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.