When my brother converted and started attending church, I took the opportunity to learn about the benevolent being I always believed in. I had a non-canonical image of this Friendly Ghost. A Santa Claus God watched over me, and filmmaker Kevin Smith’s Buddy Christ gave me the thumbs up. I was excited to delve into source material under the guidance of professionals. Typical Asian nerd -- to love is to study. But I quickly realized that Bible study was not a theology class, and sermon didn’t accommodate Q&A mid-delivery. The Almighty God Pastor Rich preached of and the Awesome God the congregation sang about did not resemble in the slightest the God I knew. I was confused. The search for Truth supplanted decorum (and as a socially clueless nerd, I didn’t know better). I asked questions addressing these inconsistencies, and the church leaders gave me scowls. Friends passed pitiful expressions to my respectful, believing siblings.
God had a lot to answer for. I expected an understanding father figure that fixed the daunting, universal monsters under the bed. I expected God to be kind and gentle to the small and the weak--more specifically, me. My version of God would let things slide. But beyond forgiveness, I wanted reassurance -- something that was foreign in a traditional Chinese household: “you did good, kid.” I didn’t know who this aggro disciplinarian was. I expected better. There must have been some mistake in the sermon.
With questions unanswered and my cognitive dissonance growing, my faith deteriorated. As a budding engineer, I didn’t understand why God designed fleshy, sentient automatons to be flawed and later punished them for perfectly following their double-helix punch cards. I thought Hell was reserved for rapists, murderers, and Hitler. Somehow I never gave the whole Original Sin thing much thought before this. I trusted my Friendly Ghost. Sermon after sermon raised more questions and vandalized this image. I didn’t understand why women weren’t equals to men; why we needed to challenge Catholics to their claims of salvation; and why “God hates fags.” I finally left the church after the sermon dedicated to sin and its fiery results. Pastor Rich cited passages on the importance of baptism in this process to prevent the dire consequences of being born flawed. I raised my hand. I couldn’t comprehend why unbaptized babies with lives cut short at infancy are going to hell. He asked me to explore my question after sermon. Depending on which church leader I asked, those babies suffered varied fates: either God had an undisclosed place for them or they suffered perpetual fiery torment. The unyielding elders believed the latter fate. Unsprinkled newborns were sinners destined for hell.
“How did they sin?” I asked.
“They were born of sin,” the elder said.
“They didn’t have a chance to do anything wrong,” I said.
“They cried demanding care. Jesus didn’t cry,” the elder said.
That’s how a perfect God worked, my boy. A big caveat to this unfortunate deconversion story is that this was the fundamentalist Truth Chinese Alliance Church. Their doctrinal statement insisted every word in the Bible was true, infallible, and divinely inspired. It was not the best place for a scientist. You’d figure that would be a big risk serving the Chinese community, but the seats filled every Sunday, and I was one of very few who strayed.
Since then I’ve discovered many more denominations that present the Bible as metaphorical, and I’ve studied religions that lacked all traces of doom. But the damage was permanent. Even with the knowledge of more upbeat religions, the fact still remained that any collection of intelligent deities, who commanded the dicey statistics of quantum mechanics, were unable to tip odds in everyone’s favor to eliminate suffering. Designed intelligently, a universe had no need for suffering. I could disprove God with just one of many girls who were raped last night. God never lived. Nietzsche was wrong. After that sobering disillusionment, physics then came and annihilated all traces of my belief.
I studied universal equations that balanced without a God term. Stephen Hawking’s robot voice droned of a universe that could start on its own without an impulse or a divine cauldron of primordial particles. There was no “before the beginning.” Observations and equations proved the universe didn’t need a “before.” The scientifically verified First Law of Thermodynamics is: Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Energy was eternal, not God.
God never lived, and I didn’t celebrate this fact. I didn’t revel in God’s abortion like any self-respecting atheist. Of all the discoveries I made as a scientist, this one left me the most hollow. God never lived. I was 16 and the perfect age to become a nihilist. I didn’t have industrial music pumping into my ears or black nail polish, but I now directed skyward conversations at the earth-shattering asteroid casually on its way to obliterate all life. I couldn’t even say the asteroid is doing its job because it has neither destination nor purpose. At least the asteroid was physical and real. Like the asteroid, humanity was truly swirling in an empty void, and I hated that fact. I missed the certainty of God’s plan.
The absence felt like the sternum-crushing pressure left from a broken heart. The connection severed. The only option was to absorb the impact of a new reality. No amount of pleading would make God answer. No measure of optimism would bring the security back.
In this new reality, I missed my former faith. When I had faith -- when God existed -- I believed prayers could be answered. At 15, with my beliefs firm and intact, my mother’s OB/GYN found nodules in her left breast. Prayer requests manifested miraculously onto pulpit. The congregation rallied to support our family. We circled up. We held hands. We prayed. I believed God listened to us. The belief nestled me in a calm state of content -- I saved my mom’s life. A few weeks later, the nodules turned out to be benign.
A decade later, my grandfather writhed in pain from misdiagnosed cancer. By then his condition was terminal. I grew up living with my grandparents as one extended family. He used to be a merchant marine when he met my grandmother and my dad. He had huge muscles from years of labor. As a child, I called him Popeye. He taught me how to sing Chinese opera and mend my toys. Now as he laid in bed shriveled to ninety eight pounds and separated from his wife out of superstitious fear of being contagious, I couldn’t help him. I told him I expected him at my wedding to egg him on to survive. I thought about prayer, but I knew only the silence of the void would reply. I wouldn’t find the peace I once did. I had no reassurance that his suffering meant something more significant than another 77 year-old man dying of cancer. He died ten months before my wedding.
Nearly eight years later, my grandmother was also dying of cancer in the Alhambra Convalescent Hospital. We checked her into the facility the day before Thanksgiving after chemo and radiation deteriorated her capacities beyond my parents’ ability to care for her. We initially tried to keep her at home after the treatments. First she couldn’t walk far. Then she couldn’t walk without assistance. Then she couldn’t walk to the bathroom and suffered the unpleasant results of that limitation, being too proud to ask for help. She started forgetting that she left the stove on or that she needed to use the toilet. Finally all strength left my grandmother, and my mom wasn’t strong enough to lift her mother-in-law into the shower -- my grandmother, a woman my mother fought with her entire adult life after marrying my dad at 21.
Life folded on itself when my dad asked me to feed my grandmother at the home. Now with a spoon in one hand and a napkin in the other, I deposited bites of chicken noodle soup into a wrinkled, toothless, caved-in mouth. Her uncoordinated bites caused decapitated noodle to fall and stick onto her pink sweater. I rushed through the remainder of the meal, afraid that I might have an emotional breakdown with everyone watching. I asked if her dinner was good. She forgot she just ate dinner.
A few months later, a maroon sheet covered her still form out to the funeral home’s idling van. However much I wanted solace, I knew prayers for meaning would meet the void again. Void, what was the past five months for? Why did she have to slowly lose herself only to end up a corpse being unceremoniously pushed away for disposal? Buddy Christ, I thought you had my back, you traitor.
Santa Claus God wasn’t going to give me answers. But even if there was no Meaning, her death had tangible truths: affect what you can control, and accept the things you can’t -- nothing is coming to your rescue to make things better, so it’s up to you. This truth wasn’t pessimistic but empowering. As my grandmother settled in the nursing home, she wasn’t shy to say that she was there to wait. All of a sudden trivial things and grudges didn’t mean much to her. On the other hand, however much her muscle control and eyesight diminished, she still hated pureed meat and no one could make her eat it. She wouldn’t open her mouth. She fought the mush until my parents gave up trying to feed it to her. She won. Peppermint ice cream, on the other hand, she loved. Her refusing to eat it was a sign that the end was near. She died three days after her last serving.
I’m still in the midst of absorbing what the final year of my grandmother’s life meant. Her passing was in late April. So far, I haven’t had any epiphanies, but I now understand that part of the search for divinely inspired peace comes with just letting go and appreciating the moment. That I can do.
As an atheist, I want God to exist. Not “although,” but “as.” I convinced myself that there is no God, and I want to unlearn that fact. Like many atheists, my deconversion started in a Protestant church in my teens shortly after I began going to church. Although they were believers, my parents didn’t practice, so I didn’t grow up in a church-centered social community. My more evangelical friends had always urged me to take my relationship to the next level and know God through reading the Bible. I wish I hadn’t.