It’s Sunday and my family is visiting with relatives I’ve never met. I have a scarf on my head that my aunt has lent to me because my mother—slight sarcasm here—“didn’t think” to pack a hat for me. My mother isn’t going to the Catholic church, maybe because she also didn’t think to pack a hat for herself, or a “good black dress,” either. I don’t have a black dress, but I have to go anyway.
The outside of the church, as we approach it in the car, is huge, dark and dripping with chilly rain. We march up gray stone steps and enter a cavern already packed with other aunts also wearing black, also with hats. Up front, there are some dire purple robes. We squeeze past too many bodies and sit on a hard bench.
One of the purple robes is now droning on, and I don’t understand it. I feel strange, but I can’t tell my aunt because she’s not my mother and besides, she said I’m supposed to be quiet in church. My scarf smells musty. I feel as though it’s smothering me. I’m cold. No, I’m sweaty. Everything is going away.
My aunt was annoyed. She led me by the hand out of the church, past all the other aunts in black with hats. In the lobby, she instructed me to sit with my head between my legs, so I did and I did feel better after a while. By that time, church was over, and I was over Catholicism.
There weren’t many Catholics in Florida where I grew up, or later in Colorado. When my family moved to off-base housing in Atlanta, GA, however, we were surrounded by vehement Baptist and Methodist families. Within days of our arrival, religious emissaries from each of the local congregations knocked on our door and invited my mother to services. Some of these visitations seemed almost sinister, particularly when my mother politely refused.
One visit I do remember. It was by our closest neighbor, across the street and down about half a block. He was a fat man with a red face. He showed up one morning while Mama and I were out tending the sunflowers in our yard. And said:
“De luv o’ Christ say t’me dis mornin’, y’all get on ova dere and talk to da new folks ‘bout Jesus, so I come ova heah t’ in-vite y’all t’come t’owa church on Sunday.”
After that astonishing exhibition of sloppy language, the man carried on for some time in a booming voice about religion and his acquisition of it. It seemed he had to go to school to become a preacher. And to be ordained, he had to read “two whole books!”
We were still getting settled in our new house. We had scrubbed the ant poison off the walls, repainted the hot pink living room and dining room a beautiful cream with teal blue accents, and got our furniture in place. Mama had unloaded some of our many hundreds of books onto top shelves in our bookcases in the living room. Hundreds more waited in boxes for me to put on lower shelves.
My mother said later the moment the preacher uttered the word “two” in relation to “books,” she knew she’d have to let him see what the plural form of book really meant. So she invited him into the house for a cup of coffee. He waddled in with her, got to the middle of the living room, and stopped. When she came out of the kitchen with coffee, he was still standing in the middle of the room with his mouth open, staring at all those books. He gulped his coffee, muttered a goodbye and left.
After that, occasionally we would see him and his wife in their yard. My mother would wave casually, but they would not wave back.
It was about this time in my life that I stopped believing in much of what I had learned as a small child in Protestant Sunday School lessons in Florida, starting with ‘love your neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It isn’t that I stopped believing in loving or doing unto others; it is that I stopped believing that religion had anything to do with love or respect. From that time on, whenever confronted with religion I declared myself an agnostic.
An agnostic, though, not an atheist.
Recently, I went to a dinner hosted by the “CFI Skeptics of Eugene,” also known as “Friends of Science and Reason,” also known as “The Skeptics.” I made my way through a crowded restaurant toward a group of people I thought might be the scientists and reasonable people I was looking for. Suddenly, there was a woman standing right next to me speaking directly into my ear, “Do you believe in God?” Startled, I said, “No,…. “ Right answer,” she interrupted me, so I didn’t get to say, “But I don’t not believe, either.” She made room for me at the table, while I reviewed what I knew about this group. “Oh yeah,” I said to myself, “also known as atheists.”
Once I was seated, I politely joined in various conversations, all the while wondering what the reaction of the group would have been had I been able to finish my sentence and make my agnosticism known, or even stated a belief in God.
Looking back on that dinner, I have to conclude that the people there were not very scientific or reasonable and not even very skeptical. What scientific proof is there for the nonexistence of God? None. What reasonable argument can be put forth for an mechanistic universe as opposed to one brought into existence by a loving creator? None. If I were a skeptic, would I not look askance at assertions made without scientific proof for which there are no reasonable arguments?
These people are not nonbelievers. They are atheists, and as such they willfully believe in no god and a universe that was born,… how? By magic? Certainly without a loving creator.
Without a loving Creator, does love even exist? More to the point for me: Without a loving Creator, is there love for me?
I loved my mother and my grandmother. I love my children and grandchildren. I love my friends. Most of the people I meet day by day I could love under more personal circumstances. I can and do feel love for others. So yes, there is love for me.
In summer, I sit on a blanket under a tree. I feel the warm breeze on my skin, watch the river through the tree leaves and see my “Silly Lilly” chase a new four-legged friend into the shallows. At such times, I am given to feel what I can describe only as love. So, yes, there is love for me.
Is there a creator who created this love I feel? I cannot know this.
For an agnostic, God is not no-God, as is the case for an atheist; instead,… “Who? What? I don’t know.”
Maybe agnosticism works for a while, when quiet questions about ultimate causes simply cannot compete with “Mom, where’s my socks?” “I’d like a copy of that report on my desk when I ….” “Will I make it to the bank to cash my paycheck before I run out of gas? “I hate peas!” Maybe it works for a long while, through “How can I save enough for retirement?” “I’m getting wrinkles.” “I’m not getting the respect I deserve.” “I hate peas!” But it doesn’t work for a lifetime.
I’m old now, 70 years old. Anytime now, I’m going to have my own personal judgment day:
“Who are you?”
“Are you proud of yourself?”
“What is your place in the universe?”
So, not an agnostic, either?
Well, let’s try “spiritual but not religious.” At first, this does seem a better choice. It takes the emphasis away from knowing or not knowing, avoids stone cold cathedrals and fat men who can’t read and allows for some emotional component. But “spiritual but not religious” does seem to go along with some idiosyncratic beliefs in …
crystals; fairies; crystal fairies; faeries; “turn on, tune in, drop out”; vortexes; pleiades hiding in the Pleiades; human photosynthesis; reflexology, astrology, numerology, angelology and campanology; telepathy, telikenesis and psychokinesis; divination using (not again!) crystals and crystal balls, coffee grounds for those who drink coffee or tea leaves for those who don’t, or lines in one’s palm; talking with the dead; resurrection of the dead (oops, sorry Christians); wiccan, voodoo, woo woo and whew!
Well, regardless, I am trying spiritual but not religious, though I’m too new to it to say much that is serious about it. I can only hope (Can I say “pray”?) that I have time enough to wait, mind enough to notice when the waiting is over, and heart enough not to bleed.…
Right now, all I know is that there is love. And that love is enough right now.
[photo by Viewminder on Flickr]