I promise, dear readers, that I'm not intentionally using this medium solely as a sounding board for my confusion with and dislike of religion, however much to the contrary it may seem these days. I want to tell you all about the wonderful book or movie or cartoon show I'm currently super into (I plan on filling PAGES, --or...rows or columns...however one gauges space on these things--just on the awesomeness of H. Jon Benjamin -fellow Worcesterite and irreverent mad genius- and Archer some time soon, I promise), or rant unintelligibly for far too long on just why the Ninja Turtles were better than Thundercats (hint: read the titles. Seriously, they're NINJA. TURTLES. That is all. For now.), or why it is pancakes are almost always better in memories than at breakfast, I really really do. But...well, I live in Texas these days, and even here in Houston where it's relatively hip and progressive, there are lots more churches than, say, museums or record stores ("Same thing," I hear you say. Shut up, you kids. With your damn...Pac-Man.) or cool dive bars. By a terrifyingly wide margin. So, I'm exposed to a lot more of that good, old fashioned "My God can beat up your God" religion than I care to be, and it tends to steam my broccoli something fierce a lot of the time. So, here we go again...
I work in some aspect of the service industry (let us leave it at that for fear of prying eyes), and a week or two ago, a semi-regular customer of mine came in. As I'm helping said gentleman, who really seems to be a genuinely nice dude as far as I can tell, he notices my wedding ring. He asks me how long I've been married, striking up small-talk while waiting, near as I can figure. I tell him, and we chat for a bit. Erelong (that's right, I said it), he gets a little personal, and I get a little cagey, honestly thinking he may be hitting on me (I'm a good-looking, personable, slightly fey kind of guy, it's happened before). He then proceeds to ask me, "So, are you a Christian?"
Now, I've been asked this question many times before in many different situations, and it's always uncomfortable. But I'm a lot more at peace with and proud of my theological choices than I used to be, so I don't hesitate anymore; "No, I'm not," I say. "I was raised nominally Christian, but I haven't been one in any sense for a long time." (or something along those lines. I really don't talk that poofy during idle chatter, I swear.) Dude then says "Please don't be offended," (Here it comes, I think), "but would you mind if I prayed to God and asked him to bless your marriage? I feel like I'm being called to do so." Threw me a curve ball with that one; when people ask if they can pray for me, it's usually to fix my funny walk. But, as I've said before, I don't mind being prayed for so much as being prayed at. And I told him so, to which he replied "I hear ya. Most people who think they know God don't really know anything." I agreed with him 100% on that one. So basically, I said "Knock yourself out, man. It's no skin off my nose." And he did, right there in a commercial setting, he asked God to bless my wife and I. I thanked him for the kind words and he went on his way. And that, I thought, was the end of that. Of course, by now I ought to know better.
Today, the gentleman comes in again, and I greet him, and we chat a bit once again, and he asks how life's treating me and how my wife is doing. Now, under normal, polite small talk rules, this is a perfectly nice thing to ask, but I know and he knows that he really isn't interested in how we're doing simply to be nice; he wants vindication of his prayer. And as much as I don't believe in curses or bad juju, and as much as the twisted little place inside me thinks it'd be hilarious to say "We're not so good, dude. My wife recently died in a circus-related accident and I just found out that I have advanced syphilis. The smell was terrible in both situations," on the minuscule chance there may be something to it, I don't want to bring down that kind of fury on us. So, I settle for "We're great, man, thanks for asking!" To which he replies --with the kind of self-satisfied smirk I reserve for when I get less than half the questions on an episode of Jeopardy wrong-- "I had a feeling. That's great to hear." I should have let it go there. But something in me has to get the last word in these types of encounters, even if it's just LITERALLY the last word, and even if that word is "Garbledina." (if you have to ask, it's better that you don't know). So, I said "Thanks for the good thoughts!" with a tone of finality and turned to go about my business. He then said "You're welcome, of course..." pause for effect..."but its more than that."
Of course I sussed out what he was implying. I'm an expert at reading people, after all. I'm like Tim Roth in Lie to Me. (or so I assume. That show seems just...just awful.) That, and it was about as subtle as a drunken frat boy asking a co-ed what she's interested in while he's actively trying to remove her bra. "It's more than that. (read: GOD IS SO AWESOME, ISN'T IT GREAT THAT HE ANSWERED MY PRAYER AND MADE YOUR LIFE SO AWESOME? YOU SHOULD AGREE WITH ME!!!!!!!!!!!!)" Give or take a few exclamation points, for sure. And it's that implication, one I've heard quite often, that gets my goat (And it was my last goat, man! What if I need that goat for...strategic goat purposes?! I know its a misquote, but I can't think of one with sheep.).
Of course our lives aren't better because we've put in the effort, it seems to say. Things aren't going well because I work long hours to ensure we can pay our bills and have nice things and my wife didn't get an awesome new job because she's an intelligent, creative person who impressed her interviewers; who spent years learning her craft and who operates regularly on levels I can't even begin to understand. No, that's just silly. It's because some people made mumbled requests to an ill-defined creator who, as luck would have it, is the right one to ask out of literally THOUSANDS that have come before and since. Duh.
Let me now address the generality of people who try to convert me (or anyone else, for that matter) with these sorts of arguments: I am not an atheist by choice. At least, not in the sense of "I think I'll wear flannel today and also not believe in god." (I won't do either of these things for the same reason, incidentally: They just don't look good on me.) It is the end result of a process spanning much of my life. I believed for a long time, I truly did. I even thought about being a priest for awhile, I was that committed to it. But somewhere along the way, I started thinking truly critically about the whole thing. And at every turn, it just didn't make sense to me anymore. It became a tattered flag that was waved around by people (many of them lovely, caring individuals) who couldn't see how many holes it had in it. And it fell apart when I tried to grab it again. And I did try, again and again (I still have some accoutrement from my Wiccan phase, my last silly venture into the supernatural. Meh, I like incense well enough.). Eventually, I realized there was nothing left of it for me and I found meaning elsewhere. All around me, strangely enough. The world and the universe it lives in are as fucking awesome as they ever were, only now I don't thank a god for it all, I'm just amazed at how insanely lucky I am, how lucky we all are, that things came together just so. And I want to figure out as much of how that happened as I can, because it's fascinating, and because it led to me sitting here typing this, and it led to the beer I'm going to have in a moment, and the Jaffa Cake I'll enjoy with it. And the wife I'll fall asleep with, and the corned beef we'll have on St. Paddy's day, and so on and so on...It's the coolest mystery of all, only it's not the "moves in mysterious ways" kind of mystery. It's more like Cosmic Clue; you can figure it out if you've got the right evidence ("The Gravitational Singularity did it in the Planck Epoch with the Big Bang!"). So, to sum up, generality of bible-thumpers: I'm an atheist because I have to be, in order to be true to my own brain. You won't change my mind any more than I'll change yours. So please, stop trying and let's just enjoy all this awesome stuff together.
As a little post-script, since I know I come off really harsh on religion and the religious a lot of the time, I'd like to say (yet again) that I have absolutely nothing against people of faith. Many of you I know very well, many of you I like, some of you I love very much. You are my friends and family and sometimes that really cool old guy I saw at Target one day, the one rocking a fedora and a flame-tipped cane who is more bad ass than I can ever hope to be. I enjoy laughing with you, arguing with you, and generally just being alive at the same time you are. I take the religious as I take anyone else: one by one, and based on their actions. And most of you are just fine by me.
Incidentally, today's title is a lyric from Tom Waits' "Hoist That Rag." It's a wonderful meditation on the realities of being a soldier, but I think the title of the song and the specific lyric tie in nicely with my "tattered flag" metaphor of a few paragraphs ago. I know they say that if you have to explain it, you didn't do it right, but give me a break, I'm proud of it.
*For the record, I love serial commas almost as much as pudding. Both lend a sense of civility to any occasion, both are delicious, and you should relish any opportunity to put either one wherever you possibly can.