The Superstitious Atheist

At the beginning of each class, my new yoga instructor passes out sayings on little cards, and I get very excited. Yoga class is now like the end of every Chinese meal, when the fortune cookies arrive, and I think solemnly, Get ready to be enlightened, Self. This is going to mean something.

Last class, my card read: “Manifestation comes from consistent vibration and visualization.” I took the card home and showed it to G., because I didn’t know I was supposed to return it. “What does that even mean?” I asked. “Is that supposed to be a masturbation joke?”

This time, I got “Everything you need or want is handed to you,” which was not even slightly true, because a cursory glance in either direction revealed there was nary a hot Krispy Kreme donut nor bottle of vodka to be found. I stretched my neck a little to see what the person to the right of me had. “I am relaxed”—silly. Saying something doesn’t make it true. A long time ago a therapist tried that mantra thing with me. He also tried a relaxation recording where some guy was telling me how I was on a beach somewhere. We had to stop both exercises because they were just making me angry.

You and I both know I'm not on the beach, so let's cut the shit.
You and I both know I’m not on the beach, so let’s cut the shit.

The person to the left of me had “I am fun,” which wouldn’t have been an appropriate card for me either. If somebody says something’s going to be “fun,” I’m the first to express suspicion. I have a whole list of activities people keep saying are “fun” but are actually mind-numbingly boring, like softball and card games and going to the movies. Appropriately, the word “fun” used to mean a cheat, hoax, or trick, as in “Oh, I was only funning.” Therefore, someone suggesting “fun” is really just trying to trick me into doing something I won’t enjoy. I don’t really understand most people’s definition of fun, but what they experience as “having fun” for me feels more like “successfully keeping at bay the misery one feels when participating in social events and realizing his or her utter aloneness.”

I should know by now that such random fortunes and sayings are just that—random—and that the only significance they have is the significance I assign to them. For someone who is anti-religion, pro-science and pro-rational thinking, I’m highly suggestible and ridiculously superstitious.

  • I knock on wood.
  • If I spill a little salt while I’m cooking, I shake the salt shaker once over my left shoulder.
  • My grandfather once told me that if you put your underwear on backwards by accident, turning them around would be bad luck. I won’t deny that on a couple of sleepy mornings, I’ve put them on backwards and then thrown them in the laundry immediately in favor of a new pair, rather than invite trouble by reversing them.
  • I take birthday candle wishes and coin-in-fountain wishes very seriously.
  • I once consulted the I Ching to help me decide if I should break up with my boyfriend.
  • I refuse to believe that I’ll give birth to a girl because the fortune teller from sophomore year of college predicted that I’d have two boys—even though she was completely wrong about the appearance, age, profession, and first initial of my supposed future husband.

Here’s the twisted part: I feel relieved when bad things happen to me, because if they’re mildly bad, I believe they inoculate me from experiencing something worse. Getting a flat tire, losing a distant relative, or having a mild illness are all acceptable, because if I accumulate enough of these kinds of misfortunes, I might be protected from losing my husband or child. Conversely, when things are going too well, I start to get nervous that I’m due for something terrible. The irrational thinking here is that there’s a finite amount of happiness for every human being, doled out by some unnamed entity, and I’d best be careful not to exceed my limit.

In my mind, this is sort of how the arbiter of happiness looks, and he hands out good fortune like gold coins. Or Corn Pops, or pissy snowballs, or whatever those things are.
In my mind, this is sort of how the arbiter of happiness looks, and he hands out good fortune like gold coins. Or Corn Pops, or pissy snowballs, or whatever those things are.

Human brains are built for superstition. We’re hardwired to believe that the universe works in certain ways. That it’s governed by a presence with a concept of mercy and justice. That we ourselves can bring about events—either directly, or indirectly by displeasing or propitiating a god or gods. It takes effort to examine one’s thinking and recognize when it’s irrational, but as humans, we have that capability. Some of us choose not to use that capability, which is why we still have cretins who think that “God” sends tsunamis and tornadoes to punish people who support same-sex marriage. If you think that way, you think like a small child. You also may have noticed that I have unfriended you on Facebook.

For me—and this sounds paradoxical—atheism has compounded superstition. Rather, the social response to my atheism has made me more superstitious. There is a fear, a grimness (as Sylvia Plath once said) at the core of atheism, not because atheists see life as meaningless, but because others think we see life as meaningless. Believers think we’re arrogant, ungrateful. I’ve been told I’m a bad person because I don’t thank God for everything I have. This was from my very Christian “best friend” roundabout tenth grade—the worst thing anyone ever said to me, and it stays with me. Couldn’t she have just called me a C-U-Next-Tuesday and been done with it? (That was for you, Charlene.) I can’t think of a single name that would hurt worse than the accusation that I live my life without gratitude. That because of how “arrogant” I am, I don’t deserve good things—or in fact, deserve bad things. Little Miss Perfect, headed for a fall.

In the Christian worldview, humans were created by a fatherlike god who loves his creations unconditionally, has a plan for them, listens to their requests, keeps tabs on their misdeeds, and will—if they conform to a narrow set of expectations—redeem them from death. A single text prescribes the way to a moral life.

In my worldview, humans evolved by chance. We’re stuck on a big ball of rock, with no apparent purpose, spinning helplessly in an endless void. Our lives are a mere blip on the radar of existence, and the universe is infinitely more complex than we can ever comprehend.

Explain to me again how I’m arrogant.

Hmm. I began by poking gentle fun at myself for my superstitious tendencies, but it seems I poked a nerve.

9 thoughts on “The Superstitious Atheist

  1. Good thing I wasn’t drinking coffee when I read my shout out or I would have spit it at the screen! Hilarious.

    And it’s funny how writing is – you start out with one thing in mind and end up with another. I love where this piece went.

    My husband likes to say there are two kinds of Christians – those who believe in (and try to model) the benevolent Jesus and those who believe in (and definitely model) the kick-your-ass Jesus. I don’t remember the kick-your-ass Jesus, but unfortunately too many people I know who call themselves a Christian are definitely the kick-your-ass Jesus types.

    I definitely think you can be grateful to the universe without being grateful to God. And aside from your occasional secret Chick-fil-A binging, I’d say you’re about as good as it gets! 🙂

  2. Deep Sh*t, Abbybyrd.

    I’m definitely the kick ass Jesus kind of Christian. After I read Traveling Mercies by Annie Lamott, I was like “THAT”S MEeee!”

    Love flowing from MN, Dear. Xx

  3. “In my worldview, humans evolved by chance. We’re stuck on a big ball of rock, with no apparent purpose, spinning helplessly in an endless void. Our lives are a mere blip on the radar of existence, and the universe is infinitely more complex than we can ever comprehend.”
    Abby, I think that sounds pretty spiritual, even if (especially if) it doesn’t conform to a popular conception of What Christians Think. My two cents. I’m no God expert.

  4. I used to prescribe to similar magical thinking – but in the opposite direction. I thought weathering a terrible tragedy would indoctrinate you against any future terrible tragedies. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this is not true. Really shitty things happen, even to people who have already have experienced really shitty things. (I’ll leave out the details. My life wouldn’t even qualify as a Hallmark melodrama, because no one would believe how sad its been)

    I also think that petitioning prayer is a type of magical thinking – you are trying to alter the outcome of the universe by asking an invisible all powerful being to bend to YOUR will. Its really quite arrogant, if you think of it. I’m all for prayer (or whatever you want to call it) of gratitude however. Its very powerful and life-affirming to be grateful for what you have.

    I’m not sure where I am going with all of this. As usual, your blog(s) just really hit home with me

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