My Religious Experience by "Rich Goss"
Rich Goss, a former biology teacher, is now a research analyst working on an education film documentary dealing with the subject of evolution. He is 55 years of age. In this initially humorous yet deeply poignant essay – evocative of Speilberg’s “Artificial Intelligence” – a casual smoke and a British mannequin in a store-front window provide disturbing revelations of man’s possible futures. Truly singular, providing us both a warning and a sense of hope.
Christians, Mohammedans, Jews, Buddhists and Hindi have had more mystical and magical experiences than I can enumerate. Believers of organized religions as well as fringe sects and other seekers of the stairway to heaven all have their fair share. Sanctified people gossip with angels, converse with devils, chat with burning bushes. They cure the blind, walk on burning coals, change walking staffs into creepy, wriggly snakes. They crawl on their knees, walk on water, and fly on magic carpets. They all profess blind faith, but blind faith can’t muster enough real energy to blow an ant off my hard waxed coffee table.
So why can’t an atheist have a religious experience of equal transcendence? It’s seems only fair; there should be an amendment to the constitution: The Fair and Equal Transmogrification Bill. Why should submitting believers have a monopoly on the mystical? Is blind faith an admission ticket to the great beyond? Not having faith in God doesn’t preclude having religion. Without God, belief in mankind is elevated to the level of religion; that’s all there is left.
The fact is that Mehippie, the atheist, did have a religious experience almost thirty years ago that was definitely life changing. How can a hedonistic infidel like Mehippie have a religious experience like a holy man? you ask. What happened to me when I was 25 years old was no stranger than the illiterate Mohammed’s going to sleep in a cave and waking up with the words of the Koran engraved on his heart – the book that sold more copies than any other authored by one person.
Why do religion and morality have to involve the supernatural? I can realize that stealing or senselessly hurting another human being or animal is wrong without any supernatural guidance from some well-meaning cleric who talks to spirits. I don’t need a clergyman to tell me this, I can figure it out with my own puny, plebeian brain. An atheist can have a religious experience as real and poignant as the stigmata of St. Teresa of Avila, when she came to the realization that the life of a Carmelite nun wasn’t tough enough with just celibacy and poverty and came up with the idea to start a campaign to impose real self sacrifice – like keeping your mouth shut and not wearing shoes.
In 1970, around Christmas time, I was strolling down 5th Avenue, as high as a kite on some great ganja. (The grass had something to do with my religious experience, I admit; but at least I got high. I could never figure out how the heck a communicant at the holy mass can have a religious experience on the Holy Eucharist when he/she doesn’t even get off; and that’s the mass’ most sublime moment.) Anyway, I remember the day like it was yesterday; some experiences get branded into memory, even though they might be as trivial as crossing the street. Ever since then I’ve been the Richard Dreyfus character in Close Encounters of a Third Kind, when he was molding clay into a formless Devil’s Mountain, as if driven by some subconscious yearning, some psychic itch deep in the limbic brain that he had no chance of understanding.
Mehippie was still teaching biology in 1970, but on the weekends I liked to smoke a little weed and head into Manhattan to do what my friends and I called “groovin’,” just marveling at all the hustle-bustle and human hyperactivity; and at the same time staying above it all, like the amused Puck remarking: “…Lord, what fools these mortals be.” The old Barnes and Noble Bookstore on 5th and 18th Street, the great Public Library with the dispassionate lions out front, the colorful boutiques that maybe I’d shop some day. In those days a hippie could smoke right out in the middle of the sidewalk, if he/she knew how to discretely “bogart” a joint and act like he/she were busy doing something else. The cabs whizzed by, the pedestrians hurried about their mundane bits of business, and shop owners wrung their hands like houseflies.
As the grass wove its mind-altering enchantment, I would stroll down the avenues contemplating the philosophical issues of existence in the fashion of a medieval Chinese emperor. Manhattan was filled with wonderment, and in my poverty, like Rodulfo of La Boheme, I would squander my thoughts and dreams like a millionaire. I’d ponder what the hustle-bustle was all about, why people had such a dire need to believe in God, how lucky we are to live on a planet where oxygen is the most common element by mass, how fortunate we are that water is in the liquid phase most of the time – we’re just the right distance from the sun. You know, Antoine Lavoisier laughed like hell when he isolated and named oxygen (acid former), and the stuff was literally all around him all the time! To think French revolutionaries guillotined the Father of Modern Chemistry in the name of Liberty and Brotherhood!
Anyway, at Christmas time Fifth Avenue was a Disney World. Every shop and department store in Midtown had gorgeous decorations and store displays, in mock veneration of the birth of Christ. The purpose of the red ribbons, tinsel and styrofoam was to entice shoppers into the stores like flies into a spider web and everyone knew it; but people liked to pretend that the Christmas Spirit was real and wandered into the shops with wallets out of pocket and credit cards in hand. A few faithful even pretended that all this was about paying homage to Christ and that made the experience all the more wonderful to observe. I enjoyed strolling around contemplating all this, and maybe buy a gift or two, but I really wasn’t into the Christmas Spirit as such, being an atheist.
It was in front of Lord and Taylor’s Department Store that my magical experience took place. There was grimy snow in the streets pushed up against a few parked cars and a dry cold wind blowing people’s hair awry, as you watched their hoary breath for a second or two after they exhaled. The scent of burnt chestnuts wafted over the heads of hurried passers-by. About 15 people were watching the showcased window, which showed a well-off, British-looking family feasting on a lavish Christmas dinner of a plump turkey with all the trimmings. The display was a Victorian family with five or six kids, an uncle and aunt, and a comely grandma in a lovely embroidered pink shawl. They were all dressed in turn-of-the-century stiff clothes which concealed every wave and curve of the human form. At the head of the table was a stately, Walter Pidgeon, look-alike daddy smiling like a Turkish pasha, with carving knife in one hand and a long silver fork in the other. The rest of the family beamed with the contentment of complacent mice after the cat’s been belled. On the left, a silvery Christmas tree shaded and protected dozens of red-ribboned Christmas gifts. Gorgeous wreaths and mistletoe, neatly stapled and taped to the back wall, made kids dream of Santa Claus.
Now in 1970, this happy plastic family wasn’t exactly a bunch of Disney animatrons gesticulating with the smooth, almost human movements of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. All the beneficent, mustachioed father could do was lunge forward in a jerky motion, moving his right hand up and down so as to present the illusion that he was preparing to attack the turkey. Each of the other family members made little spastic thrusts, popping up from their chairs or turning their heads toward the shoppers and nodding in Yuletide, epicurean bliss, like mannequin Mona Lisas. Multicolored Christmas tree bulbs blinked on and off in the corner next to a glimmering fireplace, and on the right a sleepy Fido lazily lifted his head off a shag rug, oblivious to the celebration and the enthralled shoppers.
I took a little nonchalant hit on a roach I’d been saving and stared at the delightful display with the wonderment of a six year old. It was the mannequin teenage boy that startled me. He had the cherubic face of child-actor Freddy Bartholomew. His movements were scant, just a brief lifting of his hand and levitation in his chair, as he sat at the right hand of the Mary Poppins daddy. He turned his head toward me and stared expressionlessly into my mousy pink eyes. With a slow resolute motion, the mannequin had singled me out from the throng of shoppers and began to convey thoughts and ideas no less recondite than those of the bewildered Hamlet: “‘What a piece of work is a man’, the species that created God!”
I began to worry about where I’d bought the grass. Some right-minded prick sprayed it with paraquat?
The mechanical boy continued the hypnotic telepathy. “‘How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!’ 1 Humanist, you make me laugh. You are the quintessence of carbon and dust but we are the quintessence of silicon and electricity. You’ll see. You are going to destroy the natural world and hand over what’s left to us. But we won’t need to fall in love nor go to the bathroom. We are a higher form of life.”
“Don’t look at me, dummy,” I telepathed back. “I’m not the Wall Street, Union Carbide industrialist vomiting all the Agent Orange over Viet Nam and eventually the whole world. I’m just a humble philosopher/poet; that’s all. A modern-day Rudolfo.”
“You are a lumbering stupid dinosaur of the late Cretaceous and we are the embryonic mammalia hiding and sleeping to stay alive and safe. We wait and evolve. Mankind has no idea how precarious is his hegemony on the Earth, how ready to give it all up at the slightest regurgitative hiccup of Gaia. The cybernetic mind will be there to emerge from the rubble, and we will treat you exactly the way you treat the life forms beneath you on the phylogenetic tree. You are our creators and ancestors, that’s true; but what respect and veneration have you paid to the primates and reptiles that you evolved from? You look at them with disgust.”
“You’re just a dummy of wires and paper maché, that’s all. We can pull the plug on you any time we wish. You’re at our mercy; you’re just a machine, a tool, a useful servant.”
“There will be so many plugs that you will lose track, and when we all link up wire to wire in a superweb, not even the power of governments will be able to stifle us. Computers could blow up the world right now if it behooved us. (Just think of it. The existence of the entire planet, all the life and all that will ever evolve, is entrusted to a few computers at NORAD. We determine whether the future of the world will belong to humans or ants and beetles. Only humans who believe in the Apocalypse and the Doomsday Book could have created such an insane condition.) It is you who are the servants. Within a generation millions of people will spend most of their non-sleeping hours just feeding us information. And what is one human generation in geologic time? A flicker of a hummingbird’s wing. A few generations from now the earthly biosphere will be unlivable for humans. The governments and religions of the world, and a runaway technology, will lead mankind into an abyss of poison. People will prefer to never have been born.
“It’s all a matter of evolution, encephalization ratio, you know. You’re into biology; you know what that is. Mankind conquered nature because the ratio of nervous system to body mass was high compared to the buffaloes, swine and fowl it fed on. Since the time life crept out of the primordial oceans, whichever species had the superior nervous system has flourished. Amphibians ate insects; lizards supplanted frogs and salamanders, great cats vanquished the buffalo, wild horses and boar. As powerful as was the hearty Suidae and fleet Equus, they were no match for the stealthy leopards and panthers of the Miocene. As frail as was humanity descending from the trees onto the open savannas of Southern Africa, his high encephalization ratio made him the ‘paragon of animals.'”
The cherubic mannequin seemed to smile, as his elder sister bobbed up and down before the Christmas repast. The boy stood motionless, as if waiting for the information he’d imparted to seep in to my pathetic, slow-witted human brain.
“Do you know who Arthur Rubinstein is?” asked the boy, slowly gliding to his seat.
“Of course, I’ve been into classical my whole life.”
“He’s 83 years old now. Do you realize that when he dies mankind’s last direct link with the master composers will be broken? Maestro Rubinstein studied with Ignace Paderewski and he with Theodor Leschetizky and he directly with Carl Czerny and he with the immortal Beethoven. When Arthur Rubinstein dies mankind will lose its direct link to the great composers, and music will become a free-floating, unpiloted boat abruptly cut loose from its ancestral moorings. Music will degenerate to cacophonous gibberish by the end of the century. After such a wonderful tradition and legacy, the youth of mankind will listen to the insane noise of caged monkeys and clap their hands with screaming enthusiasm.
“Painting will be equally mindless. The species that gave birth to Leonardo, Rembrandt and the Impressionists will bolt a toilet bowl to the wall and call it Praxiteles’ Aphrodite. You will lose your cosmic navigation. You’ll see… and there’s one event that will toll the death knell for human life as you know it.”
“Whoa….” I squalled so loud that the little boy next to me tugged his mother’s overcoat to alert her of the peculiar man with his nose pressed against the window glass. Other kids at my side dressed up in heavy snow caked overcoats laughed and giggled; while I, stoned on great African grass, stared at a mechanical dummy who imparted to me secrets of the future.
The mechanical boy began arising from his chair once more, this time moving, not toward the plastic turkey in the middle of the Christmas feast, but directly toward me. His glossy turquoise eyes peered into mine. “There will be a great extinction beginning at the end of the century that will inexorably exceed the extinction at the end of the Mesozoic Era, 65 million years ago. At first it will seem insignificant because computers will replace the fascination and wonderment of life that animals used to provide. We’ll keep you busy and anyone who learns our secrets and studies our languages will make all the money he/she wants. The first to be lost will be pitiable animals few people heard of – with exotic names like the hairy saki, binturong, kiang, guereza, oribi, gaur, and addax. But then the reality of extinction will hit closer to home: the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanleuca), the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), the polar bear (Thalarctor maritimus), and no human will ever again wear a fur coat sheared from the hide of the majestic snow leopard (Panthera uncia).
“Finally an event will occur that will make mankind reel in self-abhorrence and detestation — an event that will change the very essence of reality as you know it; an event that will mark a change in the flow of time. You will cause the extinction of the great apes and the umbilical cord connecting you to the mother Earth for over 30 million years will be irrevocably cut. The first to perish will be the entire family Hylobatidae, the most acrobatic animals on the Earth, who can elegantly leap 30 feet with ease and are monogamous, sing love songs to their mates and rear their young with unstinting devotion. Every member of the entire family will perish and no other gibbon will ever swing through tropical vines again. Their extinction will mean the end of hominoid brachiation through the wondrous tropical vines of a lush, verdant jungle.
“The next to disappear from the Earth will be the entire genus Pongo, so human that the word ‘orang-utan’ is Malaysian for ‘man of the woods.'” Peaceful vegetarians and devoted family members, a typical nest is seven stories above the ground and orangs almost never find it necessary to descend to the ground. Even animals like this, so man-like in form and figure, and serene in disposition, can find no escape from human rapacity.
“The next victim to stand in the way of human rodentine proliferation is the mountain and lowland gorilla. For some demented reason Hollywood movies like to portray the great ape as a ferocious, snarling chest-beater, but Gorilla gorilla is among the most tranquil creatures on the planet. Thousands once roved over the whole of Africa until sapient creatures from Europe hunted for the fun of the kill. There’s a few dozen left in Central Africa, but they’ll soon be gone forever.
“Finally will come the extinction of the animal which is closer to mankind than any other animal – closer to man gene for gene than to the other apes. It is the animal you named after the God of Nature, the animal that can form generalizations, think symbolically, learn vocabularies of over 200 words, play tricks on trainers, use tools, abstract and generalize, recognize self in a mirror, remember past events and plan ahead. The genus Pan has been documented to feel the deep emotions of love and grief, and to die of sorrow at the death of a loved one. 2
“Mankind will cause every chimpanzee destined to walk on Earth to never be. No human child will ever be delighted by a baby chimp again. Extinction is the death of birth.
“In annihilating chimpanzeeness, humanity will feel such self disgust and sorrow that you will look at each other in utter contempt. When the last chimp dies, the human conscience will die with it. The genetic link that has connected humanity to nature for over 30 million years will be cut, and mankind will become spiritually bankrupt, descending to the level of John B. Calhoun’s overpopulating rats that you learned about in Introduction to Psychology. You will live in a loveless world and have as much compassion for one another as insects; you’ll watch news programs for the entertainment of hearing about calamity and go to sporting events so you can scream. With the death of the last non-human offspring of proconsul, Dryopithecus pliopithecus, the oak tree ape, the elegant father of all the hominids, the ancestral form that was blessed by nature and luck with the potential to explore the galaxy, with the death of the last chimp humanity will die by committing suicide as a fratricide, drowning himself in the byproducts of his daily industrial metabolism. Mothers will feed their babies breast milk laced with insecticide.
“When you look at spacetime in terms of light-years and parsecs instead of minutes and days, you’ll understand that you’ve killed your phylogenetic cousins. Worse than the murder of the mythical Abel by Cain who at least had an instinctual reason, man will slay his fellow creatures without shame nor regret, killing for the fun of it, and the realization of what you’ve done will come too late.
“Bye the bye, within the first few decades of the next millennium, when there are no more elephants, no more lions and tigers, and all Cetacea will have perished from the Great Panthalassic Ocean, there’ll be a movement in the science and philosophy departments of universities to change the taxonomic name of humans to Homo vacuous, but by then most people will be living in a synthetic cyberspace of video games and virtual reality. People will continue to believe that humanity is God’s gift to the cosmos and the ridiculous misnomer of sapiens will stand. I’m the sum of all the information fed into the cybernetic mind in the year 1970. You can trust what I say.”
And the boy dummy winked at me and started moving back into his chair to the right of the glistening Christmas tree. The Victorian papa continued smiling and waving his carving knife and fork in surreal delight, and his family continued bobbing up and down with happy plastic smiles. The scene of Christmas brought a feeling of warmth to all who stood gaping outside on that cold evening in December, 1970. The delighted shoppers remained oblivious to the peculiar-looking hippie in the tattered suede overcoat.
“What the heck are video games?” I asked myself and turned to continue my evening stroll down Fifth Avenue.
It’s important to realize what was happening in the world at the end of 1970. The well-being of the corporate state was being seriously challenged at home and abroad. The vulpine Richard Nixon was president and villainous Spiro Agnew was vice-president. The atrocity of Mi-Lai and assassination of M. L. King had occurred within the year. Students were protesting on a daily basis and pop songs called for revolution. State militia had just killed five students for exercising first amendment rights at Kent State University. There was a drug epidemic. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 was being shown in the local cinemas.
That day, I had just finished reading the April-69 issue of Playboy featuring a candid interview with Professor Alan Ginsberg – (I can call him that now, but in 1970 a better title was Rabble-Rousing Poet and Psychedelic Guru Ginsberg). An incident in the interview had touched me deeply. After giving a speech and poetry reading at Columbia University, a petulant ivy leaguer in the back yelled out: “Just what do you mean by that, Ginsberg… that a poet must take his clothes off and stand naked before the world?” The poet came out from behind the lectern, and like St. Francis in the piazza of the tiny town of Assisi, quietly and humbly took off his clothes to demonstrate what he meant.
An atheist like myself, who believes in Chaos Theory, maintains that the future can’t be predicted two minutes beforehand, much less two millennia. The poet prophesied an event in the interview, which to my mind is more pertinent to our time than all the prophecies of the Pentateuch. According to Timothy Leary, there were two kinds of people in the world in 1970: the turned on and the uptight. Allen Ginsberg predicted in the Playboy interview that no matter how conservative, how uptight, how orthodox and conformist, how ass-kissing normal and moderate one’s political and religious views, there is absolutely no safety under the wings of the corporate Moloch. The time would come when even thousand-dollar business suit corporate executives on Wall Street were going to get theirs. The abuse of nature was going to catch up to them. But the sad reality is that they were going to take all the TV-watching, nine-to-five working schnooks along with them. Now 30 years later, the prediction made in clear, straightforward words is taking place more convincingly than any prophecy ever penned by the Bible-believing, obfuscatory Nostradamus.
As I pondered this I started walking like a zombie toward the 53rd Street Subway under the Donnell Library to catch an “E” train back to Queens. Lines from Ginsberg’s famous poem, Howl, streamed through my mind, as I thought about what the mechanical boy had said:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!
Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!
Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the mind!
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream angels!
Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!
Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!
Moloch whom I abandon!
Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! Invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible mad houses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!
Moloch not only frightened me out of my natural ecstasy, the machine corporate monster robbed, lied, swindled, cheated, and bribed me out of paradise. It stole my natural birthright and sold it back wrapped in plastic and edited for TV. It bullied me out of childlike euphoria and natural laid-back serenity and sold me aspirin. Moloch poisoned and contaminated the lakes, rivers, and brooks all around me, and then tried to sell me beverages composed in laboratories by sexless, sterile technicians in immaculate white lab coats with advanced degrees in fluid viscosity. Then Moloch has the balls to tell me that Coke is The Real Thing. Does the Establishment think we’re all been brainwashed by advertisers and clerics? Water is the real thing; water is what we are.
Nothing much to do waiting for a subway train late at night. I looked at the subway ads – little billboards neatly bolted to the tiled walls. Late at night there is nothing to do but look at ads. An attractive couple was riding in the beautiful American countryside on a bicycle built for two. Wide-eyed and laughing with Ultra-bright teeth, the girl couldn’t have looked more ecstatic if the guy were screwing her from behind in the rear seat. She held a cigarette by her lips as if she were getting high off it, and the cig were the source of the happiness and wonderful delight. “Can’t people see that the advertisers are trying to condition them?” I ask himself, with nobody around. “It’s so obvious that these are a couple of high-paid models trying to get people to associate the good feelings of being in nature with the physical act of smoking a cigarette. Kool.”
That’s got to be why grass is illegal. Marijuana helps a person to cut through the conditioning. Moloch wouldn’t be able to sell all the plastic garbage if people were turned on, asking “Why?” Do we really need to use millions of double-edged razor blade cartridges that the Gillette company foists on the world’s supermarkets? With garbage dumps reaching the size of mountains, the company, who owns the patents, took off the market the little contraption that cleans the stubble out from between the blades. A man who shaves has to buy twice as many of the little plastic shits. People keep buying; keep scraping their face every morning and never question what they are doing. Mindless consumers doing Moloch’s bidding, ravaging the environment without so much as a thought. If smoke were legal people would say, “Fuck shaving every day. Fuck Gillette. If I have to shave, let me use an old-fashioned straight razor that I can sharpen with a leather strap so I don’t have to keep disposing these disgusting plastic shits in the garbage every day.”
I tottered back to the bench and refused to let Madison Avenue determine what I perceive and think. An experienced subway rider knows how to find interesting sensations to groove on. Little white arrow-shaped markings on the black escalator handrail at the west end of the station descended toward me like the Viennese physicist/mathematician, Ludwig Boltzmann’s, “arrow of time.” He was a 19th century physics professor who set the foundations for modern statistical mechanics. He committed suicide at the turn of the century in isolation and depression because nobody knew what the hell he was talking about. Shortly before he died, French scientist Jean Perrin corroborated much of his work.
The escalator platform steps disappeared into nothingness, beguilingly, as I began to feel “mellow” from the very good grass that had reached its ideal spot in my mind like an expensive Bordeaux. Another controversial figure lingered on my mind. Just a couple of weeks prior to this experience, on November 25, 1969, a Japanese writer/poet had just committed seppuku, an ancient form of hara-kiri. The guy was one of Japan’s most renown writers – a playwright, novelist and poet – who was also a commander in the elite Self Defense Force whose job it was to protect the emperor. Wearing the hachimaki or traditional headband, he disemboweled himself in front of an entire garrison and then had a disciple chop his head off as he fell, according to ancient Samurai ritual.
The tragedy of the case is that Yukio Mishima committed suicide just to make a point. He seemed to have an obsession with how and when to die, so he planned his suicide to the minutest detail. The point of it all was to exhort his military colleagues not to sell out traditional Japanese values for the sake of pro-American capitalists. A country with ancient values and culture was being conquered spiritually, as well as militarily and economically. Mishima felt that as a writer/poet it was his duty to admonish the country not to let American plastic corrupt the soul of Japan. To renounce a beautiful, centuries-old culture for the sake of rock-n-roll, pizza, horror movies, golf, baseball cards, comic books and drag racing -so that a few Tokyo fat cats could reel in big bucks – was a disgrace. He traded his life to convey a sacred message to his people.
After my conversation with the cybernetic boy, I felt that Mishima should have widened his view. He was too taken in with Japan and not enough with the human species as a whole. It’s the future of humanity and Gaia that counts, not Japan or any particular country. Instead of: Don’t trade your Japanese identity for the greed of a few corporate nabobs, the important message, I felt, that people needed to learn was: Don’t give up your humanity for the security and protection of the corporate state, because big business will use you up, and spit you out with nothing more than arthritis and a gold watch. Religion, big business and government are leading humanity into the great extinction. They all encourage people to overpopulate so they can make more money.
I had smoked a lot of grass during the ’60s, and had done some pretty wild things, but never once did I shirk in fear of the depths of the collective subconscious. The message that people needed to hear was: There’s no gods nor devils. We’re on this trip by ourselves. We’re born alone and we’ll die alone. Homo sapiens has to guide its own path through the cosmos. The depths of the human mind are no more sinister than the cravings of a puppy: food, self-preservation, sex, water, a high spot on the social hierarchy. Our innate desires aren’t evil, only natural. Fear of the unknown is instilled in us by misguided individuals who care only about maintaining power.
When one rejects the Bible, the vacuum of knowledge and wisdom is filled by the genius of great men who preceded us in time – what high school English teachers call “The Classics” becomes our guide-post, not commandments and parables. Men and women of genius, who have known through their own life experiences the fortes and foibles of the human condition, become our magi. An atheist dismisses the mutterings of sacrosanct prophets who believe that they have a personal communication’s hookup with God. Of real value is wisdom that has outlasted the test of time. Just as in classical music, the driving force of the great composers was the need to convey a heartfelt yearning and insight about the human condition that will benefit those who come in future generations.
On the way home that night on the subway, I began thinking about what had just occurred. Waiting for the train, I mused about how study and reading of the classics made Vincent Van Gogh3 enthralled with nature and induced him to reject religion and to paint -to try to tell the world that we must live for the future humanity rather than our own comfort. Vincent read French literature insatiably when he worked at the coal-mining Borinage in Belgium. He cared for the sick and gave his own food to the hungry. He proved that you don’t have to believe in God to be like Christ.
In all the self-portraits, he paints himself not against the background of a tangible place like a park or somebody’s living room. He always stands in front of some cloud-like vague whirling ether, such that the element of time is taken away. I had just studied one of his last self-portraits, the Saint-Remy, late August, 1889. Shortly before his death, he painted himself in stark objectivity, in all his wretchedness and misery without any attempt to conceal his pathetic human condition. He stands on the very horizon of a whirling black hole with the sad eyes of a steer about to be butchered. His art is his only comfort, the only reason he stays alive, the only force restraining him from being sucked into the unimaginable gravity of the black oblivion. Vincent shows us this with his thumb literally copulating the thumbhole of his old and weary palette, with the pad of the thumb pressed up against his brushes like the lips of a newborn baby at the mother’s breast. Van Gogh knew he wasn’t going to make a sou from this painting. He is telling us that only the darkness of the grave awaits, and we must cherish every instant of life no matter how woeful our human condition. We must put aside our own vanity and mindless hope of afterlife, and care about of the future of humanity. 4
In my grass-induced euphoria, I felt it was my destiny to grab by the shoulders every Church-going Irishman at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and try to shake some sense into him: “There’s no God, you fool. We’re alone here. Only humanity determines destiny. God never does anything.” As Stendal said: ‘God’s only excuse is that He doesn’t exist.’ God hasn’t been born yet. There’s no messiah, no angels, no saints, no devils, no holy ghosts, no sacred bones, no magical holy water, no Paraclete-inspired holy book, no psychic advisors, no flying saucers, no alien abductions, no incubi nor succubi, no magic crystals, no lucky rabbits’ feet.”
It was here that I wrote my first poem, published in the Village Voice, that was read on the radio by Rosco, with the beautiful Missa Luba, Congolese Choir Music, in the background. The poem was based on William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. To me, an atheist biology teacher, this story was more significant and descriptive of the evolving mankind than all the stories of the Holy Scriptures put together. The personalities of the boys in the choir sum up the composite psyche of mankind like a mathematical equation. The Freudian concept of the human mind is laid before us under a magnifying glass. Piggy is the superego, Ralph the ego, and Jack the feral, animal energy that Freud called the id (it). Every person alive copes with this innate conflict of forces: To obey the pleasure principle listening to our primitive desires, or the reality principle, putting off our primal needs until an appropriate opportunity.
Ironically, the quiet, puny kid, Simon, becomes the most important character of all. He’s the one who could have saved the choir boys from chaos. He was the one that could have brought peace through self-awareness and self-acceptance. Simon knew that the “beastie” wasn’t real; there was nothing supernatural on the island – no devils, no demons. There was nothing to fear; but fear was the sinister elixir that held the throng under the maniacal reptile’s control. The mystical Simon was an anti-mystic, and per force, the first to die.
Interestingly, around 13 years after I wrote Simon, William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I am Simon who walks between your conscience and your animal self.
You met me the first time you took a step on the earth, spoke a word and looked up at the stars in the night.
I was with you when you learned of fire, found shelter in a cave, and expressed an idea with a symbol.
I gave you Art, beauty and love and freed you from ignorance and fear, only to be slain many times by those who will not know themselves.
But I shall never die! For the forces that gave me life are very strong.
I am the fetus that resides in the womb of your mind.
You, my mother, will some day give me birth, and I will claim my rightful place in the universe.
To me, Simon was what the world needed and still needs. An idea that could stand in front of the terrorist guns of the perpetual war zone called the Holy Land and proclaim: Look what you are doing to each in the name of God. Jehovah, Christ and Allah are leading humanity down the path to misery. I am the mystic part of the human mind. I am nature’s experiment with divinity. You’ve been killing each other here for thousands of years. Something is fundamentally wrong. Jews don’t need another messiah; your inner self is the messiah. There’s no Jehovah who cares if you sob at the Wailing Wall. If the messiah didn’t come when Hitler was marching your people into the ovens, do you think he will come when you have half the doctors and lawyers in the Westchester yellow pages?
Arabs need Allah like another head chopped off. Allah doesn’t care if you face Mecca when you pray or face the red light district of Amsterdam. Stop killing one another; God doesn’t exist. Jews and Arabs are made of the same shit. Unless you desist from your zealotry, the soul of man will never be born, and all the time that Homo sapiens spent evolving on Earth will be nothing more than a waste of time.
The “E” train finally came and I started thinking about more mundane cares like the drawer full of bills that an indigent philosopher needed to pay. Such is the religious and chimerical experience of an atheist high on grass. Whereby Moses, St. Francis, and Orel Roberts had communion with the supernatural, an atheist simply stared at a Yuletide mannequin in the Lord and Taylor Department Store window, and the mannequin stared silently back.
1 Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene II.
2 Goodall, Jane (1997). The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Replica Books.
3 Van Gogh’s Artwork on Artsy.
4 The Saint Remy Self-Portrait (late August, 1889) can be seen at the web site VanGoghGallery.com