The Dreaded Question . . .
Updated: Apr 13
I’m really excited about my new website and this blog – my very first. I’m a woman of strong opinions – and I love personal stories – so this is a format I am looking forward to exploring. I love to write, and I don’t usually have any trouble doing so, but I must confess that I found the prospect of writing my very first post a little daunting. Got to start out on the right foot….
Since this whole endeavor, becoming a celebrant, starting this business, beginning a blog, has been tied to my decision to be more “out” about my atheism and the issues that raises for me in daily life, I thought I’d write about a fundamental question I get asked from time to time:
“What if you’re wrong?”
Which really means…”What if there really is a God? Aren’t you afraid you’ll be in…big trouble?”
I guess I’m sort of encouraged by the question, because the very nature of the way it’s phrased says as much about the questioner as it does about what they’re asking me. Those who truly believe don’t need to ask (they’ve already decided what awaits me in the great beyond), it’s those who are trying on un-belief for themselves, people who are questioning but haven’t been able let go of their own trepidation who ask question s like this. It’s an invitation…a request for permission…or ammunition. I usually answer it with a version of the following:
Measuring up – I’m far from perfect, but I do my best. I think carefully about the impact I have on the world and other people. I’m good to kids and nice to animals. I recycle I give of myself when I can. I smile at strangers. Just because I don’t believe in hell doesn’t mean I take any delight in doing evil – quite the contrary – I do the right thing because I choose to, not because I’m afraid I’ll be punished if I don’t. Line me up alongside the “ten commandments” and I’d do pretty well. If there is an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient deity watching over me and judging me (and I am confident there is not – but IF), I have to believe that my deeds will hold up next to the vast majority of humanity, however devout. I stand by my record. I’m actually pretty proud of it.
Following that same logic, if Heaven is really full of all the people who claim they’re going, I’m quite sure it’s an insufferable place where I don’t have any interest in spending time.
Declining the Invitation – If there is a God, I’ve got his (her?) number. This God trawls about the earth causing, (or at least allowing) incredible suffering. Tremendous sorrow and deprivation abound on this little planet. And this is the entity in whose company I’m supposed to want to spend eternity? I can’t square endless reward as a justification for all the pain, malevolence and grief experienced in this world. And I can’t accept that any being capable of ending that suffering would allow it to continue. I am so frustrated by believers who “praise God” for the lone survivor of a terrible accident – while ignoring the fact that if a God existed who was capable of saving one individual, that same God chose to allow all the others to perish. If that’s who God is. If that’s the bargain. If that’s who’s the host of the after-life party. I’ll decline, thank you. Heaven just isn’t going to be my kind of place.
If this is all there is… – I think the biggest reason I’m not afraid of “being wrong” has less to do with my un-belief and more to do with satisfaction I’ve found in what I already have. This world, and my life in it, are so unspeakably wonderful, that I am really OK if this is all there is. Music, art, literature, the beauty of the natural world, laughter, time spent among friends, a cat purring on the sofa next to me, the chance to do good work with people I admire, opportunities to help stranger, and make new friends. Sure I have plenty of days of frustration, even an occasional moment of despair – but I find it hard to sustain. I have so much that even as I struggle to experience as much as I can there is always more to discover. How could I possibly have all that I have – and expect paradise too when this life comes to an end? It seems exceptionally greedy and ill-mannered – Like eating a fifth dessert. I am surrounded by joy, right here, right now. I have no need for an extra bonus round when this one is over.
I’ve actually seen people cringe and look guilty when I say things like this – as though they were worried that their proximity to me would somehow render them sinners by association – or that lightning just might strike the spot I’m standing transforming them into divine collateral damage. I don’t mean to make light of it. Struggling to hang on to beliefs in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary is daunting (that’s a tale for another day). But I’m cheered that they’re asking questions. We should all ask more questions.