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The "A" Word

By freeatlast ~

Dear Arnold,

Although we never met, when I was a girl in the 70’s, I despised you with righteous indignation and consigned you to hell in my mind. To be fair, since only those people who attended my little red brick church in my Virginia town were going to heaven, I damned plenty of others as well. The Catholics worshiped the Pope, AKA, the anti-Christ; the Jews had murdered Jesus; the Methodists were lukewarm and God would surely spew them from his mouth; the Baptists were close, but since they did not baptize for “the remission of sins,” they were lost too; the Pentecostals failed to worship “decently and in order” with all that tongue-speaking and flailing around; the JW’s and Mormons were so far gone, they were beneath pondering. But you, Arnold, you were the worst of all.

You were an atheist, and a grouchy one at that.

Knowing you only from your letters to the editor in the local newspaper, I read your complaints with disdain, complaints that were regular and predictable. Each September you demanded that the line “one nation under God” be purged from the Pledge of Allegiance. Each December you groused about the nativity scene in the town park. Each June you decried the official prayer at the local high school graduation. Arnold, I have no idea how old you were when you wrote these letters, but in my mind, you were an old troll like the one who lived under a bridge in the story “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” an ugly and menacing creature, right down there with Adolf Hitler in the “despicable human” department.

Arnold, the atheist.

The only other atheist I knew of growing up was Madalyn Murray-O’Hair, the evil Ethel Merman of atheists: loud, crass and also very grouchy, like you, Arnold, as she fought to remove prayer from public schools. People around town gossiped that you and Madalyn were friends (if atheists even HAD friends), and that she even came to visit you on your isolated farm. In my nightmares, you and Madalyn sat around a sulfurous fire, eating the barbequed bodies of little children and drinking their blood, cackling all the while at the havoc you wreaked. To me, your collective nastiness was proof that you were both ensnared of Satan and in desperate need of the Lord Jesus Christ, and I pondered this as I ate and drank the body and blood of my Savior each Sunday. I knew that I was supposed to pray for my enemies, but I could not, I would not pray for you and Madalyn because Catholics were one thing, but atheists were quite another: the worst of the worst of the worst.

Allow me to apologize, Arnold, for judging you, for damning you to a non-existent hell in my youthful Christian arrogance, for I realize now that however abrasive you and Madalyn seemed, you both were way ahead of your time, voices in the wilderness, crying “Prepare ye the way,” not of the Lord, but of reason, and I see the lunacy of the behavior you protested. No wonder you were irritated. Furthermore, I realize that I, too, might be an atheist. Even now, the word has so much negative power in my psyche that I hesitate to embrace it; although, the atheist friends I have now are the kindest, most decent humans I know, and if I take the definition literally: “without a god,” I am surely one because I have no god in my life. For several years I routinely went out in the woods and cried out, “God, if you are there, please show me!” and received nothing but the breeze in return. I showed up; god did not.

I imagine you are dead now, Arnold, but I commend you for your courage. If you were still alive, I would love to sit down and talk with you over a cup of coffee and hear about your life.