Atheism and Mortality

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OPENING WORDS: “My friend, Dr. Jim Waller, died in Greensboro in 1979, a young man of 36, brilliant, a pediatric specialist who had given it all up to work in the textile mill in Haw River North Carolina, heavy, hard work. So that he could organize those workers for better pay, for break times, for vacation with their families. And when the boss wanted to cut that vacation time, Jim led them on strike, with no support from the international. He won their support – black and white, because he was devoted to them and he told them the truth.

Jim Waller was murdered in the streets by Klansmen and Nazis. It was a great crime, but it was not a tragedy. He died an early death and I miss him very much. But we all die. Every last one of us. We cannot escape that.  But the question is, will we live for something? Jim lived for something. Will we?” sermon by Rev. Nelson Johnson, November 3, 1994, Greensboro, NC

Special thanks today to Brit, Sarah, Rosemary, Elliot, Tina and Bruce. To the congregation, thank you for the honor of allowing me to talk with you today. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to reflect on the sometimes-unconscious reasoning that weaves together the threads of the cloth of my complicated and seemingly disjointed life. I suffer from action addiction, being drawn to take a stand against war and injustice without necessarily taking the time to explain to myself or others why I am doing the things I do. You have given me the chance to examine the underpinnings of my consciousness. I invite you to do the same.

I ask for tolerance. What I will say is based on musings from my own life, not from the words of the philosophers or psychologists, as is the standard for a Sunday sermon.

This talk arose from a moment in a bed in Cooley-Dickenson Hospital. On Thanksgiving eve nine months ago I lay in my hospital bed – the term “lay” is inaccurate; I was sitting upright, fighting for breath despite oxygen – suffering from pulmonary edema caused by heart inflammation of unknown origin. I thought it was likely I would die. I actually thought that death might be a relief, since the smothering sensation was intolerable. And I suddenly realized that I was not in this extreme moment thinking of god the judge or Jesus the refuge offering eternal life. I was thinking of the fluid in my lungs and whether the diuretic was going to work or not and whether I would be able to be with my adored husband Elliot and children Leah, Mulu and Masaye. Oh, and my grandchildren Misha and Eli. And though I didn’t like suffering, I recognized for the millionth time that I did love life. The struggle for breath went on for hours until I finally fell asleep and the next morning awoke improved. I had made it through the night.

And I made it through the months of continued fatigue, weakness, dizziness and shortness of breath that repeatedly tapped me on the shoulder to remind me of my mortality. In the process of recovery from the heart failure I was found to have lung cancer, which was irradiated, and a pulmonary embolus which was dissolved. I began to hesitate to undergo any more tests because each one uncovered a new bad, potentially fatal disease. Nonetheless, I am back to, if not normal, then 75% capacity and The Reaper is no longer my constant companion. (I am deeply indebted to all my amazing colleagues who kept this organism going and dragged it back to health. Modern scientific medicine is amazing.)

The point of this story: I had always been told that confronting death required a belief in God and an afterlife. We fear the unknowable future of death and the possibility of the easing that fear and the accompanying suffering through belief prompts more than a few deathbed conversions. Instead, we go home to Jesus.

That at Cooley-Dick ended up not being my deathbed but it was uncomfortably close, and I was surprised that I felt no urge reconversion nor did I yearn for religious solace for my suffering.

I was certainly a good candidate for re-accepting belief in God. I had a conservative Protestant upbringing in a rural Ohio town, but at the age of 18 rejected it after the deaths of my father and beloved sister. I became and remain to this day an atheist. I do not call myself an agnostic, because that implies a questioning. I really do not believe that there is a god or an omniportent spirit recognizable by human consciousness.

By becoming an atheist, I entered a group that has been scorned in this society as much as the group I later joined, American Maoists. I think that many folks feel unsafe stating their lack of belief and I want to encourage all who do not believe to be willing to say that publicly and expect respect and security from our society. Beliefs are personal and subjective and I feel incapable of arguing them. I am not an evangelist for godlessness. I love many people whose lives are mounted firmly on a religious base, a faith that sustains and guides them as we work together for common social goals. I celebrate those intersections, and make it a principle not to be alienated by our differences.

I will explain my beliefs by telling you my complex story and the weaving of that life cloth, perhaps leading to a recognizable pattern.

I was born in the McCarthyite 1950’s to a self-identified agnostic socialist Greyhound bus driver union-organizing father and a conservative Protestant-believing mother. My childhood played out in Westerville, Ohio. My parents’ was a volatile, passionate match forcing my sister and me at various times to take sides. My father believed deeply in the rights and power of “the working man” as he said at the time, supported civil rights and opposed racism with a dedication that was at least as vigorous and moving as the church sermons that I heard every Sunday. My dad’s work was the subject of focused attack by industry and government and, though this word was to my memory never used in my house he was a crusader for better wages, shorter hours, and benefits. My mom suffered mental illness –severe anxiety and depression – I believe in part triggered by the class and political conflict between her rough-hewn husband and her father, a successful Republican lawyer and one of the biggest land owners our small town.

I was protected from a lot of the conflict by my sister, a brilliant young woman eight years my senior. She shielded me from my mom’s suicidal depression and disability and did her best to maintain an armor of joy and rationality around me.

I was 14 when my dad died of heart disease after years of deteriorating health spurred by overwork and cigars. That provided me my first real-life struggle with death, the afterlife that I had been grounded in in the church, holy judgment, and guilt. I was pubescent and had had a roiling fight with my dad the night before he collapsed in his office. Subject of fight? Not the meaning of life, the Vietnam War, or Black Nationalist aspirations for freedom, but whether I could go to the fair with my latest love interest. When he died I was sure my rebellion and his anger had killed him and I would and should burn in hell for my selfishness. I also wondered where his soul went.

I threw myself into the church after that, at one point joining the Billy Graham-inspired youth evangelist group Young Life. Confused and conflicted teenage friends were speaking in tongues and I strove for a “state of grace” as I saw my mother deteriorate and my emotional bedrock, my sister, wage a real battle with bone cancer, a battle she lost when she was 25 and I was 17.

I was furious and desperate when my sister died and played it out, as do most furious, desperate young women, in “drugs, sex and rock and roll”. I did a whole plate load of irresponsible, self-destructive things which, amazingly, I survived. I had, as my sister died, bargained with god that he should take me instead of her. Then, when he didn’t, I knew that it was because I really hadn’t meant it. I had wanted to live, and, like many survivors in my own personal holocaust, I felt that death of loved ones was payback for the insolence of my living.

But in my best moments, those thoughts hit a rock. I knew that a system whereby death occurred by heavenly design or which focused on life after death simply didn’t meet the sniff test. Even as I was acting out I became a biology major in college and loved rational, scientific thought. I devoured it and found that I could not blend the concepts. A transcendent spiritual being, human-recognizable outside and beyond material substance, let alone godly intervention in Earthly affairs coexisting in a universe governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology? It honestly made no sense.

Now you may be thinking that by shedding religion I was just seeking shelter from my own adolescent survivor’s guilt. Well, yeah, maybe. But the fact that I suffered religious-based remorse and anxiety while rejecting religion does not prove that god exists. If I had known a kinder god or had a gentler life, would I have rejected religion? I don’t know. Probably the existential choice would not have been so grotesquely and sharply defined. But I think it still would have been a choice I would have had to make.

And once that choice had been made I started thinking about things in a different way. I began to see the objective influence of religion on both the admirable and the despicable moral choices made by our society, the most deeply religious of all developed countries.

I hated the war in Vietnam. There was a religious zeal to destroy a small Southeast Asian country and two million of its people as one front in Christian America’s battle against “godless communism”. Yet William Sloane Coffin and many other religious leaders throughout the world were opposing the gross violations of religious calls to love and nonviolence. They sacrificed much motivated by their belief in a just God.

In the civil rights and black liberation struggles, racists proclaimed that slavery and oppression of the sons and daughters of Hamm were Biblically ordained. Yet Martin Luther King and his ideological descendants preached a liberation theology that cast the oppressed in the image and spirit of god and blessed the movement of the poor and people of color with divine destiny.

That theology was a motivating force for justice in Central and South America against the bombs and military and financial backing our country gave to dictators in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina and a host of other countries who were backed by the established Roman Catholic Church. There poor peasants were being robbed of land and culture to maintain US corporatocracy in the 70’s and 80’s and the church was divided. Which side were we on?

Religion was used against my rights as a female to control my body, my fertility, and my professional aspirations. It declared gays, lesbians and trans people sinners and denied their right not just to marry but even to exist. Yet the alternative, the theology of the oppressed and of feminism, took hold here too and its god gave strength to those speaking truth to power in sexual politics.

I love liberation theology and its believers. Some of my best friends are… But I am not. I simply don’t believe. It is that simple and that complex.

It was tested severely in 1979. As an anti-war and racial and class justice activist, I joined a small Maoist sect, the Workers Viewpoint Organization (later the Communist Workers Party) while doing my medical training and working in Durham, North Carolina. This group of young people came out of the anti-war and national liberation movements to declare themselves socialists and dedicate themselves to anti-racist union organizing in the textile mills and hospitals of Greensboro and Durham. Their goal was to eliminate the oppressive class inequality that made some homeless while others suffered a surfeit of mansions.

Their atheism and mine were simpatico, and, though I honestly never liked the idea of or thought possible the chance of violent revolution, their courage in standing up to capitalism’s greed and racism in the 1970’s South won my heart and that of my husband, Mike Nathan. They were an organization of Black and white, Latino and Asian. Both Mike and I were doctors, he a pediatrician at a local health center, I an internist who was deciding to leave medicine to join my friends organizing in North Carolina factories. We had a 6-month old daughter, Leah, on November 3rd, 1979.

That was the day that Mike was murdered along with 4 others. The Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis, came together in a United Racist Front (the historical antecedent to the recent Charlottesville Unite the Right coalition). They drove into our anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in the heart of the black community in Greensboro. They physically attacked the demonstrators, then shot people down. Five were killed and ten injured. I was 28 and my heart was broken.

As part of that, again the guilt:

  • If I hadn’t gone to Greensboro, maybe Mike wouldn’t have and would not have been shot down.
  • If we hadn’t used such militant words, they wouldn’t have attacked us.

Yet, my rational self knew that Mike had taken on the KKK before and honestly, I am not sure that I could have KEPT him from going to Greensboro. And our hypermilitant words were only part of a mix goading the Klan, a mix that featured a police informant who recruited, organized and led them, with the aid of a federal agent. The police were fully knowledgeable of the impending violence, and withdrew protection as the white supremacists approached our rally.

My Protestant god both condemned my arrogant mistakes and could have been a refuge for suffering especially if I confessed. Honestly, it would have been nice. 

But I could find no refuge. God was not there after the Greensboro Massacre any more than he existed for me before it. I did resort to the memory of Mike as I traipsed from demonstration to demonstration, city to city, meeting to meeting, courtroom to courtroom, creating a political and legal defense against the racist right wing and the Reagan regime supporting it. I felt him holding my hand, teasing me for my lack of self-confidence and fear of becoming public.

It was the years that followed that seared my belief in the existential humanism that serves me today. I love the love, generosity, courage and material simplicity of Jesus’ image cast in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are…” I believe that Mike acted in that image though he was Jewish, like Jesus. He, like Jesus, was willing to turn over the tables of the money changers at the temple, to rob the greedy of their profit. As a pediatrician, he had “let the little children come unto” him, and his gentle hands calmed their terror and cured their infections.

I dug into the struggle for justice in the courts and the streets for Mike, Bill, Jim, Cesar and Sandy, and in the process, underwent an education in the relationship between the haves and the havenots, the structures of power and the oppressed, war and humanity, and a polluted and deteriorating world and the need for survival of all species.

In two separate trials, the murderers who had been videoed by tv cameramen shooting their victims were found “not guilty” by all-white Southern juries led by half-hearted prosecutors. But we won the Greensboro Civil Rights Suit, proving the Greensboro police colluded with the shooters in the attack.

That gave me and the other widows some closure. We had formed a female front line against a hostile state and found that that verdict allowed us to rest and take care of other business. I married Elliot Fratkin and went back to my medical training in Family Practice but worked with my best friend, Dale Sampson, to create the Greensboro Justice Fund to lend support to others in the South, as isolated as we had been, in the struggle for racial and social justice. That was terribly rewarding, to be on the giving end of grants and encouragement to folks in other small Southern towns victimized by racist police practices and kkk violence. The GJF was pivotal in creating the Greensboro community coalition that ultimately established this country’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission which in 2006 laid the responsibility for the November 3rd violence squarely at the feet of the City. Just this week, due to the activism and anger of young people over the violent hatred in Charlottesville, the City Council finally apologized for its part in the murders.  

The Greensboro Massacre had been another internal turning point for me. My exposure to the gross and personal injustice of Nazi bullets destroying my hopes and family forced me to see my life and choices as political. My medicine focused on the underserved first in the mountains of Pennsylvania then in the health centers of the Connecticut River Valley. I ended up in Baystate Brightwood Health Center where I was trained by some of the best public health providers and staff I ever expect to meet. Their lives and practice were forged in the battle against the AIDS epidemic that had scourged the Puerto Rican Community of the North End.

There I teamed up with those who were working for the rights of immigrants, increasingly my patients at Brightwood. Together we created the Cliniquita which this congregation has supported, to provide health care as a human right for those denied medical care by a system that treats them as non-human, nonexistent, though their backbreaking work puts food on their table.

With friends, we applied the Greensboro Justice model to western Massachusetts, founding with Arky Markham the Markham-Nathan Fund for Social Justice serving poor grassroots liberation movements in our area.

And together with Susan Theberge and many other thoughtful and dedicated friends, I have engaged in the struggle for climate justice in Climate Action NOW and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, attempting to mold, in Susan’s words, a “massive unstoppable movement” of economic and racial equality in the social transformation necessary to stop climate change from extinguishing life on earth.

In my struggle for courage and wisdom in the face of the complex dilemmas of human existence in the 21st Century I have come to believe that we as humans DO have the capacity, without the divine but interacting with others, to behave generously and in a manner that creates joy and maintains the living earth. And our Earth is now threatened in a manner only comparable in human history to the nuclear crisis of the cold war. Further, the social and economic inequality in our country has been compounded many-fold from my youth in the 60’s and 70’s. We face a crisis. An environmental and social tipping point.

No, I don’t believe in God. But from all my accumulated life experiences, I have found cause for abiding hope in humanity:

First because we are able to love others as well as ourselves, and sacrifice self-interest for those we love.

Second, we can understand and identify with others.

Third, we are scientists, moved to investigate to know truth, including the real consequences of our own actions.

Fourth, we reason and can respond to and act on what we learn.

Fifth, we long for, love and create beauty.

The ability to combine all these in a fact-based altruism that can mold a lasting community amidst our incredibly complicated world, where the greedy have all the money and the haters have the guns, THAT is the foundation for my strong atheist faith.

But I do love and am filled with joy at the potential for humans. Yesterday I marched in Boston with Elliot, and I was astounded by the tens of thousands of, mainly, young people, many tattooed, pierced, and rainbow-haired, but all enthusiastic. They were searching for – no demanding – meaning in a world that generally offers cars and gadgets for sustenance. I have no idea about their religious beliefs. But I do know that they filled me with hope and the solace that I have searched for. Their capacity to sacrifice for others, ability to see beyond personal acquisition and comfort to the building of a commons safe and welcoming for all, will provide the life AFTER MY DEATH that will give me peace. It is enough.

CLOSING WORDS: “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet 
Whose hands can strike with such abandon 
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living 
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness 
That the haughty neck is happy to bow 
And the proud back is glad to bend 
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction 
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines 

When we come to it 
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body 
Created on this earth, of this earth 
Have the power to fashion for this earth 
A climate where every man and every woman 
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety 
Without crippling fear 

When we come to it 
We must confess that we are the possible 
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.