The whole thing is unbelievable. You know what I mean—God. So why on Earth when I got cancer at age fifty did I quietly slip back into believing it? I developed a hunger for “somethi ng more,” a palpable conviction that the material universe isn’t all there is. I wanted to believe that there was a purpose, a rhyme and reason to existence, some way to skirt around the universe’s apparent amoral indifference; in short, I wanted to find something that made it all okay. The specter of imminent death made me feel helpless, and I wanted comfort and consolation. Thinking that we pop in and out of nonbeing like bubbles of quantum foam and end in oblivion didn’t cut it. If a big, deep, fatherly voice had boomed out of the sky and reassured me, saying “It’s all going to be okay, little fella. Relax! Don’t worry! Be happy!” I’d have imagined I was losing my mind, but I would have welcomed it.
In October 2000, my wife and I moved to Houston, Texas, where I underwent radiation treatment and chemotherapy for stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma right base of tongue. The clinical objectivity of these words conveys nothing of the physical trauma and fear they carried. They don’t express how my energy for thought or physical activity fell nearly to nothing; they don’t tell the story of my wretched journey through the illness. I suppose I could point to my weakened mental and emotional state as an excuse, but that would be intellectually dishonest. The truth is that I came to doubt my doubts.
I started attending church services in Houston and took up reciting the Lord’s Prayer before falling asleep at night. For a person whose philosophical “set point” is inveterately skeptical, this development—call it an “anomalous lapse”—ought to have surprised or disturbed me. But it didn’t. For even then, I didn’t believe in invisible beings, miracles, an afterlife, magic, any of the so-called occult sciences; I gave credence to nothing that smacked of the supernatural or any mystical New Age belief. Such stuff from gods to golems is in my opinion intellectual rot, and I sank into it as if were a warm bath.
I was sick—and I was afraid to die. This thing, the thing that’s always out there, lurking around—death—I wasn’t ready for it. I know that there are nonbelievers who have exceptional fortitude of mind and are able to face death with equanimity and stoic acceptance. But I wasn’t one of them. I felt I hadn’t lived enough, hadn’t accomplished as much as I’d like. The thought of dying terrified me and filled me with despair. My secular convictions didn’t provide me any psychic relief, and so the siren call of the “beyond,” what Paul Kurtz calls “the transcendental temptation,” quavered brilliantly in my head.
So has my skepticism all along only been an affectation, a pretense disguising a deep vein of superstition and delusional sentimentality? Was my nascent irreligion as a pimply kid at Christian youth camp—I was the frowning boy who stayed in the cabin to debate Nietzsche and Camus and argue the nonexistence of God with the youth minister while other kids played baseball—only a symptom of adolescent angst and not of evolving mature thought? I wanted to believe. I tried to make myself believe, but I couldn’t, and for my faithlessness I felt torments of guilt and shame.
I went to college and left behind my adolescent atheism. A more confident person might have gone on to a grown-up acceptance of his constitutionally ingrained secular worldview, but not I. Launching into my twenties during the countercultural late 1960s, I found myself engulfed, equally un–self-examinedly, in the Age of Aquarius. I read all of Alan Watts’s Zen books and watched mesmerized as various of my stoned acquaintances dealt Tarot cards or plotted astrological charts. “Far out!” I exclaimed time and again. If I spotted a trendy “intellectual” current, I never hesitated to jump right in, the witless dupe of every guru du jour. I swallowed Timothy Leary’s blandishments hook, line and sinker and tried to believe that frightening drug-induced hallucinations amounted to enlightened higher consciousness—whatever that was.
Perhaps it’s impossibly irreconcilable to be a confident atheist if one has bohemian Romantic leanings, which, sadly, I do. True, my schooling lacked a solid exposure to disciplines grounded in logic such as science and philosophy. Had my impressionable young mind been toughened by more training in rigorous quantitative and logical thinking, perhaps it wouldn’t be prone to so much emotional havoc today. But probably not. I believe that by nature I’m squishy, more comfortable at poetry readings than in laboratories. I love fantasy and happy endings and reassuring lies. I suck on them like a baby sucks his rubber plug—and derive nearly the same nourishment. At bottom, I have a wishful need for the world to make sense. I want to believe that I won’t lose the things and people I love forever. It hurts too much; it’s too depressing and too sad. Oh, I wish I were a model nonbeliever who knew that a full, productive, rewarding life is its own reward, immortality—religion’s empty-caloried pie in the sky—be damned.
But a superstitious worm crawls in me, and I shudder, sick unto death, at the prospect of my personal demise. Therapy hasn’t helped, despite decades of sporadic indulgence. When I got started with shrinks, and they with me, psychotherapy was more pseudoscience than anything else, and since those long-vanished days it hasn’t progressed much further. Do I dwell on death constantly, morbidly brooding, my eyes fixed on a memento mori in the way that Hamlet pondered Yorick’s skull, darkly contemplating the absurdity and meaninglessness of it all? No, but I do wonder what will happen when, inevitably, I must face death again.
I’m sure that some foxholes have atheists in them. I’ve read of soldiers in Iraq who dared reveal their nonbelief and for their forthcoming honesty got hounded (even battered) by fellow soldiers; their superiors made their lives miserable. (Is it unAmerican to be ungodly? What would Jefferson or Franklin say?) When bullets fly my way next time, I hope I too will stick firmly to my principles, that I won’t, quivering mass of pusillanimity that I am, slink off to another pew, desperately wanting “something more.” The trick, I’m told, is to find “something more” right here, right now and keep so busy at fulfilling work and play that there’ll be no time left over for self-pity or fear or recidivistic transcendental soul-searching. I agree, that’s the trick; and it’s a neat one if you can pull it off.
I must confess that I got a lot of peace and comfort from my visits to church while I was going through treatment and recovery. I sang and prayed and felt my burden lessen. And, yes, I thought I did glimpse “something more.” But in the years that have followed, that vision has faded completely. My skepticism has rebounded in full. Now I wonder if my brush with death, my baptism by fire, might have tempered my atheistic mettle. It is certain that one day I shall find out. Like a smoker who tries various methods to give up his habit, maybe I had to come face to face with the Old Knacker in order to discover my characterological or emotional vulnerabilities. Maybe I had to inhale one last nimbus of spirituality before quitting God for good.
Being a nonbeliever isn’t easy for me. I don’t know what to do about it, really, except to keep fortifying my mind and telling myself to live every day, because this life,
this little life o’ mine, is it. It’s really, really it. So get on with it.