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:
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.
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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Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)