I am, as I have noted repeatedly, an atheist – but you will have noticed, no doubt, that I am not one of the cliche snarky sneering contemptuous variety. The way the whole thing presents to my mind is different from many, because I am not at all interested in the (almost universally hallucinatory) armour of self-definition – that rationalizing-language that we assemble around ourselves for comfort. I’m interested in real substance. Not the sales-pitch, but the function!
Atheism solves certain problems very well, faith solves others which it can’t touch. The sort of idealist I am (that is, the principle is more important than my ego or advantage) I don’t believe in raiding for treasure from across the lines, but I do find myself tempted to seek a new more relevant frame for self-definition, and what tempts me is not to claim the bland, wishy-washy universally-reasonable ‘I dunno’ of agnosticism, but to go a full 360 degrees opposed to that ;o) and become instead, a heretic.
I remember hearing a friend say, “There is no doctrine under Leninism, to leave potential territory unconquered.” To which I responded, “There is no doctrine under capitalism to leave potential profit untapped, no matter how many may be harmed in it’s extraction.” We both had a point (though expansionism is hardly a Communist exclusive) – as soon as a system of thought reaches for the status of all-encompassing doctrine, it begins to select and weight our perceptions, in order to add the feel of reality to this (usually experience-chosen) anchor-thought. Part of my difficulty with religion is my own experience – watching those with ‘faith’ in the essential goodness of their nominated priesthood do immeasurable harm to total innocents – almost without dissent from the throng (indeed, those who did object to the harm, were themselves persecuted).
I am also on the very far side of the authority index – even as a youngster I resented the idea that anyone ought to be threatened or bribed to do good. What was the big problem with being nice because that was fair and sensible, kind, friendly, and made the world (and your day) better, every single time? (Still looking for an explanation on that one, in case anyone has found one).
So – to be very clear, I’ve never seen atheism as a way to rationalize being more selfish, self-involved or self-justifying – very much the opposite. I see it instead as a way to be open to a far greater variety of human goodness, than most varieties of group-think, even very well-intentioned ones, can offer.
Also, for reasons of odd internal construction, I tend to drive myself pretty hard for no particular reason (that is, no clear key driver, external to my will). As a guy who was helped by many beautiful strangers when I was in a bad way, I’ve always felt an absolute obligation to give back – to those forlorn, lost and closest to the edge, in particular. We don’t have much, but we’ve always tried to share our metaphorical hearth, and provide an example of open warmth, and a marriage based on love, kindness, respect and fun, to those who may not have seen such things for too long.
I know my religious friends will recognize this spirit – but I must also point out I have myself received such principled kindnesses from a great many compassionate atheists.
This is not my insufficient case.
In a previous post I mentioned how hard it is to forget that obvious things aren’t necessarily so, to most people. I’m probably going to freak-out some of my atheist pals by saying something else here – the suffusing love of the universe, identified variously in many religions, here most familiarly as the love of Christ, is one of those things which is increasingly self-evident to me as I age. Finding-it adds a layer of meaning and depth to every waking hour, ignoring it desaturates reality itself. (The lumpiness of the big bang resulting in the seperation of matter and energy – is itself, a distinct, non-trivial, and not at all inevitable kindness).
But despite full awe and gratitude, this is still not my insufficient case – for I can hold that love as a property of ‘System: Universe’ – Buckminster Fuller’s most sympathetic formulation (from which we unquestionably do emerge, and into which we will inevitably return). This also, as a tip for my fellow rationalists, is a lovely entry for enchantment, without sacrifice of essential structure. (not poaching or a cheat, I swear). ;o)
So what is my problem? It’s simple and clear and it hurts like hell. Lost a friend a few years ago to suicide. Incredibly beautiful person, full of generous spirit, creativity and love. I was supposed to save her. I failed.
Why am I so arrogant or foolish as to say it was my job? Because my childhood gave me special insight into the exact matters which most troubled her, and indeed, the moment we first met, I recognized a familiar maelstrom, which I had transcended only with incredible infusions of love and support.
I recognized EXACTLY where she was stuck self-torturing, and I had made it to the far bank safely – which is still not nearly the same thing as knowing how to guide someone else, but I did see that it was my duty to try.
I tried to give her some ideas about self-forgiveness in discussion, but was saddened to find she’d turned them around to judge herself a failure again, when next we met. Next I tried one of my silly essays on her – all about understanding your own life with a playful spirit of generosity and forgiveness.
She wrote me up five pages of criticism and corrections.
The last time I saw her she was far happier and lighter than she’d been in ages – and I did make a point of telling her how glad I was to see her smiling and glowing that way, without ever stepping back far enough to recognize the special levity imparted to those who have finally made their decision.
Why didn’t I hug her? Invite her over? Tell her I loved her? Because every one of these would have been ‘inappropriate’. A heretic would have done infinitely better – would have done anything, to make an essential human connection of caring and profound truth with her, no matter the cost! But there is simply no doctrine under atheism for emotionally forcing your way into another’s ‘personal space’ – not even to save them from fatal heartbreak that no one else can see.
Nor is there any doctrine available to me, by which I can forgive myself.