Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Godless but Not Alone

A little over a year ago I found myself unemployed and staring at an uncertain future, not knowing how, if, or when I would ever see a steady income again. It was a very dark time.

Now things are much better. I have a new employer, I'm making more money than before, and although the future is always uncertain, it's looking pretty good at this point. A theist friend recently said that his faith in god is what got him through troubled times and kept him a charitable human being when he otherwise would not have been. I find that rather sad.

What kept me going was self-confidence, and when that was lacking, it was the encouragement and love that friends and family gave me throughout the ordeal, and when they weren't around, it was knowing they were still out there still wishing me the best, and then there was the memory of my late father who always told me to keep pushing for my goals in life and that I was capable of doing anything I wanted to do. That's some powerful "mojo" right there!

I guess you might say I gather the strength to get through hard times in life from living life itself. A Unitarian Universalist minister once told me that the meaning of life was whatever meaning we put into it ourselves. This rings very true for me. It is through living life the best I can, engaging friends and family along the way, and creating new memories to cherish that I gain the benefits of wisdom, love and support I need when times get rough.

I am an atheist, happy, godless, and never alone. :-)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Crossing the Withered Crag

Retaining an Appearance of Professionalism While Getting Fired
A Short Narrative by Michael W. Haynes
Note: In March of 2012 I was "let go" at my place of employment. In May of 2012 I found new employment. Those two months were a roller-coaster of emotions for my wife and I. The following narrative is an artistic and embellished account of my experience at the beginning of this life changing experience. Stay tuned...
Part One: Mantra
I’m not quite sure how to describe it. I suppose it’s like standing under the metaphorical black cloud, knowing that lightning is going to strike at any moment, but not knowing when. And when it finally does strike, it’s no surprise, but the shock is just as powerful and devastating.
I arrived at the office, looking forward to my first cup of coffee. D_____ and I were chatting and I had just picked up my empty “Marvin Martian” coffee mug from my desk when the phone rang. A_____’s name lit up on the phone’s caller ID panel.
The lightning had just struck. A_____ was the HR Legal Counsel, and as far as my job was concerned, Death had just rung the front door bell.
I answered with my usual professional tone, “Good morning. This is Mike,” as the carpeting on the floor shriveled away and cracks formed beneath my shaking feet.
“Hi Mike. Could you come down to the second floor HR office for a moment? We need to speak with you.”
“Sure. I’ll be right down.” I kept my tone pleasant, upbeat and professional. My feet were numb, and my heart was trying to burst out of my chest. I put down the receiver slowly. “Well D_____, this is my last cup of coffee here.”
“What do you mean?” D_____ was a contractor who hadn’t been around long enough to understand what a call from A_____ meant to a regular employee.
“The HR Legal Rep wants to talk to me.”
“Yup. My job here is over. A_____ is the unfortunate person who has to be involved in anyone’s dismissal,” I explained as we headed toward the coffee pot. My voice was still steady, and I was “matter-of-fact.” My composure was rock solid, but the room was shaking, the cracks in the floor under my feet were growing wider, and it was all I could do to hold on to my coffee mug.
“Maybe it’s something else.” He offered hopefully.
“Nope,” I poured my last cup of coffee as calmly as I could. “If it was something else, she would have told me what the ‘something else’ was. I’d better get going. I don’t want to keep them waiting.” I set the coffee pot down gently.
“What? They’re about to let you go, and you’re worried about keeping them waiting?” He asked incredulously.
I laughed at that. “Yeah, just simple human courtesy, I suppose. I can’t imagine that they’re actually looking forward to this any more than I am.”
“You’re a bigger man than me.”
“Don’t be so sure!” I joked, “I haven’t faced them yet!” The floor was falling out from under me now, and the walls had begun crumbling away by the time I had reached the elevator.
I stepped inside the elevator and turned. The doors slowly closed in solemn silence, and I felt oddly safe and secure in that small, confined space. “Nothing can touch me here.” In that brief moment of serenity a mantra formed and started echoing in my head, “professional; upbeat; no sob story; no complaining; no yelling; no tears.”
Part Two: Attitude
Breathe.” I reminded myself as the doors opened onto the second floor. Only there was no floor; no walls; just darkness. All that was left by now was a withered, narrow crag that led to a lonely, stone bunker in the distance. The harsh, cold, buffeting wind nearly knocked me down, but I strove forward. “The only way out is through,” I told myself, “Breathe!”
The door to the cramped bunker opened with a sad, whimpering sigh. The damp, stone walls glistened in the primitive torchlight. G_____, our CIO, looked up at me with a somber look on his face. The pale, flickering light accented the lines of dread that crossed his brow, and A_____ stood just to my right with her hands folded in front of her... She glanced at me and managed a weak smile.
“Ah!” I exclaimed in mock surprise, “I’m glad I grabbed some coffee first!”
G_____ replied with a sad half smile, “Yes Mike. I guess you know why we asked you here.”
“Yes, I assumed as much.” I replied softly, sitting down and taking a sip of coffee.
The torchlight dimmed as the air became heavier. I could feel the entire room quaking uneasily. I was hoping that the “honest-sincere-and-professional” mask that I had put on just before I entered was doing its job, because my feet had just melted to the floor, and my hands had become shackled to the table in front of me. I was paralyzed. Then as G_____ spoke, everything else around me blurred, and all I could hear was the rushing of my own blood flowing through my ears.
(Oh shit! This is really happening!)
I kept my mask on, nodding my head politely as if I could actually hear and comprehend what he was saying to me.
(Breathe! Breathe Damn it! Look him in the eyes! Keep that goddamn mask on! No fucking tears now! Damn it!)
“…So I’m sorry it has to be this way,” he concluded. “A_____ will cover the details of your transition and will have some papers for you to sign before you go.”
(“Transition!” Is that what they fucking call this now?)
He stood up and started briskly for the door.
(Get up! Get on your feet man! Say something positive, and shake his hand! Damn it! Let that son of a bitch know that he just fired a real professional! )
I felt my body stand and step toward him. (Did he just flinch?) I saw my hand reach out and grasp his in a firm handshake. My lips started moving, “I’m grateful for the time I have worked here, and I’m proud to have been a part of such a talented team that has contributed so much to the company’s growth.” (Wow! This is pouring out of me like syrup!) “I wish you all the best and look forward to reading great things about the company in the future!”
He blinked. His mouth opened. Then it closed again. Then it opened and he stammered, “Wow! You have a great attitude!” He then turned and hurried out the door.
Part Three: Things I Need to Do
I sat down again as A_____ began explaining what would be happening next, severance package terms and continued insurance coverage, etc. Reality began to slowly fade back in. First the carpeted floor reappeared beneath my feet. The stone walls were replaced with finely finished drywall, some nice prints adorned the room, and lastly, the primitive torches were replaced with soft, fluorescent lighting.
My feet became unglued from the floor, the shackles had fallen from my hands, and I could speak again. A sense of purpose and resolve rushed over me. My job was gone, but I was still here. I was still a professional, and I could still accomplish any goal I set my mind to.
(Holy shit! What a trip that was!)
I looked excitedly over at A_____, “So, can I get my stuff from my desk now? I’ve just lost my job and I’ve got things I need to do!”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"...For an Atheist"

I don't think I can count the number of times I've had someone tell me incredulously, "It's amazing! You're really a nice guy even though you're an atheist!" or "Wow! It's great that you're so open minded, especially since you're an atheist!" and my favorite, "You seem so happy and morally sound for an atheist!"

I was sure at those times that these statements were given as sincere compliments, and I gratefully accepted them as such. It was nice to know that I was providing a view of an atheist that didn't fit the stereotypical sad and lonely, angry-at-god, lost soul atheist that so many theists picture in their mind. Something in the back of my mind itched a bit though.

"...For an atheist?" What if the word "atheist" in those sentences was replaced with some other word defining a different segment of our population? Try inserting "Jew" or "Muslim" or "Christian" or "black" or "woman" in place of "atheist" in those statements. They don't sound like compliments any more, do they?

So if you have said anything similar to the examples I provided in the first paragraph, thank you. I do appreciate the sentiment. Lets just leave off that "for an atheist" bit from now on, m'kay?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Growing Up With Silent Doubt

I was reflecting on my childhood indoctrination the other day, and I remembered sitting quietly in the back seat of our station wagon on the way to church, hoping that maybe this time the preacher would say something convincing enough to remove all doubt. It never happened. I remember him saying once, "Millions of people around the world can't all be wrong!" and how I was almost convinced, except that my 9 year old inquisitive brain shot back silently and sharply in my head, "But what about all those millions of people who believe something different?" 

Early on in my indoctrination during the 1970's, Sunday School teachers and other adult congregation members (including my parents) would admonish me for being too inquisitive. I would be told repeatedly that to question the word of God was to question God himself and risk eternal damnation. So I kept my doubts to my self, silently fearing that my "sinful" thoughts were already known by the all powerful "Father in Heaven" and that my doom had perhaps already been sealed. The indoctrination had successfully done its job. I was sufficiently terrified enough to go through the correct motions of praying, reading the Bible verses I was told to read, proclaiming my love for a 2000 year old "savior" whom I had never met, and obediently stifling any doubts that would creep into my mind lest I be damned forever.

Even in my rebellious teen years, the fear still existed. I had pretty much determined that I would most likely go to Hell if I suddenly died, hoping that maybe I would have enough warning before hand to make a last minute prayer for forgiveness. I would imagine myself slipping into Heaven just in the nick of time, with the gates slamming shut and nipping the backs of my heels. I had an atheist friend in high school, and I remember him telling me how he didn't believe in any god or afterlife. I was so amazed that he could think such a thing and not be frightened of death, or of being wrong and finding himself in Hell! It was astonishing! And I had a hard time grasping how he could be so comfortable with his position. Somewhere in the depths of my mind though, buried beneath the lies, the fears, and denial, was a wish that I could be just as comfortable with my life as he was with his.

In my 20's my wife and I decided we needed to get our act together and start following the "right path." We both started attending a church and reading the Bible in earnest. By my late 20's, after digging deeper into the scriptures and finding all the contradictions and horrible atrocities committed by a supposedly "loving" god, those doubts from my childhood began to surface again, with fear of eternal damnation tagging along for the ride. My first breakthrough in shaking off the paralyzing indoctrination of my childhood came to me while I was thinking (of course).

I was working at a factory at the time, and 80 percent of my time was spent watching a machine run, intervening whenever it got jammed. So I had time to spare for self-reflection and thought. I first realized that my emotional fear was all that was holding me back from pursuing the rational doubts that I had been stuffing down all these years. So I conducted my own little "thought experiment." I asked myself, "If I had no fear whatsoever, would I still believe all of this Christianity stuff?" The immediate, almost knee-jerk answer that popped into my head was a resounding "NO!" Fortunately, my wife was having doubts as well, and although our individual searches for the truth didn't match up exactly, they were close enough in comparison that we were able to share our discoveries with each other, both of us agreeing that the doctrine of Christianity was bunk and would not get us any answers to our questions.

I didn't know it at the time, but that day in the factory was the beginning of my 13 year journey toward non-belief in a god and the supernatural. It took me several years of searching and struggling with the byproducts of my indoctrination before I eventually landed at being an atheist. I still wanted to believe there was a god of some sort; that there was some type of afterlife and some kind of externally defined purpose for my being in the world. Yes, there were still some residual fears that needed to be shaken off, but I was on my way to freedom, breaking my silence at last, asking questions and fearlessly letting my doubts be heard by anyone who cared to listen.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why Write All These Words?: The Death of an Atheist

For the past week I have been reading many online posts, blogs, and articles noting the death of Christopher Hitchens, best known perhaps for his book God is Not Great. Some atheists, myself included, felt mild sadness and will miss his writing and his skill at debating. Some atheists viewed him as their hero and were literally shedding tears. Some atheists hated the guy over political differences and were glad that he was gone. 

Of course there were also theists who had something to say about Mr. Hitchens’ death. Some were genuinely heart-felt and kind in their address. The rest of them seem to fall into three categories.  Some went with the Universalist idea, suggesting he would be in Heaven eventually. Others who do not believe in a literal Hell suggested that he was indeed dead and gone, missing the opportunity for “everlasting life” in Heaven. Lastly, there were those who said that if he didn’t convert at the last moment, that he was in Hell and/or separated from God forever, screaming for mercy. The latter group came across almost gleefully in an “I-told-you-so” sort of way, as if his death was somehow “proof” that he had begun his eternal torment.

At first I was angry at the theists in this latter group for expressing such terrible ideas about the late Mr. Hitchens. Then it occurred to me that in his day he didn’t really have any kind words for the late Jerry Falwell or Mother Teresa either. None of this really matters anyway. He’s dead. So what purpose do all of these words have? Why would so many people bother to write about their feelings concerning one man’s life and how he lived it? My guess is that when news breaks about the death of a widely-known person who has had such a divisive influence on our political and theological discussions, there are a lot more of us who notice a sort-of “empty spot” in our lives. Whether it’s big or small, or brings sadness or happiness or something in between, the fabric of our lives has been permanently changed, and we take notice.

Perhaps in the case of Christopher Hitchens, a very outspoken atheist who held no punches when it came to debating the existence of a god and/or an afterlife, there is an odd curiosity of what it must be like to come face to face with death, unwavering and unrepentant. His fellow atheists, whether they liked him or not, might recognize this one aspect of his outlook on life and death with some respect, perhaps awe. Theists on the other hand, especially the more fundamental ones, might have a harder time wrapping their heads around this.

Of the many misconceptions widely held about atheists, the idea that we actually believe in a god but simply refuse to acknowledge it somehow, seems to be one of the most common. So when someone like Christopher Hitchens dies with no remorseful last-minute conversion, the theist might conclude one of two things:
  • He honestly did not believe that there was a god or an afterlife. - For the theist to acknowledge that Mr. Hitchens’ disbelief was truly held through to the very end could mean that there is the slightest chance that he might have been right. Such a concept seems to be one of the scariest for a stalwart theist to imagine.
  • Or he was simply too stubborn and prideful; refusing to believe what was “obvious.” - This allows the theist to continue feeling secure in his or her beliefs without having to address any doubts. Thus the theist, depending upon the flavor of religious faith, concludes that Mr. Hitchens is burning in Hell or just eternally separated from God or is truly dead with no chance of experiencing an afterlife, and all is right with the world.
No, the words aren’t for the late Christopher Hitchens, they’re for us, and they help each of us to describe how we are dealing with this “empty spot” that has been left behind. Whether we agree with each other or not; whether we are theist or atheist; whether we liked the man or not, all of these words paint a tapestry of how his life influenced the world around him. So, if we all felt the same, it would be a pretty boring tapestry, wouldn’t it?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On Faith and Killing in the Name of Faith

I wonder sometimes, if there was no religion, would the hairless apes of Planet Earth simply latch onto some other ideal or philosophy that they would be willing to kill for? Someone once told me that faith was the culprit in clashes like this one rather than belief in a god or a religion.

Faith can be placed in anything I suppose, whether it is a person, place, thing, idea, or philosophy. However, it seems to me that those who consider faith a moral virtue also attach the qualifier that it's only virtuous if it is in agreement with their own values. As long as the hairless apes on this planet hold to this way of thinking, I doubt seriously that any peace we might enjoy would ever last longer than a fleeting instant in our brief, tumultuous time here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Listening to Silence

when i was young i was told
god was maker
of everything that has been,
everything that is,
everything that will be.

i was told then to pray
for his still voice,
his comforting words of hope,
comforting wisdom,
comforting love for me.

i listened in silence
for any word.
so anxious i was to hear,
anxious to perceive,
anxious for belonging.

in silence i heard naught
but my own sigh,
disappointed, no answer,
disappointed, still,
disappointed, grieving.

so pretending to hear
some small still voice
i bowed down with the others,
bowed down just in case,
bowed down for parents' praise.

trying with each prayer to
feel his presence,
i felt only my sadness,
felt my tears falling
as hours turned to days.

i did what i was told
for all those years.
yet those years were not wasted.
they gave me wisdom,
time to think, time to feel.

now grown and on my own,
my life is full.
i have a world around me,
a world i can touch,
not imagined, but real.

without belief in some
fictional god,
i still have life before me,
a life with purpose,
with vision and with choice.

i've listened to silence
and found for it
two uses (among others),
to stay quiet in,
or to fill with my voice.