will not.

But here is the crux of it, Sarah. We in the secular community like to throw around this little idea – if you only do the right thing when you are afraid of being punished for doing wrong, then how right can you really be? If your charity only extends to those who can acknowledge it, what is its value? We like to claim a little superiority on this count, adhering as we do to a moral code based on compassion and enlightened self-interest rather than a punitive paternity poised above our heads to deliver retribution should we fail. So if I treasure and tend this anger in my breast for you and yours, if I allow it to root and grow simply because you will never hear of it, aren’t I just as dangerous as I’m painting you?

So I’ll keep trying to love you, because that is what has been taught to me by folks who read the same book you do. Although I have to say that it sure don’t sound like the same book when you talk about it. But that’s between you and your god, right? And in the meantime, can you please please please stop making Christians look like such flagrant idiots?

Thanks a mill,

-Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist In Church

Suspended Like a Ragdoll in the Pitiless Sky: An Atheist’s Thoughts on Prayer

Wow. This has been a long hiatus; an unintended one to be sure.

Last week my father-in-law was rushed to the hospital with severe pain in his chest and difficulty breathing. Since then we have learned that he has lung cancer. I wish I had some better, more creative or lyrical way to say that, but I don’t. There is nothing lyrical about cancer.

I have been wracking my brain for something thought-provoking or insightful to write about this, something in keeping with my project of thinking and talking about the wonderful incongruities of being an atheist in church. I have no wisdom on this one. My family is scared and grief-stricken, looking ahead to a grim road of chemo and sickness and insurance rigamarole. Dad is in tremendous pain and his wife is terrified beyond imagining. My husband is striving to be a good son to his father and I am striving to be a good partner to him. We are a rickety arrangement of buttresses and lean-tos, one propping up another on shaky, treasonous ground.

But I will say that I have been profoundly moved by the love and support of our friends and community. Folks who pray have haltingly asked me if it would be alright for them to pray for us, for my husband and his father particularly. I find it to be one of the sweetest, most respectful questions I’ve ever been asked, although it’s entirely possible that a year ago I might have been merely pissed off by it. (I’m not proud of that, by the way.) It’s given me a bit of insight into what is commonly known as “the power of prayer”, something I have historically dismissed as some kind of shared delusion. And maybe I still think that, although I’m beginning to see that the delusion is a beautiful one, and the sharing of it is one of the most important things we do as human beings.

Allow me to explain.

I found out about Dad’s diagnosis over the phone as I boarded a plane to Portland. Truly some of the most unabashedly crappy timing in living memory. They had biopsied on Monday and we expected the results on Wednesday, the day I was scheduled to leave, and though I lobbied to jettison the trip and stay home to support my husband, he would have none of it and marched me to the airport personally. On the phone I was of no use to him whatsoever, irrationally shocked even though we all sort of knew this would be the result, my heart breaking for him too much to be able to think of anything even remotely comforting. As I took my seat and tried to settle myself with my book and my laptop and my crosswords and my sudoku (I travel like a toddler with ADHD – I need a lot of stimulus) I felt more helpless than I think I have ever felt in my life. It was so stupid, so stupid, that I was sitting here on this stupid plane going down this stupid runway and lifting into the stupid sky when the people I love were in so much pain. I kept having an urge to flag down a flight attendant and ask them to do something about it. “Um, yeah, so my father-in-law has cancer and I am stuck on this idiot sardine tin and this should totally not be happening. Could you, you know, fix that for me please?” In my helpless smallness, suspended like a ragdoll in the pitiless sky, my brain could not help but cast about for some authority that could just clear up this little misunderstanding for me. Dad could not possibly have cancer. I could not possibly be thousands of airborne miles away from my husband’s side. Somebody must be able to make this not be happening.

This was one of those moments when I am really bummed about the whole not-believing-in-a-higher-power thing.

I cried on and off the whole flight, and I will not even bother to speculate what the guy next to me thought was my problem. Possibly in-flight overstimulation from too many activities, who knows. When I got to my sister’s house and checked my email I found nearly 20 emails from Glide folks, most of them including this shy request to pray for me and my family. I know you don’t pray, many of them said, but if it’s ok with you I’d like to pray for you guys anyway. We’re sending love. We’re hoping for the best. We’re standing right behind you if you need to fall apart.

What I felt was an overwhelming tide of support and strength, just knowing that all these people – many of whom have never met my husband, let alone his dad – were thinking of us. Even people whom I’ve never met – Jenny Rain, whose blog ( I stumbled upon and who has been kind enough to start a conversation with this upstart atheist, gently asked my permission to pray for us out of her kindness and compassion. I do not know the content of their prayers or what it feels like for them to address their thoughts of us to a being in whom we do not believe. Frankly it did not matter to me. The fact that they were thinking of us at all gave me the wherewithall to pull myself together and be steady and supportive to my husband when we spoke on the phone. He, in turn, received from my words the wherewithall to pull himself together to be steady and supportive to his dad and stepmother. Our rickety buttressed lean-to suddenly had a whole lot more timber to it, and that in itself was a small miracle.

So prayer, as they say, works. I don’t agree that it works in the same sense that the folks who say “prayer works” think it does – Dad still has cancer, this terrible road still stretches before him and us, his family – but in the sense that it sends out ripples of intent and commitment, builds small fortresses of comfort and solidarity, adds a little oomph to the strained resources of folks facing hardship….. Yeah. It works.

My very deep and profound gratitude to all those who have lent their intent, comfort, solidarity and oomph to my family and me. And Dad, when you’re well enough to get to the computer and read this, you should know that there are a lot of people out there who are thinking of you with love and hope. No matter what happens, we’ll all be right by your side.