Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

I've been ruminating a lot lately on the subject of religion; in my case, specifically the absence of religion. I was raised, as I've said, in the grand New England tradition of lapsed Catholicism. We went to mass for the Big Four occasions: weddings, funerals, Christmas and Easter. And every now and again when someone had a baby and wanted to recreate the best scene from The Godfather with a christening, we'd put on our suits and wake up early. But even as a young child, it was clear to me that the ritual was always more important than any actual meaning behind it: We stood when the father said this, we knelt when he said that, and we sang the same songs at the same time every mass. And we shook hands, and put money in the basket. And thus began my lifelong pondering of exactly why it was that I not only had to get up early on Christmas (which I was going to do anyway, c'mon, I was a kid) but why I had to put on my nice clothes and sit in an admittedly cool-as-hell looking building for a couple of hours before I got to open any presents. And why it was that some people did the same thing every Sunday, most of the time without getting presents at all.

To this, or some variation of it, my grandmother would reply because God sent his son to earth to die for our sins and  because of this...original sin...manger...Baby Jesus, etc. As soon as I was old enough to think critically on at least a basic level, say 4 or 5, and continuing for the better part of two decades after that, I had one thought kept drifting through my head whenever I considered such a thing:

"I didn't ask anyone to do that. I just got here. And they NAILED him to a big "T" for it? Damn." That's a hell of a lot of pressure for a kid to cope with.

These days, I approach the subject of god in much the same way that one of my heroes, the late great George Carlin did. George turned his criticism toward just about everything sacred in the world during his long career, and Joe bless him for it. He, along with many other great comics, helped people (myself included) to realize the fun and the silliness inherent in being human. The ways in which we take ourselves seriously can be very funny.One of George's favorite things to skewer was religion, and how it really made no sense at all.

When The Onion asked a bunch of celebrities the big question, "Is there a God?" back in 2000, George responded with this:

"No. No, there's no God, but there might be some sort of an organizing intelligence, and I think to understand it is way beyond our ability. It's certainly not a judgmental entity. It's certainly not paternalistic and all these qualities that have been attributed to God. It's probably a dispassionate... That's why I say, "Suppose He doesn't give a shit? Suppose there is a God but He just doesn't give a shit?" That's the kind of thing that might be at work."

After many years of reflection, study and searching of my conscience, I have to come to a similar conclusion myself. It's why I refer to myself as an "agnostic at best,"; not to suggest that being agnostic is the absolute best thing I can be, but that since I allow for the possibility of, as George put it, an "organizing intelligence," most would call me such, and that's about as far into it as I'm willing to go. There may have been something that racked the balls (Heh. Racked the balls. Dick joke achieved.) and hit the cue, but it doesn't have any money riding on the game. You know what? I'm really proud of that metaphor. It's going in my Big Book of How to Explain Stuff Using Words That Are Usually Used for Other Stuff. Now if I could figure out a metaphor for that title, I'll be golden.

Penn Jillette, in his web series Penn Says gives an interesting answer to the "atheist vs. agnostic" debate, suggesting that "agnostic" answers the epistemological side of it, that is whether it can be known if there's a god, and "atheist" answers the belief side, whether or not one believes there is. So, you can call me an agnostic atheist, or an atheist agnostic, or you can just call me Keith. Or Superfly. Yeah, call me Superfly. Awesome.

I've brought all this up for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I've just recently come to terms with it on an emotional as well as intellectual level. I've made peace with it (for the most part, anyway)  in my own mind, and that's brought a sense of relief to me that is new and exciting, and I want to talk about it. And in exploring that, a few things from my childhood come to mind that get the ol' rant-engines purring.

I've mentioned it before, but I was born with cerebral palsy. Spastic diplegia, to put a finer point on it. My brain doesn't control my musculature quite right, and as such every muscle in my body is, to a greater or lesser extent, constantly in a "spastic," or tense state. I can't straighten my legs all the way, I walk with a limp, and my equilibrium is shot all to hell. My handwriting also sucks, but no one writes by hand anymore, so that's really not much of an issue. Being a disabled person, I invariably hear a certain phrase from people whenever I bring up my condition. It's a phrase most of the disabled community knows all too well: "God made you special for a reason."

The first time I heard it, it came from the best of places and with the best of intentions, from my mother. I was at the age when kids start to notice differences amongst themselves and can be very cruel to one another about them, and it was her way of saying "Fuck those little bastards, you're gonna show 'em." (She also said exactly that more than once, but if you're five, you can't say that in school, so I always had the God thing to fall back on) I was grateful to hear that. I'm still grateful when it comes from her. At that age, it was comforting. I was special. I was part of a grand design.

Now, some 20+ years later, I still hear that phrase, or some variation of it, on a regular basis: at work from customers, from passersby engaged in polite conversation, or from the weird Jesus pamphlet lady at Wal-Mart that I swear has to be following me around. One of the many differences between five year old me and 28 year old me, though, is that 28 year old me is sick and tired of it. As, I suspect, many of us are. It's upsetting and offensive, whether or not the intentions of the speaker are good. The cold truth of it is that I got a raw deal when I was born. I was born far too early, there were complications, I was deprived of oxygen for too long, and my brain was damaged. That sucks. But it's the way it happened. But I'm not bitter about it anymore. Not like I was when I bought into the old sky cake dodge (thanks for that one, Patton!). I was pissed about it then: God made me special? What the hell for? He needed someone who can't walk a straight line, ride a bike, and can't really swim that great? He needed someone to get stared at by damn near everyone he walks by? Hell of a grand design there, chief.

Once I was able to accept the reality of it, I was able to deal with it in a much healthier way. I was able to look back and see that my parents never let my condition keep me down. They insisted, my mother doubly so, that I could do damn near anything I wanted to. And I saw my friends that never let it color the things we did beyond "Hey, you walk kinda funny. That's cool, let's go play Mario." I played soccer and baseball as a child, I ran around in the woods, got dirty, got hurt, tore shit up, and was generally a healthy, happy, pain in the ass little kid. And I continue to be pretty much the same to this day. And I am thankful for it.

And now I think of that phrase again, and of some of the other kids I've met throughout my life. The kids who had CP ten times worse than I do, awesome kids who couldn't walk at all and sometimes could barely speak. Or the kids I met in the children's ward at the hospital during one of my many surgeries, kids who had barely got to live and were already dying. And I think of all the kids who are beaten down, who haven't eaten in days or who lose limbs in wars they can't understand. As George said, "If there is a god, he's at least incompetent."

"God made you special." and "God help those poor kids." It's all bull. Write a letter or start an argument, or donate a buck to UNICEF , United Cerebral Palsy , the American Cancer Society or any other charity that actually does help. Tell a kid a joke and make him laugh. You won't be interfering with God's Plan. There is no sky cake and there is no God. The universe is an infinite wonder, and we're an amazing blue speck in the vastness of it all. We are special, however. We are wondrous creatures. We can ask questions and build things, and write stories and sing songs. We're all here together, and we have a responsibility to make the best of this life.

P.S. : I promise my next post will be funnier.

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