Why I Am Not An Atheist, Part I

So I was riding the bus through Flatbush the other day, hoping my CD player would work just as well at home as it had in the repair shop.

I was enjoying the third book in the Harry Potter series – the one about the prisoner who escaped from Azkaban. And I was noticing that, while author J.K. Rowling had made an inconsequential error concerning toads when her characters were in the Magical Menagerie — that is, she described toads eating dead flies, even though, as far as I know, even an enchanted toad won’t eat a dead blowfly, because unless a fly moves, a toad can’t see it; an old book about the brain features a poignant photo of a hungry frog sitting quietly amidst a dozen dead flies that hang from strings; because the flies weren’t moving, his optic nerve wasn’t firing; like a journalist, a frog sees movement only, so this one was starving in the midst of plenty – she seemed to have divination down pat.

Not that I’m an expert on divination, or anything; that’s why I’m using the word “seemed.” It’s just that as I sat on the Flatbush bus imagining Harry and Hermione and Ron learning how to read tea leaves, their teacher’s instructions rang true. Years ago, a man who followed the same ritual as that prescribed by Harry’s teacher read my coffee grounds, and the results changed my life.

It happened on Easter Sunday morning, 1990. I was in an apartment in the Bronx, visiting the family of my friend Dean. At this point I had been an atheist for roughly three years. Not long after my father’s death opened my eyes to some of the crappier aspects of life, I had decided that if there were a God then I was so angry with Him that He probably wouldn’t like me much either. And if He really did exist, then it didn’t seem to me that he did a whole lot for most of us, anyway. There seemed to be little point in praying to the same God who sat on His Hands during the Holocaust.

Life made more sense after I decided that there was no god at all. Becoming an atheist took away all of my worries about injustice. In a godless universe, after all, what else would you expect?

Is this all there is?

I remember well the first moment when I allowed myself to think that there might be no God. I was on the freshmen heavyweight crew in college. After a late afternoon practice I stood on the dock, looking across the Charles River at the dorms of Harvard and MIT. I looked up at the clouds in the sky and wondered, “What if this is all there is?”

I was scared even to think it — the nuns had done their work well — but as it turned out, the sky looked the same whether I imagined a guiding force behind it or not. I walked home slowly, lost in thought. What would life be like if I didn’t have to worry that my father, myself or anyone else would go to Hell? What should guide my decisions, if this life is all there is? I didn’t know.

Gradually my atheism deepened. Classes in evolutionary psychology and the history of the universe helped reinforce my new understanding. From a scientific perspective, there no longer seemed to be all that much for God to do. Scientists didn’t need to invoke His will to explain lightning, or earthquakes, or the formation of the planets from stardust. They didn’t even need him for that old trick Thomas Aquinas pointed to as proof – the creation of Something from Nothing. A few physicists were coming to the conclusion that it was in the nature of things that even a vacuum would eventually produce a particle of Something.

A year or so after I met Dean, he told me that his uncle could see the future. In a condescending way, I expressed my disbelief. By then, I had been strengthening my views for three years. And I was a senior at Harvard, after all: I knew everything. Dean was just a sophomore.

“Self-fulfilled prophecy,” I explained. (See, I had taken some psychology classes, too.) “Your unconscious believes in these things, and in some way you make them happen. The truth is, nobody can see the future. Even if there was a God, He wouldn’t be able to see it, either – that’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. All the way from a Vegas roulette table to a subatomic particle, life is a game of chance.”

Playing dice with the Universe

And it was chance that had brought me to sit with Dean’s family, on a sunny Easter morning, around a wooden table covered with a lace tablecloth. Dean’s mom had served us a delicious Russian breakfast. Now, instead of attending Mass, I was drinking a cup of coffee so thick that it would allow a middle-aged gypsy to read my fortune.

Dean was smiling, as I finished the coffee and his uncle began to look at the dregs in the bottom of the cup. But his uncle was not smiling. Sascha, the brother of Dean’s mom, had served as a soldier in the Soviet Army, back when there was such a thing (as there was, still, on that morning). He had been reading people’s coffee grounds for years. He said there was gypsy blood in his background.

“Hm,” said his uncle. “You have a dog. The dog is sick, or was hurt, or something – something not right with the dog. But you love this dog very much.”

That was true: Our family did have a dog, and I loved her very much, and something was not right with her. She had been hit by a car a few months earlier and nearly killed. She would certainly have died that day if my brother had not managed to find her, bleeding and shivering in the snow, badly injured, huddled away from the road on one of the coldest nights of the year. A car had hit our sweet dog and its driver had kept right on going, and the impact had broken our dog’s hip. Even months later, our dog walked with a pronounced limp.

Sascha was one for one. “But many people own dogs,” I thought. On the other hand, he had not said “You own two dogs” or “You have a dog and a cat.”

“Your girlfriend’s hair is about this long,” he said, gesturing with one hand to a spot just above his shoulders, His other hand held the coffee cup, into which he continued to stare. “You love her, but she is going to go out with somebody else, in two units of time. I don’t know if that means two months, two weeks, two years — but two units of time. She will go out with somebody else, and she won’t tell you, but you will know. And when she sees that you know, then she will know that you love her.”

That was more troubling. Judy’s hair was indeed that long. And the concept of ‘self-fulfilled prophecy’ could not protect me from the actions of someone else — even someone I loved.

“You like many sexual positions,” Sascha said.

I laughed. That was true, too — but it had not been true for long, which was interesting. The laughter helped to dispel, for a few seconds, the anxiety and humiliation I was feeling in the wake of his prediction that Judy would be unfaithful. ‘So what if she goes out with someone else?’ my laugh seemed to say. ‘I can enjoy those positions with others!’

When the laughter stops

However, when I had stopped laughing, I was scared and hurt. I had tried so hard to show Judy that I loved her. Could Sascha be right? Would it never be enough? Or would my being able to discern that she had dated someone else keep her with me?

What was happening to me — was I believing this man? Was he showing me something about Judy that I had simply failed to see?

Sascha went on: “You have an ancestor on your father’s side — a man wearing a hat. You should try to find out about this man; he is your, mm, spirit guide.”

I thought of my grandfather, my father’s father. He had died nine years before I was born; I knew little about him. But in both of the photos of him that I had seen, he had worn a fedora. And I remembered no photos of any paternal ancestors older than him.

“Your parents are apart,” Sascha said. “They’re very apart.” He was looking at the plate onto which I had overturned the coffee cup, and he seemed puzzled. To Dean I said quietly, so that Sascha could not hear me, “I wonder if he can tell that my father is dead.”

Sascha said, “Is anyone buried next to your father?”

“Uh, yes,” I said quickly.

“Mm-hmm,” he said. “Are you Catholic?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Because, there are two crosses,” he said. “If no one was buried there next to your father now, it might mean that someone would be buried there soon.”

I said nothing, but my heart was pounding. He had not said that anyone in my family would die soon — but he had raised the possibility, as well as the possibility that such things were preordained – out of our control. Just as he had done with Judy. That terrified me.

Of course, at some level, whether Sascha or anyone can see the future or not, it’s true that the future is largely beyond our control. But I didn’t like to think that.

Good news too

“You will achieve some level of fame,” he went on. “Perhaps as a politician, something. I don’t say, ‘You will be President of the United States,’ that sort of thing. But maybe a representative of some kind.”

That sounded positive. “Does that mean I will go to law school?” I asked. That was a path I was wondering about.

“Not necessarily,” he said. “Maybe some other way. It’s not clear.”

I had hoped he might say that I would become a famous novelist, but he did not mention writing and I did not ask. I was afraid that he might say he saw nothing at all.

“It’s not clear, but some kind of, um, public success,” he said. “But,” and he turned to Dean, and said some things in Russian, then looked at me as Dean spoke.

“My uncle says that even though you will experience public success, you will be privately unhappy,” Dean said.

By now I was nearly frozen in my seat. “Oh,” I said. Probably I looked scared. “Can anything be done about these things?”

Sascha shrugged. “Sometimes, a little bit, but,” and he said something else in Russian to Dean.

Dean said, “Sometimes, fate is just fate. Some things just have to happen.”

“I see,” I said, feeling helpless.

Sascha made a gesture that showed me that he was finished.

He had just performed a service for me and I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” I said.

He looked at me and shrugged again. Dean said, “My uncle says, he is not used to being thanked for reading such things.”

Now Sascha, and Dean, and Dean’s mother were all looking at me with great seriousness, as if wondering if I was all right.

“Well, I appreciate him taking the time to do that,” I said.

Sascha smiled, and we sat back in our chairs.

But they continued to look at me seriously, just as the class had looked at Harry Potter after his teacher predicted his early demise.

The bus dropped me off and I lugged the CD player and its accompanying stereo eight blocks. The player did, in fact, turn out to work as well in my Brooklyn apartment as it had in the shop. I put on K.D. Lang’s “Drag,” and had lunch.

The CD player worked, and now I could play records again, so I put on Roxy Music’s “Avalon” for one song and one song only, and that song was “True to Life” – because that morning, I’d dreamed that “True to Life” was playing in the background when I met my dad in an amusement park. So goes life.

Originally published by The Guy Code, March 22, 2001. 

Comments are closed.