Mad at God
“The only atheists I don’t understand,” someone once told me, “are the kind who are mad at God because he doesn’t exist.” I knew the image she likely had in mind: someone pouty and cynical, prone to unprovoked rants. I’ll admit there have been times in my life when I’ve seen a bit of myself in that stereotype, but there’s so much more to the story for me. Here’s what I would have told her if she would have listened:
I was raised in a friendly, fluffy kind of church. There were no sermons on sodomy, hellfire, or the devil. Instead, we got Sunday school lessons about kindness and suffering the little children. The God I believed in as a child was kind and attentive. He was just this presence, like a hug, that I could always feel. It was a simple but deep relationship, and I guess we could have gotten along like that forever if his health hadn’t taken a sudden turn around the time I entered adolescence.
I don’t know how else to describe it. I was still going to youth group meetings and singing along in services, but that warm hug just grew weaker and thinner. There’s this popular portrayal of atheists as strict empiricists. The idea is that every one of us went out into the world with a ruler and a microscope, studied it all intensively, and when we failed to find any gods out there, we cleanly cut the idea out of our minds. But that’s not me. My own path to atheism started out as a more emotional, intuitive one. I tried searching for God using the same tools that had always worked for me before: sitting, listening, and trying to feel.
As it got harder and harder to access that fuzzy childhood God place, intellect took over a part of my life that used to be all emotion. That’s when I started examining the religion I was raised in more critically. God was somehow shrinking down from a force of the universe to a concept in a book that I was no longer sure I even cared about.
I have a vivid memory of sitting on a cement floor at a Christian summer camp, surrounded by other teenagers as we sang “You Are My All in All.” Some kids had closed their eyes. Others had their arms around each other or were waving their hands in the air. I knew exactly what they were feeling, because that warm gratitude and comfort was once available to me, too. That evening, though, all I felt was the cold breeze of the air conditioning and a sharp emptiness. I didn’t need any philosopher to tell me that God was dead. I had held God’s hand while he died.
I felt sorrow and yes, I felt anger. Grief works like that. The frustrating part was that it was anger with no target. As others have so logically pointed out, you can’t blame something for not existing. I tried getting angry at the people around me who still believed, but they weren’t actually hurting me. I was never lied to; the adults in my life had only passed their sincere beliefs down to me. I wasn’t a victim of anything. But the anger was there nonetheless, just because something I had loved was gone.
Another popular belief about atheists is that we are to be pitied. And back when I was that lonely kid, dealing with the shock that something eternal can just go away, maybe I could have used some sympathy. But that’s not the whole story, either. Because as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross pointed out years ago, waiting at the end of grief is acceptance. You figure out other ways of being happy. You learn to move on.
Here’s another vivid memory: at the age of fifteen or so, I was camping with friends in the gorgeous hill country of central Texas. We were standing in tall grass under the stars. I thought about the bugs on the ground and the galaxies above us. I thought about how I used to believe in fairies and witches, and how much fun that was because it made life seem so strange and magical. And I let it sink into my brain, then settle into my gut, that life is strange and magical anyway. With no fairies, no witches, no gods, there is still no end of things to be shocked and amazed by. I may have lost my personal God, but I had the entirety of the universe left to comfort me. And that is no small thing.
Emma Atkinson is a graduate of Agnes Scott College. She lives in Houston, TX.