A Year Without God? Affirming Atheism, Praying Anyway

In the three months since my coming out as a gay transgender man caused an unwanted public breach with my Christian employer, many around me ask why I am still a Christian, and some closest to me have lost their own faith.

How or why can anyone believe in a loving God, a sentient Creator with intention and purpose, when people suffer as they do? This is no abstract debate but a life-and-death question for me as a survivor of repeated sexual assault and multiple forms of violence. Far worse, I live with decades of memories of helplessly witnessing loved ones closest to me suffer egregious acts of domestic violence. But in my own life, human brutality turned me to, rather than away from, God.

I felt I had no other alternative but to pray to God, even though I had been taught that such belief was not only unscientific and illogical but was clearly espoused only by obvious hypocrites. Without any reservation, I agree. It isn't logical or rational for any educated, thoughtful or even simply compassionate person to pray to a Being who is alleged to be all-powerful and all-good in light of the existence of innocent suffering, and everyone who attempts it (including me) falls embarrassingly short of our best aims. But I personally have do it anyway, because I have to believe there is somewhere, somehow, something greater than human brutality, that senseless violence doesn't ultimately get the final word, that each individual human life isn't a pointless and regrettable accident as I was once taught.

In practice, rejection of God simply leaves me at an impasse: I can simply try to muster on, living in the senseless violence of this world, assuming that tragic randomness is the only reality; it's just the way things are. Unlike many Christians, I do not criticize those who take this path. I must admire the strength and courage of anyone who can live life on those terms alone. But as for myself, I admit I am too weak for that, as Freud and Marx would concur. Whenever I have tried to be "realistic," to live in this world just as it superficially seems to be, with people just as senseless and violent as I have known them to be, with no other meaning or hope, then depression and despair have dangerously overwhelmed me.

Due to my life experience and wide social network as an advocate within the LGBTQ community, my helplessness to protect those I love is always present to my mind and heart -- defenseless children raped; transgender women tortured and murdered; gay teens cast into the poverty, danger and sexual predation of street life by their own parents. As someone who slips too easily into the most dangerous kind of depressive despair, the only way I can continue to live in this world, where people do these things (especially when they do it in the name of "love"), is if I assess reality in a way different from those who entirely reject the possibility that God exists. Whatever "God" may or may not be, I can't help but believe that faith in humanity alone is no better alternative. If God seems to fail at perfect goodness and power in light of human suffering and tragedy, so too does humanity. Whether I embrace theism or atheism, nothing will change that.

So my dilemma is a practical one: To continue each day to live in this world as it is (rather than in denial of reality), I pray constantly -- in spite of the obvious irrationality of such a practice -- because in order to live in this world of senseless tragedy, I myself, personally and practically, have to believe there is something more -- an impulse toward life, love, goodness, healing and creativity. (I call this "God" as do many others, but different words or images may with equal inadequacy struggle to pin some word on that Being, impulse or force or energy that we perceive to be infinite and indescribable.)

I can't seem to get through a day meaningfully, without self-destruction, unless I let myself believe, as unreasonable as it is, that there is (or at least could be) something better than tragic human suffering and hate. I pray because I want to be in connection with that "something better." While the senseless, selfish pettiness and tragedy of human life unfold around me, a dialogue of prayer streams through me (even asleep, in many of my dreams), continually seeking that impulse to love and life and goodness that is behind, underneath and in some ways beyond the banality and senselessness of this world. That conscious and unconscious stream of dialogue with whatever is greater than humanity is what I mean by "prayer": an ongoing way of being in the world, trying to keep one's spiritual finger on a different pulse, something more, something different from the way we normally see this world and our life together in it. Prayer is my confessional, personal response to human suffering and my excuse for seeking to delight in God's creation (including other people) in spite of it.

But so what? Where is this God when faith-shattering tragedies happen? For me, God is everywhere. If God is infinite, then God is in all places and times, all heres and nows, all at once all the time. If one believes (as Jews, Christians and Muslims do) that human beings are created in God's own image or likeness (Genesis 1-2), then humans, reflecting that image of God, are created to be intrinsically and really free. If time too is God's creation, then time cannot limit God in any way as it does us. Jesus spoke of the kairos of God's Kingdom -- a sense of being fully present here and now that contrasts with chronos, the human perception that time progresses or disintegrates in a linear sequence. But if God isn't bound by what we humans experience as chronological time, then what seems "future" to us (which, in our finite, time-bound minds, we think God should prevent) already and fully "is": God is already there, light years ahead of us. All "times" just "are" for God -- they are neither past nor future to the One equally present (omnipresent) in all times. God is always present -- even in fullness in the tragic events that, from our perception (bound in time as we finite beings are), seem to us as if they could be for God "preventable."

If God indeed made us free in God's own likeness and image, then we truly are free indeed: free to commit and suffer violent, senseless tragic acts, in spite of God -- who is that universal impulse toward love and all things better than we are. The real question is why people who could choose grace and love instead choose to reject and ignore that better-than-us impulse (God), that better heart pulsing under all of human life all the time. That is the question with which I struggle most each day. For whatever reason, free beings freely choose to ignore the One Who Is Always There, the One Who Lures Them Always Toward What Is Best -- even though we freely choose senseless tragedy and violence instead sometimes.

To believe humans are free doesn't negate God's power as some would argue: God is neither indifferent nor absent when we suffer or violate others; rather, we have the freedom not to perceive God even though God is omnipresent. I see God with children being raped and adults being tortured -- as present as feeling their terror in God's own self. I see God with grieving survivors -- as present as feeling the anguish, confusion, and life-rending pain in God's own self. I see God -- who is omnipresent and infinite -- present (grieving, anguished, struggling) with the rapist and torturer, too. The universal rhythm of love pulses in and around and under and beyond all of them all the time, everywhere. For all of us, I pray. I don't know what prayer means other than that. I don't know that it changes anything, other than the one who prays, but I hope that it does. That's all I can do. Pray and hope, hoping that love wins, believing irrationally -- in faith -- in what I have not yet seen (Heb. 11.1).