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Lakeshore - [cancer|religion] Atheism, cancer and me
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Jay Lake
Date: 2009-12-24 05:55
Subject: [cancer|religion] Atheism, cancer and me
Security: Public
Tags:calendula, cancer, child, health, personal, religion
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_child. The love of calendula_witch 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 daveraines 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 calendula_witch, 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 unto them I say, 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.

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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2009-12-24 15:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It is your prerogative to deal with your illness in a manner consistent with your beliefs and worldview. Studies show that religious faith is a powerful coping tool for people going through cancer or other major life events and losses, and thus it is not inappropriate for your clinic to suggest that you should seek solace and support from your faith and faith community. It is also not inappropriate for your to let them know that you're an atheist and thus that particular toolkit not available to you (at least not in the same way). In a similar way, your physical therapist might suggest a hot tub to deal with your shoulder pain, and you could respond either that you have no hot tub or that you are not allowed to use one until your sutures are removed. Some may judge you for not using a hot tub, but in the end that is their problem, not yours.

The view of faith you put forth here is one that many westerners share, and is particularly dominant in the evangelical style of christianity in which you grew up. This is a view of god as a deity that plans and controls everything and thus is responsible for any suffering. There are two basic ways to deal with major suffering in this context--one is to assume that "god has a plan" and it will all turn out for the best somehow. Another is to blame god, get angry, and reject faith altogether. Quite a lot of people take the former path, but what tends to happen is when challenges pile up there is a breaking point where most people will eventually reject faith. Ultimately, trust in a plan for the greater good tends to break down when you realize you are the one supposedly paying the price for everyone else's greater good.

Another way of looking at suffering is through the lens of free will and natural law, and understanding that suffering is something we are prone to by human nature--by the choices we make and by the existence of viruses, cancer, natural disasters, etc. In that context, god is not the arbitrator of an awful destiny, but a source of external grace and support to carry us through the inevitable sufferings of our lives. This is how I have always perceived faith, but am reading a very good book called _Finding God in Trouble Times_ by Richard J. Hauser that has really helped me define my view. Hauser was a chaplain at a university years ago when a terrible car accident killed a number of students that were in his spiritual care. Tending to the survivors was a harrowing experience for him that tested his faith, and this book is a detailed meditation on the difference between a childlike view of god wherein god is the author of all of our misfortunes through some incomprehensible mysterious plan, and one in which god is a partner connecting us to something greater and giving meaning through suffering. Even if you don't find a belief in god relevant to your own situation, it might be an interesting read for you to see how faith and spirituality can play a positive role in suffering, beyond the ever-annoying "god has a plan" kind of thing. I believe that most people who successfully use faith as a coping tool end up with this type of relation to it, and as an atheist this route is not entirely closed to you. Even if you don't believe in a deity or life after death, you can postulate the existence of some greater "energy" or "connection," to use in gathering strength for your journey.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 15:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you. And to be clear, I'm not the least bit interested in stirring shit at the clinic. Faith is a powerful tool for those who hold it, and the last thing I want to do is strip that away in their time of need. (Or any other time, really.) I have a number of political and cultural arguments with Faith (viz evolution denial, for one), and you're familiar with most of them as a long-time friend, but this is an intensely personal context for me, and for anyone else on my road.
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Speed-metal zombie penguin!: Army - 75th Infantry
User: gridlore
Date: 2009-12-24 15:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Army - 75th Infantry
As an atheist and cancer survivor myself, thanks for this. I too was hit with the "but you need God at this time!" from various well-meaning relatives and friends. What I needed was modern medicine, support from my circle of friends, and rest.

When people asked me how I handled it, my answer was simple. "I was an Airborne Ranger." If they ask about faith, I tell them I have loads of it. I'm a baseball fan.

Good luck with the chemo. What series are you getting?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 15:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
FOLFOX-Avastin, 48 hour infusion every two weeks for 12 sessions, through a chest port.

Whew.

And thanks!
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scarlettina: Abomination!
User: scarlettina
Date: 2009-12-24 16:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Abomination!
I don't think you have to "stir up shit" to suggest that the clinic's advice to turn to faith may not apply to everyone. It may be as simple as suggesting that they first ask the patient/client if they have any particular religious path rather than assuming one to begin with. I'm not advocating that you have this conversation (it's neither necessary nor something you're overly invested in), merely observing that there are probably ways to address the issue with making an Issue of it.

Edited at 2009-12-24 04:28 pm (UTC)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-24 16:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes. And thank you.
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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2009-12-24 17:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree.
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joycemocha
User: joycemocha
Date: 2009-12-24 17:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you Catherine, you've put a finger on the dichotomy that I'm contemplating. I also tend to look at suffering and the problem of pain through the lens of free will--either God is in control of everything, your path is predetermined (as I recall, Jay has a Disciples of Christ background, which tiptoes into a fair piece of predeterministic Calvinism but is not the full-blown thing) and everything that happens is a result of God's will--or, as you put it, god is not the arbitrator of an awful destiny, but a source of external grace and support to carry us through the inevitable sufferings of our lives.

One of the freeing things that happened to me after a conversion to Catholicism was escaping the fetters of predeterministic thought and accepting that God doesn't necessarily create our destiny, that destiny is a choice we make, and God is a source of support. It's why I remain Catholic, even though I disagree with some of the leadership's opinions because as an educated member of the laity, I'm supposed to make up my own mind.

Don't know how much I can follow this discussion over the next few days because I don't know if wireless will be an option where I'll be. But still...thanks.
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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2009-12-24 17:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for the kind words, Joyce. You would probably enjoy the book I cited, if you can track it down. It's published by Loyola Press.
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