I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now, wondering whether I should even bother addressing the subject. Even though I identify as an atheist (which I know has many different meanings, depending on who’s reading), it’s not really an important facet of my everyday life. It does, however, have a large influence over how I process grief and give support to others.
I was raised sort-of Catholic: My sisters and I attended a Catholic elementary school, mostly because that was the tradition in my mother’s family. My father’s side was… Lutheran? I haven’t a clue. We didn’t attend church, aside from the occasional Christmas service. We didn’t read from the bible or pray at home. We didn’t talk about god or Jesus or anything religious, not until I was much older. When I was in high school and college, my mom and I had some pretty deep conversations about belief and religion. I was pleased to learn I got my point of view largely from her. “I don’t know if god exists, but I don’t think it matters,” she once told me.
My best friend from kindergarten through high school was the most awesomely outgoing, intelligent, creative, and kind person you could imagine. Her entire family was that way, too. I loved being around them, watching them support and encourage each other, occasionally participating in their crazy family antics. They weren’t exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, but pretty damn close. They were also very devout Catholics. This family prayed all the time. They read the bible together, attended church twice a week, sang in the church choir or played in the church band, volunteered for various church activities, acted in church plays…. You name it, they did it. My fascination with this family and my desire to be part of something so positive was the primary force behind my attempt to be a believer.
I tried–oh, how I tried!–to believe in god. When I was younger, I just assumed that all the bible stories we read were just that: stories. I didn’t know that we were supposed to take most of it literally. In fact, it wasn’t until my best friend gave me the book A Skeleton in God’s Closet that I learned Christians believed in a literal resurrection. In the book, an archaeologist finds what he believes could be the remains of Jesus. Through the entire book, I couldn’t understand why this would be such a big deal. How could such a discovery shatter Christianity? Shouldn’t people be happy to have proof that Jesus existed? My best friend had to explain that finding Jesus’s remains would mean that he didn’t ascend into heaven, and that the central tenet of Christian theology was bunk. I was dumbfounded. I had always assumed that the resurrection was metaphorical.
Soon, I learned that we (Catholics) were supposed to believe that a lot of unbelievable things were literal truth, things I had always thought were meant to be symbolic. That didn’t sit well with me. Still, even through my freshman year of college, I tried to be a believer. Looking back, I think it’s because I wanted to be part of a community that was so accepting of everyone. In high school, our church youth group was a motley crew of students who would have had nothing to do with each other if it weren’t for church. We had so much fun, and we all accepted each other for who we were. No one expected anyone to conform to any one standard (except, of course, to be a Christian).
My best friend and I went to different colleges, so in an attempt to replicate what I had in high school, I joined the campus Catholic church and started volunteering for various things. Before long, however, I noticed how empty the effort felt. I wanted to feel loved and accepted, but it seemed wrong to do it under false pretenses. The truth was, I didn’t believe in god. I never had. I didn’t even really like religion, especially the whole business about not questioning god’s ways. That always seemed like a cop-out to me. If I’m going to have blind faith, I deserve–at the very least–some insight as to why god behaves the way he does. I suppose that’s part of the reason I don’t believe he exists. If he does, he’s more ornery toddler than all-powerful being. I don’t know about you, but I don’t make a habit of giving in to ornery toddlers. But, I digress.
I floundered around a bit, trying to pick and choose the things about religion that I liked (e.g. helping others, being part of a community) and tossing anything I didn’t like to the side (e.g. just about everything else). Eventually, I landed on atheism. Or maybe I was more agnostic. I don’t know. I try not to get too caught up in semantics. What matters is that I finally admitted to myself that I did not believe that god existed. I couldn’t know for sure, of course, but I believed it was very unlikely. More importantly, I didn’t believe that it mattered one way or the other. It didn’t change who I was. I was still a good friend, daughter, sister, student, and citizen. I didn’t immediately start killing people or stealing things just because I believed there was no god to punish me.
So, what does this little journey through my religious history have to do with infertility and loss? Even though I never really believed in god, for a long time, religion was the only filter through which I processed strong emotions like grief. Praying gave me hope that someone or something might hear my pleas and intervene on my behalf, or at least give me peace. The idea of being reunited with my deceased loved ones in heaven gave me comfort. All that went away when I finally embraced my nonbelief. It changed the way I thought about death, life, love…. Everything.
The main thing that changed was that I realized that bad things and good things happen to everyone, regardless of religious belief, and that nothing happens for a reason. That’s how life works. It’s a waste of time to try to figure out why some people seem more fortunate than others, or why god seems to “bless” some people and not others.
After my miscarriage, I sought support online. Much of that support–as well as real life support–is full of religious platitudes. You know what I mean. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. You’ll see your baby again in heaven. Your baby is playing with the angels. I’m praying for you. One of my biggest peeves in the loss community is referring to our dead babies as “angels.” I get that it comforts many, but it drives me insane. It doesn’t make me feel better to imagine my baby as an angel (or any other form) hanging out with my other dead relatives in the clouds. Actually, it makes me angry. If my baby is going to exist anywhere, it should be here with me. God is invoked all the time in the infertility community, as well. God will bless you with a baby one day. God has a plan for you.
For the most part, I’m able to gloss over it. I don’t get angry and rail against believers. I know it comes from a good place and a desire to help. I graciously accept support of all kinds, even prayers, but it doesn’t mean much to me. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the sentiment behind it, but I’d rather hear something more useful, like how someone faced the same kind of struggle and had the same thoughts. How it got better for them (or didn’t–let’s be honest, not everyone recovers from loss or infertility). When I give support, I never mention god or offer prayers, even if the person I’m supporting is a believer. I offer empathy, sympathy, and honesty. I’m open about my experiences and emotions. That, I believe, is the best kind of support.
Most importantly, as a nonbeliever, I never have to wonder if my miscarriage and infertility are punishment for my sins. It’s not always easy to accept that bad things happen for no reason, but one thing I don’t miss about religion: Wondering what I did wrong to lose favor in god’s eyes. Who needs that? It’s hard enough seeing disappointment in the eyes of our parents and teachers, but the idea of disappointing god to the point where he ignores you and lets your life fall apart… that’s just cruel. No one is testing us to see how we handle hardship or to see how we treat others when we’re prosperous. No one is sitting idly by, watching bad things happen, and not doing anything about it, even though they have the power. That nothing gives me comfort.
I know this post was long and rambling and probably difficult to follow (such are the thoughts that spill forth from my brain!), so thank you for making it this far. Here’s a funny penguin poster to cleanse your brain palate.