I remember feeling intensely bereft the first time my brain accepted a world without God. I felt as if I’d lost something important and it could never be returned. Growing up it was kind of cool to denounce God and embrace Goth Lite and wear crosses in an ironic sense but when things went awry I still snuck a prayer in when no one was looking. Despite my attempts at seeming edgy and not like all the other Asians I’d grown up in a heavily monitored household where privacy didn’t feature very highly. For a long time I believed my elders had the ability to read my thoughts and so felt doubly punished when I was chastised for something I didn’t do. God was just an extension of that and when you’ve spent so many years believing you are not alone it isn’t something you can just switch off. Unless you were to dabble with psychotropic drugs, let’s say.
I felt what it is to be truly alone the one and only time I ever took acid. I have a bizarrely vivid recollection of it and am convinced it had all the marks of a psychotic episode. I even believed I had lost my mind whilst I was still tripping. In an odd sense it really cleared out some of the cobwebs in the dingier parts of my cerebrum but it was a while before I would come to this conclusion. First there was a drawn out period of major depression with acute anhedonia.
What was the point of existing if there was no God to make reparations for all the suffering, not just for me but all who’ve ever existed? Victims of violence and trauma for example, people who suffer their lot without complaint in the hope they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. The opiate which keeps existence functioning. Without which some of us lose the will to live, and that’s exactly what happened to me.
It’s a strange place to occupy, to feel so estranged from anything good. The days merge together and you don’t really care or look for the things that keep life interesting because there is no point in all its frivolity. What’s the point in consuming your five a day if you don’t care about your skin hair and nails, because they’re not important at all if you think about it? Who decided this arbitrary figure and why do we conform to these standards set by God knows who? Who needs friends and more to the point, acquaintances we have to suffer by engaging in small talk until we are drunk enough to do stupid things we’ll regret later? What is the point in eating at all? Whilst this sounds like a bad trip comedown and it is, flashbacks included, I couldn’t shake off the loneliness and in a bid to feel something, anything, I said and did a load of things I probably shouldn’t have.
Sure it must be liberating for many to conclude we are all alone in this vast space, that the sky God is just another successful advertising campaign. To live without fear opens endless opportunities and access to total privacy is empowering but I didn’t get all that. For me I was suddenly very afraid and isolated, perhaps because of the way I was raised.
I taught my gran to read Arabic as a kid; being as she wasn’t educated for fear she might write letters to lovers. She was finally able to read the Quran and she was so hungry for that knowledge, relishing each letter as she slowly connected them together to make a word. I won’t lie; I’m ashamed that I found the whole thing irritatingly tedious. Being the eldest (and yet only 9) it would mostly come down to me to listen to her clunk her way through the enlarged script, her forefinger bobbing underneath the letters as she sewed them together with an invisible thread. How I ache to listen to her now and respond gracefully to her claims I had secured my place in heaven by allowing her to appreciate the word of God. She apologised to God in advance whenever she prayed or recited the Quran, to forgive her for any mistakes in understanding or pronunciation, it was like the whole process had a profound effect on her and the way she conducted her life. It made her mindful and humbled her as time went on. I miss the kind of care and concern she showed. It’s certainly missing in the world 13 years after she died. I was religious for a while shortly after she passed but that was on the wane when I took the acid at a festival, a time of my life I was busy hurtling through with little regard for consequences or the mental and physical scars I’d acquired from all the trauma of my early years. On some level I regret taking the drug. I was flippant about it and we got really unlucky, what with the sandstorm and National Guard all over town (memorable holiday) and more to the point I didn’t feel safe with the people I shared the experience with (though this only dawned on me when one of them – an ex – appeared to slide past me intermittently, as the devil, commanding me to bend to his will and give up on good).
Many years on, I find it interesting now that I found a devil in our midst but couldn’t locate God anywhere. At one point I felt I was God and that’s why the world was so fucked up. I had positioned myself as good, perhaps because evil is the default setting and only my actions could counter the badness. It was like an allegory of being the change you want to see in the world, I had to fight the evil that was consuming me from the inside out whilst fending off the dark energy emanating from my ex, a man I had come to despise for his hedonism (lack of responsibility or accountability). Rather fittingly he had sprouted a cockatoo’s crest (tripping balls) in his incarnation of the devil. This was my brain’s interpretation of the silly side Mohican he’d cultivated around a bald patch. “When you see yourself in my image, everything will be alright” he slithered. I wanted to resist this fate. In fact, I had accepted I would rather die and spend all eternity in limbo than let evil consume what little good I possessed. It was only when I did this that I eventually came out of my bizarrely protracted trip. Unsurprisingly I would become obsessed with all things philosophical in a bid to understand what I had seen and why, the eyes merely being a viewfinder for the brain to interpret what is in front of you. There was something inside me that had shaped the things I’d seen.
If I thought reading Nietzsche would provide me with those answers, I was wrong. It was all going fairly well with the will to power until the chapter on women. Suddenly I was spiralling into suicidal tendencies with a side helping of existential grief; I mourned for my old neural pathways where I was easily convinced of spirituality. I resented this new search for magic in the material world.
I am reminded of it every time an antitheist snarks smugly at a believer that they are enlightened and so much smarter than the sheeple for cracking the God code. Atheism has taken on the arrogance of Nietzsche’s superman, sexism an’ all. It is not enough for some to say they do not believe in a God but to pile on shame and offence with impunity and to claim it as a right for free thinkers is reminiscent of the days when heretics were burned at the stake, only this time it’s Muslims or Jews being attacked for their beliefs, systematically monstered and tortured by Westerners.
Why are so many atheists oblivious to the fact that they’re sounding a little dictatorial? Are they ignorant of the malice they apply to all their arguments? Can they not see the arrogance they project outwards, the way it marks them out as a bully? What they believe to be a sign of intelligence, critical thinking, is weaponised to attack believers in the same way that an all-consuming belief in the one god can engender violence against non-believers. Muslim fundamentalists are cut from the same cloth as Jewish, Christian, Buddhist (etc) fundamentalists. Atheists have a spot on that tapestry too. It comes from a place of complete surety that the contents of one’s own brain are infinitely superior to those detractors we don’t like. This personality exists in every single walk of life. It is not exclusive to one belief system but is created in the minds of those who have been forsaken or targeted for whatever reason. It gives them the confidence to say they are better than you and they alone have the right to life without you taking all of the resources. This can be applied to any conflict since the creation of war. These are the excuses used to usurp the wealth of others.
I do not see the religion before the person, I see the kindness in their faces (or lack thereof) and the way they defend humanity, whatever labels the individual applies to themselves. I baulk at using the word atheist to describe myself in the same way I gave up on ‘Muslim’ many moons ago. To do so would mean endorsing an idea of what is it to be x, because no one ever listens to moderates when the fundamentalists are hogging the soapbox.
Fundamentalism is a poison that can turn the blood of any human stone cold. It’s like a widget that you apply to an existing theme. It is not the foundation for a belief system but a symptom of an overpopulated, overwhelmed species. It has the power to destroy all, from whichever angle you look at it.