This piece was originally published in The Humanist, in the January / February 2013 issue.
“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
I’m sure you’ve heard this, more times than you care to remember. I’m sure you’ve heard religious believers dismiss secular humanism as shallow, a breezily hedonistic philosophy that dries up and blows away in the face of trauma, mortality, and grief.
It’s malarkey. You probably know that, of course: you probably know plenty of atheists who have been through terrible hardship without turning to religion. Chances are you’ve been through hardship yourself, with your godlessness intact. You may even know — or indeed be — an atheist in a literal foxhole: not the metaphorical kind, but the actual military kind where they’re trying to blow you up.
I want to talk about one of those metaphorical foxholes. I want to talk about how, in the depths of it, my atheism and humanism not only didn’t dry up, but supported me and helped carry me through. And I want to encourage other humanists to talk, with each other and with religious believers, about your own trials and challenges… and the ways that humanism, atheism, materialism, skepticism, and an evidence-based view of the world have helped get you through. (Assuming, of course, that they have.)
The very short summary: In October of 2012, I got hit with a serious one-two punch. My father died early in the month… and less than two weeks later, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
Short of an actual military foxhole, this has got to be one of the most foxholey foxholes there is. If I saw this story in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it. I’d think, “That is just stupidly manipulative. Who the hell gets diagnosed with cancer two weeks after their father dies? That doesn’t happen to anyone.” But it happened to me.
The cancer is treatable, and in fact has been treated. I got lucky there (if any kind of cancer can be “lucky”): the cancer was slow-growing, caught early, and entirely treated with hysterectomy, with no chemo or radiation needed. But it was still terrifying. Recovery from the surgery has been slow, often painful, almost always difficult and exhausting. And it was much more traumatic coming so soon after my father’s death. I was just barely beginning to recover from that shock and wrestle with my grief when the news about my cancer came. Plus there was a nasty feedback effect: each of these traumas left me weakened, and less able to cope with the other. (I was, for instance, keeping an almost-daily grief diary on my blog in the days after my father’s death, which was helping me cope with that death and wring some meaning out of it… and which I had to abandon when the cancer came and immediately demanded all my attention.) And of course, the two traumas are closely twined: the harsh realities of mortality and grief, of the eventual death of myself and everyone I love, have been in my face every day, for weeks.
If there was ever a time when suffering, grief, and a stark reminder of my own mortality could make me turn to religion, this was it. And for days and weeks, I kept waiting for it. I didn’t seriously think I would turn to religious belief — I know the arguments against it too thoroughly — but I kept waiting for the moment when I wished I believed. I kept waiting for the moment when I thought to myself, “Goddammit, this atheism stuff sucks. If only I believed in God or an afterlife, this would be so much easier.” I kept waiting for that shoe to drop… and it kept not happening. The opposite has happened. The thought of religion has been making me queasy… and my humanism has been a profound comfort.
Honestly? If I believed in a god who made this shit happen on purpose, I wouldn’t be comforted. I’d be wanting to find the biggest ladder I could, climb into Heaven, and punch the guy’s lights out. Either that, or I’d be wracked with guilt and confusion trying to figure out what I’d done to deserve this, or what lesson I was supposed to be learning from it. If I had a relationship with an imaginary personal creator who supposedly loved me and yet made this horror show happen on purpose… that would be just about the most toxic, fucked-up relationship I can imagine. I can’t begin to see it as comforting. When I picture that relationship, what I feel is rage, guilt, confusion, and a poisonous mess of cognitive dissonance.
But it is tremendously comforting to see this horror show as physical cause and effect. My father didn’t die, and I didn’t get cancer, because some asshole in the sky was pulling the strings. My father died, and I got cancer, because of cause and effect in the natural world. And the unbelievably shitty timing of it? Physical cause and effect works that way sometimes. You roll a pair of dice long enough, chances are that at some point you’re going to get snake-eyes. You live a long enough life, chances are that at some point you’re going to get two or three horribly crappy things happening at once.
That can be hard to accept. It can be hard to accept that we often have little or no control over what happens to us. But when I compare the idea that “Yeah, sometimes life sucks, and I have to deal with it as best I can” with the idea that “An immensely powerful being is fucking with me on purpose and won’t tell me why”… I, for one, find the first idea much more comforting. I don’t have to torture myself with guilt over how I must have angered my god or screwed up my karma, with that guilt piling onto the trauma I’m already going through. And would the glib cliché that “everything happens for a reason” really give this shitstorm more meaning? Would it really be more comforting to twist my brain into absurd contortions trying to figure out what God was trying to teach me, and why the lesson was both so brutally enforced and so obscure?
Of course I can learn lessons from all this. I’m already learning lessons from it. There’s no way I’m going to be the same person after this shitstorm than I was before it. But I get to decide what lessons I learn from it. I get to infuse it with meaning. And that’s the power I have. I don’t have the pretend power that if I pray hard enough and do the right rituals to appease my imaginary friend, my life will always be awesome. What I do have is the real power to learn from the experiences that life hands me, and to use what I’ve learned to make myself a better person, and to make life better for others.
And the secular philosophies of death that I’ve been writing and reading and contemplating for years now… these have been a tremendous comfort. For instance: The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born, and that wasn’t painful or bad, and death will be the same. The idea that our genes and/or ideas will live on after we die. The idea that each of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that death is a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the experiences we have. (When I first got the cancer diagnosis, one of my first reactions was, “I can’t die! I have books to write!”) The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible. The idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die. The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe. In an unspeakably shitty time of my life, all of these ideas have been a deep, solid, very real comfort.
None of these humanist philosophies have made the trauma or grief magically disappear. Any more than prayer or belief in God magically makes trauma or grief magically disappear. When I say that these outlooks are comforting, I don’t mean that they’re a panacea. I mean that they staved off despair. They gave me a bridge over the chasm. When the worst of the fear and grief felt like it would overwhelm me, these outlooks gave me hope: a sense that life was worth returning to, and worth fighting for.
And that’s not trivial.
When I first became a non-believer, I wasn’t familiar with any of these ideas. I didn’t even know that atheist or humanist communities existed. So I had to re-invent the wheel. I had to grind my own way to my godless views of life and death… and I had to go through my earliest experiences of godless hard times on my own. And as a result, those hard times were much harder than they needed to be. I don’t want anyone else to go through that. As hard as these last few weeks have been, they’ve been made far, far easier by the ideas I’ve learned, and the skills I’ve acquired, and the connections and friendships I’ve formed, from my years in the humanist and atheist and skeptical communities.
So let’s talk about this. Let’s not concede the ground of comfort to the religious. Let’s talk about the worst of times… and how humanism can help get us through. Let’s give other people who are questioning their faith, and other people who have let go of their faith and are going through hard times, a hand across the chasm, and a safe place to land.
(Portions of this piece appeared in my Skyped-in talk at Skepticon 5.)