Various Lies

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sisyphus probably had it worse

I hope you had a nice Christmas Dear Reader. I hope, as everyone should at this time of year, when family are at the forefront of our minds, that it was filled with the Peace and Joy of the season. A Cool Yule works too. Or a even Celebratory Solstice. How about a Happy Chanukah, or even a (very belated) Elated Eid ul Fitr.

I classify myself as a "spiritual atheist", perhaps humanist, but to be honest I'm still not sure what a humanist is. I was deeply invested in my Catholic faith as a child. I was baptised Anglican (the 'high' Church of England), but my mother converted to Catholicism when I was very young, and I attended a private Catholic boys school from the age of 7. I loved the mythology of the faith, the personal relationship with Jesus that it offered and the loving Father God you could reach out to. I loved the solemnity of the mass, the mystery of the priesthood, the 'bells and smells' - the reek of incense from the thurible, the call to fall to your knees.

As a Dungeons & Dragons(TM) addicted teen I always played a Cleric. It was the closest I could get to being a Priest. We were taught by The Brothers of the Sacred Heart. Black cassocks, brass crucifixes around the neck, a full Rosary worn as a belt. I loved it. The strict and often vigorously applied corporal punishment didn't perturb me, raised as I was a Royal Navy brat steeped in tales of Horatio Hornblower and such like. I loved the selfless, militaristic splendor. I didn't want to be a teacher though, as the Brothers of the Sacred Heart were. I wanted to be a doctor, and heard about the Brothers of St. John of God, who fulfilled the same spiritual role as the Brothers that taught me, but you could be a medical doctor instead.

I knew by the age of 13 I wanted to join their ranks.

As an Anglican I was forbidden from taking the Eucharist and I was jealous of my Catholic friends taking their catechism classes as we became teenagers. I longed to taste the holy Eucharist, and to be a part of the mystery of faith. Why didn't I convert? Express my faith?

I don't know. There was just something I didn't understand at the time, it was a nagging feeling about...something. I wasn't worthy, because...of something.

I finally converted at 17, in a typical teenager's act of rebellion against my Grandfather ("You'll be written out of my will", and I was) and my own self doubt, and underwent my catechism and confirmation. It was all rather disappointing. I don't know why. I had been Catholic in my heart all my life, I even had a blind nun as a Catechist for crying out loud! That winter, three times a week, I would sit in Sister Mary's office, a roaring fire in the hearth and she would talk with me for hours, week after week, explaining the Faith and helping me question and understand my own. But it started to feel silly. Stories and myths. I had trouble staying awake and was guiltily frequently glad that Sister Mary was blind for that same reason. The Bleeding Heart Jesus who had stood in the main atrium at school was increasingly horrific and frightening. (The image below does not do justice to the statue whose chest was flayed open. Needless-to-say, when I visited last He had been moved to storeroom somewhere.) In addition it was, by simple logic, becoming increasingly blasphemous given the first couple of Commandments I was re-memorising.


"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image"

The Bishop of our diocese presided over the Confirmation mass. He didn't know me...where was Father Robert who had been my pastor these ten years? They got the name of my Catechist wrong. I saw Sister Mary try not to cry. They said that when we died we lose our sense of self and become one with God. I was horrified. I hadn't been taught this! The whole point was life after death was supposed to be a perfect and sin free continuation of my life in the service of God. Doing nothing but singing his praises.

Not that I could sing, or even really enjoyed doing so.

Like the devil writes in Twain's "Letters From Earth" (which I read many years later), how could a group of typical Christian men look forward to the one thing they dread most every week.

Something was horribly wrong.

That Christmas I went to midnight mass and instead of sharing the fellowship of Christ I listened to two mothers in the pew in front do nothing but complain about how Mrs. Soandso's son had gotten to be alter boy and their's hadn't and how he was really a little sod and he shouldn't even be allowed to wear the white.

And that was the moment my faith died.

It wasn't about God at all. You stupid selfish bitches killed God. And I hated them. Right there in the church, in front of God, I hated them with all my heart. Because they made Him a sham in front of me. In front of us all. He didn't matter at all. Smoke & Mirrors.


Yet, there was lingering Need in my heart. I met and married a devout Christian woman after I graduated college. I went to church with her when I had to and I went through the motions, hoping it was making a difference, and yet knowing I was damned. God had seen my lack of faith and I was damned for all eternity, no matter what I did. Because He knew I didn't believe, really didn't believe in my heart anymore.

Odd isn't it? We moved to the US together and started attending a Presbyterian church. I tried to find my faith again. I thought perhaps Martin Luther had been right and the fault lie in the Catholic church, not in God Himself. His Godhood could stand intact against the weak faith and sin of billions, because the Church of Christ, our Mother, was safe in the protestant faith...faiths.

But you soon learn that each branch of protestantism is at war with every other, each is convinced that they alone have the right path to salvation. In the eyes of their Loving God, everyone else ever in the entire world is going to hell.

Wait. What? Seriously? What the fuck kind of messed up "loving faith" is this? The same people that disrespect and despise the Muslim faith for their damned Jihadist faith, to Convert or KILL, is pretending to mourn the loss of the world, while waiting for death and smugly enjoying the view they'll have from the gates of heaven as they watch the sinners burn. Oh, and of course only the Muslims are guilty of that, right? All of them, apparently.

When there's only one straw man to burn it's surprising how many tar brushes come out.

Arrogant, self-righteous bastards. And we're not even getting into the obvious hypocrisy that lurks beneath the surface of any large group like a church group. Who's fucking who? Who's trying to one-up who to curry favor?

That final desperate grasp at salvation was actually the death knell of my faith. I couldn't NOT question. I decided God, if He existed, had given me a questioning brain. A questioning reason and intellect. After all I was a scientist. I HAD to question things. Becoming a scientist didn't finally kill my faith, or fix liberal political views in me, despite the propaganda to the contrary. The two go hand in hand and there's no easy separation of the two. One drives the other. And who lives willingly in ignorance?

I can't deny that the Catholic indoctrination to Hellfire, Brimstone and Eternal Agony doesn't still run deep. But that's a symptom of the disease within that church. First thing any propagandist knows is get to the children. And they've had millennia to perfect it. The protestants are no better. And neither are the Muslims.

There's been a long and slow reaffirmation of selfhood in recent years. It's not been easy, and it certainly hasn't been quick. There's a British ex-vicar, Mark Vernon, now an atheist, who had a series of podcasts I listened to. PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and the "New-Atheist movement" have been often painfully strident supporters of atheism that forced me ignore or re-evaluate certain issues I still struggle with. I chose to re-eavaluate.

I think, as long as the journey took me to get this far, it will be a long road ahead still. I still stand closer to Agnosticism (lack of knowledge) than Atheism (lack of belief). Agnosticism seems like a weak way out though. A compromise. I don't know what to think so I cling to this as a label. I don't want a label, I want to understand, at least understand my own mind and faith. Even an atheist can have faith and hope, but faith and hope in something real, not a myth, or legend.


It's been a wonderful Christmas, filled with Peace and Joy. With family, with fellowship with good friends, with good food, with good beer and with silly gifts. Not everything was, or will be perfect. But it's going to be a great New Year too and the best part of that is that it's really just down to me to try and make it that way.


Gabrielle said...

I keep hearing "agnostic is a cop-out" type of attitude. The thing is.. it's where you stand at that moment. I've gone through many changes in my belief system as I've grown, learned, experienced, questioned, etc.

What an awesome, heart-felt post. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself!

Angela said...

I know what you mean.

Catholic>lost it>agnostic/atheist>non-denominational. Now the closest I can find/makes sense to me is theist, as in the opposite of atheist, not these fancy new off-shoots. I don't need any man-made religions. I know eveything is held together (by glue).

Jade said...

Really nice post about your spiritual journey. I've done the religion merry-go-round myself, trying to find a theology where the members practice what they preach. I also wanted to check out many of the less mainstream faiths such as Christian Science, Unity church, and Charismatic type groups(that's the whole speaking in tongues, etc. stuff). I also spent some time with a group of Krishna followers to see what they had going on and attended meetings for believers in Satya Sai Baba.

All of these groups preach similar messages, but all have their unusual rituals that make adoption difficult for a scientist.

I can't follow Catholicism anymore for various personal reasons- hypocrisy the basis of them all. But the hypocrisy is with the leadership of the church, not the members. People just do the best they can, you know? No one is perfect.

I think the most important thing is to keep searching and to question everything until you find what resonates with you as truth. Whatever that is, it is the right answer.

Now that you are no longer a brainwashed Catholic, you can let go of feeling guilty about questioning and doubting. You are free to believe how you wish. It's the way it was always supposed to be.

SUIRAUQA said...

Very heartfelt and touching experience, Ian. Thank you for sharing. Someday when you have time, I shall tell you the story of my 'deconversion'; perhaps you may even be able to relate directly, although mine was a different faith altogether. I wish you all the best in the search for whatever it is that you seek.

rpg said...


Yes, I hear you. Excellent post. You know where I stand, and nothing makes me sadder than the things you describe.

I have a plan, barely formed--but maybe later. Meantime, I love that you changed the title of your post during editing.

Candid Engineer said...

Such journeys can be fascinating, so thank you for sharing. As a Roman Catholic- bred, born, and raised- I just spent my first Christmas at home with my parents where I managed to not attend mass. Haven't bought into it for a good 10 years, so this was a bit of a step forward(?).

I had never heard agnostics be described as you did here- I embrace the term- I acknowledge but I don't understand. For me, not so much of a cop out as simply how I feel right now.

Genomic Repairman said...

I was raised Anglican in a mixed-religious (Christian and Muslim) household as well too and could probably be counted upon as an agnostic.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say being agnostic is a cop-out; I'd call it being open-minded. I'm a devout Christian (Methodist), but I've always believed that each person must find their own path - kind of a Buddhist thing I guess. I can't believe that the loving, forgiving God I was raised to know would ever damn somebody for following their heart and mind, which He supposedly gave to them. I've heard such sentiments from some people in the churches I've attended (though not many), but I choose to ignore them. Faith is a funny thing: it does require a blind leap, but it also has to be your own. IMO, it should never be based solely on what your chosen denomination tells you to believe. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind." Luke 10:27

tideliar said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind and supportive messages :) These kind of posts are the mot to write, but the hardest to do so at the same time (for obvious reasons, I think).

I like Huxley's defintions of agnosticism:

"The deepest sin of the human mind is to believe things without evidence...Agnosticism simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that for which he has no grounds for professing to believe"

I think my New Athiest friends will take me to task over that though :)

@SUIRAUQA: Thank you. But here my name is Tideliar :p (lucky I'm fully outted already, huh?)

@RPG: I love you man! Only you would have noticed that! (The Damocles post was something else entirely, but as these things do, the post took on a life of it's own when I started writing)

@Candid: Was it hard to not attend mass, even for the family & symbolism of it? Did your family give you any...issues?

@uDr.O: I love that line, and that was instrumental in me finding the strength, or even faith, to question my faith. Honestly, that same line. "...all your mind". So I did. And He'll understand, I hope, if we should ever meet.

tideliar said...

@Jade: "I can't follow Catholicism anymore for various personal reasons- hypocrisy the basis of them all. But the hypocrisy is with the leadership of the church, not the members. People just do the best they can, you know? No one is perfect."

For a long time this sustained me. Love the Church, love God, but pity the sinners you share a pew with. It just wore out after a while. Mostly because the church itself started to lose its lustre and truthiness.

Jade said...

"For a long time this sustained me. Love the Church, love God, but pity the sinners you share a pew with. It just wore out after a while. Mostly because the church itself started to lose its lustre and truthiness. "

I understand, and I agree that it can be hard to not become disgusted at hypocrisy. I have to deal with it within my own family (one born again Christian, and another teaches CCD, but apparently the "rules" do not apply to them). I've come to the conclusion that many people are not living consciously, but going through the motions of life.

Not really questioning, just following blindly. I learned to stop expecting more from people who say they are spiritual or religious. We're all just doing the best we can with what we know. Essentially, I have forgiven them for not forgiving me.

I can only change my mind, not theirs. Who's really experiencing hell? Not me.

The Grand Inquisitor said...

an agnostic is just a chicken shit atheist. or so i have been told. just modify pascal's wager and put you money on the against. if you're right then you will never know.

tideliar said...

@GInq: nice. "chicken shit athiest". Or of course the whole philosphy behind it is equally invalid by your eloquent, and verbose, definition. But, to each their own...

Karen said...

I enjoyed reading this post. I was raised Catholic too. I'm kind of ashamed to admit this but the older I get the harder it is to believe in anything. I guess I'm a little bit lost on the whole faith issue.

Heather said...

That was a wonderful, personal, heartfelt post. I don't agree with all of your conclusions, but I salute the courage it took to reflect on them and note them down. You may well come back to look at them in five years, too, and see that your thoughts have evolved - that's all to the best, isn't it?

I count myself an atheist. Like all other questions pertinent to the practice of religion, being an atheist does not necessarily mean not having a faith, by my books. For me it also does not mean eschewing certain religious-style cultural practices. It means not having a God. It doesn't sound to me like you really want to perceive the universe in which you evolve as a Godless one. I rather exalt in it, personally. There is so much else that is awe-inspiring, and in the end, that I take on faith even if science brought that knowledge to me - but that I as a scientist could explore if I wanted to, just as a theologian/philosopher could explore many of the tenets that s/he takes "on faith" - and neither would arrive at more of a right answer.

Give me a religious person who thinks, questions, and is humble before the enigma of physical existence, anyday, over a self-righteous, self-labeled "scientist" who thinks they know everything that needs to be known and must inculcate others that what needs to be known is so limited and narrow.

My point being, take your "agnostic" label and wear it proudly, Ian.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great post - a very interesting journey, bravely told.

I call myself an agnostic atheist; I believe that agnosticism (i.e. absence of knowledge) is the only intellectually defensible position, BUT if I had to bet every single thing I own, I'd bet that there's no God.

BTW I wrote a post last year about labels in general, and Humanism in particular (with a link to an "Are you a Humanist?" quiz!). The penultimate reader comment on that thread was very illuminating, and convinced me that I'm actually NOT a humanist!

Latentexistence said...

I just stumbled across this article. By strange coincidence I have just written something quite similar, and would site the same people as influential in my new attitude.

My article is at

Latentexistence said...

I forgot to say that I also arrived at being an agnostic rather than atheist. I think agnostic is the natural sceptics position, and choosing atheist without evidence is not wise.

Chicago cleaning companies said...

I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Julie R said...

Late to the party with my comment because, well, I wasn’t sure how to comment. Like Dr O., I am a long-time Christian (and a scientist), and I hate that people who claim to be Christians have caused you to question your faith.

FWIW, I think it is perfectly ok to ask questions. In John (20:24), the disciples tell Thomas they have seen Jesus after he has risen. Doubting, Thomas asks for proof. “I won’t believe it until I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.” Later, Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the proof (empirical evidence) he asked for. You are right, God gave you a questioning mind. Go ahead and ask Him for proof if that is what you need.

Other resources you might find helpful:

Reason for God, by Tim Keller
The American Scientific Affiliation (

Anonymous said...

Raised a Presbyterian, I now "home church." My beliefs are based on the 10 Commandment. There are too many people who spend Sunday in Church and spend the other 6 days living by their own rules. The final straw was at the funeral of a relative who committed suicide after taking an antidepressant known to lead to suicidal thoughts.I was approached by someone who offered me a video on purgatory. This was from someone who has a gay brother in law. If she accepts him (which I do) why can't she accept a death caused by an illness. The priest at the mass made a point that when we are baptised there is no expiration date. The church has done a huge disservise to everyone with a mental illness. Death due to mental illness is hard enough on the family when people don't accept that it is an illness and their loved one will be wih God, just as any other person. I wanted to tell this friend "don"t throw stones" becasuse your Bible won't accept Michael.

tideliar said...

@Karen: Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment

@Heather: Thanks :) I don't expect to be agreed with - I think we all make our own jounrey and the nature of experience is often too subjective for fair comparisons. Thanks for your kind words :)

@Cath: That is a hell of a reading list!

@Latent Existance: Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the links. I'll have a read later. I must admit I am drawn to the Agnostic side, but like Cath said, if I had to make a bet, I know which side of the coin I'd actually bet on. Which makes me doubt my Agnosticism...and thus we have the circlular argument again LOL

tideliar said...

@ChiTown:" very often" is a tautology you silly spammer. Seriously. Spam in proper English, or just get a bot to do it. Tsk tsk

@JulieR: I definately identify with Thomas. But Jesus never showed up to shoiw me his wounds. God sends challenges from all isides, guess. For me he chose to use his own flock as the barometer of my faith? Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

@Anonymous: Hypocracy is painful isn't it? With regards to mental illness, i was at a conference recently and Glenn Close, the actress, gave the Keynote speech on society and science. She was discussing the stigma of mental illlness and how we need to fight it (it runs deep in her family). Check out her charity: