Within the last few weeks, it’s all crashed, all caved in on itself like a house being remodeled by amateurs who know no better than to knock out a load-bearing wall in order to let more light in. At first, everything seemed alright. The light from the kitchen in the morning passed through and lit the living room, and the evening glow in the living room passed into the kitchen just as dinner was served. But if anyone had cared to look up, they would have noticed that it was already sagging. No extra weight necessary. No snow accumulating. No high pressure system moving in. Not even a leaf landing on the room. The weight of the support system itself was pulling everything down, as if it were betraying itself. The collapse itself happened in the middle of the night, when the light of the morning and afternoon had moved to the other side of the globe and thus was completely irrelevant. There was a cracking of timber, a moaning of nails being bent and wrenched out of place, and then an incredible implosion of drywall, insulation, joists, and shingles, a noise so loud that it jolted everyone in the house into a hyper-alertness immediately, foregoing completely the drugged, heavy-brained feeling of a morning come too soon.
The problem of evil began haunting me anew a few weeks ago, though I really don’t know what was the catalyst. Perhaps the story of the child left dead in a swing for a week: “Authorities have charged an Iowa couple with murder in the death of their 4-month-old son, whose maggot-infested body was found in a baby swing in the family’s home” (source). A horrible story, but not as incredible as the story of the child left dead for two years: “The decomposed remains of a small boy still dressed in a baby-gro were found in his mother’s cot almost two years after he starved to death, a jury was told today (source). Or the story of Declan Hainey , who “was left dead for up to eight months is filled with waste including empty bottles of Irn-Bru, 3 Hammers cider, Lucozade, vodka and crisp packets” (source).
Come to think of it, I know exactly what it was: I reread The Brother’s Karamazov this summer, and Ivan’s words haunted me just like they did the first time I read them, twenty years ago:
A well-educated, cultured gentleman and his wife beat their own child with a birch-rod, a girl of seven. I have an exact account of it. The papa was glad that the birch was covered with twigs. ‘It stings more,’ said he, and so be began stinging his daughter. I know for a fact there are people who at every blow are worked up to sensuality, to literal sensuality, which increases progressively at every blow they inflict. They beat for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes, more often and more savagely. The child screams. At last the child cannot scream, it gasps, ‘Daddy daddy!’ By some diabolical unseemly chance the case was brought into court. A counsel is engaged. The Russian people have long called a barrister ‘a conscience for hire.’ The counsel protests in his client’s defence. ‘It’s such a simple thing,’ he says, ‘an everyday domestic event. A father corrects his child. To our shame be it said, it is brought into court.’ The jury, convinced by him, give a favourable verdict. The public roars with delight that the torturer is acquitted. Ah, pity I wasn’t there! I would have proposed to raise a subscription in his honour! Charming pictures. But I’ve still better things about children. I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, ‘most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding.’ You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense. it’s just their defencelessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire. In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain, the demon of diseases that follow on vice, gout, kidney disease, and so on.”
“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself. I’ll leave off if you like.” (source)
Ivan of course saves the greatest horror for the end:
“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I’ve forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men—somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then—who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbours as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys—all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. ‘Why is my favourite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy, autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry… ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs…’At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!…I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”
And then the news of the child left in a swing for a week. And the discovery of all the other stories while searching for details about the swing death. Death upon death, all of children, piled one on top of another, and like Ivan, my thoughts return to the question of what kind of god would allow such barbarism.
The ceiling was sagging.
With all this on my mind, I watched a Bill Burr routine, and he began talking about leaving religion.
“Everyone else’s religion sounds stupid,” he says. The obvious conclusion: “Why does that make sense and that shit doesn’t?” Why does Scientology sound ridiculous but Catholicism doesn’t? Why does Islam sound barbaric and Judaism doesn’t? Why are Jim Jones or Heaven’s Gate any different from Masada?
Burr explains that Scientology seemed stupid to him but Catholicism didn’t because “I heard my story when I was, like, four years old.”
There was more. Reading, thinking, watching videos debunking silly creationism.
All this sat in my head, just sat there swirling around, and because I’d lulled myself into a wishful Catholic sleep, I wasn’t ready when it all came crashing down around me. When I was standing in Mass and found myself unable to say the creed.
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
No, I’ve been deluding myself and wanting to believe this, but I don’t. Not in this sense. Not in the dogmatic sense of the Church.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
Nope. That doesn’t even make sense: the “Only Begotten Son” who is “consubstantial with the Father”? They’re supposed to be spirits — how in the hell can they even be Father and Son, and yet still the same being? From no perspective can that make any sense, not even when you try to throw in that quantum uncertainty nonsense: “Well, if light can act like a wave and a particle…” No. It doesn’t work.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
Why do they all want to be adored and glorified? That doesn’t make any sense. What kind of insecure being makes an entire universe in order to create a small rock on which hairless apes live and work and kill and create vaccines and nuclear weapons and who are so stupid that many of them end up disbelieving in the effectiveness of the former and accepting the necessity of the latter — what kind of pathetic being would create such a pathetic thing just to have it praise him? Just to have it adore him? To worship him?
I’ve known that these are my true thoughts ever since I began attending RCIA five or six years ago. I heard the priests explain their self-contradictory, illogical theology and had all the counterarguments popping up in my head, and I just stuffed them down and tamped them away and said, “Nope. This is more important.”
Important to what? Why did I cling? I have no idea. It was stupid, wishful thinking, and I simply can’t keep the charade up any longer. And yet I must. I can’t bring this up to my wife: it would crush her. I certainly can’t bring this up to my parents: it might kill them to think I’ve reverted again. “Your mother thinks it’s just a phase” my father once said to me in a letter, referring to my atheism. It turns out, my silly dalliance with theism was the phase.
And I can’t bring it up to my children because they would necessarily mention it to my wife: “Daddy says…”
And that’s what haunts me. “What harm can it do?” some might ask. For fuck’s sake, I’ve said that myself: Even if it’s wrong, what harm does it do? Well, my son sometimes can’t go to sleep because he’s so scared about devils and demons. I haven’t said a word about that, never taught him anything about devils or other superstitions, but the environment I’ve put him in teaches him that shit every Sunday morning, and so now he doesn’t want to go to sleep alone. And I did that to him. I put the shackles on his mind myself. I put the chains on my daughter’s thoughts. I betrayed them.
What would happen if I just said to my wife, my lovely cradle-Catholic wife, “Look, I know it was a wonderful surprise to you when I started reconsidering my atheism, and it was an unqualified joy for you to see me enter the Catholic church, but I just don’t believe it. I just don’t buy it at all.” What would she say? I can see the disappointment in her eyes, but what damage would it do to our relationship, that kind of hurt? She would feel just as betrayed as I fear my children would feel if I hadn’t shackled them and they had a chance to look at this alternative life that I could have given them but didn’t.
So now I sit in the rubble, wondering if I can hide it from my wife, wondering if I should even try, feeling dark and empty at the center of my being. “That’s just the god-shaped hole,” some might say. No. That’s just the emptiness of realizing you’ve been lying to everyone, including yourself, for the last few years.