Have you ever been sucked through a dam in a rowboat? It’s not really an experience that I would recommend but it was a significant moment in my life that led me down the path I am currently on. I spent most of my childhood and teen years as part of the Baptist church. I always heard about people and their “personal relationship with God”. I spent years trying to figure that out, going to church and teen groups, singing in groups at retirement homes, volunteering at Sunday school, studying the Bible…never even for one moment did I feel anything except for wasted time.
Back in 1989 when I was 19, a friend and I were up at their place on the Green River doing what we did most weekends — swimming, boating and just hanging out during our last summer before college. As usual, being idiot teenagers, when we took the boat out we weren’t wearing life jackets. Because…we all seem at a point in our lives feel that we’re immortal and that bad things only happen to “other” people. Instead of going out to the lake like usual, Cass took the boat down a branch of the river I had never been down. We were putting along with the tiny motor and I never thought much of it when I noticed a slight increase in the current and she never said anything. A little more current. Interesting….soon the increase in the speed of the boat was noticeable and as we rounded a bend in the river, off to the side was a small sign tacked to a tree. I can still remember how I felt the moment that I saw it.
Far too late to fight the current and turn the boat around. The current was getting really wild as we approached the bridge over the river. Cass grabbed a hold of one of the bridge supports and was pulled from the boat and as I rounded one more bend, I saw the dam.
There is nothing quite like the vantage point of seeing an open dam from inside a small metal boat as you are approaching it. Luckily, a few summers of sailing lessons where there’s a lot of emphasis on what to do if you capsize came back to me and I had to weigh my decisions quickly. Jump from the boat now and risk the current slamming me into the dam itself. Stay in the boat, ride it out and hope that it doesn’t flip, hit me and knock me unconscious. Or ride it out through the dam and pick the moment to jump. I decided on the third option as the one with the best odds. It’s an amazing feeling to be terrified and yet completely calm and detached at the same time. The boat stayed upright through the dam, I picked my moment and jumped overboard before it could capsize and the current pulled me straight under.
You hear a lot of things that people say about being confronted with death – from angel visitations to bright lights to your life flashing before your eyes. It is really incredible the things that you can believe that you experience. What I remember is how incredibly quiet it was. And a feeling of not quite being alone.It’s really hard to describe it, that’s always the best I can come up with. I’ve had people ask me, “Did you feel like God was with you” or “Did it feel like an angel” to which I answer…how the hell would I know what an angel ‘feels’ like?!? It’s not like I have one hanging out every weekend. And also…why is stuff like that always the things that people ask??? No one ever says, “Did it feel like Lucifer was with you?” (which based on the whole Bible thing is much more plausible anyway). But no, it wasn’t a THING….just a strange feeling. But then I was facing drowning so I could have felt any number of weird things at the time. Plus, I was watching a lot of Oprah back then.
From multiple safety classes I recalled being told repeatedly not to fight it, don’t thrash around trying to get to the surface. First off, you waste energy and oxygen and secondly, you can’t really tell where “up” is. You hold on and wait to rise to the surface…and hope that it happens before you run out of air. At any rate, I accepted that whatever was going to happen, was going to happen regardless. When I finally did break the surface I was physically exhausted and it was all I could do just to swim to shore.
For a while after that, it puts you in a bit of a tailspin. It makes you reflective and it freaks you out a bit knowing that you could be dead. But instead of drawing me into the church in some sort of “finding God” moment, my brush made me realize what a complete garbage religion was. I went on a bit of a spiritual search and read anything I could get my hands on, including a lot on Buddhism before becoming a pagan. Now, to be honest – I am not entirely sure back then that I had even ever HEARD the word atheist. I do recall the year that XTC released their song Dear God which at the time was fairly scandalous. But it never really occurred to me that not believing in some sort of deity was even a thing. The worship of nature at the time seemed the closest I could come to how I felt about the world – that there was this nebulous, creative force that connected everything. I honoured the Wheel of the Year, read tarot. The whole lot. What changed that you ask? What started me down this road of outspoken atheism after something like, 20+ years of Celtic paganism?
Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion.
I must have looked at that shiny, silver book for a good two weeks before I worked up the nerve to buy it. (I live in a pretty Presbyterian town.) And I smuggled that thing home like it was porn. Everything resembling religion was pretty much done for after that book, though it required more reading and thinking before I was comfortable to admit it. Dawkins led me down the merry road of scientific discovery — Lawrence Krauss, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson and the lot soon followed. Because of people like Professor Krauss (and Hitch of course), I became more comfortable thinking of myself as an atheist. However, I was still fairly quiet about it in my day to day life until David Silverman burst into my life being all fiery and *right*, dammit.
So. Here we are, making my presence known online. Being a walking atheist billboard and getting passive aggressive looks wherever I go and attending atheist events. You just never know where life is going to take you, sometimes there are some interesting forks in the river.