The Desert of the Real?

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.

Still, though…

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?


Having smart people around you who don’t share your assumptions is awesome for personal growth, but terrible for a sense of certainty. In conversation after conversation, beliefs that I thought were bedrock were eroded away. It was a very gradual process, almost like the reverse of stalagmites in a cave; with every drop, a small bit of certainty melted.

The ordinary Catholic defense – “these poor unbelievers will go to Hell” – just wasn’t cutting it. I liked these people, and even more than that, I respected them. Some of them operated with a hell of lot more moral consistency than certain Catholics I knew. Why should they be out of the salvation club if they were good people, just not Catholic? The notion offended my sense of what was right.

It didn’t help that I was starting to really focus on studying medieval history. The Middle Ages was the last period of complete Catholic supremacy in the West, and…wow. Those were not the people you wanted running the show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Catholic Church governed any worse than anyone else, but they sure as hell didn’t run things any better. For me, that was really the end. These people weren’t any better than anyone else. So why should I listen to them when they said they were?

Well, my parents might have told me (had I asked them) that I should be listening to God; that it wasn’t about His flawed instruments (i.e. people), it was about God’s will.



Have you ever heard God?

Like, for real.

Not “I wonder if that idea that flashed into my head came from God” or “I think that dream was a message from Our Lord” or “I just felt peace and the presence of something holy” or anything like that. No, I’m talking Gideon putting wool fleece on the threshing floor, TWICE, and saying, “Ball’s in your court, God, time to prove this is real.” According to the Old Testament, God did what Gideon asked – first time, the fleece was wet with dew and the ground was dry; second time, the fleece was dry and the ground was wet with dew.

Don’t try this yourself, if you want to stay a happy Catholic.

I was no longer a happy Catholic.


Diversity fosters doubt (and that’s a good thing)

So, coming out of high school, my orthodoxy was pretty solid. I had my beliefs, which were well-researched, and well supported by my social milieu. At least, I thought my orthodoxy was pretty solid; but it only survived less than a year of university. Simon Fraser University brought new experiences and new friends.

Blame Dungeons and Dragons. I was such a stereotype – pudgy, shy, awkward, well read, and extremely well versed in the ways of geekdom. Well, this was the late 80s, the Golden Age of tabletop gaming, and believe me, I was not alone. Instead, it took less than a week for me to find a circle of gamers who became dear friends that I still talk to.

These friends, who remain an absolute blessing, gave me a sense of belonging, love and laughter (as well as a TON of drama) for years, but most importantly for this story, they profoundly challenged my sense of Catholic orthodoxy. Although they may try to deny it, most Catholics project a sense of quiet, smug superiority to non-believers. To be Catholic is to believe that you are in the best, most exclusive club of those who follow the One True Way and are therefore among the Saved. I realize that most religions teach some variant of this, but believe me, Catholics have a kind of old school arrogance that can really only be matched by the British aristocracy.

Well, my new friends had no time for this. They weren’t dickish about it, but these were intelligent people who were used to confidently sharing their opinions, and expected other people to have reasons for their opinions stronger than, “Because the Bible says so.” We weren’t trying to score points off each other, or to be more clever than each other, we were trying to understand each other and be understood. I was learning that there were WAY more ways of looking at the world than I had ever imagined, and that people had very good reasons for how they looked at the world, and their places in it.

And all of a sudden, I really wasn’t sure what I believed any more.

More Catholic than the Pope

When I was born, neither of my parents practiced any form of religion, but given our cultural heritage, I suppose it was inevitable. My dad’s side was Baltimore Irish, and my mom’s side was Pittsburgh Polish. To the best of my knowledge, my dad’s side was never all that zealous about it, but my mom’s side? Oh, boy.

Grandma and Grandpa…they were a little intense. I think I was twelve when they gave me two books for Christmas: Fatima: the Miracle of the Children and Evidence of Satan in the Modern World. I read one of those books, and it was much less cool than the title suggested. I also remember that at my Grandma’s urging I spent a few months making rosaries for children in Africa. I do wonder if somewhere in Kenya there’s somebody wearing one of my rosaries…

My family has never been one for half measures, and once my mom and dad decided to rejoin Mother Church, we were all in. My sister and I were switched to Catholic school. My mom became a Catholic school teacher. My dad eventually became the Director of Catholic Charities in our home city. I became an altar boy and read for the congregation at Sunday mass. Thanks to the Church’s patriarchy, my sister got off pretty lightly, really.

Like the rest of my family, no half measures for me. My favourite books in my early teens were Lives of the Minor Prophets and a comic book version of the Old Testament. (Favourite minor prophet? Hosea. Turned out to be weirdly significant, but more on that later.) I knew the commandments, the beatitudes, the gifts of the holy spirit, the sermon on the mount, the loaves, the fishes, the whole shebang. I collected cards with the lives of the saints on them, and had a cross blessed by the Pope. Well, that’s what my Grandma said, anyway.

And, until university, that was my path. Then the wheels fell off.

Steps on a very strange walk

Well, depending on whether the date stamp sticks around, you can see that there’s been almost a year between good intentions and follow through. So be it! I’m sure that I’m not blazing a shocking new truth when I say that there can be a lot of reasons not to step out of the comfort zone.

But what the hell, I’m here now. So onward and upward! So to speak.

Let’s start with a label: heathen. I am one. Like most labels, it tells you some things but leaves out lots more. It tells you, for example, that I don’t follow a monotheistic religion, but neither am I an atheist. Some people use the term asatru, which refers to a person who believes in the Norse gods. But do I believe that when I see lightning, that Thor is striking his hammer against the anvil of the heavens? No. I do not.

I didn’t start out here. Actually, I started a long way from here. More to come.

(Note: to follow the chronology of this story, read from oldest to newest. If you are unstuck in time, read it any damn way you please.)