I’ve lately come to a startling realization that I’d like to try to put into words. Perhaps more accurately I should say that I’ve had a growing realization that has suddenly dawned on me and has surprised me by its incongruity with so many other elements of my life. In a word, I’ve been surprised by peace. If I may riff on C.S. Lewis’s phrase borrowed in turn from Wordsworth, I have to confess that I’m finding a sense of growing happiness in the midst of an externally challenging life situation. Make no mistake: My newfound atheism puts me at odds with my environment since I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt (and yeah, everybody says that in the Deep South but I’ve got statistics on my side for this one). People around me think I’m broken and needing fixing. They tell me I’m “on a path” to something bad, although they’re usually too shy about their inner fundamentalism to openly use the word “Hell” in my presence. When pressed for specifics they are unable to delineate which behaviors I currently engage in that justify their great dread and concern, only that I don’t think the right things about their religion, I guess. In the end it’s not my daily ethical choices they object to; it’s simply that I don’t believe in invisible people, and this upsets them greatly.
But amidst the tension and strife which my skepticism generates for me in a culture permeated by religion I must admit that I’m becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin. Underneath the stress and strain of living on a teacher’s salary in the poorest state in the union (don’t tell me to move; I have personal reasons to be here), I sense a growing contentedness with who I am and with what the world is despite its chaotic messiness. Now let’s be clear: It’s not that I don’t feel the pain and sadness that everyone else feels when confronted with a steady stream of bad news. Someone around me is always sick and/or dying and people are always in need while the “haves” get richer and fatter and the “have-nots” get poorer and less powerful. These things bother me, too, because they should. Today the world is still reeling from yesterday’s news that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people, 100 of whom were on their way to a conference to further the cause of AIDS research. Later that same day, yet another bout of violence erupted in the Middle East, this time with Israeli forces invading Gaza. The world’s a mess, depending on where you look, and people around me cite all of this as further evidence that the human race is naturally wicked and that divine retribution is on its way to “set things right.”
The big difference between them and me is that I no longer believe the world is “supposed to be” something other than what it is. Yes it is messy, and yes we have great obstacles to overcome. I’m not even convinced that we will necessarily be successful in overcoming them. We just might destroy ourselves one day. It remains to be seen. But it makes more sense to me that we face these challenges by dealing with the world as it really is, not as we think it should be. To me, that is what’s wrong with the approach to life used by so many around me. They are constantly being frustrated by their own inability to make the world do what they were taught it’s supposed to do. They keep trying to make gay people straight; they keep telling women they shouldn’t do “men’s work;” they want teenagers to quit thinking about sex so much and put on more clothes for godssake! They keep wanting Palestine to be okay with having nothing, and while they’re at it they think every country in the world should be Christian. It’s a stressful thing to pour so much energy into trying to make the world fit into a mold it simply refuses to inhabit. And frankly, I don’t miss that preoccupation. It was both a futile endeavor and an unnecessary burden; I am happy to be free of it.
As I write this, it’s raining outside. It’s not a stormy, angry torrent, just a gentle steady rain. It’s early in the morning and I would usually be out in this, running my morning run (running in the rain is the bomb, btw). I’ve come to need that because it loosens me up and gets me ready for the day. I’m inside today because I always take a day off of exercise after I’ve lifted weights. My life demands an almost manic pace, so a “rest day” is a welcome treat (I’ll still be spending the day caring for short people, but that’s all I have to do today, thankfully). Like the weather, our lives work best when they have a certain rhythm to them, conforming to the needs of our bodies and minds. This is still a new thing for me, and while I’ve just about gotten the exercise part down, I’m much more slowly learning the value of things like rest. Maybe it conflicts with my “Protestant work ethic.” Maybe it’s also hard for me to rest because I feel the need to compensate for all the disapproval, both spoken and unspoken, which my culture heaps upon me for just being me. Whatever the source, it takes effort on my part to embrace the notion of rest, giving myself permission to need things rather than deny myself as Jesus and Paul taught us to do.
I mention running in the rain because I’ll never forget the first time I did that as an adult. My initial reaction was to go back inside because rain is supposed to ruin your plans. People don’t want to get soaking wet, and we’ve spent many years building climate-controlled environments for ourselves to ensure we don’t have to be subject to the elements at all. Inside we can be as comfortable and dry in monsoon weather as we are on a gentle spring morning. But that particular rainy morning I decided I just didn’t care. I was going to let the rain fall and just run right through it. It was delightful. I don’t know how else to put it. I got an unexpected rush of pleasure from simply feeling the rain on my skin as I ran. It cooled me as I exercised and the smell of the wet ground and the sight of the deepening hues of foliage around me made me suddenly feel so present, so incredibly aware of my physical surroundings and my connection to them. I was drinking in my senses, fully inhabiting my body as a physical being enjoying the beauty of my natural surroundings.
In retrospect, it seems odd to describe that moment as if it were something unusual, but the way we live it kind of is, isn’t it? In modern times, we’ve so removed ourselves from the natural world that we feel constantly inconvenienced by things like seasons and rains and the passage of time. To some degree, I think this results from our boundless addiction to progress and to controlling our environment. Our drive to overcome the elements has disconnected us from them so that a rediscovery of their delightfulness seems strange to us. I sound like one of those artsy hippie types talking about feeling the rain on my skin and drinking in the sensations of nature and all of that nonsense, right? Well, I’m bringing this up for a reason, and I don’t think it’s altogether disconnected from my usual subject matter.
I think that part of the reason we’ve become so disconnected from nature is because our controlling theology has taught us to see our bodies as bad somehow. If not technically evil by constitution, then perhaps “tainted” in such a way as to render almost anything we do in our bodies as brutish and base. We eat and drink and sleep and have sex because we have to, but we must be careful not to enjoy any of those things too much, for therein lies wickedness. You can get in trouble for talking too much about enjoying sensual pleasures. In fact, the word “sensual” has come to have a certain negative connotation in the religious circles in which I used to run. I was taught to view the body as somehow vaguely bad, perhaps not an evil in itself but clearly a distraction from the things that really matter. I’ve written before how I detect a clear dualism present in the teachings of both Jesus and Paul, and that dualism only grew in time until the church became known for its antipathy toward what is “natural” rather than its sympathy with it. Even the exercise that I’ve come to love is looked down upon by some as a vain preoccupation with an “earthly tent” which is only meant to be discarded one day. That is the legacy I inherited and that is the culture I find myself endeavoring to overcome today. I am learning to be at home in my own self, in my own body, and in the world. I’m becoming more human.
I was taught to dislike being human. “We are only human,” we are taught to say as if that automatically connotes weakness. We say it like it’s a bad thing, and it’s no wonder. Christian thought for most of its history (both Eastern and Western) has been anti-human. Catholicism in particular did it; Protestantism did it, too; and then Evangelicalism raised self-hatred to an art form, thanks in part to Puritan theology. I think that is a major source of the unhappiness I felt as a Christian. Granted, I managed to derive a sense of satisfaction from the belief that although the world was messed up, I knew the answers to all the world’s problems. Mankind was broken and I knew what it needed in order to be “saved.” So yeah, I had a reason to be happy then, too, and I wasn’t miserable as a Christian by any stretch. But my way of seeing the world was still at odds with the way things really are. That kind of tension produces a dull ache, like a background noise that runs so constantly that you forget it’s even there. I was taught not to feel at home in the world. Like an old Petra song from the 80’s said:
We are pilgrims in a strange land
We are so far from our homeland
With each passing day it seems so clear
This world will never want us here
We’re not welcome in this world of wrong
We are foreigners who don’t belong
We are strangers, we are aliens
We are not of this world
Leaving the Christian religion for me became a first step toward becoming more human. I am slowly learning to become comfortable with who I am and with what the world is, despite its turmoil and controversies. My growing inner peace is not the product of an alignment of external circumstances. On the contrary, I could fill your screen with the list of practical challenges I’m facing at this exact moment. But underneath it all I have to say that I am happy with being a human, happy with being alive in a way that I never knew as a Christian. There’s just a sense of being grounded in reality that I didn’t feel in the same way before (I led off with that very thing in a previous post entitled “What Has Atheism Done for Me?”). Of course, that’s not acceptable to anyone who has been taught that atheism makes you a miserable, empty shell of a human being. Some people need to think, perhaps because they are so insecure in their own views, that they must caricature all others as terrible wastes of human life. But the truth is that despite a number of very painful life circumstances, I see a growing contentedness in me with being me, with being alive in the world. I see that I only get one life, and it’s pretty short. So I want to make the most of it that I can.
A new friend of mine who clearly thinks the same way but also has kick-a$$ professional video production skills and a killer radio voice to boot made a video that captures this ethos so well. I have to share it with you. In fact, I’d encourage you to subscribe to his channel because I’m confident what he will put out in the future will be no less inspiring. Take a look, and watch to the end.