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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Atheist in "Save Send Delete"



Ten years ago I saw an atheist on a PBS discussion about the existence of God. What I think of as my "little voice" prompted me to contact the atheist. I honestly had no idea why – still don't – but I trust intuition and follow the little voice.

I dashed off a hasty and rude email.

The atheist surprised me by writing back. He was charming and engaging.

We continued writing back and forth to each other for the next year. Then we stopped.

A year after we said goodbye, during moments when my mind wandered, for example while standing in the checkout line in supermarkets, my relationship with this atheist began to play itself out in my head in literary form.

I'm a writer, and I've always got some script or opera or short story or essay playing itself out in my head. If I didn't have to work for a living, I'd happily spend all my time putting as many of these productions on paper as I could.

Again, my "little voice" prompted me to put this particular production down on paper, and I did. The result is the book "Save Send Delete."

From the start I knew that I wanted SSD to contain only my emails to the atheist, whom I named "Rand," and not his back to me.

Why?

When I was a kid, I read an historical novel that was written that way. It consisted of the letters of an Ancient Roman to a woman he loved. I was fascinated by that format because, counterintuitively, it got me to know exactly who this woman was, though her words, or even any description of her, never appeared on the page.

I wanted to be able to work that same magic on my readers. I wanted them to know exactly who Rand was, even though he never appeared on the page.

I wanted to do this for a very specific reason. I was writing about God, a God many of us believe in, even though we never see him. We are convinced that we experience him. I wanted the reader to experience Rand, the absent Rand.

Franz Werfel does this in his masterpiece, "Song of Bernadette." Werfel, a Jew, describes Bernadette Soubirous' witnessing an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who tells her to drink and wash in muddy water that suddenly runs clear, and that eventually plays some role in miraculous healings. This is outlandish stuff. How does Werfel sell weird miracles in a mass-market book? Werfel does not even attempt to describe the apparitions at Lourdes in a believable way. Rather, he describes the reactions of observers in a way that I found completely believable. Average people, confronted with the numinous, would react exactly as the characters in Werfel's book.

In addition to writing about God, I was writing about love, the other great mystery that we cannot see, that many of us don't believe in, but that impresses us greatly.

I wanted to tell my story of how my correspondence with Rand affected me. I couldn't possibly tell Rand's story of how our correspondence affected him – I did not know.

And, again, I wanted to show how invisible entities – God, or in this case, love – can leave a big impact, whether they exist or not.

And I didn't want to get sued.

And I didn't want to violate Rand's privacy, or his marriage, or his reputation.

And I didn't want anyone to buy or read "Save Send Delete" on the basis of his fame.

These are all my reasons for including only my emails in "Save Send Delete."

About a year ago, a friend wrote to tell me that a famous atheist had been accused of rape.

Should I go public with Rand's identity?

These are my thoughts.

First, "Save Send Delete" has sold very few copies, and it appears that nothing is likely to change that. So, when I say "publicly identify Rand," I'm talking about identifying Rand to the three or four people who read my blog.

Second, Rand is no longer married to the woman he was married to when he and I corresponded, so my saying this publicly can't have any negative impact on that marriage.

His reputation is being hashed out by forces greater than I – his few accusers, and his many and influential fans and friends.

The famous atheist with whom I corresponded in the correspondence that inspired "Save Send Delete," is Michael Shermer.

Do I or does my book have anything to do with the rape accusation?

No.

In our correspondence, Dr. Shermer was consistently polite to me. I often reflected that I wished I could meet a prominent Catholic who would treat me with equal respect, warmth, and encouragement. I enjoyed our correspondence. I have no hard feelings or regrets. The one thing that pisses me off is that he sells more books than I do; every writer knows exactly what I mean. We all share this Grinch deep down in our souls. I remind my Grinch that Edward Bulwer-Lytton sells more books than I do.

Did Dr. Shermer show any signs of being a rapist in his correspondence with me?

No.

Does that prove anything?

No.

There really are such things as not knowing, and I do not know, anything, at all, about these accusations. I wasn't there. I did not attend the events in question. I did not meet the accusers. I have no experience of this behavior.

No one would find any data of any kind in anything I've written that would support any side of this controversy.

Why go "public" – to my tiny handful of blog readers – about Rand's identity?

Again, because the negatives I listed above have been eliminated, and because I want the luxury of speaking freely in those very limited instances where mentioning the identity of the man who inspired Rand arises.

I want to write a blog post, if I get around to it, on the double standard in reviews of Dr. Shermer's new book. It's a book about ethics, and reviews I've seen have not mentioned the accusations. That's a double standard. If a Catholic cleric accused of rape were promoting a book about ethics, you can bet your bottom dollar that atheist reviewers would mention such accusations in their lead sentences.

I didn't want to comment on this double standard from behind a curtain of pretense. I wanted to do the "full disclosure" announcement that's ethically required when you speak in public about a race in which you have some investment in one of the horses.

"Save Send Delete" contains no information that any side could use in the current controversy. A typical passage from "Save Send Delete," entitled "Marble in my Backpack," is linked below. "Marble in My Backpack" is all about me. The only thing it tells you about Michael Shermer is that interaction with him inspired me to write it. He listened to me. The book is a testimony to the power of one person listening to another. You can read "Marble in My Backpack" at this link here.

Yes. It does feel good to get this off my chest. 

8 comments:

  1. Just a random thought on your first reason for wanting to do SSD through only one side (I realize there were many reasons, and they were very reasonable ones at that!). Although it can be intriguing to view something and get to know them through someone else's eyes, the truth is, we would only be getting to know them through that one single filter, and no other way. It would be through the filter of your eyes, and not necessarily the filter of reality or what other people might view if they had corresponded with him. Just my two cents. (An atheist here.)

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  2. Hi, Anonymous, of course that's true. It's something I'm very aware of. I wish we saw similar awareness among New Atheist authors who seem so certain.

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  3. Having read and loved SSD, I NEVER would have guessed Rand was Shermer, whom I've also read but found to be slimey.

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    1. David B Black thank you for the terrific Amazon review. :-)

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  4. As a secular humanist and a feminist, I congratulate you for this post! Your decision here should open up further dialogue between religious and secular people--a kind of dialogue for which the stage was set provocatively in SSD.

    Your rationale for not disclosing Shermer's name before now is justified for all the aesthetic and practical reasons you've explained so well above. At the same time, I think that your revealing the actual identity of Rand highlights another layer of the book's complexities. Thanks, your friend, Linda

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  5. I was *sure* it was Richard Dawkins. "Mount improbable" I thought was Everest, and he famously debated an Anglican priest. Never even heard of this guy Shermer. Dawkins also writes back to ordinary people, my sister in law talks to him via email, she is brilliant, but otherwise a normal low profile person. Was way off.

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