It was the second time that the pool of Walter Bennet’s pee formed around the barely visible shoes of Sister Ignatius that I think I had my first thought that the whole business of God and religion was an absurdity. Walter was a farmer’s son. His father dropped him off at our house, which was in the middle of the city, when the morning was still like night. My dad let him in and he slept on the couch until my brother and I got up and Walter walked to school with us.
Walter had buck teeth and ears like wings and was incredibly shy. He once crapped himself because he was too shy to go upstairs and use our bathroom and have to flush the toilet. My mom helped him get cleaned up and gave him a pair of my shorts to wear.
So I felt doubly sorry for Walter, ferried into the city in the middle of the night to go to St. Monica’s Catholic school, when our First Grade teacher, Sister Ignatius, used to take her place beneath the large crucifix at the back of the classroom, close her eyes, place her prayerful hands on the starched, white breastplate of her habit and commence to lead us in her interminable morning prayers. We kneeled painfully on the seats of our desks that were on wooden sled-like runners, facing backwards, while she prayed on and on, eyes shut.
Being a tall kid I ended up smack in front of Sister Ig, and Walter was two seats behind me as we kneeled on the hard wooden seats. Walter was too shy to call out to Sister Ig for permission to go to the toilet, and so two times he pissed his pants, and the pee ran down between the runners of our desks and pooled around Sister’s feet, which she didn’t notice until she signed off with the Sign of the Cross.
Perhaps because she had just finished praying she was kind to Walter, with a hint of exasperation. God had given this kid a face like Alfed E. Neuman’s ugly brother and a shyness doubtless born of not wanting to draw any attention to it, and I think she didn’t want to add to the deity’s cruelty. Walter has to pray that Sister will stop praying before he pisses his pants; but his prayers are not answered. And then he gets named Walter, too. The Lord works his wonders in mysterious ways.
I don’t remember Walter after the First Grade. Maybe his father spared him further embarrassment and the tortures of Catholicism by putting him in the public school out in the rural farmlands that were like the backside of the moon to me. If I was the type who prayed, I would pray that he have dry shorts.
That puts me in memory of when it was that I had the first sense that there was a God “up there,” and really began to believe it. I have to admit that Santa Claus came first in my child’s pantheon. But maybe that’s Santa’s job, to get us to believing in something absurd that isn’t there.
A second powerful religious-like experience was my grandmother, Loreta. I could do no wrong in her eyes. I was her first grandchild, to be coddled and cosseted, and made to feel like I was being groomed for some special destiny, like the Messiah. In the evenings, after the dinner dishes had been put away, she would sit in a soft chair in the corner of the darkened dining room. Only the light from the dial of the radio would cast a sepia nimbus around her face. It was 7:30PM and Fr. Ciccignioni, from Sts. Peter and Paul was leading the nightly rosary. If I happened through the dining room, which connected the parlor to the kitchen, she would summon me: “Jeemee, Jeemee, vene qui, vene qui, caro mio.” I would climb up on her lap for a few “Hail Marys” until I squirmed too much and she would release her embrace. My memory can still summon her earthy aroma that was the scent of Italy to me, and soft, warm flesh. She was the Madonna incarnate to me. But God wasn‘t kind to her either, the way he took her. All those rosaries . . .
The fear of God comes with the realization of mortality, or all the nasty shit that can come before mortality. If God could do what he did to Walter, then to my beloved, beautiful grandmother, He was one dangerous dude, so you I had better “pray up.” That’s what a lot of people do, but I must be one of the exceptions. My problem was that there was a lot about God I just plain didn’t like. The notion of actually loving God always seemed preposterous to me; fear and love were too much of a blend for me to manage. Now anger, that was a whole different thing. My anger was scary, especially getting pissed off at Somebody who had the kind of power that that make dinosaurs go extinct.*
Since religion is essentially a process of indoctrination, we come to believe in it nor really by choice, but out of fear. We are told at a tender and credulous age not to say “Jesus H. Christ!” for example, invoke other expletives based on members of the “holy family.” An utterance can doom us for eternity.
But if you look at belief as a choice—belief in something for which there is not a shred of evidence or proof of existence, nor can there be—because that’s just what belief is—a choice—then you can just make God go “poof.” Just don’t accept His existence (and take away the capitalization of his personal pronouns at the same time). Choose not to believe. That way God gets no blame for Walter pissing his pants or my grandmother dying. Personally, I find it easier not to have to deal with belief in God. Before I had to blame him for making a silly old woman like Sister Ig believe in him and make us kids ruin our knees praying to him and making Walter piss his pants.
For some people believing in God is the ultimate test. They like to tell you that, if you don’t believe, when you die God will send you to Hell (another thing you don’t have to believe in). Other than being told by people who had the fear of death and God before them, they have no reason to believe that God or Hell exist.
Are you beginning to get the idea that this whole religion thing is based on fear? We fear our parents getting angry with us if challenge religion, fear being ostracized and outside of the community if believers. It’s all fear. Well that, and having sex with altar boys, sucking a lot of money out of the faithful [fearful], and finding reasons to make war. (But I am letting my emotions get in the way of my incisive syllogistic logic.)
But if God is not around to get any blame for the pain and loss of the world, he is also not around to get any of the credit for anything that exists, either. He just does not exist.
But we do exist (Cogito, ergo sum and all that, you know), and so does the world. For a lot of people that just can’t be possible without a God, a Prime Mover, a First Cause, an Intelligent Designer. I am amused by people who regard the debate as one in which we non-believers have to prove that God does not exist when it is they who have not proof that he does. They say look at the “complexity and perfection of the universe,” which proves of course that that universe is pretty complex and that perfection is a judgment call, nothing more.
So they say, well “how did all this get here, then?” And you just have to say. “I don’t know . . . and neither do you.” It’s either proof, or poof. It’s a choice if you want to accept the prevailing “answer,” with the angels and devils, the Santa-like God, with his neediness and vengeance. But if you do, ask him why he needed to make Walter piss his pants. Either that, or just say “poof.”
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.23.2009)
*I also think that the God they told me about is not fair (and He’s wasteful, too). But we will have to address that another time.