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5/02/2007                                                                                       View Comments

An Atheist’s Prayer on the A Train

By Matthew Sheahan

One of the things New Yorkers can always count upon is the unreliability of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Just when you need to get someplace in a hurry or when you’re running late, the MTA will manage to do everything in its power to slow you down. Trains will run late, a train will arrive that is out of service, and signal problems will stall your train.

It took me about 25 minutes to drive from my neighborhood in upper Manhattan to the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn in a friend’s borrowed van. It took me about 2 hours to get back home using New York City’s subways. Normally I’d be seething and silently cursing the incompetent boobs and shiftless ne’er-do-wells that run the MTA, but it was a Saturday and I had no place to be and was too tired to be that pissed off. The Q train crawled along so slowly that I bolted from it at the Atlantic Avenue station and ended taking the R train. The R train was an improvement, but not much.

I arrived at the 42nd Street station and made my way as quickly as possible to the A train. This time, my timing was perfect and I managed to get on a crowded A train right before its doors closed.

The train was crowded and I stood by one of the poles. On the bench next to me, and older gentleman was talking to a young woman. He was friendly and talking about the city and the way it used to be, he spoke with the gentle authority of someone who has lived in the city their entire life and finds contentment in their knowledge of the city. He was telling her about the city and expressing interest in her place and life in New York.

The train chugged along slowly, and the woman got out at the next stop. Since I was standing closest to the now-open seat, I was the logical choice to sit down.

"Have a seat sir," the man said to me. I sat down.

He began to speak to me and I noticed that the man was drunk. He smelled of alcohol and his speech was slightly slurred. He wasn’t belligerent at all, but very friendly. He asked me how old I was and if I was originally from New York (34, yes). He told me he was 64 years old and had been a New York his whole life. He asked me where in the city I lived (Inwood, uptown Manhattan) and said that he was born in Spanish Harlem but now lives on the Upper West side. He said he feels very safe in his neighborhood because the police frequently patrol around a neighboring Synagogue.

I really didn't want to talk to this man. I had a newspaper with me that I wanted to read. But I didn’t want to be unfriendly. Most subway encounters are not friendly and older people who can manage to stay in the city are good for New York. Besides, he could delve into his years of experience as a New Yorker and tell me something interesting about the way things used to be.

Somehow the topic of the mostly one-way conversation turned towards history. "All history is, is HIS story. And that HIS is the Lord, Jesus Christ. You've heard of Jesus Christ?"

My heart sank. My wanting to humor a tipsy old man had ensnared me, and I was stuck listening to a religious lecture. Crap. But I continued to be polite and heard what the man had to say. His religious jive was not a hateful diatribe against sinners or the prediction of doom.

"Everything that is going to happen has been pre-ordained..."

It was standard pro-Jesus patter, complete with the effect that it had on his own life, though being an old drunk chatting up people like me on the subway doesn’t say much for Christ’s power.

But it was this that worried me:

"It wasn't until I was in my 40s that I discovered the truth in Jesus Christ. Up until my 40s I was an atheist, you see..."

I am an atheist, and I'll be 40 in just over five years. Would I turn out like this man, pathetically pronouncing my faith to strangers on mass transit? Would I be able to withstand the trials and tribulations of life without running back into the comforting arms of religious faith?

It was in this moment of need that I figured out that we Atheists need a prayer of our own:

Atheist's Prayer:
Lord, if you exist,
please grant me the strength
to continue to not believe in you.
And if I turn to religion in desperation,
please grant me the decency
not to harangue strangers
with pronouncements of my faith,
oh Lord who I do not believe in.


Amen.

Please don't think that I am hostile to religion or people who are religious. I have friends and family who are religious in different ways. I was even an altar boy when I was younger. No, I was not molested by a priest. I have had friendly conversations with people who have spoken in tongues, spent a day with Mormon missionaries, and even visited the Lubavitcher's 'Mitzvah Tank.' So really, my atheism is not born out of hostility towards "people of faith," as is the politically correct term for religious people, but from a need for intellectual honesty.

I have read and found profound beauty in Christ's Gospel. I have been awed and greatly moved by the faith and humanity of religious people. It would be a great comfort to have a religious faith to follow. But I cannot believe. I cannot believe in mythology as fact or adhere to any dogma based on faith that has no basis in real knowledge. I find dogmatic religious fanatics to be ignorant and stupid, and I find Westerners who dabble in or convert to Eastern religions to be smug and nauseating.

And atheists are not immune from the same dogmatic pitfalls as the religious. Today there are militant atheists who want to do away with all religion, as if that will cure people of gullibility or usher in a utopian age of reason. Atheists who think that the world will be better without religion are fools. And the only thing as foolish and oppressive as forced religious devotion is forced secularism. Religion will always be with us because it fulfills two very basic human needs: it explains the world around us and provides a code of conduct. We don’t have to get those things from religion, but most people do.

People find what they are looking for in religion. Those that want to find inspiration and encouragement to being kind to people will be served by religion; those seeking justification for being hateful and judgmental will find what they are looking for as well.

But I'm looking for neither, just some piece and quiet on the A train. Wish me luck.

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18 comments:

Micah Cowan said...

I kinda like the prayer, but the first line throws me off a bit. I mean, if God did exist, then I would want to know the truth, and thus come to believe in him. (Coming to worship him would be a separate matter, though.)

After all, love for truth is the reason I'm an atheist; if the truth were that there is a God, I'd want to know that, too. Scientia potens est.

mizlee said...

Hey there,
I'm a lot older than 40 and until about three years ago was a sorta-in-the-closet-wishy-washy agnostic. Now I am a proud outspoken atheist and can't even begin to imagine believing in a god I haven't believed in since I was 6. Not to worry, bubbie, you are doing fine.
mizleeataoldotcom

Anonymous said...

Religion doesn't stop anyone from being naughty... it just makes you feel guilty while doing it.

It wasn't the religious who us gave life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...it was thinking men who did. The end of slavery and woman sufferage did not come about because of religion. They came about because of thinking people.

"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." - Carl Sagan

Shannerwren

Tim said...

"Religion will always be with us because it fulfills two very basic human needs: it explains the world around us and provides a code of conduct. We don’t have to get those things from religion, but most people do."

? You say religion will never go away because of two needs it fulfills - which can be found elsewhere!

You contradict yourself in one paragraph.

"piece and quiet" HAHAHAH

Man, we need more atheists like you who can't spell and who can't see a logical contradiction in the same paragraph.

Because science HAS explained the world for the most part, gods are going to retreat into the woodwork. May not go away (prob won't due to the nature of new kids being born each day who do not know anything) but it will subside greatly.

Tim

Joe said...

I have to respectfully disagree on the low cost of religion. In my experience it causes people to relax reason, suppress diversity, abuse one another, and justify atrocity.

I hurt for the children in churches who are being raised to believe that they will have good lives if they believe correctly and bad lives if they don't. Living by fear and ignorance is destructive.

Abruptly stripping religiously based constraint from society could indeed be explosive, unless an equally sudden level of education came with it. The deprecation of philosophy and secular ethics in American education, combined with the violence that has permeated this so-called Christian era are a rather fertile bed for a tough stretch of nasty violence.

Let's hope that the atheist revolution will be of the English sort and not the French. Nice and slow and done in comfortable stages.

Anonymous said...

I quote:
Please don't think that I am hostile to religion or people who are religious. I have friends and family who are religious in different ways. I was even an altar boy when I was younger. No, I was not molested by a priest. I have had friendly conversations with people who have spoken in tongues, spent a day with Mormon missionaries, and even visited the Lubavitcher's 'Mitzvah Tank.' So really, my atheism is not born out of hostility towards "people of faith," as is the politically correct term for religious people, but from a need for intellectual honesty.

I AM hostile to "People Of Faith", and for what I believe is a very good reason: that "FAITH". They subscribe to a completely irrational set of ideas: they make private (personal) and public decisions and judgements on the basis of these ideas.

The other day I was discussing Global Warming with a neighbor. I did NOT initiate the conversation: he did, and his wife joined us. They seemed to be genuinely perplexed about the concept, and why they should be interested in the subject.

I spent quite some time going over the subject: how we burn coal for much of our electricty and for many industrial heating needs: steel-making for one. I described the chemistry of combustion: how burning carbon in any form makes CO2: that is what burning IS. I described the effect that CO2 has on the atmosphere and Earth's heat balance. I described what is happening to the Greenland glaciers and the Antarctic ice sheet. I spent 2 HOURS with them (I am an engineer). They seemed to understand me: they asked intelligent questions and follow-up questions.

When I got all done, the wife turned to the husband and said (as close as I can remember) "Well dear, I think I understand it now, and I am so happy that the Lord will take care of us and the children.

That is why I am opposed to "People Of Faith".

Lance said...

Hey Tim, I don't see a contradiction in what Matthew was saying. He said religion fulfilled two needs, which it does. Just because those needs can be filled in other ways does not mean that religion does not indeed fulfill them. A contradiction would have been to say that religion fulfilled two needs, and then later to say that religion does not fulfill those same needs. Stating that A = C and B = C is not a contradiction unless you state that A is not = B.

I think Matthew is just trying to be realistic about human behavior. Sure, we don't need religion to explain the world around us and develop a code of conduct, but the fact is that many people do use religion for those purposes.

I hope Matthew is wrong that religion will be with us forever, but I tend to share this fatalistic view. I get hope from the fact that many countries in Europe now have a majority of atheists, but I have studied human history too much to think this scourge can be driven from the earth. Every new generation will have someone that dredges it all up, and there will always be plenty of people who come to slurp it up.

We are stuck with it. So we had better learn how to temper it, moderate it, tone it down and live with it. I think Matthew is trying to figure out how to do that.

Thanks for the thoughts Matthew.

Telmi said...

Matthew,

Just a few lines here:
"I have read and found profound beauty in Christ's Gospel."

But anyone believing in Christ and in his claim of being "one with the Father" has to accept or agree that what the Father allegedly did, as narrated in the OT, for example, his mass killing of people and animals and his other fiendish/racist acts of violence - is exactly what Christ did. You really cannot separate Christ from the Father. If they are one then they can be accused as the greatest criminal or hypocrite. But this is not saying God or Christ exists or ever existed.

Ryan Scott said...

I must respectfully take issue with the following: "Atheists who think that the world will be better without religion are fools. And the only thing as foolish and oppressive as forced religious devotion is forced secularism."

Whoah, hold on there tiger. You made a big leap from 'world better without religion' to 'forced secularism'. I really doubt many atheists want to FORCE secularism. Rather I think I speak for the majority when I say we want to educate and enlighten, and let the light of reason dawn on people. It can happen, it does happen, this site is witness to lots of occasions. I really don't want to try to force anyone to stop believing, but just want to show them some sense and reason.

Further, I absolutely think the world will be better off with religion. Whether or not you personally believe in things that have no basis for reality, the fact is that people in power claim to speak for god and use that to manipulate the foolish masses who do believe. "God is on our side", "If god didn't want us to use the world to our liking (destroy the environment), he would have not told us to do what we want with it", etc. This of course doesn't address all the wars fought in the name of god, etc. I don't need to get into that, its been covered elsewhere exhaustively.

If belief in god and fear of what happens if you are bad is the only thing that keeps people from murdering, we should be terrified. I really don't believe people get their morals from religion, and I don't think the world would be worse off without religion. Absolutely not. Suicide bombing would cease immediately if there was no hope of an afterlife!

cheayee said...

Hi. I am a Christian. (are you going to judge me because of that?)
and I am chinese from a traditional chinese background in an Asian country.

Anyways,I stumbled on this website whilst surfing.

Just wondering who writes these entries on this blog?

I have enjoyed reading the entries I have found here, because I like the arguments put forth. I think the poem is particularly quite funny too.

There have been quite a number of entries here where I have seen comments which insult each other and calling names as well.

Is that what adults are supposed to do? I hope that the webmaster takes note of this.

The only reason I don't mind reading the entries here is because I can see the humour behind it and not get offended just because.

I profess my own faith, and I do believe that everyone has the right to profess whatever their beliefs are.

What difference does is it make for a Christian who professes belief that their God will protect them, to a Hindu who says that he won't eat beef because he respects his Indian God? They have a right to profess their own beliefs.They are professing respect to whatever they believe in.

I come from a multi-cultural country where the Chinese worship Buddha, the Malays are Muslims, the Indians are mostly Hindus and the Christians are well, from all races.

Yet, we all live in harmony and respect each other's faith and visit each other's houses during festivals time and celebrate these differences.

I hope that for a place like America, which is so much more advanced than my country, that it would be able to do the same and not fight over such a minor thing as "your faith" and "I am an atheist". I really don't understand the rationale behind it.

Jim Arvo said...

cheayee said "I am a Christian. (are you going to judge me because of that?)"

No. I will form an opinion about you based on your conduct and how you reason, precisely as I do with everybody else. You will not judge me based solely on the fact that I am an atheist, right? Why should I behave differently?

cheayee "Just wondering who writes these entries on this blog?"

You posted something without any problem, right? The other entries come from other people who find this site, just like you did.

cheayee: "I profess my own faith, and I do believe that everyone has the right to profess whatever their beliefs are."

As do I. As do most of us here.

cheayee: "I come from a multi-cultural country where the Chinese worship Buddha, the Malays are Muslims, the Indians are mostly Hindus and the Christians are well, from all races."

Good for you. I think one of the reasons that there is so much religious intolerance in the US (and I include bigotry toward atheists under that heading) is because it is so religiously homogeneous--that is, because Christianity dominates so thoroughly. I often wonder what this country would be like if it were, say, 1/4 Christian, 1/4 Muslim, 1/4 Buddhist, and 1/4 atheist. I have to think we would be far less prone toward becoming a theocracy.

cheayee: "Yet, we all live in harmony and respect each other's faith and visit each other's houses during festivals time and celebrate these differences."

Again, good for you. Good for your culture. That's the way it ought to be.

cheayee: "I hope that for a place like America, which is so much more advanced than my country, that it would be able to do the same and not fight over such a minor thing as 'your faith' and 'I am an atheist'. I really don't understand the rationale behind it."

Stick around and read more of the exchanges. From my perspective the major rationale is that non-believers are treated very poorly (in general) in this country. One of our former presidents (G. H. W. Bush) even stated that atheists should not be considered patriots or even citizens. Atheists are in fact the most openly disparaged minority in this country. I think this is small-minded bigotry, and I would like to see it change--it should vanish along with all religious bigotry. I have absolutely no problem with people choosing to believe in one or more deities and arguing for their position. What I have a problem with is bigotry. I think that many others here will echo that sentiment.

cheayee said...

Oh hi. thanks for answering so quickly...

actually my question was who writes the MAIN entries on the blog that we see on the "home" page (wahtever u call it), and how do they get invited to write on the blog?

Bigotry? ....oh it means intolerance.You're lucky to get me reading this coz less than 20% of Malaysians can speak or even write English properly.The percentage is even lower than that actually.

Hmm...I guess it wasn't smart of Bush to say anything on top of his head. He should not say anything which will make him lose votes (how clever!).

Hmm....actually, for my country, we have racial inequality, and not so much on the religion side, because religion is a big part of asian countries which underlies many of the values of those who come from Asia (so called). In a way, most asians don't really understand the whole hullabaloo about the religion thing because it's like part of their lives.

However it's not as bad for the Chinese here as it is for the ones in Indonesia (who've have their property and land burned by the locals, and not even maintain their own last names), but who knows what will happen in future anyways?!

cheayee said...

Anyway, yeah.... if you are wondering, most of us will not write anything bad abt "our" government as long as we are the subjects.Regardless of where we are!

It is mostly racial discrimination in my country. But most of us just ignore the govt or leave the country.

Most of us do not fancy converting to the islamic faith just to get "perks", and every1 in the nation knows that.

Although there is religious tolerance, however, the govt. makes it really difficult for the people by setting up laws which does not allow malays or those who are already muslims to convert out (malays are born muslims and die as muslims).Hence, a lot of muslims (or malays) from my country leave the country for good just to convert out.

In a way, America (or the Australia that I have known so far) is good because of religious freedom, and is a country which (i think) does good on using a system based on meritocracy, rather than promoting people or giving them priviledges just because of their race.(I think?)

Well, every country has their own kettle of fish to settle with.

eel_shepherd said...

Cheayee wrote:
"...What difference does is it make for a Christian who professes belief that their God will protect them,.."

Jim, the other quotes from Cheayee's post that you either liked or that at least didn't bother you didn't bother me either. But I think the above quote might have snuck past you. Because it definitely does bother me.

Cheayee, the difference that it makes is that if you think that what your life is about is the eternal life to follow, and that the god will protect you at that time, and during your time on Earth, you might discount or devalue the circumstances and events that make up your life and the lives of your fellow humans, to whom you owe cooperation and goodwill. In North America, there is a climate of extreme irresponsibilty among certain evangelical Xtians, who welcome global catastrophes of all kinds because each one is further evidence that the time for them to get raptured the heck out of the cesspool they are making of their world is closer to hand. A self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by their own irresponsibility, which is in turn fueled by a story (that most probably never actually happened) in a book that they've singled out for special treatment amongst all other texts.

Maybe you asked your above question rhetorically; but it's not a rhetorical question. It's a question that actually _has_ an answer, and I think I just gave it. "What difference does it make?"

Lots.

cheayee said...

hmm...actually, what I meant is in terms of people professing their beliefs. I wasn't talking about the Christian faith in particular.just that people have a right to their own religious beliefs.

And no, that was not supposed to be a question, and it didnt' need an answer.Perhaps you thought it was.I was just explaining the situation.

(Blah blah blah)

Jim Arvo said...

Hi eel_shepherd,

I try to give Christian visitors a little leeway; if they are generally polite, and seem nonjudgmental for the most part, then I try to be nice to them. I think cheayee is nowhere near the proselytizing fundy that drives us all crazy. Just my two cents...

cheayee said...

Jim Arvo: I just found out that "arvo" is an Australian slang for "afternoon".

.........

Jim Arvo said...

Yes, it is. The last time I was in Australia people called me "Jimmy Afternoon". I had no idea what they were talking about until I saw a sign in a restaurant window that said "Live music this arvo". Strange language they speak there.