An Atheist at Prayer

Karin L. Burke
I am not mature enough to be a Christian. I don’t have the moral flexibility necessary to embrace a thing so dangerous. Nor do I have the capacity to align myself to some other creed; there is attraction to other myths, and other stories, but ultimately similar difficulties come up. All this difficulty between language and practice, love and violence, power and corruption. No matter how attracted I am, I remain with a sense of being inauthentic, a kind of cultural predator. Someone suggested – since it does seem to be a monastic, embodied and mindful life I’m trying to find – that I become a Buddhist. “Acknowledge the fact that you are” a Buddhist said. But I am too aware of culture to think I could do such a thing without coming dangerously close to racism.

Of course, I’m over-thinking and too-serious. Qualities that feed my alcoholism like corn does pig shit. But I’ve got to stand by these things, I think, because they are my core, and either they’re true and I live by them or they’re not and life is meaningless. These things are holy to me: seeking truth and honesty. Dedication to love. Commitment to non-violence and relationship. Honor of the human spirit. Responsibility, kindness, and grace.

Unfortunately, around puberty I had it explained, in so many ways, that these things are not true, just metaphor, that people are evil, and that justice doesn’t exist. Reason enough to be a self-destructive drunk.

I wrote mystical garbage, called it poetry, and for a long time tried to make that enough. To believe that people don’t need a god to be good, that people themselves are good, that beauty is real as much as pain is. Secretly, even to myself, I continued to be hopelessly devoted to god, to love, to passionate humans. To be pulled. To see myself as nothing, as worthless, unless somehow a conduit for love.

Pain trumped me. Without a relationship to the truths in my life, I got better and better at self-destructive habits, loss of confidence, a creeping self-loathing. I sensed that there was something deeply wrong with me. I grew more and more alone as I realized whenever I hit on conversations that matter, people seemed to be talking about god (or god’s absence). God is the reason for suffering, and for love. God defines right and wrong. God is the reason for starving children and war, and everything is ultimately okay because God loves me, even if I don’t know it. I’ve had hundreds of people pray for me in my lifetime. Poor, wayward girl. As if such prayers were for my soul at all, and not their own sense of right. They, at least, got the benefit of feeling themselves compassionate and good Christian folk.

Beliefs matter. As much as I would like to think they are private, harmless things, that a person can pray to an old shoe as it suits them, the argument immediately fails when it comes to being human. Beliefs are not harmless. They shape our world, and mold our actions. Some beliefs unite us in relationship or common weal, while others divide us and incite violence, ultimately diminishing our humanity. Religious beliefs in particular are potent, not so much for what they say of god, but for what they do to us, and cause us to do to other people. Christianity in particular has a manipulative way of claiming love while engendering the opposite.

I believe in love, and grace, and soul. I don’t know what that soul is, and I’m not very good at love. But they remain the best shot I’ve got. In particular, if I’m going to be sober, it’s those things I need to learn and hang on to. I can imagine all sorts of things as possible. It seems most likely to me that there is neither heaven nor hell, that God has no very human characteristics, and that Jesus was a man who died. But I’ve a great talent for being wrong, and I am perfectly willing to accept the Christian rote as true. Say god is the father of Jesus, that Jesus died for our sins, He somehow rose again and walked, and this equation ‘saves’ us.

If that is true, I will spend eternity in hell before I align myself with a group I see as, well, immoral.

Arrogant as hell, yes. But I say what I say out of love, and justice, and belief: the bible is a tough thing, and a wrong thing if you use it as a standard for human relationships. And while many Christians would grant me leeway, saying the text is just text, there still remain the fundamental tenets of faith: love because Jesus loved, ultimately god is right and human affairs are the way they should be, charity and forgiveness and personal relationship with god, sin, salvation, gospel, are all exclusive and ultimately selfish.

If love is love, we do it because the other is intrinsically beloved, not because ‘it’s the right thing to do’ or because Jesus taught us to. I don’t believe in sin, and I fail to understand what Jesus ‘saved’ us from. We still suffer and die. And as much allegory and brimstone or prize giving as stories of afterlife can have, they fail to sound at all meaningful to me. Either “god” loves, and such a thing as hell would be impossible, or he is indifferent (highly likely), and talk of heaven is as weird as talk of hell. Christian charity and forgiveness usually seem more concerned with the Christian forgiving or giving (and Christians don’t give that much…less than 2% by recent tally, most of that going back into their own hymn books) than with change or the Other. Christianity has been implicated in the most heinous events of human history, from the Inquisition to the Crusades to slavery and the American Holocaust to the rise of Nazi power in Germany. It continues to be a major player in national and international conflict. If I really wanted to piss people off, I’d talk about how mainstream Christianity created the world in which 9-11 could happen, politicians are shot in parking lots, and our demographics are painfully inhumane. Christianity does a lot of navel gazing, very little palpable good except in it’s black sheep, and has caused more than a little private suffering.

Those things are wrong, and it seems wrong to not say so. So I’ll burn in hell.

I’ve wanted to walk away from Alcoholics Anonymous. They say there is no relationship between AA and monotheism, but that isn’t strictly true. You have to have a very agile vocabulary to not hear Jesus speaking in tongues. You can do it, but you end up doing a lot of translating. And you end up hanging around a lot of people who assume you are a Christian, or will be once you ‘come to’.

But I go. I don’t go there out of faith, or love, or for kicks. I go because I’m afraid I’ll die without it.

I go because I need to find the meaning of my life. I go because the people there are my teachers, I do love them, and I need to find a right way to hear them.

My spiritual path, if I have to call it that, is immediate, person real, and earthbound. It begins with the daily mess of my life. This is a demanding, terrifying, humiliating, and enlightening thing. It begins in acknowledging the responsibility for the difficulty with AA to be my problem, not theirs. Something I will have to reconcile. Breaking relationship does not right relationship. I have to reconcile my love of language with the difficulty of the Bible. I have to reconcile my fear and loneliness not somewhere else, but here. With my family, my community, and with these other alcoholics. I have to come to terms with service, grace, guilt, shame, love. Ultimately, I will have to come to terms with my sense of unworthiness, the grace I feel like passing light, aging, unmotherhood, and prayer.

I have to find the things that I love, and then I have to live.

I love prayer, and I do it even when I try to stop. My hands pray as I cook and I drive and I dance. My heart prays when I see the face of a loved one. My words pray, in spite of me. Sex is sacred. Daughterhood is sacred. Hunger, and action, and dog. Depression is a religious crisis. The words that I use, the actions that I take, the harm I do are things I need to understand as spiritual endeavor.

Anyone who tells you you can ‘take what you want and leave the rest’ is lying; you take the whole. Anyone who tells you it is easy is also lying. It’s a struggle with the most intimate things of your life. And anyone who tells you to borrow their own higher power is perhaps generous, but not much help. They have their relationship to god. You have to get your own. You have to, at some point, say yes.

~Karin L Burke

Wanting more honesty in the world, Karin named the blog that began from her personal letters Whiskey and Porn for Everyone.  Karin writes from her own experience as a drunk, a barmaid who danced for tips, an abused woman, a journalist anthropologist, and social advocate of all stripes.  She's  shamelessly trying to raise money for yoga certification, and the income it'd allow, but would like you to visit the blog because you might find something you need there.


  1. I'd like to follow your journey. You describe it so eloquently. I'm a "Christian" who doesn't go to church...I hope you won't be prejudiced. Of course, I pray too and "see" everything from a spiritual perspective. I'll go check out W&P4E ;0)

  2. Refreshing to see someone conflicted about deity rather than spastically for or against. Do keep us updated. :-)