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On 9/11, Atheism, Buttons, and Bowling for Jesus

We have an amazing series stories on 9/11 on The Good Men Project. I wasn’t going to write, because I thought so many other people did it better—the dozen others who all had a story that touched me, that changed me, that helped me see the extraordinary complexity around what happened that day. Surely whatever I had to say couldn’t compete with those stories.

But then, long time Good Men Project contributor Roger Durham asked me for help.

Knowing that I am an atheist, he emailed me this note:

I have something I need you to help me with. If you have been watching the memorials of 9/11 today, help me to understand how an atheist views these overtly religious observances? Do they have meaning for you? Do they bore you? Do they frustrate you? And how does an atheist mark moments of grief and memory? How does an atheist honor the dead? I am seriously curious about that, Lisa.
— Sincerely, Roger

And I realized this is the story I had to tell.

Like most people, in the days following September 11, 2001, I struggled to make sense of it. The night it happened, I watched the videos of the planes flying into the towers over and over and over again. I couldn’t get enough of it. It was as if, for the first 20, 40, 50 times, my eyes still couldn’t comprehend what they were seeing. I needed to watch it enough times to get over the shock, to make it real.

Afterwards, I read. I was inextricably drawn to every written word I could find on the subject. I was especially drawn to the stories that showed maps of the buildings. Who survived and who didn’t. How they got out, helped others, died trying. And all the stories of the “jumpers”—the more than two hundred people who consciously chose the moment at which they would die.

The most haunting story—the one that stuck with me—was from a journalist who described a few people who had taken tablecloths and tried to use them as parachutes. This journalist described seeing a man who jumped, caught the wind just right, and remained aloft for about two seconds, “before the force generated by his fall ripped the drapes, the tablecloths, the desperately gathered fabric, from his hands.”

And it was the moment that I read that sentence that I stopped believing in God.

I was raised a Catholic. Baptism, communion, confirmation, church every Sunday. I stopped going to church when I left home for college. I became a nonpracticing Catholic, then a self-proclaimed “sort of a Christian.” And later, Agnostic fit me well—I simply didn’t know. Never did I feel a happiness over having a religion, nor a void at not having a religion to call my own. It wasn’t something I particularly cared about one way or another.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, I cared. That moment I read that sentence I made a conscious choice, driven by the image of the man trying to parachute with a tablecloth. Surely those people had prayed to a God—any God—in their final moments. And for the guy that had floated far above Manhattan with a tablecloth in his hands—for two full seconds he thought his prayer had been answered.

Not only could I not reconcile any sort of God with one who could allow that to happen, what changed my mind was this: I no longer wanted to.

God aside, there are things about organized religion that I think are valuable. A moral upbringing is important. A group of people you can discuss ethics with. Rituals around birth and marriage and death. A sense of community.

And—my favorite church ritual of all times—the moment I would look forward to in great anticipation whenever I went to church—the moment when the priest said “May we offer each other a sign of peace.”

That was something I could believe in.

When I was in recovery, I was told to “believe in a higher power.” At that time, my belief in a God was nil. At one point, I was in a meeting, semi-circle of filled folding chairs, barely listening to others, because I’m puzzling over whether there is any power greater than myself I could possibly believe in. It is my turn to speak. I tell the story of how in college, when I was drinking all the time, I used to walk around campus holding my coat closed. This was in upstate NY, where the winters were fierce and the blizzards were frequent. And yet, I simply wouldn’t button my coat, despite the fact that people would see me and yell out to me, “Lisa, button your coat!” And so, I told the group, the only insight I could offer them was this. Not only did I not believe in a higher power of the traditional sort; but, for most of my life, I didn’t even believe in the higher power of buttons.

I would never, ever, think to judge someone else’s religious beliefs. I would no more judge someone for their religion than I would judge them for enjoying bowling as a sport. That’s exactly the way I feel when someone asks me to partake in their religious ceremonies—as if they had asked me to go bowling. The truth is —I would do either one of those things—with joy, with zeal even—if I loved the person or people I was with. I would embrace the ceremony, sing the hymn, jump up and down at the last minute strike as the bowling ball hits the tenpins. And yes, if I was not in either of those places voluntarily, if I was not with a person or a community I loved, I would be bored. And you can tell me, well then, “God is Love” but I won’t believe you. Love is Love. The difference is, love is of the moment, it is an experience in the present time, it is an action taken where you get outside yourself to do something for someone else. And that “feeling” that you get when you step outside yourself to do something that truly connects you to someone else—yeah, that sure feels spiritual. I get that. But that is not the same as believing in God.

When I die, I already have it in my mind that I am going to have someone publish a blog post, after my death, titled “I’m dead and it’s OK.” Not that I want to die—wow, no, never. Or at least not until I’m 120 years old, which is how long I tell my kids I’d like to live to be. But the fact is, I have very little control over when that moment of death will happen. And the only way that I can ensure my death will be “OK” is to ensure that my life is filled with as much meaning as possible. When your days are filled with only that sole purpose—when you love life in all it’s complexities, good and bad, all the people and connections that go with it—that is peace. That is joy. And that is happiness. And life itself is your religion.

The week after I told my button story, I went back to that same recovery group. I still didn’t have a higher power. I was quiet. I let others talk. At the end of the meeting, one girl walked over to me and handed me a button.

Here’s the thing. At that point in my life, getting sober was a matter of life or death for me. A complete stranger understood that. And so, she gave me something that symbolically said, “I care whether you live or die.”

That is what I had always hoped a God would do—care whether I lived or died.

When the guy with the tablecloth in his hands was aloft for two seconds, thinking to himself, “maybe, just maybe this will work”—there’s no God that I know of who cared whether he lived or died. But someone on the ground most certainly did. And the fact that someone cared is what gave his life meaning.

For the 2,919 people who died on September 11, 2001, their life had meaning. The religious ceremonies are but one expression of that, and so, for that reason—even as an atheist—those ceremonies bring me great joy.

And it’s why the stories we tell are so important. So that the meaning that is shared by the people that we love will continue to live on forever. And that’s all the spirituality I can wish for.