They prayed when they could find 15 minutes. “Preacher Man”, as we called him, would read from the Bible with his tiny round glasses. It was the only book that he’d ever read. A dozen or so others would listen, silently praying while stroking rosaries, sitting on bare mattresses, crammed into a half-painted dorm room. I was the outsider, a 16-year-old working on a summer custodial crew for a local college, saving money to pay for my escape from my hometown. The other employees, close to three dozen, were working to feed themselves, to feed their kids, to pay child support, to pay for the basics of life. I was the only white; everyone else was African-American. Preacher Man tried to get me to join the prayer meetings, asking me almost daily. I declined, preferring to spend those small work breaks with some of the other guys on the crew. We’d use the time to snatch a quick drink or maybe smoke a joint.
Preacher Man would question me, “What do you believe in?” I’d decline to engage, out of politeness. He pressed me. Finally I broke, “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in a God. I don’t think the world is only 5,000 years old, I don’t think Cain and Abel married their sisters!” Preacher Man’s eyes narrowed. He pointed at me, “You’re an APE-IEST. An APE-IEST. You going to lead a life of sin and end in hell“. Three years later, I did escape my town, eventually receiving a PhD in physics, then, working on Wall Street for 20 years. A life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments. During that time, I counted myself an atheist and nodded in agreement as a wave of atheistic fervour swept out of the scientific community and into the media, led by Richard Dawkins.
I saw some of myself in him… quick with arguments, uneasy with emotions, comfortable with logic, able to look at any ideology or any thought process and expose the inconsistencies. We all picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies. It’s the skinny 85-pound (35-kilo) weakling for anyone looking to flex their scientific muscles. I eventually left my Wall Street job and started working with and photographing homeless addicts in the South Bronx. When I first walked into the Bronx, I assumed I’d find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism, it was addicts, who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be. None of them are. Rather, they’re some of the strongest believers I’ve met, steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.
The first addict I met was Takeesha. She was standing near the high wall of the Corpus Christi Monastery. We talked for close to an hour before I took her picture. When we finished, I asked her how she wanted me to describe her. She said without any pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God”. A relative raped Takeesha when she was 11. Her mother, herself a prostitute, put Takeesha out on the streets at 13, where she’s been for the last 30 years. “It’s sad when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me”. Sonya and Eric, heroin addicts who are homeless, have a picture of the Last Supper that moves with them. It’s hung in an abandoned building, it’s hung in a sewage-filled basement, and now it leans against the pole in the small space under the interstate where they live. Sarah, 15 years on the streets, wears a cross around her neck. Always. Michael, 30 years on the streets, carries a rosary in his pocket. Always. In any crack house, in the darkest buildings empty of all other furnishings, you can find a worn Bible laying flat amongst needles, caps, lighters, and crack pipes.
A system driven by a predatory economic rationalism (a term used recently by J M Coetzee in his essay On Nelson Mandela) brutalises Takeesha and the other homeless addicts. The public views them as losers, almost everyone concurs in that. They’re just “junkie prostitutes” who live in abandoned buildings. They have their faith because what they believe in doesn’t judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I can’t tell them that there’s nothing beyond this physical life. It’d be cruel and pointless. These last three years, out from behind my computers, reminded me that life isn’t rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we’re all sinners.
We’re all sinners. On the streets, the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, came to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don’t. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance numbed their understanding of our fallibility. Soon, I saw my atheism for what it is… an intellectual belief most accessible to those who’ve done well. I look back at my 16-year-old self and see Preacher Man and his listeners differently. I look at the fragile women praying and see a mother working a minimum wage custodial job, trying to raise three children alone because her children’s father off drunk somewhere. I look at the teenager fingering a small cross and see a young woman, abused by a father addicted to whatever, trying to find some moments of peace. I see Preacher Man himself, living in a beat-up shack without electricity, desperate to stay clean, desperate to make sense of a world that gave him little. They found hope where they could.
I want to go back to that 16-year-old self and tell him to shut up with the “see how clever I am attitude”. I want to tell him to appreciate how easy he had it, with a path out… a path to riches. I also see Richard Dawkins differently. I see him as a grown up version of that 16-year-old kid, proud of being smart, unable to understand why anyone would believe or think differently from himself. I see a person so removed from humanity and so removed from life’s ambiguity that he finds himself judging those who think differently. I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others… preaching from a selfish vantage point.
24 December 2013
The author’s critique of Richard Dawkins is why I oppose the First Families so. I’d go so far as to say that it’s clear to me that many of them aren’t believers… and that counts those who use “religious” verbiage and positions the most. For instance, there’s the Hard Right clique at Jordanville, who willingly collaborated with the CIA; who took Langley’s money gladly. They didn’t disappear because of ’07… nor did they really change their minds. Then, there’s Potapov and Kishkovsky… both sold out to the Establishment (Potapov as a willing propagandist attacking the Rodina, Kishkovsky as an eager member of the Council on Foreign Relations). SVS is stuck on itself; it’s proud of its (pseudo) intellectualism… a more sterile example of academic masturbation couldn’t be found in secular academe. Finally, there are the willing running dogs such as Whiteford, Reardon, Paffso, Dahulich, and Moriak… who echo the First Family line and repeat it shamelessly, with no care as to whom they hurt. They’re worse than any Stalinist of the Great Purges, for at least the Stalinists didn’t pretend to be Christians. At the Last Day, the Stalinists will accuse them… and the Stalinists will be right!
Richard Dawkins is an open antitheist… that’s honest, at least. However, those who’ve sold out the Church to the Far Right (both to the contemporary Republican Party and to the Black Hundreds and Nazis in the past) are worse. They blaspheme the Lord Christ… the antitheists didn’t do that. I’ll be blunt… I prefer the company of honest secularists to that of smarmy hypocritical religious hobbyists. I do daresay that I’m not alone in thinking that way…