From a wheelchair-bound perspective, thank God I’m an atheist

Meredith Doig / 23 September 2012

This intensely personal reflection from Holly Warland, a wheelchair-bound person who has had more reason than most to ponder the existence of God and the problem of evil, is a beautifully written paean to Reason. It was published in the Opinion pages of the Sunday Age on 16 September 2012. A response from a reader follows below.

WHY do people turn to religion, if not to help them with their troub­les? Most people believe the logical thing to do when presen­ted with a tumultuous life-changing event is to turn to God. I feel like I bucked the trend in a major way.

When I was 12, I was diagnosed with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. The prognosis for this involves the gradual weakening of all muscles below the neck, rendering the sufferer unable to do everyday activities such as walking, lifting things and driving.

At 21, I’m in a wheelchair with lim­ited use and strength of my arms and legs, but only time can tell how much worse it will get. When I was young, I noticed I was very clumsy and not as strong as other kids, but simply thought I just wasn’t destined to be a sports star. The symptoms involved falling over a lot, running strangely, and having slower reflexes. It will come as no surprise that I was teased and bullied a lot.

I was raised in a Christian house­hold. I was taught to believe in God, I attended youth group at church, and I genuinely believed in prayer. As you can imagine, when I was diagnosed I was shocked and upset, to say the least. The only way I knew how to cope was to pray. I remember lying in bed and asking God why he made me like this. Had I done something wrong? Was he punishing me?

As I look back, my heart breaks for my 12-year-old self. This poor girl thought her muscular dystrophy was her fault and God had given it to her. She couldn’t understand how He could give such a terrible disability to someone he loved. I want to give her a hug and assure her that things will be all right and that it’s not her fault.

After the initial shock, and days of prayer, I started to get frustrated with the lack of answers. You could say I have the egocentrism of my 12-year-old self to thank for my lack of beliefs today. Something changed in me. I grew up in a short time. I had to face the reality that my life wasn’t going to be a fairy tale and that I’m going to have to rely on others to help, and that God simply didn’t make the cut.

After a few years, I had abandoned all ties with God and the comfort I previously felt whilst talking to him, but this didn’t stop people from trying to reassure me that he was still there. I had a friend tell me that my muscu­lar dystrophy was the “devil’s disease” (which I think is a great name for a heavy metal band), and I often encounter complete strangers who stop me in the street to tell me they’re going to pray for me.

However, the reassurances I receive most often are “everything happens for a reason” and “God doesn’t give challenges to those he knows can’t handle it”. I have major problems with these almost insulting remarks. What possible reason is there for an innocent child to be born with a genetic disease so severe that it will render her incapable of doing most enjoyable things in life?

If he is the all-loving God that preachers claim he is, what possible reason would he have to create these afflictions in the first place? I may sound bitter and twisted, but there is no reason behind any heartbreak in this world. Once I realised this, and started to think about things from a scientific and logical point of view, I found a freedom and peace that I’d never experienced before.

No longer do I question “why me?” I accept that my disability is the result of random chance: the genetic lottery. From there I can extrapolate to the rest of the world. I can appreciate everything for what it is. Science has explained life to me, and has comfor­ted me much more than a deity whom I can’t see, hear or feel. I can sense the sun on my skin, I can hear my little sister giggling, and I can see the universe when I look up and feel a part of something much bigger and more beautiful than I am.

I discovered that turning to a god doesn’t solve any of your problems; it just projects them on to an invisible being. You don’t take responsibility for your life. God doesn’t make me get out of bed in the morning. He didn’t put me through university. He doesn’t set goals for me. I have to do it. I have to grit my teeth and ask for real help from real people who love me.

So that’s my story in a nutshell. I highly doubt you’ll be seeing it on your current affairs television show as they tend not to like defiant, ques­tioning, atheist cripple stories. They’re not very inspiring for the viewers.

    A reader’s response the following Sunday:

HOLLY Warland is right (Opinion, 16 September), God doesn’t get her out of bed each day, she does it herself.

I, too, have a progressively dis­abling neurological illness and know how one’s inner resources are called upon to deal with such a diagnosis.

Beliefs in supreme beings and “why me” questions were never part of my coming to terms with the news. Fortunately for me there was no giddying cyclic inner argument about “God giving challenges only to those who can handle it” to con­tend with. It was difficult enough. One needs a clear head to think and plan, and understand what the diagnosis actually means. Trying to swim in murky waters swathed in heavy baggage pac­ked with obligation, and against a tide, would make it harder still.

Thanks to science, we ho longer need to fear the world and look for comfort in magic, witch­craft or organised religion. To know that life is a game of chance is to understand that even in a bad hand there can be some excellent cards.

JILL BARCLAY, Castlemaine [Victoria]

All the more reason.