Scipio and the New Atheism

Mathilde‘s opens at 10 on Sundays, so Scipio and I usually meet at 9:55 sharp so that we can watch people scurrying to the service at First Church.  Scipio enjoys this much more than I do. Today a mother with two over-polished kids in tow pushed past us without saying excuse me.

Then she turned.  “What did you say?,” she said.

“Nothing,”  Scipio said, with that perfect little way he has of meaning something when he doesn’t mean it.  He looked at me slyly. “I didn’t say anything.  But you might have said ‘Excuse me’.”

“Actually,” she said, “I’m English. We normally say ‘sorry’ and slog on. So, sorry”

“I hear it now,” Scipio said. He did hear it because he tries hard to sound British, a habit he picked up from having attended a summer school session at the University of Leeds.

“So, sorry,” she said again, casting a faint smile, and rearranging her children on the sidewalk.

“I don’t mean to pry,” Scipio said a little menacingly, “but what actually goes on in there?”

“You mean church,” she said slightly amazed. “You’ve never been to church?”

“Oh sure,” he said, looking sideways at me for enouragement. “I went to my uncle’s funeral, but that didn’t count. I was only eight, so I thought church was all about people crying and sniffing floral bouquets.”  He laughed appreciatively, and expected her to laugh back at his little joke.

“Well, ” she said, “We sing a little, pray a little, listen a little, usually to some dreadful sermon about how we need to do more to alleviate poverty and teach our children about love and kindness. This lot could use a little of that.”

“Why do you sing?,” Scipio said, looking at me to nod in agreement at his line of questioning. “Can’t you do that in the car?”

“Well, last I looked it’s hard to get a hundred people in a Subaru. Besides, I like the words.  Look, you’re free to come along but I’m going to be late. Nice chatting,” and with that the small troupe was off and running toward the front steps.

“Pathetic,” Scipio said. “‘I like the words’ and she ‘prays a little‘ and listens a little‘.  What she’s really saying is that she likes talking to herself and having her kid’s brains washed out with  lies.  Soap, lye: hey that’s pretty good.”

“She’s not so bad,” I returned. “I pray a little before every class and hope that the students will listen a little.”

“Don’t start,” Scipio said.  “I know you agree with me about religion.”

By then the new barrista had arrived, leaned her bicycle against the wall, took off her helmet and let her hair fall freely over her shoulders. She was even lovelier in the sunlight, prettier than she seemed the day before.

“Hi guys. Be with you in a minute.” She went inside.

Scipio shook his head in a depressed kind of way.  “I used to think that religion was irrelevant,” he said. “But when you see smart-looking people demeaning themselves–it’s sick. It’s just sick.”

“I don’t know,” I said flatly, There are worse things you can be than a waitress.”

Scipio did not look amused. “You know who I meant.  And not just that, her kids have to drink the same poison.  If you ask me, parents who go to church should be required by family services to leave the kids at home and give them a course in logic.”

“Do they get to sing after they do their syllogisms?,” I said. “You mean that poison about kindness and caring about starving children in Bangladesh?”

“I mean that poison about God and Jesus and being saved and not having abortions and voting Republican,” Scipio said. “Probably being spouted by some guy who screws little boys.”

Canova, "feeding the Hungry"

“Wow,” I said. “So that’s what’s going on at the First Congregational Church in Marblehead.  You’re right. I’ll call 911.  Maybe no one notices because of all the singing.”

Scipio stood up very straight and looked at me as though he wanted to punch me.

“You know what’s wrong with you Cleanthes? You’re apathetic.  You don’t care that people are being taught rubbish.  You don’t care that religion is poisonous.  You don’t notice that the whole culture is sick and that religion is making it sick.”

To make him angrier, I feigned a yawn and looked at my watch.

“Scipio,” I began, “I don’t think you’re talking about religion. I think you’re talking about what you think about religion, which frankly isn’t very much. I think you’re talking about dogma–or something like that.”

The barrista had raised the shade, smiled through the window, and raised her hand with five fingers spread to indicate we would be standing outside having this discussion for five long minutes.

We were downwind from the church and the front doors were wide open. Two ushers were still allowing latecomers in. But the singing had begun.

I’d always liked hymns. I’ve always liked singing. I recognized this one from years before when it wouldn’t have been unusal for me to be standing inside joining in rather than outside having an unpleasant quarrel with an angry associate professor of psychology.

It was Lowell’s poem, Once to Every Man and Nation.  Congregationalists love to sing this. He wrote it to protest the United States war with Mexico in 1845.  If only we’d had a million more like him, I thought, the immigration issue would be off the table.  They had just arrived at verse two –

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

I was going to ask Scipio if he knew it, but even if he did he wouldn’t have said so, and the reference to God in the last line would have soured him on the idea that religion is an important force in social protest. He would have said something to spoil the majesty of the sentiment.  Probably that if God had any interest in the future he should have intervened in 1845.  I had a whole lecture in my head about that.  But by now Scipio was tapping his shoe and it was 10.15.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said.  “Maybe we should just shut them down, places like this.  Toxin factories.  I know if we did, wars would disappear and the economy would heal itself because we’d know that miracles don’t happen.  The schools would get better. I’l bet that if we’re being honest about it, our future depends on getting more atheists elected to congress and outing the ones who are already there. I always look forward to our discussions Scipio.  You’re always right about these big questions.”

He smiled appreciatively. “Well, maybe not shut them down. But tax them for sure. Make them pay for the harm they do–like cigarette sales.”


The barrista opened the door smiling slightly nervously. “Sorry guys,” she said, “The machines weren’t cooperating.”

“No problem” I said, “it was worth it just to see you smile. She smiled again.

“It’s way after 10,” Scipio said. “There’s hardly any time for me to enjoy a cup of coffee now.  I have yoga at 11.” He pushed past her and moved toward his usual table as far from the window as possible.  Scipio has a theory that watching people move past windows affects the optic nerve in unhealthy ways that may lead to early Alzheimer’s.  He’s never expanded.

The barrista and I were left on the sidewalk.  The children were being ushered down the front steps to the lower part of the church where they would color pictures of the prodigal son or the feeding of the 5000.

They would be told that this really didn’t happen, but that it’s a parable of why generosity to starving people is important.  At least that’s what I was taught.  The upstairs crowd, mainly young parents and old, probably wealthy, veterans of a lifetime of religion had moved on to a Whittier hymn, “Forgive Our Foolish Ways.” He  was a Quaker. He hated slavery.  Slavery was a sin, he thought.  That’s about all I knew of its history.

“I love that one,” said the barrista. “We sang it when I was a kid.”

“Me too” I said, “but don’t these people ever stop singing?”  She smiled again.

In the background, Scipio was calling out. “Oh Miss? Excuse me, Miss”

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