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Death of an atheist


My mama turns one hundred today. 

old handsShe would miss the celebration, as her descendants will miss it, owing to the latest Batflu lockdown; but then, she also missed the last seven. This is because she died in 2013. It is one of the inconveniences of the human condition, viewed strictly from a worldly point of view; but being a worldling myself, I often regret it.

I have no idea, I can have no idea, where she is now. I pray that it is in a better place, notwithstanding her sometimes fiery atheism. This held up through the years of painful illness: a stoicism that sometimes broke down in tears, or toyed with sentimentality, but never forgot the quarrel she had with God.

As a young apprentice nurse, raised as an over-literalist Protestant, she had prayed earnestly, desperately, for a sweet little boy. He was tortured by a hideous, and then untreatable, spinal disease, where she was in training at Halifax. In the end he died, and mama was outraged. She’d prayed and prayed and prayed, and then this happened. She felt conned. She was going to get even with God, by never praying to Him again. She would deny that He existed. That would show Him.

A choirgirl, too, with a magnificent mezzo-soprano voice, she got through bouts of horror (“old age is not for cissies”), by singing hymns from childhood, in her geriatric cell; and repeating the Lord’s Prayer. This is because, although a stubborn “Scotch” atheist, she did actually believe in God, as I would sometimes force her to admit. It was just that she was really mad at Him.

A young priest, whom I stuck on her, spent hours — many hours, sometimes in the middle of the night — not trying to convert her, exactly, but praying over her as she had prayed over the broken-spine boy. Until nearly the end, she had the power to send him away, but never did; even though he was Catholic (a serious error, where my mama came from).

But if you are the loving God, you can handle people being angry with you. Or so I have reasoned. You look around them, as well as through, and find any goodness they were trying to hide. And mama had much, that was hard to hide: although she could be secretive about it.

Moreover, You, if you are God, spot the little things that humans often miss, in their hurry, such as sincerity and candour. For unbridled sincerity and candour can sometimes resemble faith, to the point of being it. You see where, as the result of poor theological instruction, the “impenitent” has slipped off the rails. Yet, contrary to human-all-too-human superstition, You aren’t actually out to get them.

Hell is very real, and why people insist on going there is hard to understand. But Purgatory, in my own reckless speculation, is very large. It might not be easy to save some people, from any human or even churchly point of view, but I wouldn’t underestimate God’s ability to beat the odds and obstacles.

Meanwhile, from my privileged position, I remember a mother who was eminently worth saving. I could tell many anecdotes to confirm this, but these belong to receding time and place. We are beyond that now, and the extraordinary virtues that were manifest in this world, must now be seen in light of the immortal. They were as real as she was. And reality itself has the virtue, that, it cannot be deleted.



David Warren, "Death of an atheist." Essays in Idleness, (Canada) November 20, 2020.

Reprinted with permission of David Warren.

The Author

David Warren is a self-confessed white male, and worse, a Roman Catholic. He pings mostly from the Parkdale district of Toronto, Canada. He has lived for a fairly long time. He was a journalist for much of this time, but also not a journalist for long stretches — in Canada, and in several other countries.  He wrote a reactionary, thrice-weekly column in certain Canadian newspapers; until 2012, when his employer offered him a nice whack of money to "just go away." That money having been expended, he is open to paying gigues. For such, as for other baroque purposes, he may be reached by email through the link here. Please try to keep it civil.

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