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Mistaken for an atheist - Daniel Silliman

I tried to be an atheist once, but I couldn't do it.

I was 15 or so and frustrated because even though I had grown up in a devoutly religious family, grown up on bible stories and stories of personal conversion, on preaching and theology and church fellowship, God still seemed gone from the world.

I couldn't feel God and the cheery confidence of Christians had become unbearable, so I decided to doubt.

But I couldn't do it.

For one thing, it seemed a lot a like a stupid teenage tantrum. For another, I was throwing it like a threat, like, "You better do something for me, God, or I'm going to doubt you." And then I thought, "Why do I think God owes me anything? Why would God make a deal with me? Who do I think I am?"

So my atheism was short-lived. A flat-out failure.

Sometimes, though, I get mistaken for an atheist. Last week I was talking about theology and someone said that I, and all the rest of the 14 percent of non-religious people in this country, should shut up.

I said, "What makes you think I'm an atheist?" But actually, I know why someone would think that. I understand.

I read the bible like I'm boxing with the book. I go to church like I'm with Internal Affairs. I talk about God like I think he has something for which he has to answer.

You don't normally get devout people who are critics. I don't know why that is, but it seems to make people uncomfortable and I've been told more than once, in my long wrestle with Christianity, that Bible studies are not a place to have problems with the Good Book, and church is not a place to question God.

I don't know what else to do, where else to go. So I stick around, believing in God and praying to God and asking him, all the time, "How come there's evil?" I say, "God, is this really the best you can do?" I say, "God, why can't you persuade people with free will to love their neighbors? Are you still here? Do you still care? It seems like you would have stepped in by now."

I believe in God, but sometimes I think he must be busy somewhere else, ignoring us, and sometimes I suspect maybe he's a mean deity, who enjoys all this pain.

This isn't atheism, but I can see why someone would think I wasn't devout.

Even if I could somehow figure out how to doubt God, or change my position on the fact of God's existence, which seems to be the center of that debate, it wouldn't really change anything for me. There are two pins holding my faith together. One, humans are horrible: violent and vicious, greedy and god-awful, depressing and desperate. Two, I hope that every human, even the most grotesque monsters, will get grace and salvation.

Really, for me, the entire atheism vs. theism debate ends up irrelevant. I choose to try to live as if there is hope for all of us, and, for me, that's the whole thing.

I thought maybe I should have been offended at being mistaken for an atheist, but I've learned how to hope from some atheists. Some atheists are throwing teenage tantrums and some are just mean, arrogant and bigoted, I know. I don't want to come off like that. But I wouldn't mind being mistaken for Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut -- the author who was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when his own World War II allies bombed it to obliteration, and who wrote "Slaughterhouse Five" -- didn't believe in God, or heaven, or any of that. He did love people, though. He died about a year ago. Up to the end, he believed humans were doomed, that the point where we tipped into Armageddon was past, but he still believed in love and beauty, decency and art, and especially hope and grace.

Once he said, " Take care of the people, and God Almighty will take care of himself." Another time, he wrote, "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."

He probably stole that idea from Jesus. But that's OK with me.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.