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The Worst Day of my Life

If you ask me what the best day of my life was, I could not give a consistent or even cohesive answer. It is more an amalgamation of many instances that literally made my day, week , year or even life. There are the fleeting moments of otherwise mundane days that were somehow filled with sexual or religious ecstasy, or the realization that my favorite team really did when the championship. Then there are the whole days that seemed somehow perfect, whether spent alone outdoors or inside listening to music,  or perhaps with a companion—be it a seemingly endless make-out session with a partner or just a concert, movie or show with a good friend. Maybe the best days were the “big ones,” like a wedding day or finally graduating from college with high honors at age 37. And of course all of those are dwarfed by life-changing reality that goes far beyond what could ever happen in a single day—the whole process of finding out I’ll be a father (and a father again, and again, and again!) through finding out through the process of marriage or parenting that I really can somehow love more deeply and intimately than I did seemingly moments before. Even the most mundane of days can easily be remembered joyfully when taken in as the context of the whole of what is really a pretty average life.

Ask me about the worst day, though, and I can answer without hesitation. Yes, I’ve had some very bad days. There was the hernia repair surgery was painful beyond my previous imagining, though I’m sure many people have suffered much worse. There were countless trips to Emergency Departments where mental illness had gotten the best of me and I was convinced I was dying from an a hidden illness that the doctors simply had not found yet. There were temporary setbacks, like the loss of a job, and the more profound losses, like the deaths of family members, friends or classmates. There was more profound and prolonged mental illness that left me largely confined to my room for the greater part of a year, barely wanting to eat and becoming hooked on pain-killers because my family doctor was treating the symptoms or abdominal pain without realizing that is was mere somatization from undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.

Then there is the worst day—September 22nd, 2013. That was the day my wife of 16 years and mother of my children came home from pretending to be at church and confessed to having an affair before quietly packing up a few belongings and leaving for good. When she told the kids she was leaving, they at first thought she meant it was for a trip before she explained that she was “divorced going away.” Up until a few weeks before, things seemed to be going fine. It was probably the year I would remember most fondly in retrospect. I was finally making enough money to buy her gifts that I knew she always wanted but could never afford. We took an amazing trip together to Chicago that included a chance to see the Book of Mormon musical. We were featured in Christianity Today magazine as an example of a couple that excelled despite our religious differences. Her band was getting more and more gigs and commanding greater and greater pay.  Her podcast (largely about our sex life) was gaining popularity. Her agent indicated that a book deal was probably forthcoming. If ever there was a year for celebration, 2013 was it.

And then it was not. The feature in Christianity Today brought to fruition the double life hiding behind all of success. He was a mutual friend. Our families took a trip to the zoo together. He was the paid worship leader at her church and the guitar player in her wedding and dance band. The two of them had always gotten along exceptionally well, even speaking at a conference about how gender should not get in the way of a good friendship—and most people believed them, including his wife and me. As it turned out, I was one of the last to know. They had already told the worship team at church that they intended to leave their respective families for one another. His wife had already moved out after catching them making out in the driveway (among much more damning evidence). He had cheated before, but this was the last straw, and he wanted out of the marriage anyway.

The divorce was quick and clean, avoiding even a court date. She did not want anything she had not already taken. There was no money left in savings and little in checking. All of the utilities were set to be cutoff. Homeowner’s insurance had lapsed for want of home repairs I didn’t know anything about. I called the credit card companies and auto-insurance and cut her off.  I would keep the house, the stuff the retirement account, and custody of the kids. She only wanted him. I found myself wishing she had died rather than left, because at least then I would not have suffered the personal rejection. She was pregnant with his baby before either divorce even made it through. So much for Christian morals.

I wish I could say that it all worked out in the end. Maybe kids are resilient and adaptable to this sort of change. But they are not. They went from being stars in the gifted program to failing nearly every class. They have wrestled with thoughts of suicide, in some cases requiring inpatient care and intensive therapy.  Maybe I would find a woman who loved me more deeply than I could imagine and my kids as her own, but I have not. The women I dated all flatly stated that my life is simply too complicated for them to contemplate anything deeper. I have, for the moment, given up on trying to meet anyone else.

The reality is that six kids and two exes struggle every day with the financial and emotional devastation wrought by this fiasco, while the perpetrators live as carefree newlyweds. Sometimes there is Child Support, and often there is not. Sometimes the kids have great days at school and home and it feels like the our non-traditional family could not be better, but often it is a mess.  For me, it is a struggle to even get out of bed. I like my job and love my kids, but I’m just wired to love and be loved. I often have dreams where my ex and I just do ordinary, everyday tasks together, but then I wake up alone on my side of an otherwise empty queen-size bed.

My ex and I don’t really talk much beyond the logistics of when she’ll pick up the kids every other weekend or help get them to this or that appointment. Sometimes I wish we did. I would really like to be in a position to ask “was it worth it? Emotionally crippling the kids, getting kicked out of church, losing professional creditability, and ultimately suffering through a stillbirth—for what?  But I’m afraid of the answer. I asked about her most hurtful statements once before the divorce and she flatly stated that she meant it all. Maybe it really is worth it—and what does that say about me? I guess I’ll never know. It is probably better that I don’t.

You Call Yourself a Christian? (Revised)

This is an edit of my original “coming out” as an Atheist several years ago. Since I have not posted for a while, it seemed appropriate as a sort of “reboot.”

It has become an all too familiar question—How can you call yourself a Christian and x? X is usually something that has positively nothing to do with the Christian religion or with overt behavior could classically be defined as “sin.” No, the “x” is usually something like “and vote for Barack Obama,” or accept that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has held up to immense scrutiny for a 150 years ,” or “propose that maybe removing well-trained, experienced soldiers from duty because they happen to be attracted to members of their own sex.” Of course, all of the above objections are inevitably tied to some conception of an absolute and perfect moral authority, presumably from God. However, this perfect and unchanging authority has proven to be remarkably pliable, not to mention contradictory. It has been used to justify slavery and inspire the abolitionist movement. It has been used to justify misogyny and to tear down racism, held tantamount to patriotism and as justification for civil (and not so civil) disobedience.

And that’s just in the last few centuries. Going back through history, the picture does not get any better. The Catholic Church has only been able to hold itself together by adopting new doctrine and practice every so often, calling into question the notion of a structure that is simultaneously infallible and in need of revision. The Protestants seem to have dispensed with even attempting to reconcile their doctrines, choosing instead to splinter at the slightest hint of disagreement, creating in excess of 30,000, yes, thirty thousand denominations, not counting all of the independent churches with no authority beyond their internal hierarchy. Christians with similar enough beliefs get along well enough at conferences, but it is clear that their respect for doctrines of other Christians, even Christians themselves is directly proportional to the level of agreement on certain points of doctrine, all the while disagreeing as to which doctrines are worth squabbling over–squabbling over squabbling, as it were.

The Hebrew Scriptures are revered as authoritative to the extent that a given passage reinforces a particular notion and ignored as “Old Covenant” when they do not serve the purpose, which, again, calls into question what absolute authority one is appealing to exactly when he claims that no Christian could possible think or say “x.” It only gets harder when one begins to search the doctrines of similar monotheistic religions to find wider disagreement still, despite all claiming to have access to the same universal truth.

All this got me thinking, why does God’s opinion always to match up with the person claiming to speak for him? It seems like something that could be settled objectively, scientifically. If there really is a will of God, why doesn’t anybody seem to be able to demonstrate that they know what it is? Even if it were subjective, like, say the statement that pizza is yummy, shouldn’t most people agree on most issues? Were that politics were so easy! What should we do? What God wants. All in favor? Aye! It’s Unanimous. Let’s go out for pizza and celebrate! But alas, it is not easy.

Likewise, if God inspires superior morality, would not his followers demonstrate superior morality, as defined by their own standards or that of society? It is a hypothesis that has been subjected to rigorous study and polling by believers and secularists alike, and there is no demonstrable, statistical difference between those who attend church regularly and those who do not. Christians are every bit as likely to have been divorced at least once, been drunk or used drugs, to have purchased or viewed pornography, committed adultery—you name it—as anyone else.

No matter what the scripture or doctrine is, people have a nasty tendency to either write scripture that they themselves agree with or, if scripture already exists, to point out the parts that resonate with what they are already thinking. You see, the scriptures do not change people, people change scriptures, either overtly, by writing new ones, or quietly and gradually, but shifting emphasis and attention to whatever point is salient at the time. The reason Ultimate Morality appears to be so elusive is because it is a phantom, held up as some kind of heavenly trump card, “if you disagree with x, you disagree with God, who is right by definition, meaning you are wrong.” This effectively ends all questioning, all exploration and all discussion. But truth cannot be established by fiat. It can only be discovered, which is why universities place so much emphasis on research.

Several years ago,  they day came when I could say with absolute confidence and perfect peace of mind that no one needs to ask how I can call myself a Christian and. . .? Nor did anyone have to substitute any trendy new phrase, like “Christ-Follower,” as if changing the words changes the reality.  I could finally say what I’d thought for quite some time,it just so happens that I’m not a Christian. I’m not “spiritual.” I’m not a “Christ-Follower,” a “seeker” a “believer” a “theist” or even agnostic. I am also not a “Bright,” or a “None,” or a “Darwinist” (which don’t exist, but the way). I could really do without the labels, and I’m not particularly fond of negative labeling—defining people by what they are not instead of by what they are. Nonetheless, I shall dispense with the rhetorical games going forward.

You may notice that the title of my blog changed and is now under the “tokenatheist” url. I am not anti-religious, merely irreligious. I think church is sometimes interesting and sometimes fun, and that spiritual organizations have a big role to play in our society. I am not about to tear them down. My kids like church and they will continue to be a part of a faith community so long as that is their desire. Their mother and I are doing just fine as an inter-“faith” couple. I’m inclined to think Romans 14:16 is pretty good advice for people of all cultures, religions and philosophies. Nonetheless, I grew tired of living in the closet, playing pretend, going through the motions when no part of me accepted the literal existence of any god, devil, angel, ghost, soul, afterlife or disembodied consciousness. I think the Universe is sufficiently wondrous all by itself and life is what we make of it. I also think religion has a place, at its symbols clearly resonate with people, the stories contained therein telling us as much about ourselves as we could hope to gain from psychology textbooks.

Skepticism, the notion that sometimes asking questions is the answer, has affected me in profoundly and positively, something akin, I’m sure, to the religious conversions others have gone through, when they have their own epiphany as to what ultimate truth is for them. I feel liberated. I no longer have to wonder why I don’t fit it any church, why I feel the need to attend a new one every couple of years or why I have always been more comfortable with skeptics than believers. I no longer have to worry about a bad day being a punishment from God or an attack from the Devil. I have found joy and peace and hope and happiness. I found the confidence to go back to college, something I had been unable to do for 14 years because of stress-related breakdowns, and not only pass and graduate, but excel, making Dean’s list or higher every single semester. Perhaps my atheism is a phase, but if so, it’s a pretty long-lived one. I prefer to think of it as the destination after a very long and arduous journey. In my case, it is science that has brought about a more abundant life, and seeing as how it is the only one that I will ever have, I intend to live it to the full. If that means taking an unpopular path, so be it. At least I’ll sleep better, knowing I have the courage of my convictions. My private and public personas will be in agreement. I will continue to seek out ultimate truth, wherever it leads. I encourage everyone do to the same.