covid diary

An Atheist Reconsiders God in the Pandemic

A COVID memorial on the National Mall. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When I was in college, a friend died, and for weeks afterward, I thought I saw him everywhere. I didn’t suspect him of haunting me; it was more that people resembled him so strongly I believed, temporarily, that he was still alive. In September, when I learned another young friend had died in a tragic accident, I wondered if I’d see him, too. Human beings are uncomfortable with absence. We like to find patterns, fill in blanks. An individual death creates a void in reality, and almost two years of constant death has left most of us groping in the dark.

By the start of October, more than 700,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the United States. A recent memorial on the National Mall takes this absence and renders it tangible. Better than an open letter, more sinew than a ghost. On the even grass before the Washington Monument, there were hundreds of thousands of white flags — a national surrender. I could plant a flag for my grandfather, who died of the virus nearly a year ago. But the gesture feels thin. Not that the memorial is a bad idea: It may provoke in the viewer feelings of sadness or regret or the emotion that arises in response to an absence, an emotion I cannot name but that is as close to fatigue as it is to grief or nostalgia. I don’t know what exactly I would want from a memorial — whether it’s catharsis or meaning or something else altogether. I thought several hundred times this year, Maybe I should go to church.

This will be news to my parents, my childhood pastors, basically everyone in my life. I haven’t gone near one as anything but a tourist in about a decade. My parents raised me to be a strict conservative Christian, blending fundamentalist and Evangelical tendencies. Conviction is my inheritance. And as an adult, I have preferred atheism to a generic spirituality because it mirrored the bright lines of my upbringing: God is or isn’t. The universe, I had decided, contained nothing but bright light and the vacuum of space. So why, after two years of plague, did I want to know if it hid anything else?

In the Screwtape Letters, when C. S. Lewis’s titular demon imparts some advice to his failson nephew, he deals, often, with the Second World War. (His verdict: potentially useful.) But some morsels are still relevant to contemporary woes. “We are really faced with a cruel dilemma,” Screwtape complains. “When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics.” What Screwtape wants is to prevent humans from believing strongly in anything spiritual at all so they will instead worship more earthly forces. “I have great hopes,” the demon continues, “that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy.” The Enemy, of course, is God, without whom the unbeliever constructs all kinds of false idols.

Maybe Screwtape had a point. Take, for example, the “we believe in science” liberal who venerates Anthony Fauci and, before him, Andrew Cuomo. To an extent that Lewis, a conservative convert, would perhaps not admit if he were alive, the liberal is right about a few things. Masks work, and so do the vaccines. People who disagree are taking horse dewormer because they heard about it on the internet — and their bad choices affect more than just themselves. Nevertheless, the liberal cult of competency and rationality can have a dark side. Anti-vaxxers can look like problems first and people second. They exhaust us, and even endanger us, but they’re often the victims of misinformation. Their deaths are still tragedies. Science can be so emotionalized, to borrow Screwtape’s term, that we see those who betray it as demons, and we mistake ignorance for true evil.

This happened to me recently when I lost my temper with a woman I’d known in college. She is a nurse and wrote on Facebook that she refuses to get vaccinated. I told her that people like her are the reason my grandfather is dead. That wasn’t exactly true — my grandfather died before the vaccines were available — but her indifference toward the virus had irked me. I don’t think I changed her mind. I felt better for an instant and then I went back to feeling angry, both with her and with myself. Whatever compelled me to comment on her Facebook post could have become much uglier if I had allowed it. On the r/HermanCainAward sub-Reddit, people post screenshots of comments from anti-vaxxers who later died of COVID. To some, death has become a spectacle at which they are entitled to gawk. That’s how demonic energy must feel. Right now, it’s everywhere.

Perhaps this is why I wanted to go back to church. I wondered if I’d discover a way to banish the darkness gathering around me and inside my brain. I wanted to transform absence into mystery, to become an alchemist of grief. Mostly I wanted a way to mourn, not just my own loss but the galloping mass death enveloping the world. Or, at least, I wanted to find a new church. I retain no fondness for the dogmatic cruelties of my youth. Fundamentalists are not, in my experience, good with mystery, or with death. There was little intellectual inquiry. Why bother when God had already given us all the answers we needed on Earth? When a person passed away, we were supposed to rejoice, as they’d gone home to Heaven. (In this sense, grief could be a form of selfishness.) I didn’t miss that. I didn’t miss my belief in an afterlife, either; it felt too easy.

Instead, I longed for traits my old faith never really possessed. I wanted something like mysticism, a shared search for revelation undertaken with the failing state of human affairs in mind. From the vantage of my couch, I looked out on a world that hadn’t lost its moorings so much as it had never really possessed them at all. I didn’t need answers, not immediately, but I wanted to know it was possible to find them if I worked hard enough to look. The space I lived in seemed to shrink as the pandemic wore on, and I wanted to stretch out my arms to something, even if I couldn’t tell what it was.

Perhaps I could find a different way to fear God. Some churches I ruled out right away. As a teenager, I wanted to be a nun, but really, the Catholic Church is not for me. There are generations of Protestants in my family, and I fear their angry ghosts. So I considered the Anglicans and the Quakers, though I’d make a poor pacifist. I wasn’t waiting for a sign, exactly, but I thought it might be nice to have one. But as of this writing I have had no “road to Damascus” moment. No blinding light appeared on my street. I did not feel led anywhere, not by a mysterious guiding force, and not by my own mind.

I wanted to see a thing unmistakable as the handiwork of God. I listened for the still small voice, as Evangelicals like to say, and I heard nothing but shattering silence. So I listened to that instead. And I never went back to church.

When I learned my young friend had died, I went for a walk. There was nothing else I could do. I could not light a candle for him in church. I could not berate God for the random cruelty of the event. There was nothing except myself, alone on a walk through Brooklyn. It’s not so unusual to be paralyzed by unbelief in a moment of grief. The nearest comfort I found was in other people: my partner and another friend, who asked me to tell her all about the one who’d passed. God may yet reveal himself to me. Unless He does, all that waits for me in the dark is other people trying to find their way out. There is no Screwtape. We’re it. That is what I heard in the silence.

An Atheist Reconsiders God in the Pandemic