The small school of so-called “new atheists,” whose pop commentaries on religion, science, and political life have proven incendiary in recent years, have lately come up against the charge that they’re conspicuously homogenous: white, male, and squarely professional class [there are exceptions, however —ed.]. Personalities like the natty Richard Dawkins cut a profile that’s not much of a departure from the iconic white Protestant pulpit master. If you’ve been following the rise of this movement, noted Monica Shores on the Ms. Magazine blog last November, “you may have noticed that it sure looks a lot like old religion.” Surely atheism, to the extent that it is indeed a “movement,” isn’t comprised merely of stiff, aging white guys? The moment seems ripe for diversification on all kinds of fronts.
Enter Mark Salzman, the Yale-educated novelist whose multimedia piece, “An Atheist in Freefall,” was recently featured at the esteemed New York Public Library (watch the entire performance in video below). The event, it seems, was meant to contribute something to the developing discussion about the use, value, shape, or function of atheism in our often fanatically religious society. Perhaps part of that contribution was to diversify the movement, if only faintly. Granted, Salzman is white. And male. Indeed, aesthetically Salzman doesn’t seem to be telling a very different story.
He glided onto the small stage in an oxford shirt layered under a navy blue sweater. His tidy khaki pants were crisply ironed and his blonde hair was swept neatly back and to the side. The effect was a Joel Osteen-ish confidence and charisma. But, as became clear over the course of his tortured, animated performance, Salzman is different; he’s a more vulnerable, more contemplative (and, let’s be frank, far kookier) sort of atheist.
In fact, although the event (as billed) promised to address the unique spiritual conundrums of an atheist in crisis, Salzman himself was reluctant to embrace the crisp certainties implied by the label. He comes from atheism, he announced toward the opening of the carefully calibrated monologue. His family is full of atheists. He was born into it. He has what he calls atheist “credentials.”
But he described himself as a formerly closeted spiritual “seeker”; in other words, he’s always been on a kind of vision quest for some form of “enlightenment.” For many years this meant trying to unlock the keys to ancient Chinese wisdom through kung fu; later, it meant playing the role of the inspired novelist who lives into his own neurosis and instability so that he might reveal poetic gems about the nature of life in the universe. Coincidentally, this novelistic career included the penning of a tome about a Carmelite nun (his 2001 Lying Awake)—a platform which, perhaps, allowed him to explore his seeker’s curiosity about the efficacy of prayer, or the constraints of divine will, from behind the mask of a middle-aged female monastic.
But the spiritual balm that Salzman has worked up, to deal with the loss of faith in everyday life, is essentially non-theistic in its metaphysical register. Explication requires a brief tour through his nearly hour-long monologue.
Salzman tells the story of an optimistic, but highly anxious, seeker whose sense of enthusiasm and adventure dried up when the chaotic monotony of domestic life intervened with a vengeance. The quixotic search for meanings and enlightenments began to seem a bit hollow, in other words, when Salzman became your typical American househusband—a stay-at-home dad. While his wife (a figure he describes in such beaming terms that she comes off as a flawless, superhuman, Venus in bronze) went to work full time in the L.A. film industry, Salzman stayed home with their two young children.
Every day, while the babies napped, he worked on his novel. After three years he sent it to his editor who told him it wasn’t polished enough. Over the course of six years the same thing happened to him three times. The crockpot, slow-cooked writing process of a domestic apparently wasn’t working for him. And then he had to face the tragic and unexpected death of his sisters. And then (in what seemed, for him, to be the most dramatic turn in the story) the family adopted a dog who barked at humans with skin tones darker than the family’s and seemed to respond extremely well to commands in German. It was all too much for Salzman. He began to wake in the night, short of breath, swimming through panic attacks.
Practical spiritual techniques, designed to still the brain and calm the soul—those many popular Americanized adaptations of Eastern practices—didn’t help at all. In fact, they made him worse. Sitting still in meditation gave him just enough time and space to sense that the world might be closing in on him. So he took Lorezepam instead. Salzman then went through his own version of the dark night of the soul which he calls “night of the farting dog.”
In the midst of his panic and struggle, Salzman’s wife suggested he might want to take a solitary retreat to a friend’s rural cabin. Feeling guilty about saddling his fully employed wife with all domestic responsibility, he grudgingly volunteered to take the dog with him. But shortly after they arrived to relax in the peace of the wild countryside, the dog tensed up, keeled over, and konked out (an excruciatingly strange process that Salzman performed with an earnest verve).
So he dragged the dog’s stiffening body to the local vet, who determined that she’d simply had a seizure. The only thing to do was bring her home and monitor her condition—slowly nurse her back to health. Which is what Salzman did. But, sitting alone with her in a strange house, listening to her raspy breath as it skirted the line between life and death, he felt a panic attack approaching. And then the dog let out a disgusting fart that “sounded like a 350 pound man sat down on a gigantic, furry whoopee cushion filled with methane.”
At first this made Salzman angry. He felt victimized (how could she do this to me while I was on the verge of a panic attack?!) But then he remembered a Zen koan that he’d long favored: A man’s boat is hit by an empty boat as he paddles through a pond on a windy day. He stays calm. When his boat is struck by a vessel with a human at the helm, he becomes enraged. Salzman decided that he wanted to think of the dog as an empty boat—a vessel without intention, trying merely to move forward with the current. Not only did he want to think of the dog this way, he decided, but everyone—including himself.
It was only during the closing of the performance that Salzman really elaborated on his a-theistic vision for healing and wholeness. It isn’t complex and can, perhaps, be boiled down to his paraphrase of the Alcoholics Anonymous “Serenity Prayer”: “…we do what we must as we fall through time.”
Salzman takes issue with atheist visions that attribute the ghost of the “human mind” with the almost magical potential to execute the demands of our personal, humanoid will in the chaos of the actual world. Too many atheists, he seemed to be suggesting, see too much intention and responsibility embedded in their human selves—in the selves of their human counterparts. “Is your own belief about your own power and autonomy sustainable,” he asks, “or is it tearing you apart?”
He wants, instead, a more blissed-out spirituality for the atheistically inclined… one that can put cosmic responsibility in the un-godlike hands of, well, something big. Something mysterious and entirely indeterminate. The reason isn’t, so much, that he wants to attribute any moral agency to this cosmic greatness (in fact, he calls his vision “morally indefensible”). Mostly, he’s looking for a spiritual technique to reduce personal anxiety and he’s convinced that “if your sense of responsibility is reduced, your anxiety should go down.” Think of it as a kind of spiritual back-cracking for non-theists, or 12 steps for the anxiety-prone.
For those atheistic Anxiety Addicts who are familiar with the AA tenets, Salzman’s counsel on this larger-than-self cosmic function isn’t likely to provoke a revelation. I happen to be something of an anxiety addict myself but it doesn’t do much for me, mostly because my deep anxieties about, say, personal finances are linked in very complicated ways to terrifying instabilities and uncertainties that are global. The little frights and injustices that we face daily, that hit many of our bodies like a brick of stress, aren’t always relieved by a personal responsibility release valve.
Sometimes, I think, the fact that we’re all in it together, in this thick soup of blessings and injustice, trying to find ways to flavor and serve it responsibly, kindly, is the only thing that helps. Salzman may be several shades more contemplative and spiritually accommodating than your average high-profile atheist. But he almost makes me long for a Christopher Hitchens, whose own atheistic rants arise from his sense that religion does something to the world that we share, and is problematic for that very reason. That it creates bad tensions and anxiety in the collective social body—our stressed out, hyper-tense, body politic.