Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
My hardcore atheist friends and I
are all keeping a wary eye on each other for the first signs of anyone chickening
out and converting. We've often discussed how we'd react if one of us suddenly
joined an Ashram or started talking about their personal relationship with
Christ or hedging their bets with some vague New-Agey "I-believe-in-Something"
backpedaling. We take pride in our toughminded skepticism (which is pretty
much the only consolation atheism has to offer), so it would hurt if one of
us lost his or her faithlessness. It'd feel like a desertion, like it does
to lesbians when one of their longtime lesbian friends suddenly gets engaged.
It would, in a way, be an even more difficult to accept than it's been to
adjust to my friend Jim unexpectedly becoming a woman (this is not, you
will be relieved to know, the large bearded Jim who has appeared in so many
of my cartoons).
This prospect becomes ever more likely as we get older. Because, in truth,
proud toughminded skepticism isn't much compensation for the pointlessness
of everything or the fear of death. A friend of mine who's producing a documentary
on the collapse of the World Trade Centers and has had to view a lot of horrific
footage that never made it on the air, tells me that, heartbreakingly, a lot
of people who leapt out the windows rather than burn to death tried to use
things like tablecloths as parachutes. I imagine that this is sort of how
it'll be when you get into your sixties and the fear of death becomes less
abstract, more palpable, and you desperately grab onto the closest cockamamie
faith--you may know, intellectually, that there's no way it's going to work,
but on the other hand you're not about to jump out there into the void with
nothing, with just you.
Last week I was talking with one of my atheist friends about this problem,
and we were joking ruefully about how it's a slippery slope from believing
in something to becoming a suicide bomber or speaking in tongues and handling
snakes. Hence this cartoon (I decided, for once, to go with snake handling
rather than suicide bombing in deference to recent political sensitivity).
So I've realized that the perfect thing to say to any of your friends who
begins backing off from atheism and talking about a guiding force or creative
spirit in the cosmos is: "Here's your rattlesnake." Just skip all
the intervening stages and hand 'em a writhing live one.
Two unsettling coincidences attended the drawing of this cartoon, neither
of which I am yet interpreting as a reproachful sign:
1.) My mother told me she'd received a troubling phone call at three in the
morning on Sunday from someone calling herself "Melissa," who needed
my phone number in New York. I myself never heard from this person. I called
the most likely Melissa I know and asked if she'd by any chance called my
mother at 3 A.M. Sunday. She answered, "certainly not." The only
other Melissa I can think of is the sister of my old friend Michael, who is
featured in this week's cartoon and has appeared in countless others. Although
I have not seen or heard from him in several years now he remains one of my
favorite models. It made me worry that perhaps something terrible had happened
to Michael, but I have no idea how to get in touch with his sister. I called
his parents, who hadn't heard of anything terrible happening to him, and got
his work number and left a message for him, but he hasn't called back. So
possibly he is lying in an intensive care ward fighting for his life even
as this blasphemous cartoon featuring a humorous caricature of his face appears
in the City Paper. If so, I hereby apologize to him, his family, and
anyone else who doesn't find it at least sort of funny.
2.) My ex-girlfriend Allison, to whom I am still close, called me from Armenia
and alluded to a "religious experience" she'd had in a church that
had made her cry. She said that details were forthcoming in her next letter.
I await it with concern. I have warned her repeatedly, as a fellow American,
about weeping or showing any signs of weakness in front of foreigners. In
the meantime, Allison, here's your rattlesnake.