She says giving up the comfort of religion hasn’t always been easy. For example, if she was in an airplane that was bouncing with turbulence, she would close her eyes and imagine the plane surrounded by a pink cloud of love. Now, she accepts that random, chaotic things can happen and no “magic thinking” will change that.
For some reason, this anecdote stays with me for weeks afterward. While I’ve never envisioned God as a pink cloud of love, I have envisioned God as invisible sparkling dust that swirls through and around every living thing — an energy field we can tap into when we need courage or hope, the love and compassion that exists between us. And maybe in death, our souls join the sparkling dust. Written down, it seems a bit silly, more like Star Wars than the Bible. But there it is.
I eventually tell my mother, a retired diaconal minister, about Ross’s pink cloud of love. “Why does the cloud have to be pink?” she asks. Then adds: “If I was in that airplane, I would pray for the courage to face whatever was coming.” A good United Church answer. But if God has the power to grant us courage, why not the power to fix planes, smooth air currents, or remind the pilot of some long-forgotten emergency procedure? Is God’s power limited to helping us control emotional reactions? Or, are the atheists right in saying that if you found courage during a stressful moment, it wasn’t God who gave it to you, it was you finding it within yourself?
As the convention continues, I am determined to track down the former United Church guy and get his story. I go hunting and eventually find him guffawing along with others at a workshop on how to use humour to deal with dangerous religious beliefs. The leader is a comedian named Troy Conrad who was once a devout fundamentalist who sold Bibles before he “woke up.” Dressing up as Jesus is his schtick, whether he’s showing up at anti-abortion rallies and telling the Christian protesters that they’re all fired, or handing American flags to members of disgraced pastor Ted Haggard’s church as they leave the service.
If you have a thick skin, Conrad’s humour is funny, particularly when it pokes fun at interpretations of Christianity that most United Church people wouldn’t espouse anyway. Still, I can’t bring myself to participate in his workshop activities: listing the top 10 signs that God is imaginary, and making up satirical church signs. His non-comedic rhetoric is harder to stomach: “We want people to realize that they’re believing a lot of made up stuff that’s contributing to the end of our species. . . . I think it would be wonderful to end the entire concept of Islam. But I don’t think killing everyone is how it will work.” (Someone yells out, “Actually, it would work.”)
Conrad continues: “Humour can be seen as a form of violence when it crosses the line. But that’s a much better form than anything physical. . . . Hey, the stakes are high. You made up the Sky Man, and it’s time to quit.”
Later, Conrad dons his Jesus costume and shows up at the Observation Bar. “I’m back,” he yells to the tipsy crowd. “And you were all right!” A free-for-all of sacrilege follows: “I’ve found Jesus! Save me Jesus!” people shriek, laughing. “Jesus” poses for photos with women draped over him or with his arms out as though crucified. Others mockingly bow down. It’s ugly, but I think I get it. Comedy is about exposing taboos, about catharsis, right?
His name is David Rand. The former United Church guy is 58 and lives in Montreal. He grew up on a farm outside Woodstock, Ont., and attended Brooksdale United.
His parents taught him that going to church was the moral, respectable thing to do. Rand came to view Christianity as puritanical, something people did to keep up appearances. He sat through confirmation classes thinking they were a complete waste of time. In his mid-teens he started telling himself, “I am not Christian.” He refused to go to church, caused family fights and then left home at 17 to go to university.
As he grew into adulthood, Rand realized he is gay. Despite the fact that the United Church has taken major strides to affirm sexual diversity, Rand says, “All religions are homophobic and anti-sexual. I find no reason to reform churches. Just leave. The idea of gay Christians setting up their own churches because they’ve been rejected by their original churches is pathetic.”
Today, Rand works as a software developer, and is a member of an organization that works to preserve the separation of church and state in Quebec. His most recent fight was with the public school system, which has introduced an obligatory course called Ethics and Religious Culture. “The problem is with the premise. Ethics should not be taught alongside religion,” he says. Therein lies his main beef with religion. Religious people believe they have a lock on morality, he says, and think “that you can’t be a good person without religion, or . . . that if you don’t believe in God then there’s something wrong with you.”
Fair enough. But if believing that you have a lock on the truth is wrong, atheists are themselves guilty of a sin or two. One day at lunch, a man at my table rails against those who say, I’m a humanist, but not an atheist. Or, I’m a freethinker, but I believe in God. “I’m sorry,” I say, stopping him. “I don’t follow your logic.” “Well,” he says, “if you believe in God then you’re closing down the possibility that there is no God, so how can you call yourself a freethinker?” I answer: “Actually, the possibility that there is no God is something I consider all the time. I think that shows freedom of thought. But you call yourself a freethinker, and yet you’ve closed down the possibility that there may be a God.” He mumbles: “I guess that’s why I call myself an atheist rather than a freethinker,” and gets up to leave soon after.
I’m reminded of a passage in Chris Hedges’s book I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Hedges writes: “The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. . . . Religion is our finite, flawed and imperfect expression of the infinite. . . . This impulse asks: What are we? Why are we here? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? What does it all mean? Science and reason, while they can illuminate these questions, can definitively answer none of them.”
Maybe the hope that believers and non-believers can co-exist respectfully lies in people like Dr. Mynga Futrell. She is a science educator and co-founder of The Brights’ Network, an international organization of ethically focused secularists. In accepting the convention’s “World of Thanks” award, she admonished atheists generally for their self-defeating habit of condescending to religious people.
“Don’t waste time trying to convince other people of the error of their world view, as though rational reasons were all it takes. How many times have I heard that religious people are stupid, insulting the very people we need? We have to be part of the body politic. We have to be pragmatic to be effective. It’s religion’s intrusion into our civic institutions — that’s what really counts. We can’t have influence if we don’t change.”
Cheers to that. But I now recognize that people of faith also have to examine their negative assumptions about atheists if we’re going to prevent further radicalization and all get along.
As for smirking Bruce, I have a partial answer for him. It’s taken weeks of thinking and conversations, and I’m bound to change my answer again in years to come. But, for today, here it is. I can no more denounce my faith in God than I can denounce my faith in love, art, nature, science, beauty or humanity. If aliens land on Earth next week, explain everything to us and then inform us that the world is ending, God will still be the best way to describe all my experiences of kindness and compassion and my inner sense that I’m connected to everything on this planet and in the universe. It’s my reason to orient my life toward good, however limited and faulty my idea of “good” may be.
And Bruce, even if the atheists are right, and what you see is what you get, I prefer to live in the hope that there’s something more.
Sidebar: Atheist icons
Daniel C. Dennett
“Many contemporary Christians, Jews, and Muslims insist that God, or Allah, being omniscient, has no need for anything like sense organs, and being eternal, does not act in real time. This is puzzling, since many of them continue to pray to God, to hope that God will answer their prayers tomorrow.”
—From Breaking the Spell (Viking Penguin)
“Nine times out of ten, in debate with a cleric, one will be told not of some dogma of religious certitude but of some instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person. . . .
My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.”
—From The Portable Atheist (Da Capo Press)
“Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them — given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by — to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades.”
—From The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Company)
“The history of Christianity is principally a story of mankind’s misery and ignorance rather than of its requited love of God. While Christianity has few living inquisitors today, Islam has many.”
—From The End of Faith
(W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)