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The Non-Spiritual Connection between Horses, Liver Cells, and the Chicago Blackhawks

June 12, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This post IS safe for work, but it is potentially offensive in a way totally different from last week’s post. Basically, if atheism or atheists are earth-shatteringly devastating to your worldview, you should not read this post. If you have read this disclaimer and now plan to skip to the bottom to offer a prayer for my soul or tell me that you hope I’ll find the light of God or whatnot someday, you’d best simply click away from this page entirely. If, however, you’re an openminded person interested in learning about different perspectives, read on, my friend!

FURTHER DISCLAIMER: In no way do I disparage or feel contempt for believers of any religion, unless your religion requires you to practice female genital mutilation or other abusive acts. Religion/spirituality is simply not for me. I hope the rest of this post will make that stance clear. 

“I was going to draw a horse’s butt,” I said, obeying the no-profanity rule at the Women and Horses, Level I class I was attending with my stepmother in Wyoming, “because my horse couldn’t keep her face out of other horses’, and she was a pain in my butt a few times. But then I realized she probably felt the same about my raw-beginner self, and on our final-day trail ride, all the training we did started to make sense, and I started to have fun. So I drew a poorly plotted, not-to-scale map of the route we took,” I finished, displaying the artwork I had made as part of the class’s final project to tie the weekend together in a creative fashion.

That was about as touchy-feely and expressive as I ever get in a group setting with people I don’t know that well. But some–nay (ha ha), all–of the other women present got really symbolic in their drawings. My stepmother’s depicted her horse “lassoing [her] heart,” an instructor’s displayed an eye to show the mind connection she’d developed, and the oldest student’s showed a celestial connection between the horse she’d ridden and the horse she’d owned that had died years ago.

“I just felt like there were times when Hoot would look at me, and he was my old horse,” she explained through tears.

The other women nodded supportively and grabbed for the tissues. I squirmed uncomfortably and did my best to paint on a sympathetic smile.

It wasn’t simply my general discomfort with strong emotions being so out on display, although I’d be lying if I pretended that wasn’t a factor. But the bulk of my unease stemmed entirely from being completely unable to relate to that student’s genuine belief that she had forged some sort of intangible connection with the horse she’d ridden for the clinic based on his apparent spiritual link with her own equine friend.

Many of the believers I’ve met have cited a similar spiritual connection as their motivating factor for keeping the faith. They’ve felt God’s presence while reading the Bible or felt Jesus’ love washing over them or even known that their deceased parents/grandparents/friends were somehow with them during a tough moment in their lives. And I am not one to challenge the validity of their statements, even if my inner skeptic is coming up with all kinds of sneering counterarguments that I make a stern effort to quash.

But I can’t say as I’ve ever had such an experience. Even as a child, my world was confined to myself (center of the universe, of course), my parents, and the few friends I had. When someone mentioned God to me, the image that popped into my head was a fellow who looked a lot like the poor Rudolph-esque dude subjected to amateur manhandling in Operation, only with black wizard robes and hat. Not exactly a fearsome, awe-inspiring image that would make one seriously consider one’s place in the universe.

Being raised by atheists didn’t help. My dad rarely commented on the matter, but my mother, upon hearing my three-year-old self mutter “God damn it!” in frustration at being subjected to my car seat, turned around in the driver’s seat and sternly insisted, “Don’t say ‘God,’ sweetie.”

Even–or perhaps, especially–my mother’s death did nothing to change my view. My mother was a manipulative person, persistent when it suited her, and able to browbeat anyone into doing anything. If she were still out there in any form, she would have found a way to come back, even for the briefest of seconds, to tell me everything was going to be all right, and that oh, by the way, she would have my head on a platter if I mistreated her cat. She also would have pestered whatever higher power was up there into granting the Cubs a World Series win already, and said higher power would have done it in order to get some peace and quiet.

So while I did have doubts about my doubts when the Blackhawks, another hopeless Chicago team during my mother’s lifetime, won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and have a shot at a repeat performance this year, the evidence just didn’t stack up. And like most skeptics and people who draw trail maps to portray the connections they forged with their horses, I need a horse’s butt-load of empirical evidence before I’ll back any given position.

Which is not to say that I don’t believe there is an organizing force to the universe. If not, such concepts as gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, and the laws of conservation of mass wouldn’t apply universally. But as for the idea that there is a conscious organizing force? Insufficient data to support meaningful conclusion in the textbook I’m operating from.

I’m not discounting the possibility that there is a higher consciousness. But it’d have to be the sort my dad once presented: it regards us as we regard our liver cells. We’re here, and we’re making our own minuscule contributions, but the brains of the operation are thinking about us rarely, if ever. And once those liver cells are dead, they’re out of the picture for good.

Or I could be totally wrong. In which case, I hope my fellow student at the horse retreat gets celestially reunited with both Hoot and her old pal. It’ll be slight compensation for the fact that I will be in my own Sartre-esque hell, with my mother berating me for casting my lot in with Denver rather than Chicago sports teams for all eternity.


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  1. I love this post. So real and smart. The stuff you say about your mom cracks me up. Maybe because it makes me believe my mother has a sister she never told me about…I’m not good with big public displays of emotion either, which is another reason I relate to this post. Oh and I’m not religious either, and my dad was a full-blown atheist : ). You’re awesome. Love love love everything you write.

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