Confessions of a part-time atheist

Image courtesy of US Geological Survey. This is the summit road about two miles from where I lived at the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

My relationship to the concept of God is as old as I am. Religion seeped through the walls of my mother’s abdomen and into the womb before I was born. Religion is my mother’s voice echoing through amniotic fluid as she stood in church and sang hymns. It is the voice of the preacher cast from the pulpit to fill the sanctuary.

Bit by bit, memories began to imprint themselves on my consciousness following my birth. Along with that time I burned my finger on the iron, I recall sitting on the couch with my mother for our daily devotions. A prayer, a Bible story, a hymn.

Upon second consideration, burning my finger on the iron also formed a religious feeling in me. My mother left her ironing in the living room, needing to run to another room. She looked me directly in the eye and said, “Don’t touch the iron.” As soon as her back disappeared down the hall, the urge to touch that iron became unbearably strong. With my first feeling of guilt even preceding the action, I stretched out a forefinger and pressed it to the bottom of the iron.

Predictable events followed my contact with that surface. Pain, shock, dismay, regret. Along with these came a sense of betrayal. Why hadn’t she told me it would burn me? Surely if she had told me that, I wouldn’t have touched it.
The primary lesson I learned from touching the iron is that I should obey my mother because the natural consequences of not doing so could be painful. In addition, it became clear as water that mom knew things I didn’t.

There is no doubt in a child’s mind, no opportunity to consider and weigh before believing. Just so, I sucked up a belief in God and Christian theology year by year throughout my childhood. The belief, natural as air, made anyone who didn’t believe as we did seem foreign and evil.

On October 17, 1989, Redwood Estates, California–I was 16 years old–I lay in bed with severe chest pain wondering if it would kill me. I hid in the recesses of my mind, curled against the pain, reality receding before the sharp stabs radiating through my chest. Without further warning, something struck my bedroom like Godzilla sweeping his claws through a high-rise. A fractional moment of disorientation cleared when my bedroom kept shaking. An earthquake, I understood. Survival instinct took over. I dodged my flying dresser and ran for the exit.

The house survived the quake mostly intact–unlike many in our mountain community. Physically, I was also fine. But as I stood in the street outside our house and braced against the frequent aftershocks, I knew the quake had changed something elemental in my personality. I longed to be able to fly. In those days I often dreamed I could fly. Now in surreal but waking life, I wanted to be in a dream where I could fly. I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of standing on ground I couldn’t trust.

There are elements of “reality” we humans depend upon so completely we aren’t even aware we are dependent. One is the stability of the ground. Another is inhaling and having air available. A third is the pull of gravity.
The existence of God and the correctness of Christianity were like earth and air for me–unquestioned to the point of not understanding there might be a question.

My later teenage years consisted of earth-shattering events which fractured my beliefs–creating landslides of uncertainty, periods where I would doubt every element of reality.

On lists: Resizing the ego


Every morning excepting Shabbat I write a list. The lists are, without exception, ridiculous. Take for instance this morning:

Water spider
Curate library
Blog
Walk dogs
Pay bills/budget
Paperwork
Format novel for publication
Critique story
Journal
Free write
Write on current novel
Job ap
Paint trim
Meditate
Solicit reviews
Work on marketing

As can be seen at a glance, this is not all going to get done today. My tradition is to work all day after writing my list and then castigate myself at the end of the day for not getting the whole thing done.

I am going to propose a theorem: Self-castigation for failing to do the impossible is not a recipe for success.

And a corollary: Assigning oneself impossible goals is a failure of the ego.

I am not a literary Evil Knievel, jumping my motorcycle of concepts over the Grand Canyon. I am not a Hercules of lifestyle, able to clean out the Augean Stables of my life in one day. So why do I write lists which assume I can or should?

Yesterday I was reading my Siddur and came across a blessing for “releasing the bound.” Immediately I wondered what binds me. The question invited the answer. My ego binds me. My assumption that I either can or should accomplish the impossible every day is egoic.

What is the effect of trying to accomplish the impossible every day, the threat of self-castigation hanging over me at every turn? It is a diminishing of my energy. I spend valuable resources on setting impossible goals and then hating on myself when I fail.

What if I spent all that energy on being happily productive, I wonder. With the thought, my spirits lift and I feel renewed purpose.

We have circled back to Buddhism, the spiritual tool for ego-reduction. I’m off to meditate. But first, I believe I will water the spider.