[cancer|religion] Atheism, cancer and me

I’ve received various comments on my cancer in a religious context here and there. Almost all entirely well meant, and some well stated. As I mentioned yesterday, even my clinic advises coping through my faith.

Except I have no faith, in the sense that they mean the term. I am an atheist.

I have faith in many things: Gravity. Entropy. The sheer perversity of the universe. Human nature. . The love of and so many other people in my life. The healing power of a good pizza. The glory of sex. Tomorrow’s sunrise. The value of a good story.

But those are all small-f “faith.” And I am a small-a “atheist.” Low Church Atheism, I call it in my snarkier moments. No more than is out to convert me am I out to deconvert him. I firmly believe (have faith?) in our First Amendment freedom of religion. You can believe in YHWH, God, Zeus, Allah, Zoroaster, Gaea, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Verruca Gnome for all it matters to me. They’re all equally provable assertions, which is to say absolutely unprovable. Your Faith is as important to me as your favorite color. Which is to say, if I like you, I care that you care, but the thing you believe in has zero impact on the real world.

Basically, if you’re a person of Faith, unless you’re a pagan or a polytheist, I only believe in one less god than you do. Really, we do have a lot in common.

The fact that you believe can have tremendous impact. Viz the Crusades, the Inquisition, the World Trade Center attacks, imprecatory prayer for the death of Senator Byrd. But that’s not God talking, that’s the insecurities and needs and beliefs of millions of individual people who look to God for comfort, rationale or revenge. Or something. I don’t know, I’m not them.

What I do know is that religious belief is strongly privileged in virtually every modern society except some interpretations of the Socialist-Communist spectrum. Our own First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion, which I think would have been far more foresighted of the Founding Fathers.

Faith can reinforce certainty, until we get the lunacy that is modern conservative movement, where politics, culture, a specific swathe of Protestantism and a whole lot of white resentment have been braided together to form a lash that scourges our body politic, sabotages our culture, and makes the United States the laughingstock of the world. Without the strand of Faith in the braid, the whole structure of the post-Nixonian Republican party would have been vastly different, and the world quite possibly would not have suffered the presidencies of Bush the Younger.

Likewise, Faith consistently privileges behaviors that would neurotic or psychotic in any other circumstance. Or simply criminal. From Catholic abuse scandals to snake handling and glossolalia to honor killings, people of faith behave over and over again in manners that would have this atheist locked up, and rightly so. And because it’s part of their Faith, their consciences are undisturbed and their lives are called good.

Tell me again why I need Faith? For anything?

So what we have is a gigantic social structure that seems to be as old as human consciousness. It clearly fulfills a vast and fantastic need in the human spirit. And yes, I have a spirit, too. Anyone who’s ever read much of my fiction knows that I am on a spiritual quest of my own. I constantly interrogate many of the same questions that Faith is supposed to interrogate. What is my purpose? How am I to act? Why is there good and evil in the world? To whom are my higher loyalties owed? Who is responsible?

Being a rank empiricist and good-hearted skeptic, I can only look for those answers within myself. Sometimes I feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel, in a world innocent of the corrupting touch of God.

I don’t lack Faith. To say that implies that Faith is a requirement, or a default condition of being human. I simply don’t find any cause to have Faith, any more than I find any cause to believe in the influence of retrograde Mercury on my daily life. And for precisely the same reason. If I lack Faith, I lack it the same way I lack my third hand. It was never a necessary part of me in the first place.

(As an aside, I was raised in Faith, during my early years. My grandfather Lake was a preacher in the Disciples of Christ. I still have a shelf of Bibles and concordances, some of them inscribed with praise for my studies and my knowledge. I even attended missionary schools in my youth. My views of Faith aren’t from a lack of exposure, trust me.)

All of which is why I am an atheist. Ultimately because I see no reason not to be, except wishful thinking and the spiritual yearning that all human beings share. Wishful thinking I can dispatch with a wave of my adult hand. Spiritual yearning I address through literature, writing, discourse and thought. Perhaps you could argue I am my own god, but I don’t think I’d ever make that claim seriously.

Now to cancer.

As I said yesterday, a well-meaning acquaintance recently told me, “I just don’t understand how you can do this without faith in God.” I’m not sure if he was referring to my suffering, or the real and significant confrontation with mortality that this disease represents. Perhaps both. I didn’t ask, because I like him enough not to want to communicate my sense of insult, and I don’t like him so much to want the effort of working through that together.

As an atheist, my simple response might be, “What does God have to do with this?” If God, in the Evangelical Christian sense (his perspective), is real, I could only blame Him for my disease. He is said to act directly in our lives, sending red Mercedes to the deserving and hurricanes to punish the gay. Retail religion, I suppose, and I got handed a rotten apple here at the divine service counter.

Do I need God to blame? No. I don’t really need anyone or anything to blame, but I suppose if I do, it’s myself and evolution. Colon cancer isn’t explicitly a lifestyle cancer, like smoking-related lung cancer, but possibly if I’d eaten a lot less fried food and red meat, and lot more fresh fruits and vegetables, I could have postponed this. I don’t carry the known genetic markers (we’ve checked, and also I have no recent family history). Evolution, well, cancer is a cell division error, fundamentally, a disease of self-repair and reproduction. And what is evolution but cell division accompanied by recombinancy? Welcome to the universe, mister vertebrate. Here’s your long odds.

Do I need God to comfort me? No. What comfort would an invisible, unprovable assertion bring me? I have family, friends, lovers, co-workers, readers, fans, and random strangers who offer me far more support and comfort than I know what to do with. No one can reach into my side and still the twanging of the nerves in my ribs right now, not God, not , not my doctors. I can only cope, and work through it. No one can reach into my bloodstream and still the tiny assassin cells that lurk there, waiting to colonize my liver and lungs, except my doctors with their arsenal of drugs. My comfort lies in living, pushing forward, struggling, and perhaps eventually dying with some grace and meaning.

My life does have intent, and purpose. Cancer has focused that to a point beyond pain. Some people find intent and purpose through Faith, and I say unto them, yea, verily, go forth and do what raises your spirit. I cannot see anything in Faith except the barking of carnies and the psychological needs of a lonely ape long lost from his East African plains, and so I find my intent and purpose in myself, in my circle of love and friendship, and ultimately in these words.

Am I richer for it? Who’s to say? But I’m happy all by myself, without God. In some ways, happier than I’ve ever been, right now, with two holes in my left side and four holes in my right side and a medical appliance poking against my throat and some dreadful poisons two weeks in my future.

Are you happy? With or without God? For your sake, I hope like hell it doesn’t take cancer for you to answer that question.

8 thoughts on “[cancer|religion] Atheism, cancer and me

  1. I’m a very conservative reader. I don’t mean politically, I mean that I’m just so busy that I just don’t have a lot of time to read. (This is one of the ironies of science fiction fandom, that for many of us, we have a lot less time to read when we start pouring our lives into running conventions.) So basically I only read authors whom I have some compelling reason to read. I buy signed hardcovers written by friends of mine at their book launches. I occasionally read books by authors who are guests of honor at conventions where I am chair or involved in organizing the literary program. And I have a single-digit-sized list of favorite authors who I try to keep up with. I don’t follow recommendations or reviews much; if anything I tend to resist flavor-of-the-month marketing. Some popular authors can get really full of themselves. (And, dude, you are way flavor-of-the-month in my social circle. Everyone who knows you at all thinks you’re really cool.) Other than that, it takes an exceptional reason for me to pick up something by an author I’m not familiar with, given the Catch-22 that I avoid recommendations.

    So I happened to click on this blog by way of Twitter and @torforgeauthors. And what I see is someone who thinks clearly. It is clear from this blog post that you’re someone who is able to say something worth saying, and therefore almost certainly worth reading. So next time I’m at a bookstore I’ll look for things you’ve written.

    (Probably not the comment you were expecting. Heh.)

    Sorry to hear about your cancer. Hope your treatment goes well and that you are able to write more books. Have a great holiday with your friends and family. I don’t get to your coast very often, but if you make it to Norwescon I might ask you to sign a book for me.

    1. Jay says:

      Hi, Alex. Thanks for the kind words. Very much appreciated.

      Unfortunately, though I am a Norwescon regular, chemo is keeping me away from the con scene through August. (Con crud could literally kill me.) Perhaps this fall, or next year.

  2. Don in Ireland says:

    Well said Jay. As a fellow small “a” atheist, I commend you and agree wholeheartedly with everything you have written here.
    Every last word.
    I wish you the very best in your continued struggle with the big “C”, although thankfully, even that letter is getting smaller these days by virtue of the advances in our species scientific knowledge.
    In relation to the various “gods” that are “current” (as opposed to those that have been displaced e.g. Thor, Zeus et al), a wise man said “we cannot all be right but we can all be wrong.”
    Keep up the tweets and hang in there 🙂

    1. Jay says:

      Thank you, sir.

  3. Laura says:

    Glad to see you decided not to be too thoughtful. This response seems to be more on the snarky side.

    As to the last question you posed. For myself, I do not have the capacity to have faith in God, it is just not there, never has been, is not, and as far as I can see, never will be. So I have no idea whether or not I am happier without faith or belief in God or not.

    I don’t think I am missing anything. I don’t feel a large gaping whole in the middle of my being, so maybe not having God in your life isn’t even necessary.

    Still, I am an agnostic, not an atheist. I don’t completely discount the possible existence of a God, or a soul, or a spiritual side, I just think that those things cannot be known. And that such a god as is believed these days in the west doesn’t exist and such a god that could be a creator of all would not bother to micro manage this one little planet full of creatures with such huge egos that just can’t quite accept the fact they are just a small part of nature. And would be an insignifigant part if not for the fact we are a very destructive part.

    So why are we so destructive?

    And if there is a creator god, I would not want to be here if this being were to turn its attention to this corner of the universe and sees the damage we have wrought upon ourselves and this planet.

    If we are lucky perhaps the worst that will happen is that we will be told “You broke it, you bought it”, and leave us to our self imposed destruction.

  4. Jaws says:

    I suspect that much of the problem with people not understanding atheism is overidentification with a particular faith: Theirs. To many (and, in my experience, an overwhelming majority) of the “faithful”, all faiths except their own are at minimum deprecated, and usually treated as mere mythology (regardless of the lip service to ecumenism or tolerance of other cultures). It’s really a second-order effect of Pascal’s Wager… because there’s an undefined term in the Wager that undermines the entire gedankenexperiment:
    Define exactly which “god” is will be acceptable as an object of one’s faith.

    If the “god” one must choose is one who rejects the consumption of animals with cloven hooves, allows — nay, encourages — making slaves of one’s defeated enemies, and believes that the offense of doing something that someone else would categorize as “work” (even if it is “fun”, or an essential element of one’s character… such as “writing fiction”) on one particular day a week merits being stoned to death, I will not choose that god. Neither will I choose a god whose disciples have determined that a bad translation from incomplete texts in a dead language, or even just well over a millennium of linguistic shift, nonetheless literally determines the rightness/wrongness of virtually every action — even in contexts unimaginable to those who set down those texts.

    Because Pascal’s Wager also has two corollaries that undermine it much more thoroughly than even the problem with the undefined term. (1) If that faith gives me “eternity,” it will also give me “eternity” to contemplate my selfishness in choosing one particular faith over another; and I have a (severely overactive) conscience. (2) If my faith is sufficient, then for some choices I have to accept Job’s lot. In Jay’s case, that would mean not just that he has cancer: It would mean that one must accept that he deserves it. And no matter what the now-deceased Mr Blackwell might say about Jay’s sartorial preferences, he doesn’t; and, as Mark Twain would no doubt have enthusiastically confirmed, any god that imposes that burden is a malign thug.*

    Besides which, faith is too often used as an excuse for belittling not just others’ differing faiths, but the others as Others (and therefore Lessers) themselves. If I hadn’t been an atheist before embarking on my first profession, I would have been after intense study of 2500 years of the history of the region east of the Euphrates; or of Northern Ireland; or of seventeenth-century central Europe; or of two West Virginia schoolchildren ostracized for refusing to salute the flag. I don’t need a supernatural explanation for either good or evil: Humanity’s limitless capacity for both is a sufficient explanation. And the irony that I’m posting this on 24 December, in response to Jay posting on 24 December… fortunately, I have a very, very sick and disturbed sense of humor.

    * And the less said about it happening twice, the better.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Thoughtful, indeed, and well said.

    Not having Faith is the norm, the default setting, at least for me; I have never fully understood how people contort their thinking so as to acquire it, although why they do so is no mystery.

    You have loved ones and a life’s work pursued with passion and creativity. An imaginary friend would be pretty small potatoes next to those.

    Best wishes for long life, well being, and good writing.

  6. Barry says:

    I’m remorseful for your situation. Wherether it originates from a theist or atheist source. Isn’t the intent more important. Aren’t atheist pragmatic? Hope faith belief may find residents in “god” which I believe is the sum total of all of man needs-survival. I supposed that man will evolve from mere wishful thinking but that will be wishful thinking also. I’m an atheist too but its not prudent to get angry with those believers because like it or not the fraility of emotions is a human afliction even amongst Atheist. Your doctors have hope in their science and inevitability that’s their flaw- their understanding is limited to their birth conditioning and you in yours. Their is no purpose. Or meaning to your life. And when you die you’ll be changed to another form of the nothingness that’s everything. And yet as your end draws near hope faith belief”god” wisperrs in your voice.

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