Monday, December 20, 2010

Are We Old Enough to Stop Believing?

How old is too old to believe in Santa Claus? And how old is too old to believe in God?

I’ve called myself an atheist only for about the last three or four years. Before that, I was an agnostic. Before that I was “spiritual but not religious.” And before that I was a Christian. I went to church every Sunday. I attended Easter Sunrise services and Christmas Eve service. I got myself baptized. I prayed.

I did many of those same things when I was a child, too. I went to the altar and prayed for redemption when I was 12. I attended Sunday School and took part in church Christmas plays. I went to Vacation Bible School in the summer. So it’s safe to say that I was a believer. I learned about God and Jesus early and I never questioned their existence, even well into adulthood.

Of course, when I was a kid, I never questioned the existence of Santa Claus, either. I knew he was real; he brought me presents every Christmas morning. It couldn’t have been anyone else but Santa. I would know if my parents were tricking me because I often stayed up all night on Christmas Eve and I would have heard them. It wasn’t that I tried to stay up all night; it’s that I couldn’t go to sleep no matter how hard I tried.

But apparently I went to sleep long enough for Mom and Dad to deliver the goods, because they were around the tree on Christmas morning and I hadn’t heard a thing.

Eventually, I started questioning whether Santa existed. I still wanted very badly to believe, but I realized that Santa was bigger than life and I was probably hoping for too much to believe he was a real man with flying reindeer. I wanted to believe so badly that I started asking my school friends if they believed. By then, most of them didn’t, and some of them made fun of me because I still clung to my delusions. That’s when I confronted Mom and asked her the big question. She confided in me. I was sad, but not very surprised.

But I still received presents on Christmas, so there was no real harm done. It was just a childhood fancy that I had outgrown, much as I had done with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy many years earlier.

It took me longer with God. But, looking back, I wonder if at some level I was always an atheist. Yes, I know what I said. I never questioned God’s existence. But on an almost subconscious level I did question the existence of heaven and hell, or at least the Christian view of them.

Sometimes when I’m halfway between sleep and wakefulness a thought occurs to me. It is an awful, dreadful thought. I’ve gotten this same thought on occasions, thankfully rather rare occasions, since childhood. The thought that enters my half-awake mind is, I’m mortal. I am going to die some day and I don’t know when. It is a very lucid understanding of my own mortality and it’s frightening.

These moments of clarity with respect to mortality last only a few seconds, then wakefulness sets in and whatever part of my brain is responsible for cloaking that clarity so I can get on with my life snaps back on. I still cognitively know that I’m mortal, but that veil of security separates my knowledge of it from the bare experience of knowing it’s real and imminent.

When I was young, I could comfort myself afterward with the knowledge that, it doesn’t matter if I die, because I’ll be in heaven. But, I also recall thinking, and suppressing, the lingering doubt that maybe heaven wasn’t a real place. I mean, how could it be? Everything I had ever heard about how good heaven was didn’t really sound very good to me. I didn’t want to sing and praise God for all eternity. I’d almost rather be in hell. And, that, too, was a distinct possibility, I remember thinking. I mean, what if I DON’T go to heaven? Maybe I won’t be on God’s list of chosen people because I have doubts.

But those doubts I had as a child were really quite ineffable. They didn’t come to the surface or spill into my consciousness until I was in my 40s. And even then, my conversion to atheism was rather slow. It’s because I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I wanted God to be real. I wanted heaven to exist.

But, alas, reality finally struck me square in the face. It doesn’t matter what I want. It doesn’t matter what I hope is true. It only matters what really is true. You can’t wish something into existence. I know there are people out there who claim that they really, truly feel God’s presence. They know for a fact, they say, that he’s real and abiding. But how can they really? There is no proof of God, not even any evidence – none at all.

People have been duped into believing that faith is a good thing. But all faith really does is mask the truth. Just like I so much wanted to continue to believe in Santa Claus, Christians want very badly to believe in God. Maybe, like me, they suspect way down deep that what they believe is a figment of an earlier age. Maybe they just want to believe so badly that they are afraid not too. Or maybe believing just gives them comfort and they don’t want to give up that security blanket.

If it makes you feel good, believe whatever you want, just as my belief in Santa Claus gave me pleasure when I was young. Just don’t let your skewed view of reality affect what I can and cannot do. I would have no real problem with religious belief if there were no laws based on it.

And at some point, people should stop believing in things unseen. It just gets in the way of reality. We as a culture and society are too old to believe in Santa Claus anymore. It might be uncomfortable to let him go, but the grief doesn’t last long. And in the end, we still get the presents.

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