Something strange occurred not so long ago. I was out to lunch with a work colleague, actually I was meeting someone for the first time, really more of a networking lunch. She wanted to lunch at the Hotel Monaco in Washington, D.C. It is posh, but not over the top. They knew her there, and when I arrived they had her table ready, the bartender greeted me, told me how much they loved the woman. I was early, not too much so, she was running late. The time gave me a chance to contemplate, sit in the warm summer sun for a minute, enjoy a sweet tea (one of my favorite southern staples). I was expecting lunch to revolve around the businesses in our area, to talk about networking, a chance to help grow my business, meet a new person. While contemplating in the summer sun in downtown Washington, D.C. I realized my life has taken me from here to there and
The woman arrived finally, only about 30 minutes late, older but not old. She had styled grey hair, sensibly pulled back into a pony tail, reminding me of the 70s. She wore an enormous sun hat, probably the result of her age, wisdom to know the sun burns, even when it feels so good. She chatted amicably about the Hotel Monaco, about her relationships with the managers, bartenders and staff. She mentioned she was glad we ate there as soon their menu was changing and the tuna salad she loved was coming off the menu for their summer fare.
We spoke very little of business, it turned out this networking was really more about the woman having a chance to chat with a stranger, she was not lonely, but she was alone, she relished talking about her love of DC, how the city has evolved and is still evolving. She liked the decline of crime but like so many folks who have lived in a place their whole lives, she waxed nostalgic for the days when things were just better, less traffic, more friendly locals, fewer tourists, the good ol'days. I indulged her nostalgia, hell in my forties I catch myself saying things like, "when I was a boy......." Inevitability we spoke of family, my education, where I came from, my roots. She loved that I grew up in the mountains in Colorado, that my mothers family were ranchers, dad's family were southerners. She loved that I grew up a catholic, that my mom is mostly Irish/Scottish. She was fascinated that I had recently learned my fathers family settled in Virginia in the 1630s. Then came the question I dreaded but knew was coming, was I a Christian.
Over the years I've become rather adapt at avoiding the topic. I simply choose to hide my lack of believe for others because it's simply not worth the judgement. I've dealt with discrimination my whole life. As a child I was very poor in a town of very wealthy, we were often mocked for our hand me down clothes, our little hotel (the first hotel hell), for just being fringe enough that I never fit into any group or click. Then in 80s, as a relatively dark skinned young man in college in rural Missouri during the first gulf war I was called Arab, had bottles and cans thrown at me from passing cars, was told to go home to the desert. In Rome I was hated for being an American, mocked for my country's politics. Told at one point in Tunisia that I would be murdered to honor Allah. As a man studying to be a priest people would immediately assume I was a child molester, that I was hiding in the clergy because I had to be gay (being gay was true, hiding was not). After I left the priesthood, was homeless and really alone I faced discrimination in finding work and learned immediately not to indicate having been a priest on my resume, rather to just list my work in the church as a volunteer. It was the mercy of people who met me that gave me work, a place to live, but ultimately I could tell no one I was a former priest.
In all of these things the one fact about me that caused the strongest reaction was my atheism. The first time I told someone I was an atheist they literally walked away from me in disgust. I stopped telling people. I hid my atheism. I buried it, from others and even from myself. You know really in my life, even with friends, I've always kind of been alone. As a child I would play for hours alone. In school I would escape from my peers into books. As a college kid I escaped into music, in graduate school I escaped into food and ultimately meaningless sex.
Now as a middle aged man I've escaped to a farm, alone with my husband and cats, but when the husbands not around I am truly alone (the cats might disagree). I think in many ways trying to understand myself in context of the world is part of why I prefer to be alone. If for some reason my relationship with my husband ends, I'll never remarry and no doubt will fall further into that aloneness. Part of this aloneness is because in many ways I remain an outcast, a loner, a misfit. An atheist.
My sister will hate That I write this, but recently she wrote me a letter to tell me she loved me, that she didn't care I was gay but that she was struggling with me being an atheist. She wrote how she remembered our mother's faith, my mother,who is the only saint to have lived in my opinion, who would pray with us, say the rosary, take us to mass, often daily. It's sad to me that my ability to relate to nearly everyone in the world is nearly impossible at times because I don't subscribe to the fantasy of god, afterlife, salvation. People cannot accept that I'm okay with the end of life. I figure the world was fine before I lived and it will be fine after I'm gone. I do not miss my life before I was born and I shall not miss it after I die. On some level I don't interact with many people because I refuse to indulge their desire to pretend that at some point, after we're dead everything will be fine. We'll all be reconciled, right with each other, with some being called god, yet now, in this reality where we cry, laugh, love, err, succeed, celebrate and mourn, we cannot communicate because we don't think in the same manner as one another.
I get the irony of course that I am a judgmental prick too, refusing to interact with those in faith because their faith doesn't suit my atheism. Yet some of that behavior is learned. I've tried to be open to dialogue but I keep finding at some point one or other of us wants to prove we're right. That leads to a breakdown in conversation. And ultimately me moving away to be alone. I don't find solace with other atheists, I have no need nor the desire to prove theists wrong or convert them. I find many atheists mean spirited, as judgmental as Christians, Muslims, Jews etc. they are as closed minded as theists, and so I go back to my farm, sing my songs, drink my cider and remain alone.
The uncomfortable truth for many who meet me is I am atheist, brought to atheism by studying my own faith, reading and studying religious texts in original languages, realizing that the myths of childhood faith taught to me as Catholicism are as valid and invalid as every other myth story ever told in the history of mankind. There is no god in the volcano. It's only magma superheated by the earth's core for billions of years erupting from the pressure of the core of earth. This uncomfortable truth, my atheism ends many relationships, in fact more than any other truth in my life.
When I told my bishop, Charles Chaput, I was leaving the priesthood because I didn't believe in Jesus, he told me I was mentally ill and needed therapy. That was my last interaction with a member of the clergy in my life. I'm not mentally ill because I'm an atheist. In fact when I told my lunch date at the Hotel Monaco I was a atheist, she stopped eating, laid down her fork and said, "excuse me? What do you mean?" I repeated that I didn't believe in the supernatural god, faith, Jesus, etc.. She cleared her throat, "didn't your mother raise you a Christian?" I affirmed this as true. She said, "what happened?" I told her only that I studied the faith, became a priest and realized I didn't believe any of it. She sat in stunned silence for a moment, smiled politely and said, "well I have to run, nice to meet you,.......waiter, check please."
The uncomfortable truth is at the beginning and end of it all, we're all alone.