‘When He Disappeared: Becoming a Non-Believer’, by Alexia Derbas

Based on a public domain image from the Wikimedia Commons.

God was in the shower with me and it felt weird. When I realised He was hovering around, ubiquitous as the Internet, the number and duration of my naked times halved, and I began scrubbing every part of my body vigorously. Wanting to do right. Wanting that ticket.

On weekends I visited my dad. On weekends He was Allah. I learnt how to recite Al-Fatiha and began praying five times a day, every day, because my Tayta taught me how, and she seemed like the smartest person I knew. My grandmother gave me hope that my life was going to improve. I imagined the change would be rapid.

While facing Mecca on my temporary prayer mat – a Barbie towel – I considered the wonderful things Allah might do for me if I kept this up. He might give me a big house, like my best friend Priscilla, or a Furby; He could make me more popular. Maybe my eyebrows would become thinner, my legs less hairy. 

But nothing good happened. I stopped getting up at five in the morning, and only prayed when I needed to – maybe I’d had bacon for breakfast – until the day that I didn’t feel like praying at all. Why continue? It was like taking dietary supplements without any scientific proof of their effectiveness. But I did continue to say Bismillah under my breath before Mum started her shitbox Christian car, though. It worked almost every time, proving that He didn’t discriminate. I sort of loved Him for that.

One weekend my rabbit dug under the gate and escaped from our backyard. On Monday we found a furry, sticky, red and white pancake on the road. Weekdays were God’s jurisdiction, and I’d learnt that everything was a part of His plan. But I wondered what purpose Barney would serve in Heaven. I imagined that He wanted my rabbit for Himself, to stroke and feed lettuce leaves. With Barney’s demise, God approached tangibility. I thought I could feel Him in my sadness – Him and His stupid plan and capital H’s. I hated God in secret.

When I was nine or ten and still afraid of the dark, I would lie in bed and imagine myself from all angles, just as He might see me. I constantly worried about what He thought of me – did He like my hair short? – and hoped I didn’t do anything too wrong. The world was my consolation. There had to be heaps of other people way worse than me. Hell must be packed, and I’d probably have friends there. I wondered if I’d be able to find them.

Once my fear of hell had subsided, I had so many questions about the physicality of the afterlife, mostly to do with weather conditions and the amount of space. Considering that the number of dead souls was always going to be increasing, I imagined He and Satan would need to stretch Heaven and Hell out with their pinkie fingers. Alternatively, I wondered, maybe Hell has stayed the same size, to make it more hell-ish, and the dead have slowly been appointed by the devil to be floors and walls. Visions of the eternal life played through my excitable mind like an epic film; He sat on a blurry line between fiction and non-fiction, His big, white, perfectly muscular legs (see The Simpsons, Michelangelo, every Western depiction of God) still dangling in the latter.

Though in my mind He was now mostly fictional, God still had His practical applications.

Though in my mind He was now mostly fictional, God still had His practical applications. Every Wednesday in summer, my school would take us to the pool for swimming lessons. Tuesday nights I negotiated. I asked Him if He would pretty please make something happen so I wouldn’t have to go. It was at the pool that I felt the most distinct lack of God: just judgemental kids, H2O, the fragility of my lungs, and the weakness of my limbs.

I laid out a vague plan for becoming what I believed He thought was a better person, which included giving up dirty words and going to church. I chose every word carefully, and then wondered if my phrasing really mattered, since He could hear my thoughts anyway. Those hesitant thoughts were how He knew I was insincere. I went to swimming lessons every single Wednesday, and Sundays remained with Allah and swears.

My early piety was more directly, and intentionally, constructed by my school’s weekly scripture class. My scripture teachers were always young and enthusiastic about life, and seemed to speak as if on behalf of God Himself. I’d never known anybody like these people, and they scared me. I had so much more to learn, on top of maths and reading and writing – and swimming. I distinctly remember thinking that if I died I was fucked, but like, the kid version of fucked. Stuffed. Screwed. Life and its after- weren’t looking so great.

There was only one student in my grade who didn’t attend scripture class. For that and other reasons – like being an amazing saxophone player – everyone thought Michelle was weird. She was generally avoided. But as my scripture teacher overenthusiastically described Jesus and the things he did for us, I thought about where Michelle was, what she was doing. As my scripture teacher skilfully deflected questions about evolution and dinosaurs, I imagined her in the non-scripture classroom with the other atheist and Muslim kids – Islamic classes not being an option in the early 2000s – drawing, reading, or talking about Actual Things. As my scripture teacher indirectly and sometimes directly pointed out my failures as a little human being, I could see that non-scripture room in my mind. I’d heard that sometimes it was unmonitored, that it was chaotic, drawing-on-the-blackboard fun, and I wanted to be a part of that.

One afternoon, Michelle and I were the only two kids from our grade still waiting for our lift home. Since nobody I knew was around, I smiled at her and bluntly asked why she didn’t go to scripture. She seemed embarrassed and I felt guilty for making her uncomfortable, but she told me anyway: her parents were atheists. I nodded, said something like “cool”, then ran over to my mother’s car, which had just pulled up to the kerb. I yelled back to Michelle that I’d see her tomorrow – I had decided she was okay – but I never really spoke to her again until high school. I can’t remember if I asked Mum what an atheist was, or if I found out some other way, but that afternoon was the first time I realised that you could be a non-believer; that it was a legitimate outlook with which many ordinary people identified.

The existence of a bunch of other people who shared my god-related feelings – strangely I pictured them as a cultish group of happy, free maniacs – validated my doubts. The disbelief, the feelings of nothing: they were safe and okay, but only because there were other people who felt the same way. I remember my relief. I remember the solidarity I felt with a few million strangers, and I remember the excitement of keeping my new identity from my parents. 

“Do you really believe in God?” I asked Mum one day, ready to expose myself. There’s a moment where you decide you don’t give a shit about whether you’re aligned with your parents’ expectations of you. It’s hard to locate, but this was mine.

“Oh yeah, sure.”

I launched into a well-researched rant, and Mum listened and grinned. When I finished, she laughed. 

“I know, I know,” she said. “It’s bullshit.”

I had the same conversation with my dad, much later. When I told him I didn’t believe, he looked so sad I thought he might cry. He shook his head like he had failed me as a parent, like he hadn’t worked hard enough to instil his beliefs in me. In his face I saw disappointment and guilt: for the limitations on my religious education that stemmed from his only seeing me two days a week, for our habit of not saying Bismillah before we ate, and for his failure to use stories from the Quran to teach me moral lessons. 

“C’mon Dad, when you really, really think about it…”

But he wouldn’t budge. Dad kept referring to “the truth”, telling me he knew that Allah existed and that I should trust him on that, and for a moment I was hurt. I thought it meant that our relationship didn’t mean as much to him as it did to Mum, whom I’d pictured dancing along with me and the free maniacs. But that was stupid. How could I not trust him, his version of truth? Dad believes in something: something his parents believed in, and their parents before them, and theirs and so on, all of them consuming and digesting it early, like the food they were given. Maybe as a side to the food. A tasty, life-affirming salad. And I get it: it’s irresistible. 

Alexia Derbas is a Sydney-based writer, currently working on her Honours thesis in cultural studies. She was shortlisted for the 2014 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize.