Douglas Adams Made Me an Atheist

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  • The inscription in my dog-eared paperback copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy carries deep irony. Written in my mother’s clear hand it says “For Gus, Easter ’83.” The book that would help set me down the path to atheism was delivered to me in a basket full of candy and plastic grass on the day our savior rose from the dead.

    If you haven’t read the book, here’s the elevator pitch: Earth is destroyed to make way for an interstellar bypass and the last human, armed with a book that is the repository of all knowledge in the Universe, goes on a misadventure that teaches him that nobody anywhere, not God, not the greatest supercomputer ever built, not even the dolphins, really knows anything.

    Reading Douglas Adams didn’t immediately erase any and all belief in me. That was a long, ongoing process aided, greatly, by life’s many disappointments. Like the time that my 9-year-old sister came home from our Christian school crying because her teacher told her that my father was going to Hell since he didn’t attend church on Sundays. From that point on, every hypocrisy and unfairness stuck in my craw.

    I now realize that the inability to forgive the flaws of all the human beings that practice religion is also a flaw of mine. A man I admire greatly, my good friend Tim from Minnesota, goes to church every weekend and struggles mightily to tolerate all the smallness and he does it with admirable grace and humility. If they gave Baptists sainthoods, he would be at the top of the list.

    I am not there. And I will probably never be there.

    The comedienne Brett Butler once said, “Bill Hicks wanted to be Jesus, but he got stuck at the part where he was kicking the moneylenders out of the temple.” Now that I am older than Hicks ever lived to be, that kind of righteous rage has lost its luster but echoes of it still linger.

    Mostly, I just feel guilty because my lack of faith is a deep disappointment to my mother – a woman whose abiding faith and dedication to serving her church and community have defined the last third of her life.

    On my fortieth birthday, my mother wrote me a long email hoping to pass on some wisdom and grant some perspective before my impending fatherhood. I could barely stand to read the note for the pangs of regret and sadness it inspired. My mother was bummed that she couldn’t pass her love of God and the peace she got from belief down to her son and daughter. When I try to imagine how that must sit, for a person who knows in their heart that redemption is possible, I feel terrible.

    No, my mom couldn’t give me that peace, but she did give me The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and despite all the doubt and pain (for both of us) that has come since, I thank her.


    Pretension +1 is a weekly column about the intersections of life, culture and videogames. Follow Gus Mastrapa on Twitter @Triphibian.

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    12 thoughts on “Douglas Adams Made Me an Atheist

    1. @ST_U2 says:

      A Baptist named Tim from Minnesota…he didn't happen to graduate high school in 2003, did he?

    2. AlejandroDeLaVega says:

      Is it lonely up there on your pedestal, Gus? You condemn Christians for having standards for who goes to heaven and who goes to hell as hypocrites, when in fact their only crime is disagreeing with your own tiny, ill-informed sentiments. How dare those people in their smallness not conform to the flimsy inclinations of a self-absorbed, aging hipster.

      The truly sad thing is you really believe that you're above it all, don't you? That by not being part of a religion you're somehow an elevated being, when really you're just going by the same misguided adolescent outrage that every angsty kid in Catholic school aquires at some point because "religion is dumb, man."

      I think William Gaddis said it best in The Recognitions:

      “I know you, I know you. You're the only serious person in the room, aren't you, the only one who understands, and you can prove it by the fact that you've never finished a single thing in your life. You're the only well-educated person, because you never went to college, and you resent education, you resent social ease, you resent good manners, you resent success, you resent any kind of success, you resent God, you resent Christ, you resent thousand-dollar bills, you resent Christmas, by God, you resent happiness, you resent happiness itself, because none of that's real. What is real, then? Nothing's real to you that isn't part of your own past, real life, a swamp of failures, of social, sexual, financial, personal…spiritual failure. Real life. You poor bastard. You don't know what real life is, you've never been near it. All you have is a thousand intellectualized ideas about life. But life? Have you ever measured yourself against anything but your own lousy past? Have you ever faced anything outside yourself? Life! You poor bastard.”

      1. Alejandro, be careful not to climb on your own pedestal. I don't think Gus is condemning anyone here. He's sharing his perspective in a pretty admirable way, I think.

        1. AlejandroDeLaVega says:

          "I now realize that the inability to forgive the flaws of all the human beings that practice religion is also a flaw of mine. A man I admire greatly, my good friend Tim from Minnesota, goes to church every weekend and struggles mightily to tolerate all their smallness and he does it with admirable grace and humility."

          How is that not condemning Christians categorically? It's a good thing Gus doesn't suffer from the "smallness" of "all the human beings that practice religion". No, he's just to myopic and self-centered to learn anything about religion that isn't filtered through his own skewed memories of his boring, middle class childhood that makes him to sort of first world martyr who defines "hypocrisy" as having a concept of responsibility that goes far beyond their own myopic concept of fairness.

          Funny thing, nowhere does he explain how Douglas Adams made him an atheist. But I guess the reference was needed for Gus to show that he's "totally down with those geek cats, daddy-o!"

          1. One person here is being super judgmental and condemning. It's not Gus.

            1. AlejandroDeLaVega says:

              You're right, Rick. Calling out one self-entered wannabe Chuck Klosterman is much worse than shaming millions of Christians for the author's own projected deficiencies.

            2. You're lovely! Thanks for this Christ-like exchange. Nailed it.

      2. jhavs27 says:

        If you had written this article, and someone had left a comment like yours, would you find faith attractive after reading it? I think we have to remember that, even were Gus persecuting Christians, which I don't believe he is, the response that Christ would have given would have been one of humility and grace, not rabid, authoritarian, condemning defense. Nothing meaningful can be said from a position of that kind of defense.

        I politely urge you, as one who shares your faith, to pray about and consider removing this comment. You are interrupting a thoughtful dialogue with people of multifarious backgrounds and beliefs, which you should be able to respect without descending into name-calling. You have done damage to your own image, not anyone else here.

    3. Chris says:

      Hit a nerve with someone, then.

    4. jhavs27 says:

      As someone with a seemingly similar experience in my upbringing, I can identify with this, and I think your sentiments in the final few paragraphs are especially pure and compelling. I happened to find myself drawn back to faith after University by the person of Jesus Christ, but I, like you, remain unable to abide the trappings of faith and, often, the faithful themselves.

      I doubt you will even read this comment, Gus, and I doubly doubt that you will take any suggestions from it, but I think I've found no better work on the crushing expectations and complexities of faith than Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. Especially during my time of agnosticism, I found that book so incredibly insightful.

      1. Gus Mastrapa says:

        I will check that book out. Thanks.

    5. @Triphibian says:

      Thanks for the comments and encouragement, everybody. Would it really cheese you off, Alejandro, for me to say that I forgive you. Because I totally do.

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