"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can Atheists Be Born Again? Of Course They Can

Bell Freeder had been brought up right – Catholic but with a good dose of Puritanical discipline; a Jewish respect for Biblical law; and a secular humanist’s healthy sense of logical inquiry and rationality. Despite this eclecticism, Bell was first and foremost a Catholic.  He was in marketing terms ‘an early adopter’.  The religion took hold even before The Age of Reason and his First Communion. There was something special about the Mass, the priests’ ornate vestments, the perfume of incense and burning candles, the mystery of the confessional, the choir, the processions, and the palm leaves.  It was only many years later that he put it all together and matched display and ceremony with the profound philosophy behind them, but even as a child he had an innocent appreciation of the majesty of God.

He was a faithful supplicant through his high school years, walking the two miles from his New England boarding school to the local Catholic Church in town, giving generously from his allowance, and keeping his childlike faith alive.

This was not easy because The Lefferts School was a non-denominational institution and a feeder for the Ivy League.  As such, religion was given a pass except for the obligatory Sunday service – Protestant to the core, but ‘non-affiliated’ to those prospective parents who were non- or marginal believers who still felt that some religious grounding was an important component of education and school life.

Dr. Hoskins was the Chaplain of Lefferts, and although he hewed the non-denominational line out of respect for the school administrators, he was a Christian through and through. Although he tried his best to speak only indirectly of Biblical teachings and injunctions in his Sunday sermons, he couldn’t help himself, held high  his dog-eared copy of the Bible, and quoted chapter and verse like a Southern Baptist preacher.  He had enough secular training and good sense to know when it was time to pull up, return to the safety of nostrums and platitudes.

Dennis Hoskins was a jerk, and every Sunday when he stood sanctimoniously at the pulpit, spun his treacly homilies, and bowed his head in prayer, Bell shook his head.  The fact that he had to trudge two miles in the snow to St. James Church every Sunday and hear the same parables and smiling suggestions gussied up in Catholic liturgy and mystery made matters worse.  Perhaps it was only a matter of venue.  St. James was a far cry from the cathedral-like church in New Brighton where he grew up, created thanks to the wealth of a line of industrialists, doctors, and lawyers for a hundred years. There the celebration of the Mass was close to what Bell imagined were the Masses of Chartres, St. Sulpice, and Notre Dame.  St. James looked more like a one-room schoolhouse than a church – clapboard, minor steeple, narrow aisle, mudroom, and cluttered vestry.

More than likely the chink in Bell’s spiritual armor came from both pastors’ predictability. Although Father Murphy was considered a firebrand and powerful speaker, his sermons about carnal sin, adultery, evil, and the stench of the Lake of Fire were old hat, boring, and uninspiring. Dr. Hoskins’ weekly invitations to charity, compassion, and peace were familiar, tiresome and tedious.

In any case, Bell went to chapel, then trod off to church every Sunday, read his missal, sang hymns, knelt, bowed his head, and raised it to receive Holy Communion.  The two services were very different but got mixed up in his mind.  Who was doing what to whom? What did Jesus say again?

The chink became a large crack at Yale thanks to religious indifference, the lack of obligatory services, and the spirit of rational inquiry.  In other words, the balance of rationality and belief which had been carefully maintained by Bell’s parents got out of whack.  Here there was only rationality and no belief.  He never gave in to secular humanism.  Although he was feeling less and less at home with religious ceremony, he still kept his strong belief in God and in Jesus Christ.  There was no reason to abandon faith simply because of impatience with ceremony and insufferable cant.

Being born again is common among Protestant evangelicals.  It is not only a common occurrence but a goal – an ideal that everyone hopes for.  The idea of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in a moment of glorious epiphany is what every Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian dreams of.  Catholics are often jealous of their Protestant brothers and sisters because they get to see Christ in their lifetimes while they have to wait for resurrection.  The old Temptation of Christ again, taken literally by the old synods and kept alive by Pope after Pope.  “Man does not live by bread alone”, said Jesus, offering the hungry not material sustenance and alleviation of misery but the promise of a heavenly paradise; and the Church did its best to make a living by nurturing this promise. Being born again means you can circumvent the Church, ignore Biblical text, and receive the spirit of the Lord.

Being a born again atheist seems like an oxymoron; but the abandonment of faith came as suddenly and unexpectedly to Bell Freeder as to the most devout Southern Baptist. He was walking down Fifth Avenue one day not long after graduation and passed by St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  It was Palm Sunday and parishioners, dressed in pink and seersucker were just exiting the church, palm fronds in hand. “Fuck it”, he said out loud; and from that moment onwards God played absolutely and irrevocably no part in his life.  He was finished with religion and felt what a born again Christian must feel after receiving Christ – light, happy, carefree, and liberated. He never looked back.

He never hesitated when people asked him his religious affiliation. “None”, he replied. “None whatsoever”.  The more religious of his friends probed him for more information.  Although they could understand agnosticism, the idea of a total rejection of God was unthinkable.  Bell answered simply, not wanting to get into predictable eschatological arguments.  “I am indifferent to religion”, he said.

His new atheistic life was as enlightened as he imagined a born again Christian’s to be. He could now look at life without the restricting lens of guilt and obligation. There was no reason to go back to first principles, to consider the religious basis of morality, or to make love and charity into spiritual expressions. Things simply were.  God was irrelevant.

Ironically Bell Freeder was an ‘early adopter’ of atheism just as he was Catholicism. Few people in the early 60s had had such neutralizing epiphanies.  Few atheists in America ever admitted their lack of faith; so Bell’s uncompromising indifference was met with surprise and alarm.

Over the next few decades, more and more atheists came out and admitted their dismissal of anything religious; and more recently began to come together.  Atheist Clubs were more popular than Key Clubs on campus.  Atheist conferences were held every year with more and more registrants. Atheist publications and websites proliferated; and atheists were invited to participate on religious panels and talk shows.  In short, atheism was fast becoming a non-religious religion.  Atheists  their own Ten Non-Commandments (‘There is no God, and no need to put false idols before him because he does not exist’; ‘The words God and Christ are textual references which are to be deconstructed’, etc.)

Bell was uninterested in any of this latter-day group-think.  In fact he was as scornful of it as he was of the harangues of Father Murphy and Dr. Hoskins, the pomp and ceremony of the High Mass, and the ecstatic conversions at the First Indianola Baptist Church of Christ.  Religion was more a matter of community than anything else, he thought. Nietzsche was right.

So Bell Freeder dismissed Atheism as summarily as he dismissed Catholicism or Protestantism.  His epiphany had acted like a good drain cleaner.  He had been purged of any and all greasy religious hairballs. His system was now like new.

Occasionally he wondered why this spiritual Drano was poured when and where it did. It was not a coincidence that it happened in front of Catholicism’s biggest temple to faith; but then again, why not? God is ironic.  “Oops”, he said out loud and smiled. “Irony is ironic”, and went back to his breakfast.

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