I am a skeptic, a cynic. I don’t believe.
I grew up an atheist, and “god” was with a lowercase “g,” and something far off, and something that was rather on par with the tooth fairy or fae fat men who stuffed themselves down chimneys. I was supposed to believe in this thing, kind of like I was supposed to believe in Santa, but neither made sense, and both were just stories.
I suppose that gives shape to my atheism: it was marked on the Christian calendar, but it was completely secular. I had not an inkling what a “Jesus” was, and Easter really was about bunnies… that my father and I joked about shooting. This was to traumatize my sister. It worked quite effectively.
Skeptic though I am, I wanted to belong. Religion was a lot like a club to which I didn’t have membership. Kids, as you are well aware, are mean; as a child they made sure I felt my outside status like a knife. It was a relief at the time when my mother professed her Protestantism. I had little understanding of AA then, and what it would mean for all of us in the future, and to her lapsed Catholic family, but in that moment, I saw it as my members only pass. We found a Methodist church. In this Methodist church I found my own private altar to self-hatred. I finally belonged, they finally taught me about the mythical god of my childhood, and they taught me to hate my body. They taught me that puberty was fraught with sin, that the desires I felt were only okay if I never acted upon them, even when I was married (stuff it down, pleasure is not yours; yours is to please with your purity). They taught me that it was wrong to pleasure myself (how would I know pleasure at all if I did not learn it with myself?). They rarely stated these things openly, though the ideas would dot a sermon. But however piecemeal these notions were in spoken words, you could read them all clearly in the margins.
A diatribe against organized religion? No. Not entirely. Not every church is like this. And not every moment at this church stripped away pieces of me I now hold dear. For all my wanting to belong, and all my wanting to believe, I did get something in return. I had my first glimpse of the sacred.
Every Christmas on the night before, this church held a candlelight service. I’m told this is nothing out of the ordinary, that many churches do the same. However, the first time… First, there were the ushers standing in the center aisle between the pews, and I couldn’t see their candles for all the damned fluorescent lights blazing. All of us held little white candles in our hands, with bent and worn cardboard drip shields. They looked so silly under the electric suns in rows. I remember none of the words, none of the dour hymns– and Eddie Izzard is right, they are all soulless songs with no joy, even the Christmas carols when they’re all sung off-key. There came a pause, and the fluorescence disappeared, carrying a deep blackness with it as our eyes adjusted. And out of the gloom, there were the golden bubbles held by the ushers, tilting toward the pews, held unmoving for a moment, then another light was born of the union wick to wick. Fire passed person to person down the rows, the glow swelling like the crescendo of some strange silent song. After I took off my glasses to see only the shawl of tiny fires, I held my light close to my body, cradling it as close as the flame would allow. It was my light in the world, my presence in a sea of light. People are light, oh god, oh God, people are light and darkness both.
It took until the fluorescents came back on for me to realize tears were streaming down my face. I was still not a Christian after that, but I understood belief. Skeptic. Cynic. Mystic. Believer.