An Atheist in an Airplane

No one raised in a religious environment wants to come out atheist. Few people who grew up in the US would want to use that word. And when I finally told one of my close friends that I was an atheist, she said, “Oh no! You lost your faith?!” But after I explained exactly what I believed and why, her tone softened. “Oh, that’s pretty much what I think, too.”

Or as Julia Sweeney described it in her solo show Letting Go of God:

I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether.

I grew up in a Pentecostal church. My dad was the pastor. I was raised an Evangelical fundamentalist. But my parents also taught me to think for myself, and I continued to learn and to explore the rationale for my beliefs. If you examine my writings over the past 25 years or so, you may be able to detect a subtle, gradual shift in the underlying vibe, a progression away from religious conservatism, toward liberalism and sex-positivity, but always with a nod to the dogma, as if a bungee cord attached me to my fundamentalist roots.

When I discovered that Penn & Teller were libertarians, I became an immediate fan. I had been libertarian-minded since before Harry Browne ran on the LP ticket in 1996, and by the time Bullshit came on the air, I was into almost every episode. I’ve followed Penn’s online video series Penn Point and his weekly podcast Penn’s Sunday School. Penn and Teller, both, in case you didn’t know, are vocal atheists. Penn (including the work he did on Bullshit with Teller) has critiqued, criticized, and mocked the Bible, apocalyptic prophesy, religious sexual mores, creationism, near-death experiences, conventional marriage, circumcision, Mother Theresa, Jewish kosher laws, spiritually themed pareidolia (Holy grilled-cheese sandwiches, Batman!), and much, much more. And I’ve basically agreed with him.

But despite what he thinks about Christian theology, never has Penn ever had a bad word to say about Christians themselves. Instead, he tells stories of growing up in his home church in Greendale, Massachusetts, of eating maple-syrup snow and coffee gelatin in the fellowship hall, of his all-time favorite hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” He talks about Christians’ true concern (if misguided) for his soul, their kind and gentle words, their genuine desire to make the world a better place. The stories he tells of nasty or scary Christians are conspicuous exceptions to the general rule, which he is always quick to highlight. Penn made being an atheist respectable.

And the bungee cord stretched tighter.

Then I did the research that resulted in the blog series “What I Want My Teenage Daughters to Know about Sex”. And the bungee cord stretched even tighter.

By the time that series went live, the end had already come. It all happened just after the World Vision Fiasco of March 2014. I saw tens of thousands of US Evangelicals prioritize their bigotry against gay people over helping poor children in third-world countries. And I realized that this was not a few bad apples ruining it for everyone else. This was a problem with fundamentalism, the fundamentalism that I myself believed in, to which I myself was attached. I realized that fundamentalist theology would always prioritize the perceived inerrancy of Scripture over everything in the real world. It would always value fidelity to theological dogma above the needs of flesh-and-blood human beings. Even if the more progressive Evangelicals won this battle against homophobia, there would always be another battle just beyond the horizon, because religious fundamentalism is fundamentally broken. And in an obscure comment thread on Rachel Held Evans’s blog, I wrote that I did not think I wanted to be an Evangelical anymore. I woke up the next morning, and I wasn’t.

And the bungee cord snapped.

And my sense of spirituality shattered into a million pieces.

And then I encountered the atheist-in-an-airplane story.

My friend had been on her way home from a business trip. Delayed flight, delays boarding, delays taking off, all sorts of who-knows-what-goes-wrong-on-these-flights. Finally, her airplane took off and began to ascend. But before it reached altitude it leveled off. Then the plane began to shake, and the cabin started to fill with smoke, and everyone realized, this ain’t good.

Alarms were going off. No flight attendant in sight. No word from the captain. Just shaking and smoke.

And she was sure her life was going to be over very soon now.

The first thing she did was to pull out her cell phone and text her boyfriend that she loved him. Then she started thinking about all the people she loved, and how she would not be in their lives anymore, and how they would miss her.

Five minutes later, the plane went down. Emergency landing. Fire truck chasing it all the way down the runway. And after it came to a complete stop, the guy in the seat next to her exhaled: “Whew! I was praying SO HARD!”

At this time, my friend had been wrestling with the traumatic fallout from an abusive church experience. And she didn’t know whether she believed in God anymore. And she didn’t want to reject him altogether, just because a bunch of sanctimonious Christian asshats had given him a bad name.

But at that moment, she suddenly realized, she had been an atheist in a foxhole. She was so sure that her life was going to be over in a few minutes, and she didn’t spend that time trying to get right with God, or praying for him to miraculously intervene, or even just taking comfort in the idea that he was in control and his will would be done. Rather, she spent that time thinking about all the people that were meaningful to her, that made her life worth living.

And I remember reading this story, and I thought, That is the kind of person I want to be. When I have only 5 minutes left to live, I want to spend it thinking about the people in my life, whom I love and who love me.

And the word atheist wasn’t a bad word anymore.

It was another few months before I fully adopted it as my own. But that part of the story will have to wait for another post.