When I was a kid, we used to go to the aptly named Little Brown Church in Pacifica, California, a small coastal town about 15 miles south of San Francisco. I wore my Sunday best, sometimes brought a Bible, sang along to the hymns, behaved sufficiently well during the children’s Bible classes, and did my best to stay awake during the sermon. I dreaded it. Even back then, I was skeptical about the entire notion of God, Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, and turning water to wine. Say, why couldn’t they have just drank the water anyway?
Seriously, though, I could never swallow the idea of heaven–some perfect place lined with gold roads where everyone was perfectly happy for the rest of eternity. Why would they need gold roads? Do people walk around there? Do they drive around? Is gold better than asphalt? Besides, it didn’t seem to jive with what I was learning in school about the troposphere and the stratosphere, or even gravity. So then where was this place called heaven? I won’t get into hell and the terrible gas bills the poor devil would incur for all that heating.
I was taught about heaven and hell at a pretty literal level. Add to the whole pot the big guy, God, sitting on a throne, I guessed, prepared to judge me and my life as soon as I entered the antechamber, to decide whether or not I’d go through the French door behind him or take the express elevator down. Of course, he was all-knowing–he’d decided everything long ago and knew what would become of me–yet somehow, they said, I still had choices to make, though he knew what I would decide anyway. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get that or a whole lot of other contradictions I’d been told and tried to piece together and sort out, all the while trying not to balk. Children were to be seen and not heard, at least not their oppositional opinions.
By the time I got to college, I was a cynical atheist. I detested all things religious, and deeper studies of both history and sociology only threw logs on the fire, hold the brimstone. This also happens to be the times when I came out. My mother’s instant reaction was to send me to a therapist–a Christian therapist–and I conceded, more as a challenge than anything else. After a few sessions, they figured out that conversion was hopeless, so why waste the money? I was damned. (At least they kept paying my Cal State tuition…thanks Mom. Oh, she’s changed a lot since then. I want to give her some credit.)
So, I was a confident, intelligent, logical, fairly rational, homosexual atheist. In truth, disbelieving in God was pretty easy because, to me, all the contradictions of the Bible were blatantly obvious. Enter the real dilemma: how was it that so many educated, respectable, even likeable people couldn’t see the same falseness that I was seeing. It all seemed like such a sham, yet I knew believers who were scientists, teachers, doctors–all intelligent and honest–oh, and there were some lawyers, too.
No, I am not about to tell you that I have returned to Christianity. Don’t worry.
However, I will say this: aside from a certainly rationality that I believe I possess, or perhaps because of it, I do not immediately poo poo any individual’s personal reality. I hear and accept the power that “God” has had over the lives of many, or that someone has been healed “miraculously.” I don’t even deny the possibility that some things many consider parapsychology may in fact exist. Who am I to say they don’t? After my stepfather died, my mother was awoken on several instances at precisely the same moment in the deep of the night by noises or an alarm clock that hadn’t been set. Did she have a technical failure? Was her bladder full? Or was she visited by my stepdad (one of those intelligent believers I was talking about)? I can’t say for sure. I guess I’m not a cynical atheist anymore.
I might have thought it a weakness at one point to back down from my atheist convictions. On the other hand, maybe as I get older I’m getting a little wiser? Or perhaps I have come to a point in life that I have a need that hadn’t existed before. As some of you know, I hit an obstacle at the school I worked in as a teacher, all related to an e-mail mistakenly sent to the wrong person. Enough said. Three years of litigation later, it’s still not over. I don’t think I had known despair or fear like I had that first year. Getting fired from a school has lifelong implications; you don’t just go and get another job. It was my comfort, my livelihood, my health insurance, my retirement. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t write. I needed a higher power (or at least somewhere to channel all the fear and negative energy I was harboring). I began to pray. Some of the issues have worked themselves out, others are still pending. The prayer helped.
I’m not saying that God saved me. I’m not saying there is a god. I am all too conscious of a term we called in psychology “superstitious conditioning”–the impulse to attribute cause to correlation connected to a personal action, in this case prayer. It might have been knocking on wood or throwing salt over my shoulder, for that matter. Still, I’m not poo pooing anything, either. I won’t deny the (perhaps self-deceptive) comfort that I felt in handing over my issues to a higher power, an energy out there, or just the universe.
Despite my confessions here (I still cringe when I write or say the word “prayer”), I am nowhere near religious. Indeed, although I do respect the way that religious groups often take care of each other–providing meals and rides for those who need them, counseling, social events, and other means of practical support–I continue to loathe religion in the big picture for the way it incites hatred, self-righteousness, and other forms of social control. Why can’t groups of people provide those practical necessities without having to attribute it all to a god? (Thank goodness for gay community centers–that’s what I’m talking about.)
Why am I bringing up this entire topic? To plug my new book, of course! True, I am writing because my new book, Day of the Dead–A Romance, which is coming out next week from Dreamspinner Press. However, I did want to share some of the inspiration and life changes that led to a story contemplating the afterlife. As do all of my books, I have brought in aspects of the Mexican culture–specifically, notions about death, sexuality, coming out, and migration–as well as the inclusion of place (Guanajuato and the border area this time), as is common in my style. A major difference between this story and my others is that this one is also based in San Francisco, the fabulous city where I was born. Most importantly, I’ve infused as a major theme a character who talks to us (or his mourning lover anyway) from beyond and brings us to the place of his upbringing in central Mexico. Let’s get back to spirituality and religion: What do you think? What is your experience with a higher power? Are we nothing more than chance beings on a floating rock? Is there some greater being or even meaning to life? What about the afterlife? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! Please take a minute to share.