Blast from the past: Questions of a budding atheist

(NOTE: Reading fellow columnist Pepito Alvarez’s “Christianization of the North” reminded me of this essay I wrote as a student some years back. Although this discourse got a grade of 1.0 and a generous marginal note of ‘Excellent!’ from revered sociologist Randy David, much of my views have changed and matured since then. Still, I would like to share this with you if only to generate discussion. Instead of chastising the Herdy Yumul of yesteryears, please look closely at the questions he sincerely asked. Many among us have been bothered with the same thoughts at some point. While I may be a thinker out of the box, let me assure you that I have not lost my faith in Bathala, who has always been faithful to me despite myself. If at all, asking these questions led me to an enlightened understanding of my relationship with God, which I will be glad to share with you in a next column.)
“THAT IS A MYSTERY we finites could never understand.” My professors in theology owe it to this statement that they managed to get away each time they failed to answer my questions.
I never pretend to be a profound philosopher or a thinker of some stature. No, I am just a young man full of questions, questions that have been asked many times before. I am a person looking for someone to talk to. If you have time to spare, please have a seat and let’s talk. Let’s talk God. I have a creeping suspicion that he does not exist. Here is my story.
I have always asked questions about God and I have always hungered for answers. I am not exactly ignorant about the teachings of the Catholic Church. As a young boy, priesthood was my dream. From grade school to college, I consistently won in religion and bible quizzes. In San Beda, I got a string of 1.0s in my theology subjects. In our neighborhood in Laoag City, our family is known to be one of the most religious. At the age of 6, I have learned by heart the three sets of mysteries of the holy rosary, the Ten Commandments, and the seven deadly sins.
But I remember that when I was a kid, I wished I were never born. Adults told me horrible descriptions of hell—the never-ending and inescapable fire, the ugly creatures, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Most people, I was told, will go to Satan’s lair. Even Moses, they explained, was not allowed to see the Promised Land simply because he knocked a stone twice when God’s instruction was to knock it but once. It must be virtually impossible to go to heaven then, I thought. As a kid, I always had feelings of guilt and I always thought I would go to hell.
Later, I realized, isn’t God the Alpha and the Omega? So, he must have known even before my birth that I am hell-bound. If he already knew that I would not qualify for heaven, why the hell did he create me in the first place?
“You have free will to do good or bad. In the end, it will always be your choice,” advised Fr. X in class. “But Father, God is not bound by time. He is not only present in the future. He is the future. He knows how I would live this life and he surely knows my fate in the next,” said I. Pushed to the wall, the Benedictine monk replied, “Mr. Yumul, please don’t be so close-minded. Otherwise, you would not really understand.” I was being close-minded? Oh my God!
That made me understand why Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing in something you know ain’t true.” Then the pragmatic me wondered, if God does exist, why doesn’t he come out of the clouds and personally tell us “Hey guys, I’m here. Stop the debate.” Is God all-too-busy or all-too-important to participate in a class discussion?
Among the atheist arguments, I am struck most by the Argument of Evil. It goes this way: If God exists, He is all-powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all good. The existence of evil and suffering is incompatible with the existence of God. Evil and suffering exist. Therefore, God does not exist.
Why is there evil in the world? Who created corrupt politicians, greedy capitalists, drug lords, terrorists, and priests who rape altar boys? Why do people of this kind continue to rule planet earth? Tell me, my friend, why did God create mosquitoes?
Why is there suffering in the world? Let’s take the case of street children. Can’t God help them? Or is He simply unaware of them? Or maybe He doesn’t really care? Would you believe a malnourished street child if he claims to be multimillionaire/preacher Mike Velarde’s son? Isn’t it all the more improbable that the dirty street child has a father who is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing all at the same time? God is perfect, right? So, how could he have created a world so imperfect? Ours is a world of pain, suffering and violence. You want a proof? Everywhere you go, there are hospitals and police outposts. You want more proof? Read the papers.
In many parts of the world, countless people die of hunger, of excruciatingly painful ailments, of crime and violence. Let’s also mention natural calamities like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and typhoons that perennially claim lives and destroy property. How about sea and air tragedies? Why didn’t God lift a finger to melt the iceberg that sent the Titanic and 1500 souls down to the bottom of the freezing sea? What has God been doing? Why has he been so inept on his job? What difference has he to a policeman sleeping on duty or to an energy secretary who acts as spokesperson to greedy oil firms?
This makes me ask. What is God doing in heaven? Is he waiting for anyone to commit mistakes so he could impose punishments? Is he trigger-happy? Why does he always want to be praised? Is he conceited? What is his name, by the way? Is he Yahweh, Allah, Buddha? Or is he Herdy? Isn’t God the main cause of war in Mindanao? What has God got to say? At all, does he care?
Or could it be that when God rested on the seventh day he never woke up again? Why are there born Ayalas while others are born Batumbakals and die Batumbakals? Mendiola St. is a perfect irony. At one end, you would see awful human beings sleeping in the cold pavement above a stinky swamp. At the other end are snakes, crocodiles and other reptiles in the bulletproof presidential palace.
“Life at times is unfair,” concedes Dr. Maxwell Felicilda, my professor in Philosophy of Man. That statement might be a cliché but that is one of the best things I learned in college. We, Filipinos, have all the reasons to resent God. We are a Christian country for nothing. With all the fiestas that we celebrate, the novenas that we observe and the statues that we venerate, we remain a wretched country with nowhere to go.
But resentment is for those people who expect too much of God. People who, when in personal crisis, say “This is just a pagsubok, a test of my faith in God.” Then, when better days come, thanks to their own efforts, these people exclaim: “I thank you Loving Father for your blessings!” In the end, nothing is credited to their own volition, like puppets with pull strings that extend up to the high heavens.
This reminds me of my Mom, one of the most devout Catholics I have ever known. She always tells me that she would rather see me become a Christian scavenger than a spiritually poor billionaire. Seldom would she ask how I am doing in life or how I envision my future. But she never fails to ask me: “Have you heard mass?” Oftentimes, just to make her happy, I am obliged to lie.
I believe that man is the only master of his destiny. If you were really dull and lazy, you’d still flunk the exams no matter how many candles you lit at St. Jude’s Church. I join existentialist philosophers in their belief that the concept of God hinders the actualization of man’s full potentials. Maybe this is one reason why our country is crippled with poverty. We expect too much of God. To everything we say “Diyos na ang bahala” (God will take charge).
It is with these thoughts, my friend, that I suspect that God does not exist. This, so far, is the only acceptable answer to all the questions I raised in this essay. You think I am a miserable man? Maybe, but so is everyone. I join Friedrich Nietzsche in asking you: Is man one of God’s blunders, or is God one of man’s blunders?
But guess what? When earthquakes rock the earth, my instinct is still to go out of the building, look up to the heavens and mumble with a quivering voice: “Lord, please forgive me. Oh, Lord, please forgive me.” I fear dying. To a great extent, the stories about hell have stuck to my mind. H.L. Mencken was right: Fear is the be-all and end-all of religion.
One time at the airport, I chanced upon a promotional brochure depicting the Philippines as paradise. If the Philippines were paradise, I am afraid to imagine how hellish hell can be.
But what could be more hellish than to live a whole life of fear, deception and resentment because of a God that does not exist. ##