I wasn’t always an unbeliever, an agnostic with atheistic tendencies if you will. No. Once upon a time I was a doubter, who wanted desperately for God to be real despite the lack of any concrete reason to believe so. I have suffered much and seen much suffering, too much to be able to rationalize the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful deity, much less to rationalize the need to worship one. To those believers out there, please do not take this as either an attack on your personal beliefs (have at them, they’re yours not mine) nor as it an invitation to attempt to lure me back into a flock in which my fleece was always black. I assure you, I have found peace and I have found hope. I no longer wrestle with the question as to why God allows innocent children, women, and men to be murdered, to be raped, to suffer starvation, to struggle in poverty, to be surrounded by war, or to suffer debilitating diseases because I have come to conclude that God is nowhere. We humans are in this on our own. It sounds depressing, but in reality it is not. No, it is actually freeing and full of hope.
I did not come to this conclusion lightly, nor did I reach it suddenly. Rather it was the result of a process, the culmination of years of pain, self-reflection and scholarly study. I was raised to believe that God exists and that, if we believe enough and pray enough, God will provide. At the same time, I watched my mother drink herself into near oblivion every day of my life for years. I watched her attempt suicide, nearly succeeding twice. I watched her put our family into debt as she drank away the money for the electric bill, the car payment, the rent. Yet, no matter how much I prayed to God for my mother to stop drinking and to just be a mother to my sister and me, God was nowhere.
I watched my Grandpap, whom I loved with all of my heart, suffer a stroke and then slowly fade away. I learned much from him, though not as much as I, in hindsight, would have liked. He taught me, via his own quite actions, to not judge others, to always grant people the benefit of the doubt, and to be open-minded. I never heard him mutter an unkind or disparaging remark about anyone. He always greeted people, friend or stranger, with a wink and smile. When he passed away it was seven years after he had had a stroke; the final years of his life had been spent in a nursing home, unable to communicate clearly, unable to walk freely. Here was a man who never disappointed and never broke a promise, here was a man who was, by all accounts, a good person, trapped in his own body. He never talked about God with me, I am not certain he himself even believed, and when he died, over a decade ago, I myself was still in my doubting phase. With his death, I struggled to find a reason as to why God would allow someone, like my Grandpap, to suffer in his final years as he had, there was not a single answer religion could give me that made an iota of sense. Again, God was nowhere.
Moreover, in late 2012, I watched my father-in-law lose his five-year battle with cancer. I watched a man who loved fishing and hunting, who was always active and full of life, who was a firm believer in God and who prayed and went to church every Sunday, wither and die an agonizing death right before my eyes. Although I had by this point in my life left behind my doubt and reached the conclusion that there is most likely no God, I still could not help, as it is only natural to do in those moments, but to question how the God in which my father-in-law so deeply believed could allow him to suffer and do nothing to ease his pain. Yet again, God was nowhere.
I was reminded recently of a Robert Green Ingersoll quote, “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest … The dead do not suffer.” It is only the living who suffer and are left to make sense of the loss, to find consolation for our grief, and to seek meaning for both life and death. I understand why some people choose to believe in, or rather hope for, heaven; the promise that someday, if you are a good boy or girl, you will be transported to a perfectly sublime existence where everyone whom you have ever loved and lost will be waiting for you…It’s a tantalizing idea, but that is, in all probability, all it is- an idea.
We cannot know for certain what, if anything, awaits us when we die. Whether or not there is an afterlife at all, whether or not we go to heaven or are reincarnated or cease to exist at all is, in all honesty, irrelevant because either way we only get one shot at this life. We each get only one chance to be this person, living this life. This, right here and right now, is all we get; therefore we must do all we can to be the best possible selves we can be, to treat others with respect, dignity, and compassion because in the end it is most likely that the legacy we leave behind through our actions is the only true afterlife there is.
While I have concluded, after years of study and personal reflection, that there is no great and mighty deity coming to our rescue, I have also concluded that this is ok because we have each other and in that there is hope. There is, most highly probably, no God, but we are here nonetheless and our actions, regardless of belief or lack thereof, determine the quality of life that we and our fellow humans will live. We humans have the power, via our choices, to lift up one another and make life good. We can feed the hungry, end poverty, find cures for diseases, stop violence, prevent rape all by simply learning to value our fellow humans by pure virtue of the fact that we are each a person worthy of respect and compassion. We need neither the promise of heaven nor the threat of hell to do right by each other, we need merely the realization that good action begets good action and will create a legacy of goodness from which current and future generations of humans will benefit.