Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Depression and Atheism

I promised this topic a while back. Sorry it's taken me a while. Actually, I don't know if I should apologize at all. It seems kind of silly of me to think that any of you wake up day after day thinking, 'is this that day that Ray will finally tell us about his atheism?' then being disappointed when I don't. Beyond silly, it's arrogant.

Nevertheless, I've been promising and not delivering for so long because this is something that never even occurred to me and I never really think about. I'm not really sure how to go about addressing the two topics as they relate to each other because, in my mind, they don't. Both things are deeply personal to me and have grown roots that are so old and deep that removing either depression or atheism from the earth of me would be, to say the least, disturbing. I'm willing to do so with depression; I'm not with atheism.

Let me start by saying that I believe I understand theists, specifically their perspective of atheists. I spent most of the first two decades of life as one. It seems hopeless to live without the belief in god. If no one created us, if there is no externally designed plan for my life, and, most importantly, if nothing happens when I die, if there's no reward for the good and no punishment for the bad, then what's point of it all? How can one live in a universe so empty of meaning, purpose and hope?

It's easy to understand why theists can believe that atheism and depression go neatly hand in hand.

I was depressed well before I became an atheist. The first time I seriously considered suicide was when I was around twelve. I had no reason to feel bad but I did. I felt so bad about myself, so unloved, so worthless, so invisible, that I went down into the basement where my dad kept his guns. I spent a long time sitting with a loaded rifle in my lap, bawling and blowing snot bubbles. I never could work up the nerve and when I heard the garage door opening - I had been home alone - I quickly unloaded the gun, put it back on the rack and went to hide in my room until I could calm down.

So, now, I've told that story. Didn't plan to but there it is. My point is that my atheism didn't lead to my depression. Clearly, I've struggled with some pretty classic symptoms of depression for most of my life and well before my, um, conversion.

Even though that's the right word I hate to use it. For me, at least, conversion carries a lot of baggage. When I think of conversion, I think of the scene in the New Testament when Saul is strolling to Damascus and has a massive, singular revelation that causes him to completely change the course of his life and, for some reason, his name.

My crossover from theism to atheism took longer than an afternoon walk. It was probably a very long time coming but, as a process of which I was aware, lasted about 6 months. I won't go into the gory details. I'd reached that time in life when one starts to consider his place in the world and I'd been exposed to enough of the church to understand that it was a very human creation instead of the holy, unquestionable institution that I'd been raised to believe in. These two things gave me the courage to actually consider the possibility that the faith I'd been raised in wasn't necessarily the truth.

I spent a very weird summer living in a crap apartment downtown, working the night-shift at a local factory and reading. I read everything I could about faith, theism and religion. By the end of that summer, I was settling a little uncomfortably into atheism. I still had those questions I mentioned above except without the hopelessness. In fact, as I look back now, I count this time as easily within the top five happiest points of my life.

In time, I've answered those questions for myself. Theistically speaking, I am incredibly comfortable in my skin. In fact, as I struggle with my expanding and contracting emotions, my professional life, and all the relationships in my life that I seem to subconsciously destroy one by one, my atheism is one of the most solid things about me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not an evangelical atheist. I'm not crazy about my tax dollars going to blatant theism but I'm never participated in a lawsuit about it. If the mayor of my town wants to put one of those cheesy lighted nativity scenes in front of City Hall in December, go right ahead. I'm just saying that, of all those things that all of us struggle with internally, the theology thing is settled for me.

I don't know if I've covered this at all. As usual, I just cracked my head open a little and tried to give you a look. So, lurking and not so lurking theists, if you have any questions or comments, have at it.