I am an atheist. While atheism and agnosticism are much on the rise in the United States, particularly among people my age, most people remain religiously affiliated. I rarely find that my atheism angers religious people I meet. However, I am often met with (what I perceive to be) pity. The pity is not so much for the fact that I don’t share in their particular religious beliefs, but that I don’t possess any at all. Whether talking to a Catholic or Muslim or Jew or Sikh or whomever, when the subject of religion is breached, it often seems they’d rather I say I’m any religion rather than none. They speak of a void that can only be filled by God/religion/faith, and when I tell them my void is indeed perfectly full, they don’t believe me. Their disbelief is magnified if I tell them about my loss of a parent.
My father died when I was 20. Though he died abruptly, I am fortunately able to say I have few regrets. There were no missed “I love you”s or agonizing loose ends left untied. We were extremely close, and we were extremely happy. In all honesty, this makes it more difficult to deal with his death. I feel robbed. I mourn his loss extensively, and sometimes I do search for something bigger to hold my faith.
I’m often told by others to seek solace in knowing I’ll see him again someday, but I can’t. I know that I will never see him again. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, in an afterlife where everyone you’ve ever lost is waiting patiently for your arrival. I believe when we die, we rot into the ground, decomposed by bacteria and bugs, to return back into the earth.
Many people “of faith” find this haunting and tragic — dismally sad and cynical. But I believe it is beautiful.
While unable to find comfort in the idea of being posthumously reunited with my late father, I find great relief in knowing that his body, as mine and yours and everyone’s, will be the stuff of which new life generates. I’m calmed by the idea that in the grand scheme of the universe, we are small; that nothing is unique, and that nature reigns. That electrons spin around nuclei just as planets orbit stars, and that the veins in my body branch out, tinier and tinier, remarkably similar to the branches which turn into sticks and twigs on trees.
Our thoughts are just the products of electrical firings and chemical interactions, as are our beating hearts, and when these things stop, so begins a process by nature of breaking down and building back up, to create more thoughts and more heartbeats, more veins, more trees. We die, but our parts and pieces — our atoms — stay here. I don’t just believe, but know, that in this way, my father never really left. He will always be around me.
While science has no god and I await no messiah, I have faith in it. I am able to find great contentment in the truths it has to offer me. Questions about where the universe came from or the exact origin of life or what our Greater Purpose is don’t faze me. Some of these things I don’t believe I’m capable of knowing in my lifetime, while other things I happily seek answers to through exploring that which I find fulfilling and relevant. I’m at no loss and suffer no profound confusion as to the meaning of life.
I’m happy for the religious who peacefully explore their faith and what it has to offer them, and I ask that they afford me the same. Don’t feel bad for me because I don’t believe in God, and don’t dismiss my faith because it relies on the physical rather than the spiritual. Indeed, put simply, when I say I have faith, believe me.
Caitlyn Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.