I Contradict Myself

QuakerNat Case in Aeon:

Magical stories moved me to tears. I vividly remember, at the age of eight, being surprised at how deeply the second chapter of Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart (1973) affected me. The narrator dies and goes to the land where sagas come from, and when he arrives he finds that all that he had wanted — to be strong, healthy and beautiful like his older brother — has come to be, and that his beloved brother is there, too. And this is just the beginning of the story. I remember arriving at the end of Penelope Farmer’s The Summer Birds(1962) and weeping bitterly as the children, who have spent the summer flying about the English countryside, return gravity-bound to school while their lonely classmate and the strange bird-boy fly off together over the ocean.

This essay wasn’t supposed to be about the stories I read as a child. It was supposed to be about how I manage to be an atheist within a religious community, and why I dislike the term ‘atheism’. But however I wrote that essay, the words died on the page. That story comes down to this: I do not believe in God, and I am bored with atheism. But these stories, this magic, and their presence in my heart, they don’t bore me — they are alive. Even though I know they are fiction, I believe in them.

My main religious practice today is meeting for worship with the Religious Society of Friends: I am a Quaker. Meeting for worship, to a newcomer, can feel like a blank page. Within the tradition of Friends, it is anything but blank: it is a religious service, expectant waiting upon the presence of God. So it’s not meditation, or ‘free time’. But that’s how I came to it at first, at the Quaker high school I attended.

After almost 15 years away, I returned to Quakerism in 1997. During a difficult patch of my life, a friend said I needed to do something for myself. So I started going to the meeting house on Sunday mornings. What I rediscovered was the simple fact of space. It was a hiatus, a parenthesis inserted into a complicated, twisty life. Even if it held nothing but breath, it was a relief, and in that relief, quiet notions emerged that had been trampled into the ground of everyday life.

I am an atheist, but I’ve been bothered for a long time by the mushiness I’ve found in the liberal spiritual communities that admit non-believers such as me. I’ve spent the better part of two decades trying to put my finger on the source of this unease, but it is not a question to be solved by the intellect: it must be lived through.