I decided to turn February into a “Month Without God” largely because four books dealing with God or godlessness all came my way at about the same time (the fact that I’ll also hear Father Richard Neuhaus of First Things magazine speak tomorrow and might even end up, for the first time in my life, at a performance by an explicitly Christian band afterwards is simply a further coincidence, caused by the conservative Phillips Foundation). Those four books are my February Book Selections, and two of them turned out to be connected in a small way.
Atheist Manifesto by Michel Onfray was given to me by manga-publishing friend Ali Kokmen, and I decided to review it together with the anthology of dark and godless Lovecraft tales I’d bought months earlier, thinking this would enable me to branch out a bit instead of reviewing more books created by my own acquaintances — but, after making that decision, I noticed that the beautiful, horrific cover of the Lovecraft anthology was designed by none other than Michelle Gengaro — Ali’s wife! A religious person might see in this some divine plan, but I think it’s merely the sort of coincidence bound to happen from time to time in the tiny, incestuous world of New York media. Still, whether forces divine, dark, or random brought me into indirect contact with Ali and Michelle near-simultaneously, I dedicate this blog entry to them and wish them a happy Valentine’s Day.
These two are perfect examples, as it happens, of how nice the heathen can be. Two of the nicest, most wonderful human beings I’ve ever encountered, neither is a strict adherent of the family faith, Ali being half Turkish on his father’s side (and half Japanese on his mother’s) but brought up (in Minnesota) neither Muslim nor, on the other hand, possessed of animosity toward religion — and Michelle brought up Catholic (in Queens) but with enough perspective on the implausibility of religion as an adult to say, “If you can believe in that, you can pretty much believe in anything.” Again, that’s not an angry fist in the air or the creation of a rival, black-flag-waving creed but a healthy, humorous skepticism of the sort that the entire world needs. Ali’s late father used to say that despite his Muslim background, he’d enjoy being pope and that his first edict to the faithful would be “You’re on your own!” (An offhand reference to the anagrammatic “Galactic Pope Nokmek” in the Justice League Showcase comic book story I wrote was a tip of the hat to Ali and his dad.)
And I don’t mean to count Ali and Michelle as clear-cut atheists, I should add. At a wonderful party years ago in honor of their daughter’s birth (perhaps the only time I’ve ever worn in public the fez that Dan Greenberg and Marjorie Leong gave me), Ali read a genuinely poetic passage from the comic book Watchmen (written by Alan Moore, himself a half-serious, anarchist worshipper of an ancient faux-snake-deity) in which the nigh-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan recognizes a beautiful, seemingly non-random orderliness to the universe.
Too, Ali has tended to enjoy the ecumenical spirit of things like the sci-fi show Babylon 5 — with its bustling future world of cultural and commercial exchange — more than stark materialism or angry confrontation and rebellion. There are, as his example suggests, plenty of gentle, polite secular folk in the world (and plenty of people made crazy and vicious by faith), so, again, I simply don’t buy the theory that we have to maintain these ancient illusions to keep people moral or civil — though at the same time, I can see the wisdom in disillusioning people of faith cautiously, quietly, peacefully, and without mockery or heated conflict.
Push too hard against faith and you get something like Vox Day’s The Irrational Atheist as a retort — and indeed, one of my fellow Phillips Fellows (part of that group that gathers to hear Neuhaus and others tomorrow) suggested to Day, right around the time I was deciding to review Onfray and Lovecraft, that I was an atheist reviewer worth sending a copy of the book to (my thanks to both of them for taking that risk).
And no sooner had I decided to review Onfray, Day, and Lovecraft together than this month’s fourth Book Selection, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (which happens to be about Jesuits having a faith-shaking encounter with aliens on another planet, as I’ll explain in about a week and a half) was recommended to me by the lovely Sarah Federman.