An Atheist Reconsiders God within the Pandemic


A COVID memorial on the Nationwide Mall.
Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Pictures

Once I was in faculty, a good friend died, and for weeks afterward, I assumed I noticed him in all places. I didn’t suspect him of haunting me; it was extra that individuals resembled him so strongly I believed, briefly, that he was nonetheless alive. In September, once I realized one other younger good friend had died in a tragic accident, I questioned if I’d see him, too. Human beings are uncomfortable with absence. We like to seek out patterns, fill in blanks. A person demise creates a void in actuality, and nearly two years of fixed demise has left most of us groping at nighttime.

By the beginning of October, greater than 700,000 folks had died of COVID-19 in america. A current memorial on the Nationwide Mall takes this absence and renders it tangible. Higher than an open letter, extra sinew than a ghost. On the even grass earlier than the Washington Monument, there have been tons of of hundreds of white flags — a nationwide give up. I may plant a flag for my grandfather, who died of the virus almost a yr in the past. However the gesture feels skinny. Not that the memorial is a nasty thought: It could provoke within the viewer emotions of unhappiness or remorse or the emotion that arises in response to an absence, an emotion I can not title however that’s as near fatigue as it’s to grief or nostalgia. I don’t know what precisely I’d need from a memorial — whether or not it’s catharsis or that means or one thing else altogether. I assumed a number of hundred instances this yr, Perhaps I ought to go to church.

This will probably be information to my dad and mom, my childhood pastors, mainly everybody in my life. I haven’t gone close to one as something however a vacationer in a couple of decade. My dad and mom raised me to be a strict conservative Christian, mixing fundamentalist and Evangelical tendencies. Conviction is my inheritance. And as an grownup, I’ve most popular atheism to a generic spirituality as a result of it mirrored the brilliant traces of my upbringing: God is or isn’t. The universe, I had determined, contained nothing however vivid mild and the vacuum of area. So why, after two years of plague, did I need to know if it hid anything?

In the Screwtape Letters, when C. S. Lewis’s titular demon imparts some recommendation to his failson nephew, he offers, usually, with the Second World Conflict. (His verdict: probably helpful.) However some morsels are nonetheless related to up to date woes. “We’re actually confronted with a merciless dilemma,” Screwtape complains. “When the people disbelieve in our existence we lose all of the pleasing outcomes of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. Alternatively, once they consider in us, we can not make them materialists and sceptics.” What Screwtape desires is to stop people from believing strongly in something non secular in any respect so they are going to as an alternative worship extra earthly forces. “I’ve nice hopes,” the demon continues, “that we will study in due time learn how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what’s, in impact, a perception in us (although not beneath that title) will creep in whereas the human thoughts stays closed to perception within the Enemy.” The Enemy, in fact, is God, with out whom the unbeliever constructs all types of false idols.

Perhaps Screwtape had some extent. Take, for instance, the “we consider in science” liberal who venerates Anthony Fauci and, earlier than him, Andrew Cuomo. To an extent that Lewis, a conservative convert, would maybe not admit if he had been alive, the liberal is true about a number of issues. Masks work, and so do the vaccines. Individuals who disagree are taking horse dewormer as a result of they heard about it on the web — and their dangerous decisions have an effect on extra than simply themselves. However, the liberal cult of competency and rationality can have a darkish facet. Anti-vaxxers can seem like issues first and other people second. They exhaust us, and even endanger us, however they’re usually the victims of misinformation. Their deaths are nonetheless tragedies. Science may be so emotionalized, to borrow Screwtape’s time period, that we see those that betray it as demons, and we mistake ignorance for true evil.

This occurred to me lately once I misplaced my mood with a lady I’d identified in faculty. She is a nurse and wrote on Fb that she refuses to get vaccinated. I informed her that individuals like her are the rationale my grandfather is useless. That wasn’t precisely true — my grandfather died earlier than the vaccines had been obtainable — however her indifference towards the virus had irked me. I don’t suppose I modified her thoughts. I felt higher for an immediate after which I went again to feeling indignant, each along with her and with myself. No matter compelled me to touch upon her Fb submit may have develop into a lot uglier if I had allowed it. On the r/HermanCainAward sub-Reddit, folks submit screenshots of feedback from anti-vaxxers who later died of COVID. To some, demise has develop into a spectacle at which they’re entitled to gawk. That’s how demonic power should really feel. Proper now, it’s in all places.

Maybe that is why I needed to return to church. I questioned if I’d uncover a solution to banish the darkness gathering round me and inside my mind. I needed to rework absence into thriller, to develop into an alchemist of grief. Principally I needed a solution to mourn, not simply my very own loss however the galloping mass demise enveloping the world. Or, a minimum of, I needed to discover a new church. I retain no fondness for the dogmatic cruelties of my youth. Fundamentalists aren’t, in my expertise, good with thriller, or with demise. There was little mental inquiry. Why trouble when God had already given us all of the solutions we wanted on Earth? When an individual handed away, we had been presupposed to rejoice, as they’d gone house to Heaven. (On this sense, grief may very well be a type of selfishness.) I didn’t miss that. I didn’t miss my perception in an afterlife, both; it felt too straightforward.

As a substitute, I longed for traits my previous religion by no means actually possessed. I needed one thing like mysticism, a shared seek for revelation undertaken with the failing state of human affairs in thoughts. From the vantage of my sofa, I regarded out on a world that hadn’t misplaced its moorings a lot because it had by no means actually possessed them in any respect. I didn’t want solutions, not instantly, however I needed to comprehend it was attainable to seek out them if I labored laborious sufficient to look. The area I lived in appeared to shrink because the pandemic wore on, and I needed to stretch out my arms to one thing, even when I couldn’t inform what it was.

Maybe I may discover a totally different solution to concern God. Some church buildings I dominated out straight away. As a young person, I needed to be a nun, however actually, the Catholic Church is just not for me. There are generations of Protestants in my household, and I concern their indignant ghosts. So I thought of the Anglicans and the Quakers, although I’d make a poor pacifist. I wasn’t ready for an indication, precisely, however I assumed it is perhaps good to have one. However as of this writing I’ve had no “street to Damascus” second. No blinding mild appeared on my avenue. I didn’t really feel led anyplace, not by a mysterious guiding power, and never by my very own thoughts.

I needed to see a factor unmistakable because the handiwork of God. I listened for the nonetheless small voice, as Evangelicals wish to say, and I heard nothing however shattering silence. So I listened to that as an alternative. And I by no means went again to church.

Once I realized my younger good friend had died, I went for a stroll. There was nothing else I may do. I couldn’t mild a candle for him in church. I couldn’t berate God for the random cruelty of the occasion. There was nothing besides myself, alone on a stroll via Brooklyn. It’s not so uncommon to be paralyzed by unbelief in a second of grief. The closest consolation I discovered was in different folks: my accomplice and one other good friend, who requested me to inform her all in regards to the one who’d handed. God might but reveal himself to me. Until He does, all that waits for me at nighttime is different folks looking for their approach out. There isn’t a Screwtape. We’re it. That’s what I heard within the silence.


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