Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Atheist on a Plane

"What," I asked myself while the plane taxied down the runway for takeoff, "do I do now that I don't pray any more?"

I used to travel quite a bit for a job I had, six weeks a year on average, and for all of those flights I prayed on every takeoff and landing. I'd make the sign of the cross and silently form the words:

"Dear Lord, please see this flight and all those upon it safely to its destination. If it should come to pass that any of us should die before we touch down, please take care of our family and friends and let them know that we love them. If we should live past the landing of this plane, please help us walk in the light and be good to each other. Amen."

It took me a while to get the wording right, although I suspected that God would get the idea no matter how clumsy my phrasing. I didn't want to sound like I was telling God what He ought to do, but I also didn't want to blame Him if anything should happen. I didn't want the focus to be on me or my own selfish life, but on those I cared for.

I found the ritual calming and comforting. I wasn't sure, even then, that there was anyone listening or, if there was Someone, that they cared. But it made me feel better. I'd made peace, even if just in my own mind, with how I felt about the people in my life. I'd come, at least in a small way, face to face with the possibility that I could die in the next few hours, and with that acceptance I was able to let the fear go.

But on this most recent trip, I realized that I could no longer engage in that comforting ritual. I didn't believe in God any more. So what do you do when you don't believe in God and you're afraid, in a position where you used to pray?

Personally, I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing slowly. I cleared my mind of distracting thoughts (like that baby crying in the seat behind me). I thought about the prayer I used to say, and realized that what mattered to me about it was focusing on the people in my life. So I brought them up one by one and asked "Are there things I've left unsaid to them? Is there anything I wished I'd done, but didn't? Do they know I love them?"

The answers varied depending on the person, of course, but overall I thought most of them know I loved them. I knew I'd been honest with them and as good to them as I know how to be. I promised to myself that I'd keep trying to be the best husband, son, brother, uncle, and friend I could be. To make the world better, even if only in a tiny way, as often as I could.

For me, letting go of my belief in a divinity has helped me focus more on humanity. To keep in mind that our duty is to each other, not to an invisible force in the sky. I know it's not that way for everyone, or even for most. Theism is, for many, a means to the same end, a way of helping them open their eyes to the other people around them even while focusing on the divine.

When I think of those people -- like my family, and some of my more religious friends -- it makes me happy. I don't much care what excuse people use to be good to each other, whether it's religion or atheism or philosophy or fear or simply good old fashioned human kindness. I'm just glad they do it.

After I opened my eyes and the plane was in the air, I smiled. I felt at peace, ready for whatever destination we were headed towards, and even happy for that baby crying in the row behind me. His mother was being good to him. May we all be so lucky.


GeoPoet said...


What a beautiful prayer, and thanks if I was included in those prayers, as I believe I actually benefited from it.

I must say however, that your statement "letting go of my belief in a divinity has helped me focus more on humanity", while obviously your own view, is a theological absurdity. You continue to think of a God "out there" and a demanding or vindictive "invisible force" when in fact, all the prayers and purpose of life lead right back to your relationship with others. The duty to God IS inextricably tied to the duty to one another, so fully exemplified by the gift of His son. You see dichotomy where there is none, similar to your confession experience.

Of course, we theists believe the very reason for this "other" focus is instilled by God (as we've discussed before), but this brings up another point: The "end" for theists is not just on unity and peace with the ones you love, but this is merely a reflection, a hint, at the immense love that God has for each of us. Prayer is not magic or superstion, but with every prayer, we build a trusting relationship with God, similar to anyone else you love, except that our capacity to love others can be infinitely enhanced when our love is rooted in Him.

I'd like to recommend a book for everyone reading this blog. It's called "Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship" by Paul Vitz. I just finished reading it and believe it contains a lot of truth regarding modern culture.

Also, I'd like to point everyone to the Barna surveys that refute nearly everthing you've said about atheists and morals in your blog regarding "When your Child tells you He's an Atheist". I point these out because I get the impression, wrong perhaps, that there doesn't seem to be much attempt at balance in your blog any more. Here's a snapshot of the surveys, completed by all religious and non-religous groups:

According to Barna surveys, atheists are ranked the highest of all groups studied in terms of the following:

- being "stressed out"
- least satisfied overall with their life
- least concerned about the moral conditions of the country
- lowest in traditional or family values
- by far, most liberal on social and political issues
- rank all of the following as being morally acceptable: 1) gambling, 2) co-habitation, 3) having an abortion 4) having sex outside of their marriage 5) pornography, 6) using drugs 7) same-sex relationships and 7) drunkenness.

Also, atheists ere the least likely to volunteer for any non-profit organization and were the least likely committed to improving the world and other people's lives. Again, this was completed by the respondents themselves.

These are only statistics and everyone is different, obviously. However, I feel there is a need to give the whole picture to those who get a biased picture of the joys of atheism, especially relatives reading this blog.

Thanks for your honesty and insight once again; your perspectives are always thought-provoking, to be respected and definitely worth reading. As always, I hope my perspective is taken in that same light.


David M said...

Apologies for my poor memory and the laziness, which I'll use an excuse for not rereading the atheism posts. The question I have, which you may have already answered is: Do you believe in the soul?
Just curious.

Jeff Hebert said...


Thanks for the comment. "Do I believe in the soul?" That's a big question. I believe it is very difficult to answer, because in my experience, everyone means something different by the term "soul". If you mean it in the classical Christian sense of the totality of the human person that survives death to live eternally in Heaven, then no, I do not believe that. I do not believe it for reasons theological, emotional, logical, and evidential. It makes no sense to me.

If you mean it in some more abstract sense, as is increasingly common in Western nations, as sort of "An undefined, unknowable something that survives death", without all of the baggage of Christian theology (heaven, hell, sins weighing it down, etc.), then I would have to say I'm agnostic about it, as I believe that to be the only intellectually honest position to take. It's a fundamentally unanswerable question, since by definition such a life force is outside the bounds of the physical world. We have no way of testing such a hypothesis, and so there is no way to reach a judgment on it one way or another.

For that reason, I don't have a problem with either side of the issue people come down on -- in the absence of any way to know otherwise, your guess is just as good and just as valid as mine.

Having said that, if I were putting money on it, I'd say no -- when we die, that's it. You're dead, close curtain, thanks for coming and tip your waitresses.

C.Hereticus said...

letting go of my belief in a divinity has helped me focus more on humanity

I also found this to be true when I divested myself of the mythology. I love Penn Jillette's quote: "Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have." (from a 1995 NPR interview).

Barna research

Barna has laid out some interesting stats about belief and non-belief. However, I always tend toward a grain of salt when I'm reading their works, as they are a Christian organization and are liable to a bit of bias.

Here are some more interesting statistics about atheists: http://atheistempire.com/reference/stats/main.html.

Interesting stuff, especially the ration of atheists to theists in US prisons and the comparitive divorce stats.

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