I suppose that I should be grateful in a way. Some of my Christian friends only think that I am eventually going to Hell. They are not particularly interested in dispatching me there anytime soon. That’s the nice thing about most Christians these days. While their faith may lead them to believe that atheists (and other non-believers) like me can one day look forward to spending eternity in a place that makes a truck-stop Denny’s seem like paradise, they would presumably never strap explosives to their bodies and blow me, themselves, and anyone in proximity to Smithereens (which is apparently just down the highway to Hell from Denny’s). For that, I am eternally grateful.
Still, it seems a tad unfair that a fine, upstanding citizen such as myself should be relegated to damnation simply because my personal beliefs are at variance with those of my Christian friends. Yes, I am an atheist. But I am not amoral. I am a person of considerable compassion and humanity. In my personal and professional lives, I have ever striven to help those in need or distress. I have often put aside my own needs and wants to provide such help. I fervently desire to leave the world a better place than I found it (a desire which sadly seems more remote with each passing year). In short, I lead a life that is, in many ways, very christian. But I am not a Christian.
Even if I belonged to this special club, I believe that I would take exception to the notion that those who opted not to join–however welcome they might be, however righteous they might be–would or should suffer a terrible fate simply by virtue of their lack of membership. I would take exception to a club charter that codifies such discrimination and superiority. I would take exception to club policies that rigidly require members to swear allegiance and maintain obeisance to the grand Pooh-bah. And I would wonder why this exalted leader was so demanding and judgmental–and could not see His way to granting honorary membership to folks from other clubs or independent sorts like me.
Why should faith trump virtue? Why should being Christian trump being christian? Why should someone who has led a less than virtuous life but embraced Christianity and apologized for their sins win an all-expense paid trip to Caesars Palace while the poor schlub who has led a life of greater virtue but happens to be Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist is relegated to a seedy motel far off the main strip? Where is the sense or fairness in that?
I do not get it–and never will. That’s okay. I am not exactly losing sleep with worry that I will one day find myself in a Denny’s that has lousy food, sullen waitstaff, overflowing toilets, and no exit. What haunts my waking and sleeping hours is not some fanciful, future suffering but the very real suffering that is happening right now in Iraq and Darfur and New Orleans and places closer to home. It is the suffering that I see in the eyes of the children and parents that I have sought to treat in my capacity as a clinical social worker that concerns me, not the supposed suffering of my soul after the worms have at me. I have my priorities.
Still, being human, I do wonder what dreams, if any, may come when I have shuffled off this mortal coil. When I walk toward the light, will I find nothing but darkness beyond? Will I find myself in a heavenly paradise, rumors of my exclusion notwithstanding? Will I find a sulfurous lake of fire? Or will I find myself in a dimly-lit corner booth at some distant Denny’s restaurant, nursing tepid coffee and overcooked eggs and wondering where in hell the waitress has gone? What do you believe?