*Editor’s note: Stephen is providing this as an exclusive first for the publication of this article, i.e., it has not been published elsewhere.*
By Stephen Skyvington
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
— Mark Twain
“All thinking men are atheists.”
— Ernest Hemingway
“People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Faith is a funny thing. You can have faith in yourself or faith in another person. You can have faith in your family or in your favourite football team. You can even have faith in your dog or cat. But one thing you can’t have faith in is God — whoever it is you believe God to be.
I had these thoughts while sitting in a church pew with my wife and stepson, believe it or not. My wife’s cousin Edmond had succumbed to cancer at the ripe old age of fifty-two. The priest told us that Edmond was a gift that God had allowed us to have for the past 52 years, but that now it was time for him to go home and return to God. Looking around the church at all the religious icons and lovely stained-glass windows, I couldn’t help but thinking that this God fellow must be the biggest jerk imaginable.
I mean, honestly. What kind of a guy gives you a gift as wonderful as my wife’s cousin — and he was, by all accounts, a very nice man — and then snatches him away like that? What an Indian giver.
But it was the ceremony that most got under my skin. The sprinkling of the holy water on the casket. The burning of incense in the thurible (that’s what it’s called — heathen that I am, I had to look it up), a golden censer which hangs from a chain and is swung by the priest for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom. To mention nothing of the Holy Eucharist. That’s where true believers come to the front of the church and receive their little wafer and a sip of wine, symbolizing Jesus Christ’s last supper.
God, give me strength.
Watching all this, I couldn’t help but think what complete and utter foolishness all these theatrics were. And that’s when it hit me. This wasn’t about having faith in God. It was about engaging in a bunch of silly superstitions — each more bizarre than the last — in hopes of fending off the bogeyman, so that our dear departed friend Edmond might have a safe journey to the hereafter. Wherever the hell that might be.
Sports nut that I am, I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of the equally strange rituals baseball fans, say, engage in when trying to help their team rally from one or two runs down in the late innings. Taking your baseball cap and turning it inside out and wearing it on your head backwards, for instance. Is that any weirder than what I witnessed during the funeral mass?
Or how about our hockey-loving friends, who grow playoff beards just like their heroes, as a way of cheering their team on to victory? Or worse, the football player who thanks God for helping him win the big game. Really? You think God gives a flying fadoo about who wins a football game?
Then there’s politics. Watching the race for the White House down south, I find it fascinating as each candidate tries to paint him or herself as the biggest God-fearing Christian on the podium, in hopes of scooping up all those evangelical votes. It’s got so bad that I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the candidates hire an actor to play the role of Jesus and anoint that candidate as the One.
How did it come to this? How did fear, ignorance and superstition push truth, science and compassion out of the way? Why do so many “believers” act like school yard bullies, ignoring the facts and demonizing people like me — atheists, in case that wasn’t clear by now — who dare to suggest there just might be another reason why we all came to end up on this lovely planet?
Good questions, one and all.
Maybe it’s because we haven’t evolved as far as we’d like to believe. When I look at the world from my perch up here in the Northumberland Hills, I can’t help but wonder if maybe I didn’t take a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Lord knows, if I was an alien looking for intelligent life, I have to admit I’d be inclined to turn my spaceship around and try elsewhere.
A friend of mine told me recently, in all seriousness, that the fact Donald Trump has ascended to the presidency of the United States means we’re living in “end times.” Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but watching the damage organized religion and its followers do on a day-to-day basis — here, there and everywhere — I’m willing to admit my friend may have a point.
As an atheist, however, I prefer to see things in a little more positive light. You see, I still believe there’s hope for this old world. Henry Miller, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, had a motto he liked to live by: “Always merry and bright.” That’s how I try to live my life too.
Which is why it’s my hope that someday, before my heart finally gives out, or I also find myself felled by that heartless killer cancer, my fellow travellers here on Earth will come to understand that the purpose of the journey isn’t where we end up, but how we treat one another on the way there.
Or to put it another way: “If you’ll have faith in me, I’ll have faith in you.”
Follow Stephen Skyvington on Twitter @SSkyvington.