I remember being young – not even a teenager – and having moments of utter desolation. I love my family, but I am not like them. They are straight, white people who struggled up from being poor to being middle-class before my very eyes. They are intelligent, but practical, with little or no attachment or connection to a past. They are cut off from history beyond relatives they have known. No one creates; no one studies; no one records. No one ponders.
I was weird (the writer in the family) and lonely (the smart kid in class) and torn between the morality I learned from my parents and the morality I learned from reading (dangerous, those fantasy novels). I read The Hobbit and 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wheel of Time, but it was Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series that shaped me.
Built differently, thought differently, dreamed differently. I ached in ways I could not articulate, unable to speak in my family’s language of emotional holes I didn’t even comprehend.
There is no memory of why I began attending church regularly. At first it was just me and my grandmother, who had always gone. I sang songs. I read books. I prayed prayers. To this day, the longest-running routine I have ever established was that of nightly prayer. I couldn’t sleep unless I had confessed sins, begged forgiveness, poured out my pain, and exhorted a distant and judgmental God to take care of those I loved. My greatest comfort came from prostrating myself before my Savior.
Those words are so hard to write now. “My Savior.”
He was no comfort at all. I continued to feel empty even after I prayed. Even when I strained for the feeling of a sympathetic ear, I felt nothing.
I went up at altar calls. I raised my hands during worship songs. I knelt at youth group. I wrote poems about self-mortification, about being broken open so Jesus could fill me again. Thinking about that now makes me ill.
One night, I told my pastor that I was clinically depressed, and he prayed with me. And still there was nothing.
I was convinced the problem was with me. I was too weird. I was too sinful. I wasn’t listening carefully enough. I wasn’t humble enough. I hadn’t experienced enough suffering.
And the sense of emptiness grew.
All the fury of adolescent hormones merged with the volatility of a bipolar circus. I was wounded. Depressed. Wild. Restless. Crackling with energy. I screamed silently and wept silently, so I wouldn’t get lectured; I pounded my head so hard against my closet doors that I knocked them off my tracks and had to hide a bruise on my forehead with my hair.
What does it mean to be a secular humanist? Or a skeptic?
They are not defined by the negative, to my mind. They are so much more than what they are not.
It means being concerned – eminently, immediately concerned – with justice, especially social justice. We have only three or four score years in this world, and that only if we are especially lucky. Making this life the best it can be is the joy and responsibility we all share – for our own happiness and for that of others. All others.
It means recognizing the innate value of being sentient, the unique cognitive and social patterns we have developed as humans. It means a concern for all the rest of life as well, because to be unique is not to be alone. It means being mindful of the impacts and consequences of your own choices. It means working to alleviate suffering in small ways – sometimes in large ones. It means whole-heartedly pursuing and spreading happiness.
It means caring, deeply and profoundly, about truth – small truths and large ones. It means being fully present in this moment. Every moment.
It is being moved by the beauty of a sunset, the complexity of a car engine, the pleasure of a child’s unfettered laugh. It means reaching out to other human beings to share in the awe of a beautiful and complex world.
It is also a refusal to shy away from the ugliness of the world, it is anger at injustice and cruelty, and it is using that anger to effect change. It is an open heart and an open mind – hope and thoughtfulness and the desire to leave the world a little better than we found it, for everyone, and never just for a privileged few.
Religion messed me up. It didn’t cause my problems – biology did. But it definitely exacerbated them.
Skepticism freed me. It allowed me to seek real help, to acknowledge the role of biology in my problems, to take responsibility for what I could change, and to forgive myself for what was beyond my control. I was not weak. I was not powerless. I did not need someone or something outside myself to fix what was wrong.
And I don’t need an unknowable and unprovable power to fix what is wrong with the world. What I need is an understanding of and respect for truth and the support of honest individuals.
And that is why I am a skeptic.