a reluctant atheist

I'm an atheist who wishes she wasn't. Life would be so much easier!

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Fatal Church Shooting Highlights Problems of Organized Religion

Although I’m an atheist/agnostic, I attend church with my family when I visit them because I know that over the centuries, organized religious groups have done both a great deal of good and a great deal of harm. As they grow older, their church gives my parents both solace and hope. Religious organizations also do a great deal of good in third world countries as well as at home in the name of God. Not everyone is a hypocrite. The vast majority of people who do good in the name of their God are sincere, just misguided.

But I’m skeptical of many churches and organizations based on how I’ve seen them operate. Members and administrators who are benefiting far more than the people they are professing to serve are all over television and the Internet. I’ll be honest, the great acts of kindness and the many good things that religious groups are often overlooked because that isn’t “news.” Sometimes I ask myself whether I’ve just become too jaded to look at religion objectively.

Shooting at Church Erupts Over Seating in Pews

Welcome to our church! We're so glad you came!

Welcome to our church! We’re so glad you came!

Then the news hands me a story that is the perfect example of why organized religion bothers me. Mark T. Storms shot Robert Braxton in church after Braxton and and a couple sitting behind him argued over seating in the pews. Let me repeat that. Mark T. Storms shot a man in church when he and a church guest argued over seating in the pews. In a place of sanctuary, a man who presumably came to worship and pray was gunned down in front of parishioners, including children. Neither man handled the situation well. According to news reports, when two people sitting behind him indicated he was sitting in reserved seats, the victim began cursing and became volatile. Over the seating arrangements and whether he could remain seated in that particular pew.

Jesus Christ, people! (I do take the Lord’s name in vain, yes. It’s how I was raised and is often the only way I can express my frustration or anger to people who have the same religious background that I do. Saying “Oh fiddlesticks” or “Dang it” just doesn’t carry the heft that “God damn it!” carries)

So, in a place of supposed sanctuary, these Godly events unfolded:

  • Members were reserving their seats with bibles so that they could have the best seats in the house once the service started. Really? Where you were seated was so important that you had to have a placeholder keeping others away from highly coveted seats? So you were there to see and be seen more than you were there to worship.
  • Other church members felt that keeping those reserved seats for their friends was more important than welcoming Braxton  and making him feel at home.
  • The shooter routinely carried a concealed weapon in a church and others knew about this and approved of it. How is this “sanctuary?”
  • Braxton responded to Storms’ show of force by punching the man in the jaw rather than walking away.
  • Storms responded to a punch in the face by shooting Braxton in the chest, a move practically guaranteed to kill him.
  • Parishioners and Mark T. Storms noted that he had flashed his weapon in the past in order to “defuse” escalating disagreements. Just how many disagreements does this church have in the pews, on Sundays, that require a show of deadly force?

So my increasingly low opinion of organized religion has once again been validated by the horrendous actions of professed Christians. I realize that many people will say that the Braxon/Storms shooting isn’t a good example (and I won’t argue with that!) because it isn’t a representative example. They will protest that there are many fine churches out there, and I’m sure that’s correct. But it doesn’t change the fact that in this instance, there were many forces in play that reflect badly on the concept of organized religion:

  • The church knew that at least one parishioner carried a concealed weapon and never thought to put a “no weapons in church” policy
  • The argument erupted because members were saving seats like it was a concert or school cafeteria.
  • Some members were more worried about the seating arrangements than about reaching out and welcoming another person.
  • Both Braxton and Storms escalated a situation that shouldn’t even have become an issue.

Four things were noticeably lacking last week in that church – Christian charity, Christian love, a sense of welcome and the ability to “turn the other cheek.” All hail organized religion.


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It’s One of My Best Days, No Thanks to God

You’ve probably seen the image and quote below more than once on Facebook, on inspirational calendars or on posters:


This image courtesy of Quotepedia

I just don’t get it; let me amend that. I DID get it, back when I was a believer. My church had convinced me, my pastor had convinced me, my friends had convinced me. Hell, I’d even convinced myself, that by relying on God, even my worst days would feel safe and hopeful. On the other hand, if I didn’t believe in God, even days of happiness and joy would feel meaningless and flat without God’s presence.

It wasn’t until I began questioning whether God even existed that I stopped to think about why I’d felt so secure  and hopeful when things were darkest in my life. I realized that part of that feeling of peace and certitude that things would get better depended on the conviction of those around me. They all believed, and they all had tales of when they had gone through dark times in their life. They averred that it was God that sustained them and pulled them through. They were confident in the power of prayer.

Looking back, I know that I had fallen into that mystical tale of God’s power and abundance and claimed it as a sort of shield around me. In the back of my mine, I felt that there MUST be a God supporting me because I was sure I wasn’t strong enough to get through those dark days on my own.

This is when I began to ask questions. Why didn’t I think I was strong enough? Because the church doesn’t want us to believe that we can be strong on our own. The church teaches us that we are weak vessels shored up by God. And it also suggests that enjoying the good days in life couldn’t be satisfying without God’s presence. It’s a great way to keep us on the hook no matter what our circumstances are.

But I’ve discovered just the opposite. On my best days, I enjoy life even more because I know I got there on my own. I can share my happiness with my family and friends without constantly murmuring, “God is good. I thank God every day for what he’s done….” I am confident that whatever I’ve achieved has been earned through my own merits and every gift I’ve received has been either serendipity, the result of the good will of others or just the way the universe works. And the universe isn’t personal. It doesn’t lift us up or hold us down. It won’t be angry when we don’t give homage to it. It’s the most freeing feeling in the world.

A friend told me that her belief in God frees her in that same way. She calls it “laying it all on the altar of God.” I don’t get this. It’s turning over all the power in your life to a higher power. She finds this idea reassuring; I find it terrifying. It means turning over all control over your life to a mysterious entity who seems to make decisions arbitrarily about whether you’re going to have a good day or a bad day. I guess it’s that “no one can fully understand the mind of God,” answer that really gets to me. If you don’t understand him and have no idea what he will do for you, why would you worship him?

I’m pretty sure that my good days are good because of my own efforts, my family, my co-workers…a combination of powerful forces working together. And I know that my worst days are more hopeful than they were when I was a believer. Why? Because in Christianity there is a pervasive, whispered belief that if things are going wrong for you, it’s because you must have done something wrong. It isn’t spoken out loud and it’s not put into such clear words, but it’s there. I certainly wondered if things would get better if I prayed more, gave more or practiced charity more.

Later, I came to realize that I was no longer interested in bargaining with God or giving him all the credit for my life. There are plenty of people I thank for what they’ve done for me, but none of them lives in the clouds dispensing arbitrary pain and comfort.


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What Does Vision Mean to You?

Today’s Daily Post writing prompt is “Vision,” and for the first time I’m going to try and write about a single word in my blog. Vision is a word packed with emotion and charged with possibilities, but it can mean something quite different from one person to another.

In secular terms, “vision” is often used to indicate that an employee or company has a firm grip on what the future of an entity should be. “That company as a vision for our future,” or “That woman has vision; she’ll go far in this business.” Vision seems to be mixed in with ambition, talent and drive. After all, if you don’t have the cojones to follow through with your vision, what good would it be? So vision in a secular sense is tied up with a lot of action words.

Vision of Mary

If I saw a vision like this, I’d probably faint. When I woke up, I’d make an appointment with a neurologist and a psychiatrist. I would NOT become Joan of Arc.

In the church circles I grew up in, “vision” was a word packed with religious portent. A vision of God, a vision of what my Christian life should be, and on occasion a believer would claim that they had a vision of heaven or a vision of Christ visiting them, whether in dreams, when they were praying, etc. Visions of saints are indications of divine grace, but these visions aren’t part of the individual’s own personality. These kinds of visions happen to a person, they aren’t created by that person. A religious vision is passively accepted by the recipient, not created by him or her. In fact, most people who have these visions reject them at first, whether out of fear, confusion or simply not wanting to be seen as crazy. There are a few people who seem to have religious visions with alarming regularity and embrace them. These are the leaders of certain churches that rely on this kind of divine intervention to guide them. They are, thankfully, few and far between because the more aggressive or pro-active a charismatic visionary is, the more passive and accepting their followers seem to become.

But I have a different definition of “vision.” It may be closer to the secular definition, but is more personal. I work hard and my boss will occasionally tell me that he admires my vision for his company. I don’t dispute his belief that I do have ideas for his business, but they are just that – ideas.

For me, vision is about looking toward the future and seeing possibilities. It’s more personal than a vision for a company or group and less certain than the visions claimed by the devoted visionaries of religious groups. I don’t know whether my visions will ever come to pass, but they bring me hope that I will improve and grow as time goes on. I have a vision, for instance, that I will one day be able to stand up firmly for all my personal beliefs without fear of disappointing or angering my family. My visions give me goals that I can work toward in the here and now. If I’m lucky, my visions will come true, but only if I actively work toward them.

My personal definition of  vision is many things – it is hopeful, it is personal, and it moves me forward. It will never be passive; it will spur me toward a better, brighter future that is right for me. I have a vision, for instance, that I will one day be able to stand up firmly for all my personal beliefs without fear of disappointing or angering my family. My visions give me goals that I can work toward in the here and now. If I’m lucky, my visions will come true, but only if I actively work toward them.

For me, a vision is many things – it is hopeful, it is personal, and it moves me forward. It will never be passive; it will spur me toward a better, brighter future that is right for me.

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No, I’m Not Thanking God

I saw a reporter on TV a few weeks back who was interviewing a woman who had survived a tornado that had flattened her house. She was standing amidst the rubble of her home and telling a miraculous story of how her whole family survived by hunkering down in a drainage  ditch.

The reporter was hanging on her every word, then said in a chipper voice, “You must be thanking God today that everyone is alright.” When the woman made a non-committal reply, the reporter pressed on, saying, “When you say your prayers tonight, I’m sure you’ll be thanking him for his protection in such dire circumstances.”

destroyed house

Thanking God for this? Really?  Yes, it could have been worse. It could have also been a damn site better!

The woman looked him square in the eyes and, despite being exhausted and a bit shell-shocked, she said clearly, “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Bravo! She stood up to be counted as part of that often silent group that is growing every day – avowed atheists who aren’t afraid to tell others that they are non-believers.

The reporter seemed startled. He didn’t know how to respond and was flustered. He quickly changed the subject to the rebuilding efforts already underway in the small town.

This reporter’s suggestions that the survivor of the hurricane should be thanking God for her survival is just the kind of insidious religion seeping into the news and politics every day. Being unbiased is part of the man’s job description! Yet he inserted God into the equation and was quickly rebuffed by the woman he was interviewing. We need to see more of this and less of reporters bringing God into the news reports. Divine intervention is a belief, not a fact. In theory, the news is an impartial reporting of the facts of a case, but we often get Fox news instead.