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Living without God

JANE STEBBINSsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Brad OdekirkJustin Shaffer of Frisco wasn't always an atheist. He attended Catholic school for three years as a kid and took it seriously. Now, he finds his spiritual side while walking in nature.
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Pat McCormick doesn’t need God to feel spiritual; she needs herself. McCormick is an atheist – defined as someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of gods – but as a little girl, McCormick wanted to believe.”My parents wouldn’t let me go to church,” she said. “I was appalled. All my friends were getting Communion, genuflecting … My parents said I could decide when I was 16.”McCormick learned where her parents’ reluctance originated.Her grandfather had married a Catholic woman, but when she developed pneumonia and died, the Catholic church placed their two children in foster homes because McCormick’s grandfather had never joined the church.McCormick became more detached from Christianity when, as an avid reader, she discovered the pre-Christian religion section of her college library. She became convinced modern-day Christianity was no more than a speck in the history of the world’s religions.”I was reading everything,” she said. “Throughout history, it seemed Christianity was being spread at the point of a sword. I was so sick of Christianity; there was no way.”McCormick and other local atheists said it’s easy to adhere to their beliefs in Summit County because people here, for the most part, have a live-and-let-live attitude. And all agreed most people in Summit County show more tolerance than those in other parts of the nation – particularly in areas along the Bible Belt – when it comes to religious differences.However, the perception of intolerance does exist.Dillon resident Mary Baker (not her real name because she is afraid of being a known atheist) said she keeps her atheist beliefs to herself because she comes from a conservative background. She said she has deeply religious friends who might look upon her differently if they knew.”I’m sure they would think I’m going to Hell,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want people thinking poorly of her. “They’d say only Christians go to Heaven – and even then, only their branch of the church. Sometimes they’re intolerant, arrogant. How can one group know the truth? All human beings are seeking the truth, and they should be open to seek it.”Like Baker, Justin Shaffer of Frisco wasn’t always an atheist. He attended Catholic school for three years as a kid and took it seriously.”As I got older, I just started to look around,” Shaffer continued. “People are psychically fragile. When we’re faced with uncertainty or turmoil, we need to seek confidence in a higher power.”

While atheists look internally for metaphysical answers and confidence, the atheists still can be concerned about taking care of others – in both families and communities.”I’m alive – what does God have to do with that?” Baker said. “It’s semantics. What is a god? I do believe in the spaceship Earth. We’re all here together, and we have to look out for each other.”In times of stress, Baker turns to her friends – and ironically, to the people in her Unitarian Church, which she joined to belong to a community. The Unitarian Church is a liberal religion where members keep open minds to the religious questions with which people have struggled.Unitarians believe personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion and, ultimately, religious authority lies not in a book, person or institution, but internally, Baker said.”But I would hate to belong to a certain church and go by a certain dogma and believe everyone else is banned from heaven because they don’t believe,” she said.McCormick said that in times of intense stress, she asks God for help.”I don’t believe it, but I say it anyway,” she said with a laugh. “We’re all grasping for something outside ourselves in times of deep stress.”Shaffer said his gut feelings get him through the bad times.”They help me discover what’s good and bad,” Shaffer said. “Then there’s just the exercise of positive thought. You’re alive to experience this pain. That’s a pretty amazing thing in itself.”

Shaffer – who earned his degree in philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder – said the challenge is to find meaning in a world without a god.”I find it by looking inside myself,” he said. “You find what’s good for you and ultimately, what’s good for me is creating a community that’s strong and functional, where we look after each other.”He said he tries to make the world a better place. He counsels at Colorado West Mental Health, works as a program coordinator at the detox facility in Breckenridge and teaches at Colorado Mountain College.”‘How do I be good in a world without God?’ is the existential question,” Shaffer said. “And what is good? No greater being is dictating it to you.”He said religion gives people an excuse to unload the responsibility of life.”There’s nobody looking over our shoulder telling us what to do,” he said. “The burden is on us to decide – just ourselves. It’s a huge responsibility, and I don’t want to shirk it by passing it off to a religious sect or a written document. I refuse to do it. I embrace that responsibility.”

Shaffer isn’t worried about death.”I take the literal approach,” he said. “The death process involves an endorphine-dump right at the end. If you look at it from that perspective, the process of dying is very pleasurable.”Heaven and hell hold no meaning for McCormick, either.Some atheists would like to be able to believe in God but often decide that wanting to believe something is not enough; there must be evidence for the belief.”I just haven’t seen any empirical evidence of it,” Shaffer said. “We have to interpret our realities through certain parameters, and the filters I’ve chosen to rely on are my senses. Those senses haven’t seen any evidence.McCormick said God would have to pay a visit. Yet, if she were to select a religion, she would return to the world’s pagans who worship Earth.”We have a gem with Earth, and we’re ruining it,” she said. “We’re bombing it, crapping on it, all because God gave it to us? I love the Earth. I’d worship that if I’d worship anything.”Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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