Tuesday, November 3, 2009

See God see stars

When I talk with Christians about how I don't think God exists, many find my unbelief unbelievable. I don't just mean that they disagree with my reasoning or with my intellectual understanding of the world. They don't respond to my unbelief with language like, "You think the earth is flat?" or "You think the sky is orange?"; it's more like, "You don't like cake?" or "You like the sound of nails on a chalkboard?" as if there's something malfunctioning in my feelings about the cosmos.

Last week, I was talking with an acquaintance, a believing Christian. She said that she couldn't understand how I think that God's existence is not obvious; she said, "When I look at the stars, I see God."

"When I look at the stars, I see stars." I replied.

Believing Christians find so many benefits from their practice that they see movement from belief to unbelief as leading to great loss. I used to think this, myself, I was very uncomfortable with my unbelief, and mourned.

I think part of the problem is seeing Christianity as a package bound together by belief. This is faulty. I don't need belief that God exists to experience the love of a community, or to sing songs, or to have a sense of morality, or to be happy.

Now, I think, "If God doesn't exist, I've lost nothing but thoughts since I stopped believing." (That's not quite true, some people think a little less of me, and I thought less of myself for a long time.)

My understanding of nature isn't the same as when I was a believer; for me, nature was an occasion for worship. Worship is more difficult for me now. Even so, if the world seemed beautiful to me as a believer, why shouldn't it still fill me with wonder, now?

This summer, I was having a bad time. I have bipolar disorder, but I didn't know that, then, and I was trying an antidepressant for anxiety. Antidepressants without mood stabilizers can cause terrible problems for people with bipolar disorder. So, I was feeling depressed, I was in distress, I couldn't concentrate. I had been depressed before, but I think this might have been the worst depression I have ever felt; it was unrelenting for weeks.


Some very nice friends took me to Chincoteague for vacation; I'm grateful to them for this. I couldn't just sit in a beach chair and watch the waves, I couldn't relax, feeling the way I did. Instead, I walked among the dunes and wound up in a marshy area by mistake. I went to the nature center and picked up a horseshoe crab in the touch tank. All the while, I was counting my breaths, in on one, out on two, in on three, out on four, all the way up to ten, when I'd go back to one. I couldn't have happy thoughts about people or myself or ideas or stories or culture, I was too afflicted for that. All I could do was count and look at things.

At first, I felt a little bad for my friends who had taken me on this vacation; here I was, on vacation, and depressed, and not enjoying the good time they were giving to me. Then, I wondered how much pain I would have felt if I had stayed home. I think that that vacation was one of the best ever for me, not that I was the happiest ever, but because the beauty of the place made a difference to me when I most needed something beautiful to appreciate.

From Chincoteague

I swam out past the breakers, and I lay on my back and floated on the waves. The sun was high in the sky. If I stayed out too long, my whole front side would get sunburned, I have very pale skin, but I didn't worry about sunburn. The waves took me up and down and I breathed very slowly and counted my breaths. I didn't feel happy, I couldn't, physically, at that point, but I was comforted by the rhythm of the ocean, even if saltwater washed up my nose sometimes.

Later, this summer, I experienced a hypomanic episode; most of this was painful, too. Depression and mania aren't simply opposites. Most of the time, that I was hypomanic, I wasn't happy, I was obsessive and bordering on psychotic; this episode lasted for about two months. Of these, being hypomanic was only a happy thing for about three of those days.

On the first of the good days, I drank the most delicious iced mocha I've ever had. I had had lunch at Panera, and had an apple left over from lunch. I worked late in the lab that night, but started feeling hyper and got up, around ten o'clock, and took a walk around campus, and I ate that apple as I walked. When I had nibbled it down to the core, I threw the core into the woods. I know this sounds silly now, but to me, then, that was a profound thing, that this apple which came from nature was returned to it.

I walked past the pond up to a high hill on campus and lay down on the grass and looked up at the sky. I live in Baltimore and rarely see stars at night; it never gets dark here, the sky just fades to a dull red. My university is just outside the beltway, though, and it was a clear night, and I looked up at the stars and thought about how far away they are. What would happen if gravity stopped working? Would I float towards them? I thought about how the light entering my eyes had departed those stars decades ago. Every atom that makes my body was formed from the fusion reactions that happen in stars, so we're connected across this great distance. Maybe there are people that live on planets around these stars, and maybe we don't know about them, and they don't know about us, but we're made out of the same sort of matter, and so we're connected.

I was feeling unstable, but, lying on the ground that night, I felt safe. The earth is a tiny rock in space, but it's my rock and it's not about to disappear. The grass was dewey and the ground was cold. I thought about how billions of people live here. Some of the air I'm breathing in now was exhaled by other people before, some from thousands of years ago on the other side of the earth. When I buy things, a lot of them come from Asia, and even though I've only spent a couple of weeks in Asia, my life would be different if I didn't have this contact with people in Asia. I thought about how politics here affect people in Africa, how in villages there, there are some young men named Bill Clinton and some little boys named George Bush and some babies named Barack Obama.

I know that these thoughts of wonder about nature and the world and connection happened when I was in a strange place, psychologically, they sound like stoner thoughts to me, now. I don't feel that sense of wonder with the same intensity as I did that night, but, ever since then, I've found stars to be very beautiful. Even though the universe is mostly empty and cold and silent, there are these little spots where interesting things happen, and stars remind me that meaningful things can happen in the middle of bleakness.

The stars and the oceans are charitable to me; they don't demand any sort of belief from me. They don't even demand that I know anything before experiencing them. When I was a small child, I went to the ocean and played in the sand. Sometimes, my dad would take me to the observatory, I looked at stars, and I saw Jupiter through a telescope, and I didn't need to understand anything about them to like them. Now that I've received some sort of an education, my appreciation of them has increased, but less because I know facts about them and more because I see how connected I am to them.

Halfway through this hypomanic period, I got a pet rabbit, Spots Regina Leonora Bandita Cookies 'n Cream Skeptical Empiricism Obama. I think that just having a small furry animal around makes me into a gentler person. (If nothing else, I'm eating healthier; I keep a lot of salad on hand for her, and she shares with me.) I walk near the pond on campus as much as I can, sometimes two or three times a day, and I think that these walks make me a little more tranquil. The weather makes me more cheerful, and not just "good weather"; even rainy days make me cheerful. I like the idea that things can fall from the sky or not on any given day.

When people get drunk, they find it helpful to put a hand on a tabletop, just to feel stability and know which way is up. I know that nature is real, and that knowing happens on a very basic level. As I've lost some thoughts about God, I've gained more of an appreciation of nature, I've needed to. When I'm not sure what's meaningful or beautiful, or how to live my life, it helps to see things that I know are real, for sure.


  1. I like what you say about appreciating things that are *real*. This is how I feel about trees: they are indifferent to me, but I am still thankful for their shade in summer and shelter in rain, the show they put on every autumn and spring. Trees ask nothing of me, but give me so much nonetheless.

  2. Actually, trees ask for your carbon-dioxide exhalation and the nutrients of your decomposed body post-mortem.

  3. I was watching Cosmos last night, and Carl Sagan said that there'd still be plenty of CO2 for plants even if animals weren't around. "They need us much less than we need them."

    And, I plan to be buried in a metal coffin because I hate trees.

  4. I liked this post a lot; like an existential Cosmos of sorts.

    I can also sympathize with your resentment of trees; they've broken both the front and back of my head.

  5. Thanks, Tim! That's basically what I was going for.