August: Atheism

In my eyes, religion is like gay sex. It’s a beautiful, essential part of life for some people, however, it’s just not something in which I like to partake.

At heart, I’m a scientist. I believe that life and the universe can be explained with physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Although there are minor exceptions, I find that A Brief History of Time and On the Origin of Species give a more adequate model for how our world works than stories of apples, snakes, and floods.

However, I dislike labeling myself as an atheist. The word has a know-it-all, in-your-face stigma about it, and thanks to a vocal minority of obnoxious douche bags, that tone is justified. But hey, if I’m already disclosing that I drunkenly ruined someone else’s laptop with my own piss, I’d say it’s fair to admit that I don’t believe in God.

So when August came, I wanted a peek at the other side of the story. I decided to roll the cosmic dice and renounce atheism in favor of Christianity. In reality, I could have picked any religion, but for the sake of general familiarity, I sided with Jesus.

Since I had to become a good God-fearing Christian literally overnight, I defined a few strict parameters:

  1. Attend church on Sundays.
  2. Read the Bible every day.
  3. Pray every night.

There is much more to Christianity—as I would soon learn—but the guidelines gave me a push in the right direction.

I started my nightly Bible readings on August 1st in a rented studio in New Orleans.

Since I neglected to pack a Bible as part of my travel essentials, I opened the month hoping God wouldn’t smite me for copyright infringement and participated in Biblical internet piracy.

First came the task of picking a Bible. There are two main ones to choose from: the King James Bible which was translated in 1611, and the New International Version which was translated in 1978. I wanted to go full Christian—all the old-school thee/thou/hath business. King James it was.

Since I wanted to get to know my main man Jesus, I started at the beginning of The New Testament: Matthew.

After reading a few passages, a truth became apparent—as a writer, Matthew lucked out. The guy was a mediocre wordsmith at best but was giftwrapped the greatest orator ever to walk the earth as his literary subject.

Let’s take one of Jesus’s most well-known miracles: walking on water. In my head, the scene looked like this: Jesus descends gracefully from a boat, tiptoes across a still ocean surface as ripples radiate from his feet, and shines with a faint gold aura as dolphins gleefully leap around him and stunned villagers watch in awed silence.

You know how it actually reads? From Matthew 14:25-26, “But the ship was now in the midst of the Sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went unto them, walking on the Sea.” Peter then joins Jesus, starts sinking, and they walk back onto the boat. That’s it.

I know it’s supposed to be a parable for doubt in the Lord, but let’s get real Matthew—you reduced one of the greatest miracles in mankind to a terse four words. How about some description? A little pizzazz? Not to take anything away from bossman, water-walking Jesus, but if we’re calling a spade a spade, Matthew’s kind of a chump.

The Bible and I got off to a rocky start. But with The Book in the books so to speak, it was time for step two: praying.

I didn’t have the first clue on how to pray authentically. Sure, I “prayed” for a Playstation when I was 9 (and I fucking got one!), but as for actual honest-to-God praying instead of narration to the ceiling? No idea.

So I turned to my previous Lord and Savior: The Almighty Internet. After scouring Wikihow, I was ready to give it a shot.

I clasped my hands on the bed, lowered my head, and got down on my knees. Doing my best to ignore that this would be a great porno opener, I began to pray: “Dear God, I want to thank you for this day.” I then recapped my day, enumerated each challenge for which I needed His help, and mentioned all the people I was thankful for and why. I closed with a simple “In Jesus’s name, Amen” and that was that.

And you know what? I felt better. A lot better. It was humbling to consciously acknowledge how much of life was out of my control. Praying took literally two minutes and was a great decompression—like wrapping a bow on the day’s gift. I liked it immediately.

After a few more weekdays of Biblical passages and nightly prayers, it was time to pick a church. Although I went to Sunday School a few times when I was in 1st grade, I had attended church for the last time at 16 when my mom dragged my dad, brother and me to a Christmas Day sermon (which led to my dad pounding his fist on the steering wheel of our Honda stationwagon and exclaiming, “Alright God, here come the heathens!”).

I wish I could say that I embarked on a journey to discover the brand of Christianity that resonated with my core, but I opted for convenience. There was a Catholic church a few hundred feet from my apartment. So unceremoniously, I became a Catholic.

After a respectable night of Saturday sinning, it was time for my first mass.

I can’t say I was enthusiastic to hear the alarm ring at 8:20 when I had arrived at my apartment only 6 hours earlier. I dragged myself out of bed, gulped down a few bites of cereal, and splashed some water on my body. I didn’t want to be the schlub who showed up for his first Mass underdressed, so I pulled out the heavy artillery: my best button down (to be fair, I own two), slacks, and dress shoes. At the last second, I added a tie.

As I walked outside, it felt like the morning sun illuminated the path from my apartment to church. This particular church was imposing—hundreds of feet of vertical alabaster marble adorned with an austere cross and bronze doors big enough for several Andre the Giants. Serious business.

When I entered the church, I heard the soft sounds of an organ and smelled the musky scent of incense. I watched the elderly man in front of me solemnly submerge his fingers in a bowl of water and trace an unmistakable Hail Mary.

Not wanting to be outed as an imposter, I followed suit.

I dipped my index and middle fingers into the water, touched my forehead, then my sternum, and then froze.

Shit.

Is it right left, or left right? For the first and last time in my life, I wished for Tim Tebow.

Hoping that no one was watching, I rushed out a quick right-left and shuffled to a seat in the second-to-last pew.

As I admired the stained glass and waited for the other church-goers to file in, I noticed something: I was the best dressed person at church. By far. Most people were wearing jeans—maybe a nice sweater. One guy was even wearing shorts!

The irony was thick—in trying my best to fit in with the crowd, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I nervously fiddled with my tie and waited for the sermon to start.

A dramatic shift in the organ and a motion from the back of the church signaled the opening. Up through the center of the room came a line of five or so clergyman, led by a preacher. He was everything I hoped he would be: white hair, full beard, flowing white robes, and a dignified cane to top it all off. He bellowed forth in a tenor vibrato while I fumbled with my song pamphlet, hoping that I wasn’t making the adjacent women’s ears bleed with my tone-deaf grumble.

After a slew of hymns in Latin, a few awkward exchanges of “and peace unto you,” and what seemed like fifty arbitrary swings of the incense pot—which I quite enjoyed—the preacher opened his sermon.

This was a crucial moment for me. From a bystander’s point-of-view, there are a number of things to dislike about the Catholic faith—in particular, its strict emphasis on outdated rules, its joylessness, and its oppressive ideologies. I put on my cynic cap, ready to reject some ridiculous message about abortion or homosexuality.

But then the preacher began to speak.

He opened with a Nazi gestapo on his death bed. The Nazi gestapo had done terrible things in his life—killed people, watched passively as men and children died, and ritually drank the blood of Jews (just kidding). While feeling Death perched over his shoulder, he consulted a clergyman, expressed his deep sorrow and regret, and asked for his forgiveness.

The clergyman deliberated. He then responded, “I can’t forgive you. No man can forgive you for these atrocities. Only God can forgive you.”

Je-zus. If I wasn’t already awake at 9:45am, the preacher’s words hit me like a bucket of water to the face.

After a few more Halleleuh’s and an almost botched communion (fun fact, you’re supposed to eat the wafer before drinking the wine), church was dismissed and I walked out into the world.

My step had a hop to it. I felt better. My Sunday mornings were often worthless, but this spiritual productivity was a nice boost early in the day. It was weird to admit, but I kinda liked Church.

But the Bible and I still weren’t seeing eye to eye.

After slogging through Matthew, I skipped to Revelations. If you’re unfamiliar, Revelations describes a catastrophic battle between good and evil and it’s like a massively horrific shroom trip. Here’s an actual passage: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy” –Revelations 13:1.

John the Apostle: tripping balls since 95 AD. It did not make good bedtime reading.

Since I was on the verge of Biblically striking out, I consulted with a Christian buddy for a new section, who recommended a part of the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes.

And I turned a corner. Ecclesiastes beautifully illuminated the meaning of life and how to live. I found wisdom on every page, thoughtful passages about youth, death, vanity, and luck. Days later, lines still bounced around in my head (“Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king” -Ecclesiastes 4:13).

After a few weeks of practice, I think I made a pretty good Christian. I’ve always treated people well, but with Jesus on my side, I went a bit further. I gave money to homeless people. I called my parents more often. I didn’t miss a day with my Bible and dutifully prayed each night. And most impressively, I made it to church on the third morning of Outside Lands, a three day music festival. I’m not saying I’d waltz my way through the Pearly Gates, but I think St. Peter would at least grant me an interview.

However, I don’t think he’d be pleased when he unearthed some of my more, shall we say, less-than-holy moments. I had to work one Sunday and skipped church (and felt guiltier than a priest in a playground). I prayed a couple nights while slightly intoxicated. Worse still, I eased a Sunday morning hangover with a bowl of weed just minutes before church (if you’re wondering, yes, attending Church while stoned is extremely sacrilegious but still quite enlightening). And most damning of all, I was always cognizant that I was tethered to a month long experiment instead of a full spiritual immersion with God.

But despite my many sins, I gave Christianity a fair shot and learned quite a bit. In particular, I realized that atheists have a blindspot when it comes to Christianity. Naively, I had thought that Christianity existed simply as a vehicle to explain the universe’s mysteries in a series of overblown fairytales.

But that is a minor detail.

The religious rituals—praying, reading the Bible, and attending church—give many a sense of purpose, a certainty anchor in life’s turbulent seas. Religion teaches to respect and revere all of life’s uncontrollable ups and downs. And the Bible, mediocre writing and all, is the most profound book ever written on life and death and chronicles one of the coolest cats to walk the planet, Jesus Christ.

Even still, for me, the benefits of religion do not outweigh those of atheism.

Atheism trained me to think critically, to never accept truth without fact, and to respect others as fellow human beings. It imbued me with a powerful sense of self-reliance, moral responsibility, and humility. And most importantly, atheism taught me to make the most out of every moment because once I’m gone, I’m gone. I am a better friend, son, and man because of atheism.

But as August came to a close, I felt bittersweet. Sure it would be nice to gain a couple hours of extra sleep on Sunday mornings, but I genuinely enjoyed the time spent with God, Jesus, and the whole gang. Although they might hover over my shoulder for the rest of my life, I knew that the friendship had probably irrevocably turned one-way.

Which was disappointing, because I was about to lose another set of close friends.

In September, I would cut ties with my good buddies, television and movies.

One thought on “August: Atheism

  1. You might consider Shambhala Buddhism. All the critical thinking and reflection (meditation) but none of the belief in other-worldly beings.

    It’s done wonders for my ability to handle emotionally difficult situations.

    Love your blog! Stumbled across it today when your post rose to the near-top of Hacker News.

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