Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ben Folds Five's "Mess" to an #AtheistEar

"And I don't believe in God
So I can't be saved
All alone, as I've learned to be
In this mess I have made."
It's a little bit embarrassing to admit this, but the first time I heard these words, I had to pull my car over to the side of the road and weep.

I remember that sensation of shock. It felt like my organs turned into liquid and drained down into my legs. My arms felt weak, and once I was safely stopped with my hazards on, I turned the music off and sat limply in the driver's seat with my eyes closed until the feeling passed.

Then I played it again.

(Lyrics are available here.)

This happened in England, in 1999. My friend Neil had given me a pirated cassette copy of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner with a hand-written label. I probably still have it, though I bought my own copy as soon as I could locate one. The whole album spoke to me, and I've written about that before. But this song, with this chorus, was like a lightning bolt.

I can point to that moment in my tin-can Mini, pulled over and weeping on the A-10, as the moment when I realized that I didn't believe in God, and hadn't for some time. I still did not publicly acknowledge this until much later.

One good question I've asked myself over the years is why it took so long for me to realize I was not a believer any more. Part of that answer lies in my environment. My family was a strong influence on my beliefs as a child, of course, and after I joined the Air Force in 1994, I was surrounded by people and groups bent on ensuring that I conformed to some broad notion of American Protestantism. They didn't seem phased by the contradictions inherent in insisting that military members follow a Bronze Age pacifist whose central message was "love thy neighbor;" in fact, they didn't seem to care what anyone actually practiced or believed, as long as they "believed in something."

As a kid, I had actually been more of a fire-brand type of believer than most of those in my church and family. They worked hard to curb my more outrageous fundamentalist tendencies, and as I grew up, I began to recognize the worst parts of myself that religion brought out in me. Much of my book (available on Amazon, if you haven't read it!) describes the drawn out process I experienced of recognizing the corrosive influences of my religious faith, and the uncomfortable realization that the Truths I had never questioned didn't hold up to a rational examination.

But despite the slow trajectory of my departure from the faith of my childhood, I was still conditioned to react with disgust and aversion to the idea that I might be an atheist. So, I went along with the confirmation classes required to baptize our first child, and paid lip service to the military leaders who insisted on maintaining my "spiritual fitness." (Strictly speaking, that term came into fashion after I left the service; it was a vague, universal notion while I was in, but mostly nameless.)

Societal pressure from outside was only part of the answer, though. The other part was purely internal. For at least that decade prior to Reinhold Messner's release, I clung to the notion that there had to be something intelligent running the universe. I couldn't figure out what it was or ought to be; I couldn't see it through all of the conflicting descriptions attributed to it by humans. But without it, I felt lost.

Without some kind of God, I realized, I was the only one accountable for myself. And I couldn't handle that.

"All alone, as I've learned to be, in this mess I have made."

The most common reaction a religious person has to discovering that I don't believe in the supernatural is to accuse me of "hating God." Christian theology is built entirely on the idea of salvation: of God taking the responsibility of our "sin" off of our shoulders for us, and they see that as some kind of great gift. They don't understand why anyone would turn down such an amazing gift, much the way someone deeply invested in a multilevel marketing scheme can't understand why anyone would turn down the amazing opportunity they are offering.

What I realized in that car that day was that I couldn't hate something that didn't exist...but I was terrified to accept that there was no Eternal Being out there responsible for my mess. I was scared and angry to face facts.

That heavy moment passed, though, and I realized that without a mystical Savior to push my mistakes onto, I needed to sort out my own mess. Despite what a childhood in Christianity had taught me, I knew better. I knew wishing and believing wouldn't accomplish anything. So after I had spent the previous decade telling myself I was spiritually searching for answers, I spent the following decade owning the answer and fixing my mistakes.

It's a work in progress, clearly. But once you accept the hard truth, you can make progress.

You save yourself. That's how you get saved. But you're not alone; that's why I'm here.

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