An Atheist Walks into a Church

Scotia Boyd Blog Angkor Wat

A couple of months before the world went into quarantine in 2020, I was driving down a long, dusty dirt road between Vietnam and Cambodia on the middle seat of a bus. I was on a sort of quest, a Tomb Raider style quest, to explore the ruins of Angkor Wat in an attempt to take my mind off a brutal attack on the heart. I was a few pages into A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, a book that was recommended to me on a sort of wellness retreat I partook in a couple months earlier for the same reason.

It was on that leg of the journey, passing by an infrastructure of tangled power lines that dipped so low to the ground they were propped up by flimsy sticks, that I lifted my gaze from the pages of the book and looked out the window at the world as if seeing it for the first time. With the same eyes I always had, I could see with new clarity.

Eckhart, after I had spent some indulgent days on rooftop bars above the colorful lights of Saigon City, spoke to an undiscovered part of me on page 22 when he said, "What a liberation to realize that the 'voice in my head' is not who I am."

On the next page, which was the final page of the preface, he wrote under a headline, A New Heaven and A New Earth, that the inspiration for the title of the book came from a biblical prophecy that speaks of the existing world order and the arising of 'A New Heaven and a New Earth.'

He went on to say, "We need to understand here that heaven is not a location but refers to the inner realm of consciousness. This is the esoteric meaning of the word, and this is also its meaning in the teachings of Jesus." 

The following is the story of where and how I met God for the first time as an atheist. And I want to preface it by saying that I know how that sounds. Really, I do. 

From the time that my siblings and I were old enough to learn anything, my Dad, an atheist with a particular disdain for the Catholic Church, taught us about all the atrocities of religion and religious wars throughout the ages.

At only four and five years old, he told us about how the church came into Canada and erected its 'residential schools' for native children, which were essentially internment camps where they stole kids away from their families and brutally beat them into assimilation. 

The aboriginal children of Canada, who already had their own spiritual connections to the land, were subjected to the Catholic beliefs of a fiery hell and were told that being "Indian" was a sin. Overwhelmingly, the children at the residential schools were raped by the priests, and that's not the only instance of it happening. There is a staggering number of young boys who have been raped by Catholic priests outside of the residential schools as well. 

Part of the reason my dad told us about these things while we were so young is because I think he was actually scared for us. After all, we went to catholic school, and that meant that we also attended mass at the church every month. He wanted to arm us with knowledge before they got to us and indoctrinated us or lured us into sinister things. 

You might think that it was an odd choice for an atheist to send his children to a catholic school, but in Canada around half of the publicly funded schools are catholic schools. We grew up in a sweet little Italian neighborhood, and went to the school up the street from us, where we got to walk home everyday for lunch past all of the nonnas and nonnos. My classmates, all of the Antonio's and Massimo's and Jessica's, wore little golden crucifixes around their necks. 

The teachers were kind and well-meaning, but they all believed in the fairytale, too. We had a big mural of Jesus outside our kindergarten class, who was depicted saying, "Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them." 

One memory from my childhood stands out to me so well. I remember my brother and I coming home from school one day and we hadn't even taken off our schoolbags yet when my little brother mentioned the word god around my dad. 

My dad quipped back immediately, "There is no god." he said.

And then my brother went on to rectify himself and share what he'd been told, "But Father Egidio said..." 

Of course my brother would have believed the things that he heard at school, especially when our teachers  had all been so caring and lovely and everything else they taught us was right. But I was a little wiser than my brother. I knew not to suggest that god was real, yet I stood eagerly behind my brother curious to hear the response, too. 

My dad pointed to his chest and said firmly, "I'm your father." 

And that was that. The case was closed on my childhood curiosity about the question of god, regardless of what I heard at school. But even though I knew that none of it was real and that Jesus was just a man, I took delight in singing the songs and hearing the stories about the times when he walked the earth in his sandals among the donkeys and sheep. 

While the concept of god remained a subject of fascination and wonderment for me, it was not something that I could personally hold. 

From elementary school to middle school I had a mixed group of friends, most of whom believed in God, and I thought that I was a little smarter than the ones that did. In gr.7 I had this big, old, grouchy teacher with high blood pressure named Mr. Ricci who often talked about God and Jesus and the saints and going to heaven and I found it so endearing. That a man like that, a straight-shooting, old school, family man of his convictions believed in all those fairy tales too. 

Sometimes I was envious of it all and thought about what it would feel like to believe in some kind of overlord of the universe who could see everything you did. That you could call upon, and that would look after your loved ones after they died and hold them in his loving presence until the time came when you would go and join them for eternity too.

In high school I transferred to the public school system where religion was no longer part of the curriculum and none of my friends or teachers believed in God, except for that one really weird girl Peggy who was homeschooled up to gr.9. 

In my first art class, my teacher Mr.Little opened my eyes to the world of Renaissance art. The paintings on the ceiling in the sistine Chapel, and how Michelangelo laid back on scaffolding for four years to finish it. He introduced me to Botticelli's Birth of Venus. I had never laid my eyes on something so indescribably beautiful before I saw the works of the Italian Renaissance. Being exposed to art became a string that pulled me out from the darkness that I remember growing up in Sudbury, where so many memories of mine were marked by days and months of chilling darkness. 

I delved into Da Vinci and came across his quote, "He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind." And then became an artist, too. The art room was a refuge I could go to to let myself be taken away. Away from the pressures of high school and friends, and the want to fit in. I started skipping other classes and lunches to stay in there toiling away and I drew connections between the greatest works of art of all time and the creators' devotion to God. 

I considered the pyramids, and magnificent cathedrals with their frescos, and the structures of Ancient Greece, and shrines and the ruins of Angkor Wat and mighty, glorified Buddhas. I admired that devotion; there was something undeniable about it, even if it was only for art's sake. All of those miraculous works, the wonders of the world that we still flock to visit. 



Then of course there's religion's dark underbelly, the one that my dad warned me against. Always the one to be intrigued by psychology and methods of persuasion, I later delved into the world's cults. I tried to understand the fine line between what was considered an acceptable religion in society and what society considered to be a cult. The line seemed to be a minuscule one and one that could be crossed over so easily by any leader of faith. 

Historically, the greatest control you could have over a people has been through their faith. It's the greatest power and the most easily exploitable because it's intangible. It's been dangled over the heads of the working class with promises of eternal glory and retribution and all the while there has never had to be any kind of proof of investment here in this world. 

What a wonderful way to control the masses, so that they keep their heads down and work for capitalist benefit. It's the meek, the bourgeois landowners point out, who will be rewarded in heaven.  I noticed too that in nearly every instance of both religion and in cults, that the leaders exploited sexuality, which I think has more to do with man's desires than anything to do with God. 

It wasn't until I read Eckhart Tolle's book, which introduces itself by saying that Eckhart "is not aligned with any particular religion or tradition" that I considered there was something beneath all of that, a deeper wisdom that all of the world's religions pointed to. He introduced to me to Jesus not as a god but as a profound spiritual teacher. One of the great teachers, not unlike the Buddha, who came to show us the way. 

I came back from my travels excited and I bought a copy of the Bible, to see what Jesus had to say, and The Art of Happiness, a book cowritten by the Dalai Lama that was recommended to me by my white Buddhist tour guide, to get me started. In amazement I learned that the Dalai Lama wasn't praying everyday to ask for things like I imagined praying was, but he said that the prayers were sort of like daily reminders to himself. 

Consider the prayer of St.Francis in this way, 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

The religious phrasing and the mention of eternal life might evoke a knee-jerk reaction that makes you want to roll your eyes and wave your hand out in front of you (as it once did for me). But without any pretense, if I look honestly, I see something very good there. 

And that big old, notorious ancient Bible, once I opened it up, started in this way, 

"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the art*, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good."
*a typo that I decided to keep

Now I love a good story, and this one started so beautifully, so I kept on. What else was in this book? 

Genesis 2:19, 

"By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Not unlike the idea by Eckhart Tolle that we should not regard any thing too seriously, because all things are transient. 

The Bible went on to describe pages and pages of genealogy and extremely precise guidelines about how to dress and set up an alter and make sacrifices, guidelines to avoid leprosy, which included every biblical ailment including mold on the walls, and the laws and rules that God was dictating to us all or else eternal condemnation. 

But I read the Bible through the lens of historical context and without the assumption that it was written by God himself, and instead by Man who was doing the best they could to interpret God and to lay out the guidelines to the best kind of life they knew how for the period they lived in. 



It was around then that I wandered into church for the first time as an adult, just out of curiosity. I was open to visiting a spiritual worship site for any kind of religious denomination, but it just happened that the church I wandered into was the United Church of Canada, a christian church. And again, to my amazement, proving everything that I thought about christianity wrong, I was greeted by a wonderfully open congregation and a pastor who was not only a woman but an openly gay woman.

When she gave her sermon she reminded us that the church was a place for all of us to come, no matter our background, our sexual orientation, our race, our criminal history or whether or not we even believed in God. So, I felt, that she was speaking directly to me. I cried during the entire service because through her sermon I realized that church was not somewhere people went as a duty to a vengeful God, it was a place people came to for themselves. To take pause, to remind themselves of what's most important in life, to let the weight off their shoulders.

I kept going back and when all churches closed during the pandemic, I started watching the weekly services online. Still not sure that I was a believer, I defended my choice to attend zoom church to my friends by saying that I enjoyed the messaging. It was giving me comfort to surrender and trust in a greater purpose when I couldn't make sense of anything that was going on around me. And with time I found that I did believe in it. 

With the summer months came a decrease in new covid cases, making us think that the pandemic was nearing an end. The film industry started back up again, and I was finally able to go back to work after months without a job. Then, as autumn came the cases shot back up, and businesses started to shutter again. I checked the reporting of new covid cases every day and couldn't help but see headlines that made me worry the film industry would be shut down again, too. 

Then in the bathroom of the film studio I looked up at the mirror and thought of something; I remembered about God. And how I had always been taken care of, despite how stricken with fear I was when the pandemic hit. And that it was the pandemic itself that took me away from ten years of ceaseless dedication to my work and gave me the time to sit with books and go on long walks and start to feel the presence of God in my life. 

Production never did get shut down again, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway, because now I had faith. I had faith that everything in my life had led me to that exact moment, and that I was exactly where I was meant to be. It's something I can only know to be true because I can feel it. I don't think it's meant to be studied and dissected in the way that we study science, and I don't think that they contradict each other. The religions point to something, and if you follow the guidance laid out - not to steal or cheat or lie or betray your fellow man - then the heaven you will live in is right here where you are. 

So, have I been indoctrinated, my dear atheist friends may ask, to trust that morning always comes after the darkest of nights? I very well might have been.  
 




Comments

  1. Well, you’ve got me crying again! Beautifully written and a true inspiration, thank you!

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  2. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story.

    My grandparents on my dad's side lived a life of continuous spiritual journey. It impressed me how they read through the Bible every year and kept learning something new. They leaned into Jesus. I attempt to follow their example and hope that my life inspires others the way their lives inspired me.

    Keep journeying and sharing your journey too!

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