And so began a long, long flirtation with atheism. Faith is a fragile thing at the best of times, even when supported by culture, habit, community; when you step outside of these things, you’re not left with much. Years ago, I saw a painting by the Canadian artist William Kurelek called “The Atheist,” which feature a man perched on the limb of a tree, industriously sawing away at the very branch that was supporting him. Dead branches littering the ground gave mute testimony to his determined bloody-mindedness. I don’t know if Kurelek was right about the human relationship with God, but I do know that when you leave a religion, you cut yourself off from a lot of supports.
But it was too late! Catholicism, the religion that had been chosen for me, was teaching things that I simply did not believe. I did not see (any still don’t) any good reason why women could not be ordained as priests and bishops. I did not see (and still don’t) any good reason why the Church should reject homosexuality. The pedants will tell you that the Church doesn’t reject homosexuals, just homosexual behaviour, but c’mon – that’s hair-splitting of a level that only a medieval-minded scholastic could find relevant. I could at least understand, at an abstract level, the ideological consistency of condemning both contraception and abortion, but the practical effects of this were callous, horrific, and cruel.
But…atheism. It just seemed so stark. Nothing out there? I mean, I could at least follow the philosophical consistency of the argument. And existentialism seemed to offer the opportunity to create whatever meaning you wanted to assert for your own life. That was appealing. Sartre’s in-your-face rebelliousness appealed to my anarchist side.
I just couldn’t quite do it. I didn’t want to label myself an agnostic, because it just seemed to me that people used that as an excuse not to really wrestle with the issues – the old “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” – but at the same time, to say that there was nothing out there? That seemed like a kind of willful blindness disturbingly similar to what I had just left behind.
Did I hear the ghost of William Kurelek laughing at me?