Monday, July 9, 2012

The Triumph of Atheism

One of the Revolution’s crowing achievements was atheism.  After centuries of cruel economic and ideological exploitation by the Orthodox clergy and its political allies, Russians finally liberated themselves from an outmoded belief in God.  This liberation was at the heart of the Revolution’s appeal to the liberal-minded, urban intelligentsia.  How free must men and women have felt to be able to escape centuries of magical thinking and religious mumbo-jumbo in one spontaneous moment of rational action?  How joyous an epoch:  to overthrown a god as well as a tsar in one tumultuous year?  Rasputin, the tangible link between God and tsar in the last days of the old regime, was the living embodiment of everything that had been eating away at Russia for so many centuries.  For many educated Russians, Rasputin’s mysticism and magical thinking were inextricably tied up with his depravity and amorality, which, in turn, were firmly linked to the charismatic but bizarre man’s autocratic, reactionary politics.  Religious Russia meant Grigory Rasputin, or worse. 

I remember the moment in time when I first realized there was no God.  Strangely, my religious education occurred in public school during my freshman year of high school.  Assigned two essays about the existence of God—one theist, the other atheist—I was immediately and totally convinced of the truth of the atheist document.   I was shocked and upset by my conversion to godlessness.  Until that time, I had been a believer from a relatively liberal Protestant sect, Methodism.   Looking back, it’s clear that the collapse of my faith had very little to do with the essayist’s arguments, and everything to do with my mother’s recent death.  Reading the essay, I was left with that simple question everyone must ask himself in the wake of a personal tragedy:  if there is a God, how could he have taken away my mother?  My answer was as simple as the question:  there cannot be a God. 

Looking back, I am struck by the oddness of losing one’s religion as a response to death.  For religion is nothing if not an elaborate attempt to give people solace in the face of death, or mortality in general.  Yet my mother’s death opened up a curtain on existence and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God was no longer a factor in my mortal life.  The irony perhaps is that my mother went into the final weeks of her life as a Christian, even calling for a minster to visit her sickbed to sing Christian songs with her.  That’s my memory anyhow--forgive the distortions that have accumulated over the course of twenty-five years.

One doesn’t really lose one’s faith in a single instance.  There are no “road to Damascus” experiences, as it were.  When I learned from my grandmother than my mother had died, I went to seek solace from my father, asking whether it was true that Mom was actually much better off being in heaven.  My father’s look, filled with pity and a certain incredulity at my naivete, said something different than his hesitant words:  “Yes, Derek.  She must be in heaven.  Yes, she must be better off.”  He probably never meant to deliver such a condescending message.  He may not even have meant anything at all.   Although he was a half-hearted believer at best, attending Church for his wife’s sake, his answer couldn’t have really turned my mind away from  the depressing fact of my growing distrust of the Christian response to tragedy.  The truth was this:  I didn’t really trust in God’s existence.  The bible picture book Mom kept downstairs seemed as relevant to my life as my book of Greek mythology or any Dungeons and Dragons book. 

Being freed from religion was an awesome responsibility, and one I couldn’t handle for many years.  At first, I wondered whether I even needed to bother about morality and ethics if God wasn’t around to punish or reward me.  Of course,  leaving religion had its upside:  I had a confident, independent, open-minded, and even creative approach to my surroundings and toward men and women from other religious traditions .  I also eventually started to think more deeply about right and wrong:  since the bible wasn’t inherently right or wrong, one had to think very deeply about what separated the good from the bad.  And of course I soon realized that Christians, and religious folks in general, were often capable of doing very bad things at the behest of their god.  As Kurt Vonnegut said, and I can only paraphrase him:  sooner or later gods have got to be held accountable for the actions of their followers.

In Russia, state-sponsored atheism led to ideological coercion, anticlerical cruelty, and anti-religions brutality on a scale not even the pogrom-tolerant autocracy could have imagined.  Godless Russia, it turned out, was even worse than Godly Russia.  In my own life, atheism didn’t make things better.  In some ways, atheism merely became the mirror image of my earlier Christianity:  I became as intolerant of different religious viewpoints as Christians generally seemed to be.  To me, Christianity itself—a religion I was born to—seemed as strange as the cult of Santaclaus, if people had continued to believe in Santa after entering adulthood.  At times, I barely understood how people ever maintained their faith in the supernatural in the face of overwhelming scientific and physical evidence.  

Just recently, an erudite Catholic friend came to visit and attested that there simply was no evidence that Jesus had NOT risen from the dead, or even evidence that he or his disciples had intended to perpetuate some kind of hoax that he had done so.  The absurdity of this line of reasoning even now overwhelms me.  If this friend, one of the smartest people I know, is able to frame a problem in such an illogical way, how much less thought do other Christians use when thinking about the existence of God?

Notwithstanding my occasional incredulity, over time I have mellowed.  I’ve come to think that atheism and theism are two sides of the same coin;  and that the quest for ultimate, metaphysical truth, must necessarily involve both a belief in transcendent reality and some kind of paradoxical belief in the physical sameness (and therefore anti-religious structure) of the universe.  Little by little I’ve made room in my life for a little religion.  I’ve lit a votive candle or two, spoken to my dead mother from time to time, and fallen for the Hindu god, Ganesha, whose small statue stands on my bookshelf as a reminder of how little I know or will be able to know about life and the cosmos.  Somehow an elephant-headed God, rather than an historical man-god, seems like a better indicator of the inner truth of religious sentiment. 

I guess I’ve come to understand that atheism will not make him a happier person.  It didn’t transform Russia into a utopia, nor did it lead me to inner bliss.  To the extent that I remain an atheist, I do so because atheism is a true doctrine and not because it leads to paradise on earth.   Where my son is concerned, I hope to teach him something that is neither theist nor atheist, or is perhaps both.  This is a complicated task.  I guess if I have my way my son will be something akin to the characters in an Isabel Allende novel, rational people who believe in ghosts and spirits and operate in a world of magical reality.  

Reading a book by Abram Tertz on Russian folklore, I see the kind of person I’d like my son to become.  Tertz was a deeply analytical man who applied the tools of anthropology and literary criticism to collect and objectively assess the religious traditions of the Russian folk,  a people who believed in all manner of major and minor religious, mythological, and spiritual activity.  Tertz did not merely respect the Russian peasants’ ability to incorporate the sacred into his daily life.  Rather, he crossed that threshold on occasion and saw life through their pantheistic gaze.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James said that men and women were either religious or irreligious;  that is, they either lived in an enchanted world or they lived in a rational one, but never both.  But Tertz showed that it’s possible to live in both worlds at the same time, which is all that anyone should hope for.  

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