Sunday, December 07, 2008

I Miss You Most at Christmastime

It's been a little over a year now since God died. Or at least he stopped existing in my mind. I notice his absence from time to time, often when I'm scared or lonely or otherwise needy and a lifetime of religious training gives me the impulse to pray, only to be cut short by the recognition that I no longer believe anyone is listening. Other times I'm feeling particularly happy with my life and I don't know who to thank. His absence has been particularly notable in the past week or so as we've begun to listen to Christmas music and the familiar songs bring with them powerful feelings inseparably connected to beliefs long dead, signifiers that have lost their signifieds. Christmas has always been such a happy time of year for me and now I'm left wondering what to be happy about--why should the birth of Jesus mean more to me than the birth of Siddhartha Gautama or Muhammad or Joe the Plumber?

If I honestly take into account how important religion once was to me, the removal of God from my life really was equivalent to the death of a loved one, and at the time I was so relieved to be free of a belief system that had caused me so much pain that I never took time to mourn. The other day my father-in-law sent me an article about studies being done on the positive effects of religion on health. The article says that critics of these researchers see an agenda to sneak religion into science and point to the impossibility of separating religious belief from other factors such as the social involvement a religious community brings. I had actually been pondering the effects my lack of religion has on my emotional wellbeing for a few weeks before I read this article. Like the critics of these religious researchers, I worry about jumping to unfounded conclusions about the necessity of religion to human health, but I am interested in what it is about religion--whether the sense of belonging or the beliefs themselves--that contributes to physical, mental, and emotional health.

In an attempt to do a little research of my own and to fill that hole left in God's wake, I've decided to give the Universal Unitarian church a try, hoping to find in it a place where I can be part of a community of people who have common goals of finding peace for themselve and others, but require no belief in any kind of doctrine. I've also found a renewed interest in Buddhism and other forms of spirituality. I feel no need for religion to explain the nature of the universe to me--I trust science and basic observation to suffice there--but I am interested in finding what one atheist Buddhist minister from the UU church describes as "a roadmap to train the mind for happiness."

Meanwhile, I suppose I'll enjoy Christmas for its trees and pretty lights, for the joy of giving and receiving, for the happy times with family and friends. It's hard sometimes to see beyond the pain and suffering brought to the world both historically and recently by people who call themselves Christians, but this Christmas season I'll do my best to remember the good things Jesus and his teachings offer, to find some common ground where I can rejoice along with those who believe him to be the son of God.


cool_guy said...

Ben - I cried when I read this post...

I wish I could offer help or advice or perspective that would be of some value - but I'm not up to the task.

I have struggled as well with the existance, relevence, and meaning of Jesus Christ and have despaired over the suffering and atrocities committed in his name...

But - and this is important - please admit to the possibility that the people who do these things in the name of Christ are weak, scared, gullible, easily mislead people who will have to beg Christ for forgiveness when they face him and try to explain why they used his pure name to justify thier sins. I wouldn't want to be in that position.

I guess I'm trying to say that it is no more Christ's "fault" that people use his name to justify thier actions than it is Satan's "fault" that people use his existance to justify evil - I believe that we are personally responsible for our actions and cannot claim any "outside" influence as excuse for our acts, either good or bad. We should claim full credit for the good things we do and take full responsibilty for the bad things we do.

I can tell you that I know that Jesus Christ lived and taught us how to live and treat other people.. I don't claim that he was the only one that taught these things - but he is the one I'm most familiar with.

Please take heart and enjoy the season for what it is - a great time to be with the folks we love, to show and tell them that we love them, to enjoy their company, and to contemplate our spiritual needs and how we can meet them.

It is a good thing that you recognize your spiritual side and acknowledge a need to find answers. As long as you are searching you are in good shape - when you give up and deny your spiritual needs you are in real trouble.

I know that I am a better person for having known you - you have taught me good things.

TK said...

A really nice post. (And cool comments, Cool_guy.)

This (your insight/attitude) is why I have confidence in your judgement - because you're not afraid of being sincerely honest with yourself - and others - rather than just saying what people might want to hear. I'm sure you'll figure 'it' out (whatever 'it' is that feels right for you).

And I take personal comfort that whether or not you believe that Jesus still lives as the Creator and Savior of the world, as I do, you certainly set a good example of living His teachings - particularly in the kindness you show to others. I'm more pleased to see Christian actions without Christian faith than I ever could be to see the reverse!

Have a Merry Christmas!

MoHoHawaii said...

I was the same age as you are now when I quit believing in God. I wonder if this typical. When do people usually come to this realization?

I found letting go of this belief to be a kind of relief, since there was all that pesky cognitive dissonance that kept popping up when I least wanted it to.

These days I just talk to my imaginary friends and mutter to myself on the bus. Big improvement if you ask me.

Seriously, I've heard that research about religious people being happier than nonbelievers. I think it's a classic case of mistaken causality. It's clear to me that people with sunny personalities that are naturally undisturbed by doubt are by nature more likely not to look too deeply at the rough edges of faith. On the other hand, crabby, skeptical people just don't buy this God stuff. Way too implausible. We can ask, which of these two personality types suffers from more depression and anxiety? Ha!

Braden said...

Beautiful post, Ben. Thanks for articulating better than I can what I'm feeling. I do find inspiration in the belief that human progress is earned by our own goodness and reason, but it's kinda lonely not believing in magic.

Unitarianism sounds a lot like what I've been looking for, if they really don't believe they have any divine claim to truth. I wish there were a mutual support society that actively asserted the implausibility of the immaterial, though.

Braden said...

Yeah, it's a weird time of year. And it's sad, losing that one person who always loves you, no matter what.

I keep doing that, too, turning excitedly to thank God for the great things that happen and then remembering.

Thanks for the post. It's nice to feel like I'm still have community even though I don't do church. Hope you find something to fill the hole. And I'd love to hear what you think of the Unitarians.

Braden said...

Sorry. I'm posting as Bawb, apparently.


Abelard Enigma said...

Maybe you should consider joining the Gay Christian Network. There are a couple of us MoHo's over there.

Julie said...

This post makes me sad.

Katya said...

Does God not have an authorized name heading?

B.G. Christensen said...

Cool Guy: Thank you. I do recognize that Jesus is not responsible for the harm people do in his name, and I try to recognize the good people do in his name also.

TK: Thank you.

MHH: I would guess that people in their twenties, who are in the process of forming our adult identity and haven't yet settled into a solidified view of the world, are more likely than older folks to change our religious beliefs, whatever that change might be. As for your theory about crabby, skeptical people, we'll have to find a way to test it out.

Bawb: Thanks. I imagine the loneliness of not believing in the magical is felt even more keenly in Utah. You've hit on the primary reservation I have about the Unitarians--I may be at a point now where I'd be more comfortable in a society of non-believers than in a society centered around belief, even if non-belief is one of the beliefs they support.

Bawb: I will report more on the Unitarians as I get a better feel for what they are and how I fit in.

Bawb: I presume that one of the Bawbs (the first?) was really Bawb. Or were they both you, Brozy?

Abe: Thanks for the invitation. I'll pass for now, as I'm not really Christian lately, and really I already feel like I have a good support community online, or rather communities made up of people I have things in common with: my family, my writing friends, my comic book friends, my Mormon friends, my gay friends, my gay Mormon friends, my wacky liberal atheist straight friends, and my none-of-the-above friends. What I'm missing is real life friends in a real life community.

Julie: I'm sorry to make you sad. Your friendship makes me happy. :)

Katya: I imagine he has several, but I've been really lazy about making new labels lately. I tend to just pick the closest thing I already have. I write about religion enough, though, that it would probably be a good thing to get more specific. Your question would make a great title, though.

Craig said...

It's interesting to me how different people handle the realisation that there is no god. For me it was a huge relief and I was much happier. I never liked god very much, and never, ever felt that I had any sort of "personal relationship" with any deity, nor did I ever really feel that there was any sort of god-figure that cared about who I was, what I felt, etc.

I always saw god as kind of a jerk and even after I stopped believing in Mormonism, and therefore stopped believing that homosexuality was in any way a negative, I still didn't much care for god.

Last Christmas I was still rather deistic, if not religious, and I'm not sure what I think about Christmas as a religious holiday. I like the cookies, the decorations (as long as they're more pagan than religious), the shopping, the time with friends and family, but I know that it'll take a while for me to know what to do at Christmas now that I'm atheist.

Braden said...

Yeah, the first one was actually me, Ben. I keep meaning to drop in on one of the Utah Atheists meetings, but 'Brozy says they're pretty bitter, judging by their online forum. I'd prefer less Dawkins and more Pratchett.

I like the cookies too.

Nick Wheeler said...

I've been checking out the UUs in Idaho Falls for the past 6 weeks or so. I really enjoy it. It's a nice place to get fellowship without expectations. Their concern for the worldwide community is very appealing to me, as is the lack of dogma and acceptance of everyone. Good luck and keep us posted.

Rebecca said...

I tried two different UU congregations here and really didn't care for them. However, I really only went to make some friends, and everyone there was super old. So your experience will probably be better. I did like that you could go and enjoy without having to believe any doctrine or anything.

Sometimes I still "pray," although I think of it as sending positive thoughts or worries out into the universe. It just makes me feel a little better sometimes.

A friend actually asked me about this yesterday - how I feel about Christmas and why I care about it if I don't believe in God. I told her that I love Christmas, and I feel that it's no problem being non-religious about it. I don't really care that a lot of the songs are Jesus-based (just add water) - I still think they're pretty songs. Just like I'm not in love but I like a good love song.

The kid I nanny for is Jewish, and I always tell her that when she grows up she should celebrate Christmas because it's just SO AWESOME, and the tree is great, and the lights are pretty, and the cookies are good, and carolling is fun...

It's just a great time.

Plus, there are things we celebrate at Christmas that I DO believe in, and I focus on those: peace, love, joy, and the interconnectedness of humanity.

Yay for Christmas!

B.G. Christensen said...

Craig: I have other friends who feel that way too, but I have never been able to comprehend a God who isn't loving and just. Either s/he is those things or s/he simply doesn't exist. So the God I believed in was those things and so to stop believing has been a loss, despite the relief I've felt at the same time.

Bawb: I suppose the danger of having a community of atheists is the danger of being formed around a negative purpose--to discuss the error of religion. I'm sure there are communities of non-believers, though, who find other common purposes.

Nick: I'm glad to hear from someone who's also checking out the UU. I'm also impressed by their longstanding involvement in social justice--a great example of the good religion can do.

Rebecca: Most of the people at the meeting I went to on Sunday were oldish, but maybe if I try the 11am meeting next time instead of the 9am I'll see a younger crowd. I like your definition of prayer. Lately when I pray--usually in family circumstances--I think of it as an opportunity to think of things I'm thankful for and things I hope for, whether or not there's anyone to hear my thanks or hopes. I also really like your take on Christmas. I think that's what I was trying to get to in this post but hadn't quite gotten there yet. Thanks.

svoid said...

That settles it... I have your name for Christmas and I've been wrestling with what to get you. Now, I know. This year for Christmas, I'm getting you a new God! :)

B.G. Christensen said...

I don't know... the last time someone gave me one of those it ended up not fitting and the store wouldn't take it back without a receipt.

And are you sure you have my name? Because Tina already sent presents. I'm pretty sure you have Jenni's name this year. But you can get me something if you really want to.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I now I'm a bit late on the uptake here (responding on this post 18 days after it was posted...)

I could relate to many of the comments here, because I lost faith at about the age of 26-27. I'm not sure there was any distinct moment where I "decided" I didn't believe any more. God didn't dramatically exit, he just kind of faded away. But at a certain point, I was pretty sure he didn't exist.

And then I found faith again -- or rather faith found me. The Spirit spoke to me very dramatically -- in a way I couldn't ignore or deny. It happened unexpectedly. I wasn't "questioning" my unbelief, or "wishing I could believe" or anything like that. I was quite happy as an unbelieving secular humanist/liberal agnostic Christian, had resigned myself to life on secular terms, and with the belief that when you die, end of story. There was no quest I was on... It just happened.

And after it happened, I tried to ignore it... For a couple of months. But the Spirit was there, constantly harassing and pestering me, forcing me to make a decision. And I decided... for faith.

That presence of the Spirit in my life has only grown since then. It is still a daily, amazing, powerful presence in my life that has steadied me and strengthened me in amazing ways.

I'm not sure what conclusions anyone can reasonably draw from this... But I can say:

Faith is not the province of unthinking people with naturally "sunny" dispositions. If my disposition is naturally anything, it is gloomy (though living with faith has begun to transform that), and I have been accused of many, many bad things, but being "unthinking" is not one of them.

Faith is not something that, once you lose it, you can never get back (something I once firmly believed). Though for the life of me, I could not advise you how to "find" it if you "wanted" it.

Atheism, on the other hand, is I think a very valuable -- I don't know what you'd call it -- system? The world is chock full of false belief and terrible, evil religion, and you can think of atheism as a useful bacteria that eats up all the bad belief and leaves you with nothing but the possibly good.

Ultimately, faith is what results from an encounter with a real, living being. God is real. So if you haven't encountered him, it is probably best for you not to "make something up." It is probably far better to just be honest and admit you don't know, and don't much care for all the nonsense most people spout about him.

You're entitled, as far as I'm concerned, to insist, like Thomas, on seeing him yourself. Putting your own hands on his hands and in his side. It's the only way of keeping all this crazy shit real.

B.G. Christensen said...

Thanks, John. I always appreciate your level-headed perspective.