A hard taskmaster

The preachers of my childhood lumped atheism together with humanism (which they mistakenly thought was new), Communism, and the status of being a Godless professor, implying that all four were modern fallacies so nearly identical as to lack meaningful distinction. Atheism’s modernity intrigued me because while its protagonists were invariably described as smart and well-educated, its newness also appeared to suggest that it was untrue because, after all, if everyone accepted God prior to the time of Marx, who was “modern man” to reject “Him”? As an adult, I learned somewhat of the ancient Greeks, the thinkers of the enlightenment, and evolutionary theory, and discovered that atheism was very old indeed and even predated theism, which was something that our species evolved into. Despite its antiquity, it has always and forever lacked art, ritual, music, tradition, community, special books, moral teachings, and shared beliefs, all of which were, and are, extremely important to me, and all of which are lacking in my life in any communal sense.

The atheists I’ve known were politically and philosophically liberal and elevated science and reason above other forms of knowing, but such things are not prerequisites for atheism. Indeed, there are no prerequisites for atheism. I find it to be bleak, comfortless, not a belief but simply a negation of a belief, yet much of what I am follows from it because it inescapably dominates my consciousness. Like terminal cancer, I don’t find it something to cherish but something to survive and to learn from as best I can, a hard taskmaster as the saying goes. The only good thing I can say for atheism is that it does infinitely less harm than the alternative, for I’ve yet to hear of anyone killed, tortured, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed in the name of atheism whereas millions are abused daily in the name of one god or another. If atheism not an inspiration for goodness, neither is it an inspiration for evil, and that alone is a worthy commendation. Even so, I would that there were more to life than a flicker before the darkness. As Tolstoy put it in his 1882 spiritual autobiography, A Confession:

“My situation was appalling. I knew that there was nothing down the path of rational knowledge, nothing beyond a denial of life, but in the other direction, the path of faith, there was nothing but a denial of reason, which was even more impossible than a denial of life. From rational knowledge, it was emerging that life is evil, people know that it is, people could choose not to live, but they have lived and they do live; and I have lived even though I have known for a very long time that life is meaningless and evil. But from faith, it was emerging that in order to understand the meaning of life I had to renounce reason, the one thing for which meaning is essential.”

After years of angst, Tolstoy finally did embrace “faith” as the only path to meaning. While he was correct in arguing that it is only through religious belief that an endowed meaning can be claimed for life, he ignored the possibility of an attributed meaning. For example, the atheist, Bertrand Russell, wrote of the meaning he had given his life: “My whole religion is this: do every duty, and expect no reward for it, either here or hereafter.” Because Bertrand's statement represented his best attempt to engage life with a clear head, I find it far more laudable than Tolstoy's “faith,” which arose from a desperation to avoid suicide.

Would it not seem grandiose to ask for more than Russell, to claim—by virtue of that which is called faith—that our primitive species is favored by God above the rest of the universe, and that God only created the rest of the universe as a boot camp for us to inhabit while we prepare for a place that is infinitely better? Faith is not the humble path it claims to be, but the unwarranted elevation of oneself to the status of being a special friend of the Infinite. By contrast, atheism is the denial of grandiosity inasmuch as it views us as so many meaningless sparks that flash from the darkness but for a moment before falling back into it. This being our situation, can we pronounce as sufficient whatever meaning we are able to create for our lives, or, like Tolstoy, are we condemned to choose between religious belief and futility? If the latter is true, it is surely a pathetic recommendation for belief. Even so, I relate to Tolstoy's existential despair, not because I find life meaningless in the absence of an ordained purpose but because I find life tragic in its finitude. There are days on end when I can't escape the knowledge that all of the good I do today, and all of the people I love today, will die tomorrow.

“There are those who, instead of denying despair in return for superficial hope, deny hope in return for unremitting despair… the choice is made for them by powers beyond their control… For them the reality of death and the passing of things leads to a deep paralysis… They are wise souls, but they are too wise. They do not have the courage to hope, for it takes a certain grandiosity to believe…” from On Depression by Nassir Ghaemi

Indeed. To the extent that grandiosity is a virtue, I am deficit in virtue, but this brings me to the quandary that Tolstoy faced, that is, is it better to honor one's best attempt at rationality, no matter to what depths rationality might lead, or is it better to believe that which will make one happy and productive even if doing so diminishes rationality? I would usually answer in favor of the former based upon the premise that intellectual integrity underlies moral integrity, but there are days on end when I question whether it is the right answer. There are days on end when I think that maybe a little irrationality might not be such a bad thing. Then, through means that I myself don't understand, I regain my center and repent of my heresy, because from what does the renunciation of rationality flow if not from the renunciation of integrity? At least, that is the case for me.

The 1922 era cartoon echoes the still common belief that atheism is a modern phenomenon.

“You have nothing to teach the church; it is the church that has everything to teach you." —a reader

I envy Abraham Maslow in that he was a born skeptic who--unlike myself--escaped having to struggle with religion. He wrote that, when he was a child, his mother tried to control him by threatening him with God’s wrath if he disobeyed her:

“I tested these various things that she said and did research at the age of four or five…Various nations about things—that if you do such and such, God will strike you down…I remember one. If I climbed through the window, I wouldn’t grow. So I climbed through the window and then checked my growth…And so it went on down the line.”

Despite my slow start, I reached the same place as Maslow, that of an atheist who has retained an adoration of The Sacred, although it’s a term that I tend to avoid lest I be misunderstood.

“The first operation I ever saw—I remember it well—was almost paradigmatic in its efforts to desacrilize; that is to remove the sense of awe, privacy, fear, and shyness before the sacred and the forbidden, and of humility before the tremendous and the like.

“A woman’s cancerous breast was to be amputated with an electrical scapel. It cuts by burning to prevent metastasis. The surgeon made carelessly cool and casual remarks about the patterns of the cutting, paying no attention to the [freshman] medical students rushing out in distress. Finally, he cut off the breast, tossing this object through the air onto a marble counter where it landed with a plop.

“I have remembered that plop for thirty years. It had changed from a sacred object into a lump of fat, garbage, to be tossed into a pail. There were, of course, no prayers, no rituals or ceremonies of any kind, as there most certainly would be in most preliterate societies…Here, this was handled in a purely technological fashion: the expert was emotionless, cool, calm, with even a slight tinge of swagger.”*

Theists tend to dehumanize atheists by viewing them as being like Maslow’s surgeon, and once people have been so dehumanized, they can be dismissed as having no rights and no claim to respect, understanding, or compassion. This is the thing I object to most about theists. They commonly regard me as being shallow, missing the point, having no depth, and the like based entirely upon the fact that I don’t believe in whatever it is that they call God. By not seeing me as I am, they regard me as having nothing to teach them. I am, in their eyes, what that amputated breast was in the eyes of the surgeon. 

*Maslow quotes from The Right to be Human by Edward Hoffman.


My mother thought so poorly of her son-in-law that the most she could say in his favor was, “Well, at least he doesn’t beat her [her being my sister].” I believe this was true if only because Russell’s ambition extended no further than music, marijuana, Marlboro, Miller High Life, and what was then a new video game called PacMan. While it was also true that he would take a job from time to time, he never worked for long, although he made up for it to some extent by working god-awful hours in god-awful places, the kind of places that put people into early graves from respiratory failure, places like swamps, cotton gins, egg factories, and demolition sites.

He was a pleasing man to look upon: slim, mustached, a slightly dark complexion, a bit over six feet tall, almost black eyes and hair, and a quiet, mellow disposition that was enhanced by substance abuse. He was supposed to be my sister’s shackperson (their dwellings never rose to the designation of house) while she checked groceries at Kroger, but she was the one who kept the place tidy. As for cooking, he would break open a tube of crescent rolls and microwave a couple of TV dinners each night, but I never saw him go beyond that.

Because I was too frugal to buy pot after it passed $15 a lid, I took advantage of Russell’s ever-present supply. I wasn’t so crass as to ask for a hit, but would instead drop-in and wait for him to fire-up his homemade water pipe and offer me one. Some days I had to wait as long as fifteen minutes, but I’ve never been a complainer, leastwise in situations where it might work against me. Russell had a saying about marijuana and because it came from someone whom I perceived to be cool, and because I viewed drugs as the gateway to higher consciousness, I put more stock in it than I otherwise would, although not enough stock to make it my own. “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope,” he would say, and he lived it to the extent that if he were out of pot, he would drive any distance to get some. This was in Mississippi during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and people were sometimes sent to jail for being caught with a single seed in their floor-mats, so if he had been busted with a pound or two, he would have ended-up in Parchman (I knew of a repeat offender who was sentenced to life without parole for possession of a single roach), but pot was that important to him.

Russell had another saying about pot that annoyed Peggy no end because it was directed only at her, and she heard it a lot. It went, “Peggy, wanna hit? It’ll do you good.” Peggy, you see, was strongly opposed to pot, not because it was pot, but because it was illegal, and she had the notion that people should obey the law. “No thank you, Russell,” she would say again and again, but it never deterred him, and she was too young and shy to tell him to get the fuck out of her face. After knowing Peggy for a few years, Russell got to worrying that “she might turn us all in for our own good,” and I had to reassure him repeatedly that she would never do such a thing. His fear surprised me since, as I said, it wasn’t pot that bothered Peggy; it was getting busted for committing a felony that bothered her, so it would have made no sense for her to subject her husband and relations to the very thing that she feared. I don’t know how much thought she gave at the time to the fact that she too would have been hauled to jail if there had been a raid—a lot more people were raided back then and for a lot less reason. When she later became a nurse, it added greatly to her own risk, but she never declined to visit her pot-smoking relatives, and she never asked them to leave their drugs at home when they visited us.

Being mellow and untalkative were what made Russell seem cool, and it was seeming cool that made him appear to possess a great deal more depth, if not wisdom, than he actually did. In retrospect, I can see that every remarkably cool person I ever knew was, in reality, so deeply troubled that some of them came to tragic ends before they reached thirty, yet I ignored the pattern of what people were in favor of the image they projected, and in the case of cool, it was an image that I envied. Whenever I was complimented (believe it not, I used to be complimented at times), it was always because I was mistaken for being cool, and I even felt that way when I was in a good mood, but I was more often intense, lonely, moody, easily hurt, and the poster boy for existential angst. Despite these things, I still believed in people—especially women—and this made it easy for me to present a relaxed appearance that, while real, was the tip of the iceberg compared to what lay below.

I didn’t see much of Russell after he and my sister divorced, not just because he lived further away—about eighty miles—but because it wasn’t long before he married a straight-laced woman with three kids who successfully demanded that he give up beer, dope, and all of his previous friends and relations. Russell moved his new wife and kids into the rundown Southern mansion that his mother had recently died in, and it was no time before the new wife was pregnant.

The last time I saw Russell was in 1992 when I went South to sell off my father’s things and move him up to Oregon to live with Peggy and me. Some years before, Dad had sold a table saw to Russell, and Russell had never paid him for it despite several requests on Dad’s part, an omission that pissed me off enough that I put Dad in the truck, and set out to find Russell. He was still living with the straight-laced woman, but, it being early afternoon, we went directly to the egg factory (the biggest one in Mississippi at the time) where he was working, and told him what we had come for. He paid Dad, even giving him a little extra, and Dad and I celebrated by buying a couple of malts (malts being another thing that used to be a big part of my life but are probably nonexistent by now).

Russell is the same category as a lot of people who used to be important to me in that I couldn’t even tell you if he’s still alive. I sometimes think about looking him up, but I know that it was circumstance more than affinity that brought us together, and that if we came together again, it would be strained and we would be as strangers... I’ll close with another of Russell’s favorite songs—after “Illegal Smile” and pretty much anything else by John Prine. “That’s how life is,” he would say when it was playing, and maybe he was right.