I, Atheist

Live in the future, be in the present, and remember it all came to be because of the past.

One of my first memories is of a wooden school desk. I was in a basement on Hawthorn Ave, in Ottawa, it was dark and the walls were rough stone. At least they looked that way to me. On the desk was a small record, a forty-five, and on the label in the center was a green apple.

I would remember the apple years later when reading about a lawsuit between two rich men, one whose power was in ascendence, the other not.

As I sat at the desk I was imagining a building. It looked institutional. Broad with functional windows, a single story tall, with none of that concrete creativity that 70's architecture is known for. It was a school perhaps, I don't know, but in my mind it seemed important. It was called Hawthorn, and if you've been paying attention, you might have noticed that was the name of the road I lived on.

I was four years old, and I was an atheist.

My parents weren't terribly religious, so for me atheism wasn't something I should fear. I don't even remember the first time I realized something called religion existed. It seemed more of a gradual understanding that there was this thing, this behaviour that adults did, and they appreciated when I went along. I remember the speech every Christmas morning, before any gift had its maidenhead violated by the lusty fingers of youthful greed, and the way my mother seemed a bit embarrassed by her need to explain that the holiday was about the birth of Jesus … not the arrival of a bearded fat man, wearing red velvet and bearing gifts.

I remember her look as she spoke. It was as if her own mother stood invisible behind her, chastising, bullying her to bring some meaning back into her shattered life, into a holiday newly soiled by consumerism and hippies. I was almost born out of wedlock and thus I was doomed, according to my grandmother, to live a meaningless and cursed life. My mother was without redemption as well, but worthy of the occasional visit apparently.

My mother was first generation feminist. She paid the bills while my father went to school.

Five years later she divorced. She learned my father wanted to marry into a family with a more lubricated wealth, and, ironically, the education she had paid for qualified him for admission into that realm of greater liquidity.

My father was an early adopter in many ways, and that applied to the god he chose to worship as well.

Divorced, mother of two boys, and with no man in a time when that mattered. So, when she told us about Jesus, about the three wise men who came bearing gifts, about Mary and Joseph, those words were important to her, because they represented more than just her effort to educate two little accidents. Those words were her attempts to atone for her life. She was barely past twenty five and according to the only society she understood, her life was beyond saving. She felt strongly that, at the very least, she was going to do right by her two boys, and that included making sure if there was a god, they would have a chance to meet him.

When she died, just after her sixtieth birthday, I could still see that look. She carried that guilt with her her entire life. A regret for crimes she felt she had committed, against a soul I didn't believe I had.

She died unsure about god. About an afterlife. We spoke often about it, and her religiosity was bred in the bone. She was an agnostic, not because she wanted to be, but because the wires had been so firmly placed, they had too little room to think any further.

I resented that. I felt she deserved to die knowing the truth.

My first prayer was in school, and I remember changing the words of the various feel good Catholic mantras to suit what I later learned was an atheist way of seeing the world.

"God is in each one of us" became "God is each of us."

I had no inkling what an atheist was yet. I just knew that this Jesus guy seemed real enough. As I got older, my thoughts became a bit clearer. God became a code word for humanity for me, so when a priest told the class god would punish us for sin, I heard humanity would punish us. At some abstract level perhaps I even believed a god of some sort existed, but I had at that point learned other religions existed, religions who knew nothing of our god. I was told they had their own, and I couldn't help but wonder who was right.

How could I know who was right?

My mother moved us to Calgary when I was ten, and we arrived at the same time as a large influx of Pakistani immigrants. Because the nearby public school was full one semester, I had occasion to meet and befriend a boy my age named Mahmoud. He explained that his family also had a god, but instead of a god like my own … long dead and known only through our holy book … his god was alive, and running his former country. To this day I have no idea who the man was whose photograph they had on the wall in their dining room, but it was my first exposure to the idea that a religion could begin with the actions of a living person.

I suddenly imagined a man named Jesus, surrounded by men wearing drapes and dust, starting a religion. My religion became smaller from the thought.

The years passed, and if asked I would have described myself as a non-practicing Roman Catholic. I know this because that's how my mother described us to her friends, and they seemed good with that. I had first communion, confirmation, I was an unviolated altar boy, and in every room of every school I attended was the obligatory crucifix. I still had the habit of changing the words of religious platitudes to suit my view, but at that point I thought everyone else did it as well. I was a young teen, and I didn't tend to talk too much about religion.

It was like furniture. Always there, sometimes useful, but mostly ignored.

My brother taught me the expression 'bible thumper'.

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I had been changing the channels and I paused on one of the religious shows. I watched, trying to figure out what I was seeing when he burst out "change that crap, before the bible thumpers get in my head." I laughed, and I didn't need to be told what it meant. Although I went to Catholic school, a person's degree of piety seemed never to be discussed, so those who displayed it openly, aggressively, stood out to me. They seemed foolish, desperate, and I suspect that was when I realized religion was more than a simple tool meant to educate children to be good. Unlike Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Headless Horseman, Mickey Mouse and Pierre Elliot Trudeau, I was supposed to keep believing in Jesus and God. This explained to me why the churches were full every Christmas and Easter, the two times each year we attended services.

All of the adults thought this was real.

They became smaller in my mind, and my religion began that slow journey from a benign mental construct meant to make us feel good, to something less savoury, more sinister.

At the age of sixteen my mother told me I wouldn't need to attend either of the two annual services, as the pretence of piety had been pretty much forgotten in our little family. She was working nights as a nurse and going to university full time during the day. A Fine Arts degree was in her future, but to get there she made black coffee that could blind a wino. Creativity and religion are strange bedfellows, and I would say she was at her most atheist during that time. She was more alive during those years than at any other time I can remember.

I remember my last prayer. It was late at night and I felt a fool, but mental habits are strange things. I was an atheist who prayed to a god.

"God, thank you for this new bike."

I had just purchased a motorbike, and it had been delivered that afternoon. The next day my mother packed her minivan with travelling supplies and left by noon with a friend. They were going to the North West Territories, and before they had arrived in Edmonton I had already been hit by a car. My mother heard of the accident three weeks after it happened, and when she arrived back she only said one thing.

"I made you perfect, so this one is on you."

I spent the next three months in hospital while they tried to keep my foot attached to me, and I decided then that I was going to change my name to my mother's maiden name. She had already changed her name back years before, and as I lay in bed, addicted to whatever drugs they were in the mood to give me, I realized that I had no expectation of my father ever arriving to help, as I had not heard from him in almost a decade.

I also had no expectation of any help from a god. I felt punished for my stupidity. There was no god, and it seemed my having not taken responsibility for that knowledge cost me my youthful body. I learned of my mortality because I had sailed so close to the edge of the world, and I learned that thinking something and being something are not the same.

I survived that accident at the age of nineteen, but my god died.

How my life has been shaped by my atheism since that time is hard to say. Once I was recovered enough to walk I moved to Quebec, and in doing so lost touch with my best friend from high school. Twenty years later I managed to find him, and he sent me a wonderful email telling me about his children, his home, his wife, and his missionary work in Africa. Learning this, I did not make any effort to rekindle the friendship. Religion had become a filter for me. A litmus test. If you were religious in any way, you were not worth my time.

How could I trust the judgement of a person who confused mythology with the real world?

It was about that time, in my early thirties and just starting a new relationship with the woman I would eventually marry, I started to make the distinction between 'smart' and 'intelligent.'

A religious person could be smart. They could become an engineer, a doctor, an accountant, anything an atheist could become … but they could never be intelligent. That word, for me, denoted a finer mind. One which could look at the real world and actually see it.

There are millions of religious people who are far smarter than myself, but their faith doesn't allow me to see them as more intelligent.

Today I would be described as a militant atheist. An anti-theist. I wrote a novel about a man who becomes anti-theistic after his rich and pious wife tries to kill him, rather than face her religious crisis. I plan on writing two more along the same lines, creating a world populated by atheists and anti-theists, each of them arriving at their destination differently. In the first book I spoke of money as a new god, and I suspect history will prove me right. In the next novels I have other topics I want to address, and all I ask out of my life right now is that I am allowed the time and energy to complete them.

I can think of one way that my atheism has changed me. I am a firm believer in self-sufficiency. For me, it is not enough to be able to buy something. I want to know how it was made, how I could do the same task without it, and how it could be improved. I see the earth and I don't see an infinite garbage disposal. I see a living thing, and like all living things it has needs. From that, I worry my lifestyle is untenable in the long term, and I worry my species is so entranced by our gods that it won't see that in time.

I worry about my kids.

I have a boy with special needs, and two girls, and I know that as our society hardens, as we cut the coin deeper and deeper, my children are going to have a tough time. I’ve worked hard to instil in them the understanding that fostering an open intelligence in oneself is one of the most important parts of living.

Your body or your gender will define some limits, but most of the limits we face in our lives come from within, and I want their world to be so large they can find all the room they need.

While they grow, I'll keep myself busy pushing back as many walls as I can find.

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