It’s been a rough couple of months. Losing the first cat wasn’t so bad (I wrote a nice article for the newspaper about that). The second cat was a lot harder (see the previous post). But that was nothing. Nothing.
My brother-in-law called yesterday morning and told me my sister had died. I didn’t even know she was ill. Everyone else did. All her friends, the entire family, her church. Not me. Because she had expressly told them she didn’t want me to be told. They had their chance to visit her in the hospice where she lay dying of cancer. Not me. They begged her to let them tell me. She refused. Why?
Because I am an atheist.
It was her final gesture to me, her final retribution for my lack of belief in her god.
We had been estranged for a long time because I did not share her fundamentalist Christian beliefs, or in fact, any belief in a god at all. I am not an “evangelistic” atheist. I don’t push my beliefs aggressively on others, although if they push theirs on me I’ll readily push back. If a claim, religious or otherwise, seems patently ridiculous to me, I have little patience for it. But although I do not believe in God, I do believe in tolerance. Besides, she was my only sister. Our parents and grandparents were gone, and she was the only close family I had left. She could have believed in alien abductions and fairies in the back garden and it wouldn’t have mattered to me.
Those who knew her and loved her, knew what they had lost when she died. I can never know because she denied me that. Even at the end, when she was dying, she denied me the chance to speak with her one last time. That was the deepest cut of all. But I don’t blame those who knew she was dying and didn’t tell me. It was her wish and they felt compelled to honor it. I forgive them, and moreover, I feel deep sympathy for them because of the terrible position they were in. I am sorry they had to deal with that on top of dealing with Erica’s death.
I cannot know what possessed Erica to do this to me. She said it was because I had no faith. Because I am an atheist. She held her love for me hostage, demanding a payment I could not give, because belief is not a choice. It comes from the heart. It is a conviction that you cannot argue yourself out of even if you try. It is what makes sense to you, even if it is because you must throw up your hands and admit you don’t understand. Credo quia absurdum. I respect that.
You see, I had no problem with Erica’s faith. We cannot know what compels a person to believe in one thing and not another. We argue, debate, but we rarely change each other’s convictions. Still, if the debating is done in the proper spirit, it has its use, as a means to help us understand what it is that each believes. Because we must all learn to live together, in spite of our differences. We can do this through compassion, through understanding, through tolerance and forgiveness. This is what I believe. It is not a Christian thing; it is not a Buddhist thing; it is not an atheist thing. It is a human thing.
I always hoped that some day Erica would relent, and would welcome me into her heart and let me know her. Now that she is gone, so is that chance, that hope. That is what I have lost. She was my only sister. We should have been close. We should have forgiven each other our differences and shared the love of family. Her nephews, my sons, will have no memories of her. She denied them that. What a tragedy. She said she believed in a god of love and compassion, why then had she none for me? She said she believed in a forgiving savior, why then, could she not forgive me? It baffles me.
But I forgive her, because she must have had her reasons, reasons I cannot understand. And if I am to see any good come from her death, and the way she denied me, it is by appealing to all of you, theist and atheist alike, but especially Christians: Do not shut others out of your heart because they do not share your faith. If your god is true and real and as powerful as you believe, what defense does he need? I am an atheist, but I am not the enemy. I do not seek to deny you your faith, or the faith of any other. If you act in love, compassion and forgiveness, then I have no quarrel with you. Let this be our common ground.
There are so many things that set us against one other. Please don’t let differences in belief be among them. Do not let forgiveness be solely the prerogative of the Divine.