The Intruder in the Closet

There's a monster in my closetIt’s 10 pm. You’re watching TV. You’re alone in the house.

At a commercial break, you push the mute button on the remote. Then you hear it. A rhythmic sound is coming from the closet door behind you.

“Thump, thump. Thump, thump.”

Your throat tightens. Your heart skips a beat. You recognize the sound. Someone is inside the closet, rapping their hand on the closet door.

“Thump, thump.”

A hundred different scenes from late-night slasher films flash through your mind. Is it Jason hiding my closet? (No. That’s silly.) Is it a Ted Bundy wannabe?

“Thump, thump.”

With fear deep in your throat, you decide to confront the intruder. You throw open the closet door. And you see a small, wooden bar stool. It’s red, illuminated by a pale, red indicator light that sits atop the small seat. As your eyes adjust, you realize that the glowing, red dot is attached to the front of a  tape recorder. Now you can see the exact source of the sound.

“Thump, thump,” rings out from the tape recorder’s speaker. You click the off switch, shudder and close the door.

Up to this very moment – right before you flung open the closet door – you had a very different belief about the reality about to unfold. Your belief was that there was a person inside the closet. Was that a rational belief? Absolutely.

And at this very moment in time, this is a scene that millions of people are stuck in. People who believe in a god.

If you’re not convinced of the analogy, let’s take a closer look at the evidence theists cite:

  • Their religion has been embraced for thousands of years
  • Their parents, whom they love and trust, assures them of the truth
  • The physical universe, to their naked eye, seems as if it were created especially for them and other humans

The conclusion derived from these support points – there must be a god – is a completely rational position. Just like your belief in the intruder in the closet.

But what if you never opened that door? What if you ran out of the house as fast as you could? What if the initial evidence you experienced was so compelling that it felt like it would be irrational to ignore it?

This is the condition of the modern-day, Western-world theist. They are not, as atheists so often accuse, being irrational. Theists arrived at their conclusions using demonstrably strong support points. Their religion’s antiquity, ubiquity and authenticity, as shared by trusted friends and family members, are perfectly credible sources of evidence.

Was there better evidence that no one was hiding in the closet? Are there demonstrable, testable genetic and neurological dispositions that make humans susceptible to believing in detached consciousnesses?

Certainly. But those who understand that evidence must have dared to look inside to consider it.

The person who runs from the house, and the theists of the 21st century, are one in the same. They are not irrational.

They are scared.

Why “The Shawshank Redemption” has something to teach atheists

What do I do now?

If you’ve read the book and/or watched the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, you no doubt recall the tragic character named Brooks. [spoiler alert] Wonderfully portrayed by actor James Whitmore, the character is, in my opinion, the most endearing of the story. In the darkest of places, he finds joy in life. In the cruelest of prisons, he finds comfort in routine. And in his eventual freedom, he meets his tragic, unexpected end.

I never really understood why this film, and this character in particular, moved me so much. Certainly it was affecting me in both a literal and figurative/archetypal level. But I never recognized the powerful metaphor of Brooks, until now. While reading one of the many stories online about a young man in the American Bible Belt “coming out” as an atheist, I made the connection.

Forget Brooks’ age. Forget his gender. Forget the literal setting. Brooks is a metaphor of a person imprisoned by his circumstance. He lives in “prison,” as all wondering theists do, and fears leaving its familiar setting. He has friends there. He knows the rules there. They tell him when he can and can’t do everything. In this structure, social network and “protection from the outside,” he is trapped – even as he loves and feeds the little bird of freedom that visits him from time to time.

This is story of every secret atheist and doubting theist in the world. They are trapped in a prison of their own custom, both internally and externally. To leave this prison is to leave everyone (and everything) they’ve ever known, abusive as it may be, behind them. And when the gates slam behind the new atheist, they know there’s no going back; not to their beliefs, and often, not to their family and friends.

This realization has made me think of theists in an entirely new way. Hate the game, but not the player.

Should we belittle the very people we hope to help?

I admit it. It’s tempting to make fun of theism. Some people, like Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher do it so well. But it’s a very thin line that separates the critical assesment of ideas versus the mockery of individuals and their struggles with shaking off those ideas.  Taunting them, while they stand inside their prisons, looking out at the world though bars of fear, is a mean, petty, insensitive thing to do.

Much of what people have done in the name of religion will forever stain our history books. I am certainly not apologizing for any of it. But if I am to help theists embrace the rational foundation of their humanity, to step into the sometimes harsh light of day, I need to remember to be more considerate of those who may be struggling to escape from a very dark place.