Back to Ginny now, with the third and last reason I had for holding on to my faith: existential cushioning. This is the one that kept me calling myself a believer even after I’d concluded that there was no compelling evidence whatsoever to believe; even after I’d recognized that holding onto a religion just for the social benefits was unworthy of the person I wanted to be. Even after recognizing those two things, I still could not contemplate without horror the idea of a universe that didn’t have some kind of divinely written happy ending. I was pretty broad in my ideas of what this happy ending might be. I didn’t even want eternal life (or whatever) for myself, necessarily. I just wanted to know that somehow, in the grand scheme of things, everything was going to turn out okay.
I spent about a year considering theism and atheism from where I then stood, right in the crack between the two. I concluded that a godless universe made sense and was consistent with the evidence I could see. I also concluded that a god-ruled universe made sense and was consistent with the evidence I could see, although only for a sufficiently liberal definition of “god.” My rational mind could accept either of these two contradictory view of the world, and I didn’t know what to do. Flip a coin? Be a believer on even-numbered days and a nonbeliever on odd? Just calling myself an agnostic wouldn’t do, for I was quite certain that one thing or the other was true, and I am too interested in truth to give up the search with a shrug. Besides, the question is not merely academic. Our beliefs inform our actions, and even the most neutral of agnostics can’t escape behaving as if something is true.
I hovered in the balance for several months. I wanted to re-enter Christianity, mostly for the social reasons mentioned in part 2 of this series, but I couldn’t justify doing so without a definition of “faith” I could honestly lay claim to. The definition I finally settled on was the aforementioned need for a happy ending to the universe. That need, and my desperate hope that it might be met, remained consistent throughout all my questioning… more consistent than almost any other feeling or thought. In the end I decided that to my critical mind, that would have to do for faith, and I walked back into the Christian fold.
I spent a lot of time in the next few years distinguishing between “I need to believe this” and “I need this to be true.” I don’t think many of the people I talked to understood or accepted the distinction, and as one person pointed out, it only makes a difference if there actually is a god. Be that as it may, my re-established faith consisted almost entirely of this need, this pinning of all my hope onto a god I recognized might or might not be there.
Then one Monday I had an existential crisis. I had read and watched, in close succession, two fictional scenes from the point of view of a person who was about to die at the hands of enemies. The second character was being burned at the stake, a fate which has held “worst nightmare” rank in my mind as long as I can remember. And it hit me with a terrible suddenness: this might really be how it ends. I, and everything I love, and the universe itself, might die in fire and ash, and that might be the end of the story. I can’t tell you how much of my life up to that point had been spent in hiding from that revelation. But it had come to me at last, with full force, and terrible as it was, I found that I could bear it. It did not bring despair or devastation; what it brought was a tremulous sweetness to every moment. I spent the next two days hovering on the verge of tears, feeling as if everything I touched was unspeakabl y precious and fragile. It was a thrilling, agonizing, exquisite mode of existence, and it was far and away more powerful and more genuine than any religious feeling I have ever had.
It couldn’t last; the course of day-to-day life obscures the poignant awareness of our fragility most of the time, and that’s probably for the best. But the terrible fear of a godless universe was gone, and I don’t think it will ever come back. And with that gone, I had neither need nor reason to claim belief in a god. So I didn’t, and don’t.