‘Peony’ – Watercolour by Linda Robertson Paupst
I am a bit of a sh.# disturber. I tend to enjoy initiating controversial topics into a conversation – sex, religion, death. I love the discourse. I love to rock the boat with subjects that many people find distasteful or uncomfortable, like my being an atheist or agnostic, or considering sex a normal bodily function rather than something precious.
Months go by without me giving a thought to religion. But the past couple of days, the fates have been shaking me. The trigger occurred in a group of women. One was a lovely woman with whom I chatted easily. Medical questions led to topics such as illness, death, dying.
I don’t know exactly how it began, but in reference to the death of my much loved Mom, the woman replied, “Well, you will be together again soon.”
Not one to let such a comment go, I politely, calmly, replied, “No, I don’t think so – I don’t believe in God, heaven or hell.”
Her reaction was not anticipated! She was shocked at my admission, her intake of breath was audible.
“Ooooh, my! I am so sorry.”
I replied, “Don’t be sorry for me. I simply do not believe in a hereafter.”
“But you are talking about eternity” she said. “If you don’t believe, and do good works, you will end in Hell.”
Then she amazed me by continuing. She said her husband and herself were now preparing themselves for eternity. That confused me. How does one go about that? As a happy, positive, guilt-free Presbyterian most of my life, I was seriously wondering what preparation was entailed.
Then, with panic in her lovely eyes, she whispered, “What if you are wrong?”
Now here I did show restraint.
I wanted to reply – “Fearing that you may be wrong, is not a good basis for a belief system.”
I wanted to say – “This is the most freeing experience of my life. I believe it is you who is wrong … you, who is accepting a story passed down orally for two thousand years, with all the revisions that implies.”
She continued, “I will pray for you.”
I instantly felt my gut clench and my blood pressure rise in hostility.
I thought, “Who is this judgmental woman who feels SHE needs to pray for me?! I live a good life. I love my family, I work hard, I have accomplished much in my life. That is the important thing – to simply live your life the best way you can, and be the best you can be for your allotted time on this wonderful, inspiring and sometimes frightening earth.”
Instead of a pleasant response of thanks, I turned back to her and said, ” I don’t believe in God, so don’t do pray for me. Only do it for yourself if you must.”
I have had many discussions with family, friends, acquaintances on religion, but I have never met such a raw, almost naive (to my mind) response. I have thought of it often since. I respect her right to believe what she wants, but she did not afford me the same right. In fact, she completely negated my opinions and beliefs.
Earlier I mentioned my spiritual upbringing. My church taught of a loving God. It taught that if you truly believed in Him, you would be saved. As simple as that. My church provided a moral and ethical compass. It taught love, light and happiness, not hate, dark threats and guilt. And I still adhere to all of those today and I am at peace with that. I am a happy person.
Chiaroscuro! I never knew this Italian word until recently reading it in a novel. I think it is my new favourite word, my favourite concept. Chiaroscuro – a contrast between light and dark. It refers to contrast anywhere – light and dark in a work of art, in the sky, in human beings, and it is so applicable to the differing religious, cultural and spiritual paths that people choose to take in their lives.
My Presbyterian church believed in passion, purpose, love, delight in life. It provided positive guidelines for living a good life, for resisting temptation, for honouring the Ten Commandments and the Apostle’s Creed, without fear and threats of damnation.
And I believed. I believed with all my heart.
But life has a way of getting in the way. In the 1960’s I fell in love with a Roman Catholic man. Because of the dictates of that church at that time, I was stripped of my soul, my essential being, my belief systems (and no, I am not being dramatic). I, like many others in the 1960’s, had to submit to weeks of Roman Catholic doctrine, submit to signing a document stating that I would raise my children in the Roman Catholic church, and I had to submit to being married in the Roman Catholic church, not in my beloved Presbyterian church.
Those forced submissions ate away at me over the years. I never did change my religion, but for several years I sat through Mass with my husband and children, trying to be supportive and create family unity. However, the rituals and beliefs never became plausible to me, never became easier to tolerate or accept.
I was also offended by the completely patriarchal aspect of organized religions. Women in Canada, United States and elsewhere in recent decades see themselves as ‘equal partners’ in marriage. They fought to reach and break the ‘glass ceiling’ in business and religion, yet many religions have not responded to the needs and desires of one half of their followers.
Nor, in many respects, has business. Women, though they traditionally earn less, are forced to pay more for dry cleaning (with flimsy excuses about machines rejecting women’s shirts buttoned on the opposite side) and hair cuts. Women are forced (subtly, by society and fashion) to spend hours each day and billions of dollars each year on beauty products, while men simply ‘sh#*, shower, shave’ and walk out the door.
Anyway, back to the topic … I went back to the Presbyterian church a few times, but the magic was gone. My beliefs in that institution had withered. For many years I felt lost, but gradually, the seed of an alternate belief system took root and developed, assisted by reading, and a brief walk down the path of Humanist beliefs. The concept that we believe in ourselves, rather than some abstract idea of a god, was so simple and relevant to me. I, a human, am strong yet vulnerable, but with the love of family and friends, I know I can weather the ups, downs and unpredictability of life. I have done so.
Because of the prevalence of WASP, Christian societal beliefs in Canadian society in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, I remember feeling reluctant to voice my newly forming thoughts. What would ‘people’ think. Also, this was such a huge departure from a lifetime of religious conviction. – it took time for me to admit my new feelings to anyone else.
Then, one day, probably in the late 1980’s, I became fascinated by Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”. Between those pages I read words that imprinted on my soul. I absorbed his belief that humans are simply part of the animal kingdom. We are born. We live. We die. That is it. No ‘hereafter’. He said in part that we have just this one life, so make the best of it! Don’t waste this life waiting for bliss in eternity.
OMG! This made sense to me. It was a refreshing, believable concept to me, a lifeline. Finally, I found someone else who thinks and believes as I do. That was significant.
I began to realize that many others feel this way. The atheist and agnostic movements are quiet in comparison to fundamentalism in any religion. But they are alive, well and growing exponentially. And I do not want anyone to pity me, or think less of me, or disrespect my beliefs. They are mine.
My Roman Catholic husband accepted my new direction many years ago, but he smilingly tells me I will revert to my old Christian beliefs when I am on my death bed. I don’t think so. I remember my difficult five weeks sitting with my dying mother. I did not pray then. Or Did I? If I did, it was not to the God of my childhood.
On the day she died, my mother was non-responsive in a heavily sedated state. With tears running down my cheeks, I leaned in close to her and promised that I would think of her, remember her, love her always, especially when the sun peeked through a cloud, or when a rainbow painted the sky, when I experienced wonders in nature, like a beautiful bird, an exquisite flower, a magnificent tree, or a shimmering lake at sunset.
Perhaps that was my prayer.
My apologies to Carl Sagan for the simplistic version of his words included within.