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An Atheist’s Communion

July 7, 2010

"I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound"- T. Paxton

I remember my first communion. It was a good bit of theater.

My Mom (a New England Baptist) married my Dad (a good Catholic who was excommunicated for the offense of marrying my mom) and they brought us up in a small town in New York. Dad’s experience with intolerance left him with a disdain for organized religion, but he kept it to himself. Mom took us to the local Baptist church each Sunday until she decided the Methodists in town were more fun. They also had a better organ with a killer organist. Oh, yeah, and my Mom loved to sing.

So at the age of 12 I was expected to “join the church” which meant learning a bunch of recitations professing my devotion and my acceptance of certain mystical transformations. It was pretty easy. They were all in verse with a three beat cadence. While I had no idea how anyone could be crucified and buried and 3 three days later ascend to a celestial place no one had ever seen, but I knew everyone expected me to say the words with strength and conviction and I did. I was dutifully confirmed, drank the wine (actually Welche’s grape juice) and was careful not to chew the wafer. I as an officially a Christian. Wait. What had I missed?

My first communion with god was feeling sadly anticlimactic when suddenly the fun began: Mrs Lyons (the organist) pulled out all the stops on that magnificent instrument and hit the keys and peddles with all she had. The earth moved. My spirits rose. I’d found god not in the litany or the snacks, but in the person of a pipe organ that made me feel like I was truly connected to the universe.

“So THIS is what communion’s all about,” I thought, afraid to speak the words out loud. I saw her fingers move on the manuals and her legs dance on the pedal board beneath the console. I heard the wind rush through the chamber and each time she pulled a stop the response was immediately connected to an auditory expression. Eureka: Knowledge acquired through verifiable repeatable observations equals truth.

Thinking about that day, 50 years later, I see more clearly the profound effect my it had on my life. I continue to be a skeptic, needing to know and distrusting belief. I respect that others have the right to their own information/comfort systems, but I rail against magical explanations especially when they are advanced by speakers with a clear profit motive in victimizing others. Don’t get me wrong. That Methodist Church did enormous good for a lot of people. Religious institutions often serve as safety nets for those to whom fortune has thrown a curve ball and a balm for those confused by a lack of meaning and purpose in their lives. Amen to that. But there is another side, a darker side, where blind belief provides a steering wheel for anyone with a golden tongue, a kindly demeanor and a bankrupt sense of ethics to guide devoted followers down the road to perdition (in the archaic sense: utter destruction).

And this is my real problem with certain “true believers.” It bothers me when they suspend disbelief and buy into hocus pocus. It isn’t that I think they don’t have a right to hold unsupportable beliefs, I get riled either because they try to foist them on me or (more commonly) because I see them throwing money, time and (most importantly) hope at something clearly designed as a profit center for the prophet. Belief is not truth. Belief is a substitute designed to soothe minds desperate for understanding when no truth can be established. Friends tell me there’s a value in that which is the peace of mind it gives the believer. I agree, but therein lies the illusionist’s hook. In the absence of proof to debunk alluring claims, the faithful will follow the illusionist’s lead and line his path to the bank with gold while depleting their own resources and, often, foreshadowing their ultimate disillusionment or worse. They seriously propose that my inability to disprove their belief scientifically or logically is evidence for the validity of their belief. Yes, I know, that’s completely irrational, but so is the belief, right? Yet it makes perfect, if tortured, sense to them.

Why do I care? Because I am in communion. We are, each of us, a part of it all and what happens to each of us affects all of us, often profoundly. No harm came to my Mom or anyone else on account of her faith. Quite the contrary. She did good for others in her community and her belief gave her comfort when times got rough as my Dad suffered through years of medical decline. My Mom’s belief structure was, like many, good-hearted and beneficial to herself all around her. She had no desire to convert anyone. Her faith was strong, caring and private. But there is another class which of beliefs that victimizes, like the belief in a pseudo-scientific “cure” for a disease which cures nothing and stops or postpones needed medical attention or the belief in an individual who will show the “Way” after followers have donated their bank accounts, or belief that your faith should dictate the political policies of a secular government and limit the rightful choices of others – that class of beliefs does not foster communion. That kind of faith divides and destroys. It is the real road to perdition.

The former class of believers needs no correction. Their faith is in tune with the greater good. The latter class is dangerous yet nearly impossible to dissuade since their faith is unrelated to truth. And so I frequently find myself frustrated, yet I’m committed by this sense of communion to step aside from my anger. I put my tongue squarely in my cheek and say to myself (of the believers, not the false prophets), “Forgive them, CJ, for they know not what they do.”

Regardless of my own lack of faith, I guess I’ll always be going to services: weddings, funerals and the like where good people come to celebrate and to mourn. I’ll always treasure the communion we enjoy with one another, especially of there’s a good organ and a killer organist so I can sing those harmonies right out loud like my Mom.

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