An Atheist Goes to Confession

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.”

—H. L. Mencken

“The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”

—Meister Eckhart

I went to confession last month in preparation for Easter.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was confirmed as a Catholic in my teenage years, shortly before becoming an atheist. Technically, I am still a Catholic. Like Martin Scorsese once said, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it.” In addition to my qualifications, I attend Mass every Sunday morning and recite the prayers, sing the hymns, exchange signs of peace, and receive the body and blood of Christ. I do it because I think it gives my devoutly Catholic parents some comfort to know that their son is keeping in touch with the Lord.

My mother had called me about the mass confessions that were to take place at her church, and at first I refused to go. (“I have no sins to confess.”) Attending Mass was one thing, but going to confession was a bit much. I’d already gone last year, and, though I didn’t believe in right and wrong, I’d felt guilty about it, because in a way I’d been betraying the priest’s trust by pretending to be a believer. However, I didn’t want my mother to feel that I was missing out on the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness, so I ended up going. This was to be my second confession as an atheist. Since I didn’t believe in sin, I would, like last time, enumerate the things I wasn’t proud of.

After a fairly brief wait at church, I walked into the confession room. There I was once again face to face with the elderly Irish priest I’d met last year.

The following is a rough reconstruction of the conversation that took place:

“How long has it been since your last confession?” the priest asked.

“Three, four months, I think.”

He nodded, as if in approval. I wondered if he remembered who I was.

“So, do you have any sins to confess?”

“Well, yes; that’s what I’m here for.”

If I was going to go through with this, I wanted to at least be sincere about it. My strategy this time around was to make use of Christian language. Last time, I’d spoken in such a way that the priest might have wondered if I was a closet secular humanist.

“I don’t honor my father and mother as much as they deserve,” I began. The priest nodded knowingly as I spoke.

I proceeded to the next item on the short list I’d written up. “Gluttony—I often eat more than I need to. Sloth—I often procrastinate, and don’t make the best use of my time. Wrath—I often get angry at others even while knowing that they’re ultimately not responsible for what I blame them for. Envy—oh, this is a big problem for me.” There was a hint of something resembling enthusiasm in my voice, and part of the reason for that was that envy really was one of my biggest problems, if not the biggest one. “I often feel envy when I see that someone has something that I don’t have, and I feel jealousy when I see that someone has something that I do have.”

Thus ended my confession.

“How are you feeling right now?” inquired the priest.

“How am I feeling?”

“Are you feeling good, or bad?”

“Well, I guess you can say I feel kind of bad.” (Because I’d failed myself, because I wasn’t able to meet my own expectations.)

Then the priest asked, “If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”

The million dollar question. I was prepared this time, or so I’d thought. For a moment I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to say. I fumbled for words before the answer clicked back into place.

“I want determination.”

For some reason the priest couldn’t understand, so I tried “passion.”

“I want to have passion for my goals,” I clarified.

“Does anything about what you’ve just said strike you?” asked the priest.

“Strike me?” I racked my brains to try to figure out what that could possibly be.

After a long pause, the priest supplied the answer I wasn’t able to find.

“It’s somewhat self-centered. What about other people? Don’t you think about what you can do for others?”

“Well, yes. I do help others…but not as much as I can,” I said.

The priest waited for me to elaborate.

“It’s kind of the opposite of a slippery slope,” I explained, struggling to find the words.

“Ah,” the priest said, appearing to have immediately grasped what it was I was clumsily trying to convey.

“I can do things for others, but there’s always something more I can do,” I continued. “There’s no limit. There’s always…more.”

I thought of the countless ambitions I had, the personal goals that I would not be able to achieve in two lifetimes.

“Complete self-sacrifice…is something I can never do,” I concluded.

The priest administered my penance: 5 Our Father’s and 3 Hail Mary’s. I started to get up from my chair when the priest started to speak again.

“When I was about your age, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

“An airplane pilot?” For some reason I’d felt the need to ask for clarification.

“Yes. But my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I became a missionary. I worked in Korea, then Koreatown, and…here I am.”

Then the priest asked me to pray for him. Not sure I’d heard him correctly, I got him to repeat what he’d said. After crossing myself and exchanging words of thanks, I got up, left the room, and headed toward the parking lot. I was puzzled. Why did he want me to pray for him? It was as if he’d somehow felt humbled by something I’d said.

Either way, I’d agreed to pray for him. So on the drive home, I, a godless nihilist, prayed for a Catholic priest. As far as I was concerned, I was talking to no one but myself. I don’t quite remember what I “prayed” for; I think it was for the laws of physics to operate in ways that would be favorable to the priest. Since the laws of physics were blind and indifferent, all one could do was hope. I also did my penance, reciting the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s over the roar of Incantation’s “Blasphemous Cremation.” Why did I do it? Because the priest was trusting that I would do it, and because I wanted to honor the agreement between us. God wasn’t watching me, but I was.

In the same way, the confession was ultimately not between me and God, or even between me and the priest, but between me and myself.

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The Other Artistic Contribution of Christianity

By Jin-yeong Yi

Inverted pentagram (black)

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

“Rebellion is the salt of the earth.”

—Joseph McCabe

Who says that good things haven’t come out of Christianity? Many artistic geniuses have utilized its symbols to yield what are widely hailed as great achievements, such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, to name a few. But there is another, lesser known breed of art that this religion has produced: death metal and black metal. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these musical forms would never have existed if it weren’t for Christianity.

Writing in 1905, Christian philosopher and apologist G. K. Chesterton observed:

“Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”[1]

Writing 102 years later, atheist conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple protested against the increasing hostility toward religion:

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.”[2]

In the same year, atheist feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia argued that “only religion can save the arts”:

“Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.”[3]

When one listens to diabolical masterpieces[4] such as Morbid Angel’s The Altars of Madness, Incantation’s Onward to Golgotha, Necrophobic’s The Nocturnal Silence, Profanatica’s Profanatitas de Domonatia, Havohej’s Dethrone the Son of God, Cryptopsy’s None So Vile, Demoncy’s Joined in Darkness, or Immolation’s Close to a World Below, and imbibes and delights in their unholy glory day after day, one is tempted to agree.

Would the world have been better off without Christianity? Maybe, maybe not. Part of the answer depends on subjective values and the other part depends on whether it is possible to travel back in time and conduct historical control experiments. Either way, I, for one, am thankful for the art that has been made in rebellion against it. Along with classical music and cathedrals, death metal and black metal are part of the legacy of the most beloved and most hated religion that the world has ever known.

Ah, ’tis verily a good age to be a blasphemer.

Notes

[1] Heretics by G. K. Chesterton

[2] “What the New Atheists Don’t See” by Theodore Dalrymple

[3] “Religion and the Arts in America” by Camille Paglia

[4] See the deathmetal.org article, “The most blasphemous devil metal,” for more recommended listening.

Giving the Devil His Due (or, The Case for Satan)

By Jin-yeong Yi

Inverted pentagram (white)

“There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another.”

—Edouard Manet

“Rebellion is the salt of the earth.”

—Joseph McCabe

“If God and the Devil were playing football, Manon would be the stadium that they played in, he would be the sun that shined down on them.”

—Nancy Downs, The Craft

Without Contraries is no progression.
Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,
Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven.
Evil is Hell.

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

“I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me:

That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

—The Bible, Isaiah 45:5-7 (King James Version)

Where would Star Wars be without Darth Vader? The Lord of the Rings without Sauron? The Matrix without Agent Smith? Where would the traditional Christian narrative be without Satan?

Now, I don’t believe that Father Satan actually exists, but I do tend to take Him seriously as a symbol. Where would God be without an antithesis, without something to provide juxtaposition and conflict? For me, Satan is a reminder that we can’t have light without darkness, purity without corruption, pleasure without pain, sweetness without bitterness, elation without disappointment, joy without sorrow, kindness without cruelty, love without hatred, nobleness without baseness, beauty without ugliness, life without death. Even as I try to avoid the hideous and horrible side of life, I can’t help but think that without it, or the knowledge of it, or at least the ability to imagine it, life would be lifeless.

Of course, Satan and His relationship with God can be perceived in different ways, in the same way that in Hinduism the various aspects of Brahman can be expressed in a plethora of different theologies. There are at least two ways of looking at the relationship: the orthodox perspective, according to which Satan is an independently operating antagonist of God (though not equal to God); and an unorthodox monistic perspective, according to which Satan and God are equal aspects of a single, unified Godhead.

Either way, by contradicting God, Satan complements God, intentionally or not. Satan conspires with God in painting upon the canvas of space-time the picture of all existence. Without Satan, Life would not be Life. For this reason, the more daring among Christian religious naturalists might consider dedicating a small altar to the Prince of Darkness in their churches, if only as a concrete reminder of the indispensable role He plays in the grand design and drama of the cosmos.

Rediscovering God in a Godless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God – but to create him.”

—Arthur C. Clarke

“If there is no God…if there is no thing called ‘God’…if He is nothing, can’t something come from Him?”

—Stephen Colbert, interview with Lawrence Krauss

I am an atheist, but I believe in God. Depending on your cultural background, this sentence may have made absolutely no sense to you. Not long ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either, because the only definition of “God” that I was really aware of was the omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent monotheistic, patriarchal deity of orthodox Christianity. My inquiries outside of the Christian mainstream; specifically in deism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Spinozism, as well as progressive Christianity; eventually cured me of this myopia. I came to realize that the word “God” could mean anything at all. Then finally, I realized that the word could mean something for me as well.

Seen in this light, the “One nation under God” controversy seems pointless, a complete waste of time, even. There have been myriad religions throughout the millennia that affirmed different and conflicting definitions of the word “God.” Depending on the definition, “God” can be something affirmable for everyone, even atheists. All that one needs to do is to refashion the word for one’s own purposes.

One of the people who helped open up the possibilities of this Word of words to me was the Dutch Christian pastor Klaas Hendrikse, a religious maverick who caused his share of controversy in the late 2000’s with his book, whose title is translated as Believing in a God Who Does Not Exist: Manifesto of an Atheist Pastor. He explained, “God is for me not a being but a word for what can happen between people.” His words never faded from my consciousness, and they continue to inspire me in my ongoing quest to find out what God means to me.

In the same way theists use the word to denote what they worship as the Most High, I use the word as a linguistic vessel that gives expression to my subjective emotional reaction to something I find to be particularly beautiful or sublime. In this sense, I may experience the presence of Godhead, in varying degrees, when looking at a work of art, listening to a piece of music, reading a book, watching a motion picture, gazing at natural scenery, or ruminating on the wonders of science and mathematics. If religious service is the contemplation and worship of everything that one holds to be holy and sacred, then daily life for me is, on some level, one continuous, unending religious service.

The word is also a source of daily inspiration in my life. For me, God is the impossible standard of absolute perfection. God cannot be reached; God can only be pursued, for God is infinite. We can move toward God, but we can never reach God. This is only natural, for God is infinitely above us. But as long as we move in the direction of God, we cannot help but grow and evolve through our efforts. To understand God is to recognize that growth and evolution have no end point any more than progress with a musical instrument has an end point–that there’s always, always room for betterment. Amen.