|Photo Credit: Morguefile by cooee|
I am going to tell you something that will sound very strange coming from a confessed atheist: I have never lost my faith.
Since the days that I first darkened the doors of a twelve-step fellowship hall twenty years ago, my life has been a daily negotiation between myself and that entity that some people call God. I am writing a book about this journey and where it has taken me, so I won't tell you the whole story here, but suffice it to say that, at eighteen years old, I was ready to give the care of my life over to an entity much larger than myself.
I grew up Unitarian Universalist. God had nothing to do with it, really. The subject of God at church was like the subject of politics at Thanksgiving. (Don't go there, or be sorry that you did.) I went looking and found God myself, later; I called Her the Goddess. I was still a teenager, and I said I was a witch; the taste of rebellion was like chocolate on my tongue. There was something real, though. At seventeen, I felt, I knew that all life was sacred, that nature was the lived Eden—the brutal Heaven of my heart. I fell on my knees in awe, the spirals of my DNA an echoing answer to the petraglyphs of old.
And I became a bulimic while waxing poetic about the Neolithic fertility goddess with her curves and breasts like hills of warm and earthy clay.
It didn't matter what I believed in. I had no relationship with God.
Unable to stop purging, I was afraid I would return to the life I had known months before the Goddess—a life of drugs and heartache, a life of reckless danger and hurdling pain. I went to the meetings where strangers talked about God and said the Lord's Prayer. Those meetings where I did not belong.
And in those meetings, I was saved.
Finally, I realized that I did not have to try. I did not have to force a will as thin as paper against the juggernaut of my addiction and my pain. I let go. I stopped trying. I walked to the edge of a cliff and fell, arms forward, into the arms of my salvation.
My head rung with the notes of "Amazing Grace."
And for seventeen years, the grace carried me. It carried me through an unplanned pregnancy. It held me through a terrible divorce. I knew God had me. It didn't matter who I said God was. God was what I knew when I woke up in the morning and promised my life to the care of the peace and stillness that would come. God was the answer I found in my self-reflection. God was the urgent need I felt to right the wrongs I did. God and I were fine.
And then something happened.
Finally, unexpectedly, something occurred that was beyond my capacity to hold inside the reason of God's Plan for My Life. I didn't know that I believed God had a plan for my life until I realized that this wasn't it. This wasn't the plan, and this wasn't the right life. I seemed, by mistake, to have ended up with the wrong God.
I was bereft.
In the end, though, I was saved again, just as I had been saved before. I stood before the Universe holding the God I'd had and, just like before, I found that everything in my hands was made of Self. It was small and imperfect, a reflection of me—limited by my imagination, crushed and warmed by the tight grip of my insistence on my will.
I let this small God go.
What came next was Nothing. And Everything. The multitude of laws and forces all greater than myself. The stillness, the emptiness, the complexity, the solitude, the fullness and togetherness of Life Itself. Forced again to my knees by wonder and joy, my heart was full again; full of the Everything-Nothing that is Life.
I called that Not-God and I called myself an atheist.
And every day since that day, just like every day before it, since the day I walked through the doors of that twelve-step room, I have worked out my relationship with that Everything-Nothing, with that power that is greater than myself. I believe not that there is a plan for me and not that life will leave me un-mauled, but that life is beautiful and worth living and full of the beauty and fire and meaning that we add to the experience of breathing in and out. I believe these things because I have to, and because my living makes them true.
I remember not that I am destined for happiness, not that I will meet my reward in this world or the next one, but that I have been saved from the monstrous power of addictive self. I am saved today, and I was saved yesterday, and perhaps—if I remember—I will be saved tomorrow. To ask more of life is perhaps to ask too much.
I have been an agnostic and a believer. I have been an atheist, a pagan, and a prayer of daily prayers. In all these ways I have set my feet on the path before me: the path of spiritual growth. I am unafraid to change my God if I have to do so to continue on my trek. There is no other way I want to live but this, with my whole heart seeking, my commitment deepened by my doubt.
And that is how an atheist can say that she has never lost her faith.
Note: I want to make it clear that this post is a personal statement and in no way reflects the experience of other self-proclaimed atheists, others in recovery, or the way anyone but me might choose to use the words "God," "atheism," and "faith." I share it because it is meaningful for me to reflect on. It is also meaningful for me when I read other people's heartfelt accounts of their spiritual journeys. I hope that something of what I shared may be meaningful for you, whether you are a believer, an atheist, or someone to whom the question has not mattered at all.