The fence at the back of our yard in Virginia had been pulled at for years by honeysuckle, and a gap had opened at one corner, so when we got bored with keeping track of the ghost runners in our backyard baseball game we would slip through the fence into the woods behind, which seemed, at the time, limitless, dangerous, and entirely ours.
– What is it that you most desire?
– At this moment? A sincere hug. Not from you at this point—but from someone who gives it with no expectation of anything in return. That’s today.
– I see.
– What about you? What is it that you most desire?
– Oh. I don’t know. A pair of running shoes that I can also wear with dress pants.
Years ago I went to two conferences on atheism–one in Chicago, one in Washington DC. I thought I might write an essay about the state of atheism in the country, or find out something interesting about the varieties of atheism, or who knows what. The first, in Chicago, happened to be held on Easter weekend, in what was either a juicy bit of irony or a heavy-handed bit of scheduling symbolism. It took place in a giant, bland hotel, rooms with large windows looking out on a treeless golf course that had not yet recovered from the blight of winter and was notable mostly for being littered with goose shit. The hotel lobby featured an artificial grotto of some kind–foam stones built up into cave-like shape, festooned with fake plants and what may have been an actual functioning waterfall. I wasn’t sure whether it was real because I didn’t get close enough to it to see: it was always surrounded by atheists, and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to end up accidentally sharing space in a small artificial cave with any of them.
Some of these atheists were serious, to judge by their bumpers. They were perhaps even evangelical about it. One car featured a vanity plate that read “atheist” which struck me as perhaps overly enthusiastic about the power of reason to calm down a cop. Most of the people I’d known growing up in the south thought of atheists as barely human; to them having that license plate would be like painting “psychopath” or “serial killer” on the back of your car. I had never been to a conference of any kind before, so I wasn’t prepared for the oddity of social life among a densely packed group of people who shared a common enthusiasm.
I also wasn’t sure how to write about something like this: I was comfortable writing academic papers, happy to write short stories–but I was here with the aim of describing whole living people I was meeting when they were at their least normal, probably. Whatever else they might have been in the rest of their life, here they were almost 100% about being atheists: the talk was all about the mystifying lives of people of faith, the outrages that atheists suffered in daily life, the steady encroachment of the religious right into realms of American life that had only recently been won to safety, like public schools. There didn’t seem to be much good news; folks felt embattled, besieged, even though they also said, repeatedly, that the numbers had never been better–more people in America now identified as non-believers than at any time in the history of surveys. If there were people talking about what else they did in their lives—their families or their jobs or the injuries they were recovering from or the books they’d just helped write or the vacations they were taking–I didn’t hear any of it. It was all hard-core talk about rationalism.
Which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me. Of course people who have paid hundreds of dollars to travel to and attend these conferences would want to spend their time talking about the things they probably couldn’t talk about at the staff room at work, things perhaps they couldn’t even admit in their jobs for fear of losing favor. It’s just that I had hoped, I realized, that atheists would be more at ease in the world, less fixed to a set of rigid principles, less wounded-seeming. I had thought maybe people here would feel freer and less conflicted than people out in the world at large. Instead they were just as many raving lunatics here as at any bible retreat I’d ever been to.
The sessions, as I remember them, were mostly pretty boring denunciations of magical thinkers; incredulous catalogs of the kinds of blatantly anti-rational beliefs people still managed to hold in spite of all of the advances of science and understanding. It seemed to me at points that there was very little reason to have a conference of atheists, actually–they were defined primarily by an absence, an opposition. I’d expected that they would also be non-joiners, opposed to group activity, proud independents and loners and weirdos, that getting a bunch of them together in one place would yield fireworks, but nobody here seemed prepared even to spark.
The DC conference—of the Council for Secular Humanism—was the (slightly) more energetic. For one thing, it was in the capital, and it was focused largely on the political danger many saw inherent in the encroachment of religious principle and thought into political discourse and legal theory. Some of the people here were not atheists. One keynote speaker was Barry Lynn, whose day job was running an organization dedicated to keeping church and state separate, but whose motivation for doing so was to protect his faith from encroachment by government, not the other way around. He was an ordained minister, and he was introduced by someone who said that if there were more Christians like Barry Lynn maybe Christianity wouldn’t be so bad, a line that landed with a bit of a clunk at my table, where nobody seemed interested in redeeming Christianity in any way.
Christopher Hitchens also spoke at this conference, which was a thrill. He seemed quite drunk to me; he was dividing his time between the conference and the memorial service for his friend Michael Kelley, one of the first journalists to be killed covering the war in Afghanistan. It was near the beginning of what many people thought of as Hitchens’s apostasy, when he bucked liberal orthodoxy by declaring himself in favor of the war we were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. What became clear when you heard him talk about these wars in the context of a conference on atheism was that it wasn’t politics or fear of terrorism that drove his support for the wars so much as it was his disgust for religious institutions–if a country wanted to be ruled by a cabal of religious zealots then fuck em.
Hitchens was the most electrifying speaker of the weekend, and of both conferences combined. Even if he was drunk and tired (I’m not sure he was the first but he was definitely the second) he was brilliantly articulate and compelling, the kind of person who would make you despair of ever feeling smart again: you’d never come close to his level of erudition and rhetorical skill, and all your efforts after seeing him were bound to feel lame and awkward.
But Hitchens couldn’t touch what I saw by accident walking down the hall to the bathroom that evening. There was another conference going on at the hotel that night, or maybe not a conference but a service, a ceremony. It was a room of men in robes and caps, and I passed it just in time to hear a woman (I think–and I think I heard that it was the first woman ever to play this role in a service, though I may have made all this up) singing or chanting prayers in Arabic before a meal or a meeting…. I don t know what it was. I know that it was a room of people in a posture of devotion, and that in their devotion they made music as beautiful as Bach and it gave me the one jolt of joy I felt on what had otherwise been a beauty-free weekend among people who seemed seemed contemptuous not only of faith but of beauty as well.
It was easier to believe in Satan than in God. We were cautioned against disregarding the devil—his greatest trick, etc., etc.—and I was perhaps over-vigilant about keeping him in mind. Not that I intended to think of him at all. It felt almost like a curse, like he wouldn’t leave me alone. When I opened my eyes at night I expected to find him standing next to my bed. When I walked out of the bathroom after brushing my teeth, I expected to find him outside the door, waiting to carry me off to hell. I imagined him not with a spiked tail and horns, but as an ordinary man with a leering Cheshire Cat grin. I would know he was the devil because he would be waiting for me someplace he shouldn’t be (my bunk at camp, the closet in my bedroom), looking at me with the dark pleasure of someone who’s just said check and mate.
Fear hove up around me as I lay in bed, and I’d try to tamp it down by reading the Bible. My grandmother had picked out a few especially comforting passages for me. The danger was that opening the Bible accidentally to the wrong page—seeing one of the terrifying passages in Revelations, a dream of Daniel’s—would make things worse. And even if I got straight to, say, Psalm 23, every line that assured me that God was on my side also reminded me that the dangers I feared were real.
Satan was everywhere in those days–supposedly Satanic cults were running nursery schools to groom children for sacrifices, metal bands were openly embracing devil worship. The news was chock-a-block with serial killers, the theaters filled with horror movies. I felt porous to all this fear—a glimpse of an ad for a scary movie as I passed through a room where my parents were watching TV could sink me into a kind of misery I can’t describe except to say that I spent years of my childhood convinced that I would be murdered. It was just a matter of where and when. I was on the lookout everywhere. And since Satan was involved, there was little I could do to stop it, and no place it couldn’t find me. I imagined knife blades spinning out of cracks in the wall, severed hands grabbing me by the ankles, dead-eyed babies sucking my soul out of my mouth. All I could to to save myself was hold the Bible up as a kind of shield, hoping it would buy me a little more time and a less terrifying death when it came.
If my short experience as a Creationist had long after-effects (mostly intellectual, mostly valuable), my longer experience of this satanic fear had an even more durable, visceral, and damaging legacy—one that well outlasted my belief in God. I was intermittently afraid of being alone the dark until I was in graduate school. On solo backpacking trips I’d every night lying awake in my tent wondering whether it would be better or worse to see my murderer’s face before he hacked me to death. I couldn’t talk sense into myself. I was a grown man lying in the woods in the pitch black dark miles from anyone at all, yet certain that some possessed psychopath would happen upon me out there in the wilderness at just the very moment he had an urge to kill.
It was an egotistical fear, to be sure: why would I be the one singled out for dismemberment? Why should evil descend on me, leaving everyone around me unscathed? But it was the dark mirror of the belief I grew up with, that Jesus took a personal, intimate interest in everything about us, was with us at every moment, there to comfort us in any difficulty.
There were times I wondered whether in order to get rid of my fear I had also to get rid of my faith.
I started 8th grade at a new school—after seven years at public schools in Virginia, I was going to an Episcopal boys’ school 40 minutes from home. The school took boarding students starting in 9th grade, but the middle school was day students only. My class had 8 students. As middle schoolers and day boys we were the school punks, perhaps worse even than the seventh graders who had the advantage of looking still like cute kids while we were croaking our way into adolescence.
I liked the school. Eighth grade is not a bad time for an awkward boy to be in school apart from girls, for one thing. I liked having to wear a coat and tie to school every day, liked learning to feel at ease in what the previous year had been uncomfortably formal clothes. It felt like a major step toward growing up.
Most of the education we received there was as secular as it had been at public school. There was daily chapel to endure, but our other classes—English, Latin, Math—were standard issue. We took Bible class but it was more like a another English class than religious instruction. Only in science did I really feel the fact that we were in a school not bound by the Establishment Clause. We were doing earth science—I remember writing a paper on the Chernobyl disaster and the mechanics of a nuclear meltdown, for example. But our middle trimester was entirely given over to a thorough explication of Creationism. We learned a dozen different methods, from re-reading ambiguities in the fossil record to measuring the depth of the dust on the moon, to prove that the universe was only a few thousand years old. We watched a series of movies that laid out arguments methodically and—to my 8th grade mind—convincingly. Any objection I could imagine was pre-empted, every shred of evidence for a Darwinian reading of natural history undermined by pointing out a bit of evidence that couldn’t be reconciled to that narrative but made perfect sense in a story that began 6000 years ago with an act of God.
This teacher was, I think, an outlier even in our ostensibly Christian school .It certainly wasn’t school policy to teach against evolution. The next year, our 9th grade biology teacher, fresh out of college, hadn’t even been warned that sitting among his class of 20 students were 8 boys whose hands would shoot up any time he made a casual reference to some foundational bit of evolutionary biology. “Actually,” we’d say, “that’s not true,” before regurgitating some “fact” we’d picked up the year before.
Evolution was going through a relatively untroubled time then, as far I could tell: most Christians accepted it, at least in general outline. I grew up hearing that the “days” of Genesis were metaphorical, and that it was perfectly consistent with a faithful reading of the Bible to accept certain claims of evolution. There was no reason God might not have used the mechanism of evolution to shape creation; the only real beef with it was the idea that it could all have happened by random chance rather than being benevolently guided by God.
So our earth science teacher was out of step with almost everyone I had ever encountered in the church or out of it. But—especially to an 8th grade me—that almost made him more credible than less. The knowledge he was passing on to use was occult and scandalous: we could shock even our parents with what we learned in that class. Some of the arguments I was able to spin out were on points so arcane that nobody I knew even imagined they were up for debate. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that she might need evidence to defend the point. The reflex of people I confronted with my claims was to laugh them off, not to refute them; to dismiss the teacher as a nut rather than to explain why he was wrong.
But of course new facts did come along, and the idea that the earth had been set spinning fully populated with all its fauna and flora mere millennia ago came to seem ridiculous even to credulous me. What didn’t change was my memory of having been convinced—completely—to believe something so counter to fact.
It gave me a sense that you could have a completely coherent, rational system of thought that existed in parallel and at odds with another coherent, rational system of thought. It planted in me the idea that the world might yield an entire other set of meanings if only you had the key to it—not that everything was suddenly susceptible to rereading, but enough of it to make life and its meaning itself feel unstable.
In a way, that teacher’s lesson ultimately made me even more skeptical of my own community of faith—not because I thought their belief systems were inherently less credible than anyone else’s, but because they were just as credible as anyone else’s. What made a belief system powerful? A story—a way of taking the chaos of the visible world and stringing it together on a line of narrative. In the absence of provable claims, I didn’t see how you could ever be sure whether one story was better than another. We were all telling ourselves stories, convincing ourselves of something in a way that made it feel foundational. It all started to look provisional to me instead.
Clear night, thumb-top of moon, a back-lit sky.
Moon-fingers lay down their same routine
On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the black keys.
Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.
I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and picked clean.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
And the wind says “What?” to me.
And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say “What?” to me.
And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.
And the gears notch and the engines wheel.
At some point I had to accept that my emotions were not to be trusted—that even the great upwelling of heartache and love that demanded resolution by some dramatic turn toward God was more to be questioned than acceded to. Was I feeling the stirring of the Spirit, or was I just particularly susceptible to the music we were listening to? What I found powerful in the moment of those feelings was the way the act (or performance) of coming clean, making yourself vulnerable, reducing yourself to a heap of contrition, could generate sympathy, an arm around the back, and a feeling that you might start again. That was the promise of our variety of Christianity, the opportunity to start over, forgiven and redeemed, and I found it addictive. What do we want in the world more than the chance to be transformed into something better?
As I understood it, you needed to give your life over to Christ only once to make it stick. Like marriage, it was a lifelong promise, in effect even when the going got dull. I made that commitment early on, before I was 10, I suspect. I remember I was at my bedside, with one or both of my parents on hand. After I prayed on my own behalf, we prayed together And then my parents told me that while I felt good right now, I should expect the shine to wear off, difficulties to continue, doubts to creep in. My life would not be magically straightened out, but I would have someone to turn to in all those moments when it got twisted. I remember feeling especially grown up in how I took that news, though I’m sure I was also disappointed. I desperately wanted a lot of my problems to vanish. But I was pleased that my parents trusted me to bear the truth, and proud that I’d pleased them, as I lived to do.
My disappointment grew when, later, I saw my first proper altar call. I don’t think it was at a Billy Graham crusade, though it’s possible it was (my family were fans). But the emotions there were through the roof, and watching people awash in tears stumbling down the aisles to give themselves over, I felt I’d perhaps wasted my conversion by having it so early and so quietly.
Fortunately there were plenty of opportunities to renew my commitment, to reaffirm my faith—perhaps I’d drifted a bit, let material desires interpose between Jesus and myself; perhaps I had just had an unusually heavy load of sinful thoughts and needed to dump them—and these invited the same kind of spiritual carwash, same public catharsis. I knelt at the rail of our church in tears more than once while my father put his hands on my head and prayed over me, a weird kind of parallel and public intimacy to our relationship at home, which was already emotionally close if complicated.
None of these experiences felt false to me at the time, though. They were important rituals, reminders of what mattered to me, re-encounters with the Spirit. Even the last time it happened—in high school, at a Christian youth retreat in Myrtle Beach—it felt, in the moment, authentic and overwhelming. We were holed up there for a weekend, most of it in a hotel conference room where we sat on the floor—in circles, leaning up against one another, indulging every opportunity we got to make physical contact with one another. Three or four buzz-cut guys just out of college played camp songs on acoustic guitars and we all sang along from xeroxed songbooks, an inexplicable feeling of heartache and desire slowly building as the day wore on. Kids started getting emotional. Beautiful girls started crying and leaning heavily on the beautiful boys who always happened to be right there to cry and lean on them. It was maddening, this mix of lust and chaste sincerity, the mix of innocuous music and spiritual purge, and soon enough I too was in tears, grieving for my sins, wanting also to be transformed, healed, given over to God, and if possible also to Chrissy in her soccer shorts and Sambas a few yards away. Instead I was scooped up by a warm-hearted counselor, ended up swaying tearfully in an arm-in-arm circle of people singing along to some sad camp song.
What shook me days later, when I thought back on it, was not how sexual longing had insinuated itself into even my spiritual experiences—sexual longing infects everything teenagers do. I knew how to recognize and quarantine it intellectually if not physically. What struck me instead was how much it was just music that led to my meltdown. In retrospect it had been so predictable, so clearly the way the day was programmed to work. I was embarrassed at how mechanistic it was, how completely I had fallen for it.
I grew up in a family in which crying was neither unusual nor discouraged. I was never told that boys shouldn’t cry, though crying out of pain or frustration was not of the same order as crying out of love or from some encounter with the profound—beauty or remorse, or instance. Tears signified depth. In the context of church, they suggested some encounter with holiness, the divine.
We think of tears as significant, emphatic, unambiguous acts of expression—“crocodile tears” and sorry, officer, I had no idea! tears notwithstanding. The meaning they convey is rooted in the body, produced in an act of total engagement. Like physical pain, a foot against a stone, it seems irrefutable. A body in distress is not a body to be argued with. It’s making its position clear; it’s begging for mercy, for a reprieve from the machinations of reason, the compromises of dialogue. To cry in a room full of people is a kind of speech but also a way of putting yourself beyond speech, to move entirely into the realm of the extra-verbal. It requests a physical response rather than a linguistic one.
Yet the memory of my tears at that retreat is shaded by feelings of shame and betrayal. In retrospect, I felt like I’d been manipulated—and that I had willingly assented to being manipulated. It cast a shadow back over all kinds of ecstatic experiences I had had prior to that, and it cast a shadow forward, too. I began thinking of thoughts I had listening to music as akin to thoughts I had high–suspect, even if they were compelling.
If you aren’t swayed by reason and can’t trust the response of your body, what do you know, and how?
- Marilynne Robinson
Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.Paris Review Fall 2008
If she is a believer, what argument could I possibly raise against at least giving it a try?
I spent the entire day reading and re-reading C. S. Lewis (part of Mere Christianity, all of Surprised by Joy) as a kind of going-to-church activity–rather than muddle around in my own thoughts, I would subject myself to a sermon of sorts. Lewis has been a hero to my family. And he’s been commended to me many times by people concerned for the state of my faith, people who believed he could clear it all up for me. “He lays it all out so clearly,” they’ve said. “He makes it feel like an open-and-shut case.”
Conversion narratives are often dramatic—Saul struck blind on the road to Damascus the ur-text. The conversions stories of most Christians I knew growing up had a similar character. Someone was just going about her daily life, not even any real interest in God. Then something happened–an unaccountable coincidence, a miraculous turn of events, a flash of light–that made conversion irresistible. The stories can be powerful, irrefutable–even if they sound like madness to an outsider, there’s no way to separate a believer from her account of her experience. “If it had happened to you, you’d know….”
Lewis’s fills out the template but in a low-key, intellectual way, accessible to those who haven’t been knocked off their horses. He was a tough-minded atheist whose certainties were chipped away at bit by bit and then collapsed all at once. Yet I find it disappointing and unconvincing. Arguments for belief, proofs of Christianity’s veracity, have a kind of self-defeating character. If the position you’re talking about has the inevitability of a logical proof, is it really belief? Isn’t it simply being correct? In that case, choosing not to believe in that case would be a matter of willfulness or radical skepticism, like flat-earthing. There’s something in it—maybe something peculiarly British in it—that reminds me of the arguments of the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens), logic so watertight it feels arid.
The one part of Lewis’s account story that I found most interesting, most moving, was of a different sort, comes at the end of the book. By this point he’s accepted that some kind God exists, and has started going to church as a show of—pardon the pun—good faith. He’s still unsure about some of the final details:
I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought….It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.Surprised by Joy, 237
I like that account, so different from the drama of the conversions I witnessed and even enacted growing up. I like the idea that the final development arrived unbidden, unheralded, almost unnoticeable. Rather than a lot of intellectual gear-grinding, it was a shift in perception that emerged organically and changed everything.
Maybe it’s that I feel that if a person can answer my question, my question wasn’t big enough.
Would I have this anxiety about faith if I hadn’t grown up in the family I did? Would I would even think about it? You can’t miss what you never had, I think they say, though the evidence of human history suggests that—in this case—we do.
I took a Freud class in graduate school from a professor who declared at the outset that he found religion absurd, an outdated myth that Freud, among others, had helped him dismantle. This was a mixed class of grad students and undergrads, most of the undergrads precocious kids from Virginia. One day the professor asked for a show of hands: ”how many of you believe in God?” Every hand shot up but two: mine and the hand of a young hyper-rationalist so calculating that I regretted not joining with the believers just to be in better company. The professor looked at the raised hands incredulously. “I hope this class will help you think differently about that,” he said.
The hands came down. “What do your kids think about God?” a student asked him—in Virginia, it was almost inconceivable that a child could grow up without participating at least in the rituals of church. “Their response to the idea of God,” he said from his perch on the edge of his desk, “is uproarious laughter.”
For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, I found his pride in his children’s disdain weirdly off-putting. His kids were young—expecting them to continue believing what they believed as children seemed like tempting fate. Surely they’d end up rebelling against their father’s convictions, maybe even all the way to being born again. I imagined them as earnest adults, making dewy-eyed efforts to bring their intractable father around.
That fantasy speaks to my own fears. I’ve often thought that the worst fate for my children this side of drug addiction would be religious fundamentalism. But the idea that one’s attitude toward God is anchored in one’s relationship with one’s father is right out of Freud 101, isn’t it? It implies that belief is not an encounter with truth but a dialectic function, born of rejection rather than revelation.
Sometimes when I tell people that I was raised by ministers but turned out a nonbeliever they say something like, “oh, it figures,” as though it’s simply an inevitable reaction. But of the friends I had who grew up with minsters for parents, I’m the only one I know of who ended up outside the fold. Many of them, in fact, went on to become ministers themselves.
Maybe I’m the one trapped in unhelpful dialectics. At the very least I’m stuck tonight. I haven’t made this explicit yet, but my plan is to post something about faith, belief, religion, every day this Lent–even if some days, like this one, I can’t figure out what exactly I’m trying to say. More tomorrow.