remember that thou art dust: Ash Wednesday through atheist eyes

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. — Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday is a difficult one to contemplate from the viewpoint of a retired/ex-/’let me out,  please’ -Catholic.

Firstly, there’s this reminder to think about mortality and the ephemeral nature of one’s being. I believe firmly that I am dust and unto dust I shall return, but I believe that said dust is the mess of carbon and other elements present in my physical body. I’m only borrowing these atoms for a few decades, and they’ll go on without me when I’m done. I am made from material forged in the heart of a star, material present from Big Bang to heat death of the universe – an idea that inspires in me an entirely indescribable sense of what ‘eternity’ means.

In that way I understand what people mean when they contemplate a deity or deities – the universe is so immense, so utterly incomprehensible on a human scale that they feel there must be a greater power to give our tiny presence meaning. An atheistic view of one fleeting human lifespan still gives me momentary existential vertigo.

And yet here I am. Teetering over that precipitous edge. Contemplating, or trying to, with no divine safety net.

The other bit of Ash Wednesday, though, is guilt and sin and ‘repent and believe in the Gospel’. Here, I am firmly back on my areligious horse. Catholic guilt is a hell of a drug and a bloody tricky mentality to discard. I don’t know what it means that I’ve spent about a decade physically and mentally checked out of religion and its trappings, and I still find myself tripping over the remnants of guilt and the idea that I am a fundamentally immoral being. Probably it just means that the early childhood lessons are buried pretty deep.

They certainly were at the time. Lent is one of those things you just don’t understand as a child, even as you go along with it. The first year I went to Mass on Good Friday, post-atheism, I came home wide-eyed and traumatised at the crucifixion story. Once you discard the divine nature of Jesus and the redemptive ending that comes with resurrection, you’re left with this terrible story of the torture and execution of an innocent man – and I never really heard that, before. That sounds stupid, but that’s the only way I can put it. Taking the elements of Lenten/Holy Week liturgy out of the frame of the overall narrative and looking at them separately and objectively is a truly eye-opening experience. All that horror, and you’re being told from your first days of primary school that this happened for you. This happened because people are sinners and Jesus died to save us and God sent his son to a horrific fate because people are sinners, this means you, stop being sinful.

Which is a lot to take in, for the under-tens set.

Ash Wednesday, though, is the start of it, and was the start of my being open about my atheism also. As a kid I used to dread it. You’d have to get up early to go to Mass, or at least the blessing and handing out of ashes, before school. The dust you are, dust you will be message I used to hear as we’re all going to die! Eventually! Everyone! Oh, and you can’t eat sweets for six weeks. Good luck with that. Why hast thou forsaken me, indeed.

By the time I was a teenager, still in a very Catholic school, most people would call in to the church on the grounds to receive their ashes before class started. Apart from the few pupils of other religions, it was more or less expected that you would… until a few of us didn’t. Such a wonderful twist of rebellious feeling, that one little gesture.

The flick of people’s eyes upward to your empty forehead. ‘Have your ashes worn off already?’

‘No, I just didn’t go.’

I didn’t. That was ten years ago, and I haven’t, since. At first the news ‘I’m an atheist’ garnered us the look I’ve come to associate with my mother any time I say that out loud (it’s a look that says ‘would you mind not saying that in the house? If you get smote with a lightning bolt it’ll ruin the paint job.’). Then we started opting out of prayers, politely declining communion at compulsory school Masses. A few, and then a few more, until there was a whole pew of us willing to assert our position – ever politely, of course, and I still belong to the Don’t Be A Dick school of atheism: I don’t mind what you believe. This is what I believe.

I’m not repentant. I don’t believe in the Gospel. I am not a sinner and that is no longer my guilt.

But the other bit’s pretty good:

I am this piece of work, this quintessence of dust, and I am star stuff contemplating the stars. And unto the stars, I shall return.

Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

– Lawrence Krauss


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