“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” Marcus Aurelius
I’ve been questioned from time-to-time about how and why I became an atheist. The question usually takes the form of something like, “What could have hurt you so badly that you turned away from God?” It is assumed that a single event somehow had enraged me to the point of shunning my faith, and religion all in a single stroke. Over time, I’ve come to understand how this is a normal question to ask. I’ve read accounts of people becoming atheists for exactly that reason: A life shattering event that somehow throws their entire belief of a kind and merciful deity out the window. For others it can have the opposite reaction, and a person that previously had no faith or attachment to any particular religion has a sudden flash of a spiritual understanding the same type of life shattering event. In reality, they are two sides of the same coin.
My own answer to the question above is that it was not a single event that caused my atheism. It was a gradual slipping away of my notions of what constitutes the divine in life. While it happened slowly, over the course of say, 15-20 years, I can point to the one event that I have come to view as its starting point.
It’s the Big Bang of my own understanding of myself, the ripples of which continue to echo to this day.
The summer of 1976. I had just turned 17 at the end of July, and was about to become a high school senior that fall. I wasn’t doing much in terms of working. I guess I felt like just enjoying my summer as it was, hanging out with friends and playing basketball. At that point in my life, the main group of kids that I had been hanging around with almost since the first year I moved to the Bronx had started to splinter. The majority of them were one to two years older than me, and had started to go off to other opportunities, to college or to work. My best friend Willie headed off to the Navy. Another friend’s parents divorced, and she moved down to Florida with her mother.
At the same time, I was making a different circle of friends in high school, which wasn’t something I really had done in the past. it was my friend Stu, who I met the year before, who would persuade me in the coming month or so to a decision that would have profound implications for the rest of my life.
One day in that sweltering New York City August summer, I had just exited the local stationary cum candy store, Cappy’s, happily munching on what I remember to be a Three Musketeers bar. I had just turned to start down the street back to my building, when I heard the sound of tires screeching, and the sound of a bus horn wailing out. I turned around, and witnessed a moment of horror that has stayed with me, and that I had never seen in my life, up to that point.
An elderly woman had come out from between two parked cars to cross the street, and misjudged the distance to where that bus was coming from. The bus driver tried his best, but buses aren’t deigned to stop on a dime. It struck the elderly woman, and then through some force of physics, she wound up under the bus itself. I watched all this happen with the sense of everything slowing all around me, It was as though Einstein’s notion of time slowing as you approached the speed of light was in action in this time and place. I heard the thud, though I don’t think my brain processed the sound, or the sight of the woman being dragged underneath the bus.
In short, I simply froze…and then I heard the screams of passers by. People rushed to the bus, some yelling to call 9-1-1, the bus driver sitting behind the wheel, in a state of shock. I still just stood there, not knowing what to do, feeling completely helpless. The police and EMS arrived, and I saw that that after they were able to get the woman out from under the bus, they were pumping on her chest.
I was seeing death for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last time. It was also the moment where my own view on the world exploded into being. Like the Big Bang, it would take time to crystallize, and take form.
I resumed walking back home, simply unable to process what I had seen. I couldn’t even talk to my parents about it. However, I knew who I could talk to about it. My friend Stu, who earlier that year joined the local volunteer ambulance corps. Stu, in his usual straightforward, no nonsense manner told me that I should take the advanced first-aid course that the corps teaches each year. the new one would be starting in late September, early October. He suggested that it might help me to not feel so helpless if I had at least some idea of what to do in a situation like the one I witnessed.
It was then I told my parents about the woman and the bus, and they supported my decision to take the first-aid course.
Why this long description of my foray into emergency medical services? Because it would be the things I would see through my working in this field that would further erode my faith in a supreme deity of any kind. As I mentioned, seeing that woman being hit by the bus wasn’t the first time I would encounter death. I would see it in more forms than most people would encounter in their lifetimes. For most people, death is viewed from the point of view of a mourner, seeing a loved one in a coffin at a funeral, peaceful. Depending on the persons wishes, there may be no body at all, only ashes in an urn.
Death is something that is not always peaceful. It can be brutally violent, and every other thing in between. It can be brutal to the very young and the very old. it can cast a shadow back onto the living. While there were many good things that I saw working in EMS, things that I saw that brought out the best in human beings, it’s sadly the brutality that I saw that left the scars on my psyche, and brought the idea of a “kind and loving God” to a screeching halt.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) “Blade Runner” (to be continued)