A Rough History of Disbelief

I’ve wanted to write this post for several years, ever since I watched a BBC documentary titled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief. It was presented as a quiet, sometimes autobiographical, and decidedly old-fashioned video essay narrated by the disarming and wonderful Jonathan Miller.

The 3-hour series steers clear of the sensationalism that spoils many modern programs and debates on atheism. Instead, it charts the history of atheism over the past two thousand years, touching upon its primary proponents and highlighting some of their prominent scholarly works. The slow and calm nature of the film – and indeed the fact that many portions of it are put forth unadorned with rationalizations and inviting considerate, non-inflammatory debate – is quite an achievement given the sensitive nature of its subject.

My track record at convincing people to watch 3 hours of anything, let alone a documentary on atheism, would be classified (rather too charitably) as “not good”. Still, for those with the time and the interest, I’m linking to its three parts below:

  1. Shadows of Doubt
  2. Noughts and Crosses
  3. The Final Hour

Two Alexanders

One morning in 1926, a boy named Alexander Gregory was hurrying to school when he came upon rail tracks near the tiny Gaithersburg railway station. The station superintendent on duty was Alexander Dunn. Dunn asked the boy to wait, and so he did. A light snow was falling as a slow train passed them. After the last carriage went past, the boy started to cross the tracks and then he froze. Dunn shouted at the boy to warn him as an express train bore down on him from the parallel tracks on the other side. Then, taking matters into his own hands, Dunn, who was 62 years old, flung himself at the boy to separate him from the tracks. He was too late. Witness report that the impact threw the  Alexanders into a ditch dozens of feet away, and killed them both instantly.

For the last three days, I have been eating my lunch at the Gaithersburg railway station. It is still the same little building of red brick, except that very few trains pass. Now and then,  an Amtrak train roars past without stopping, or a long goods train ambles in a slow and tired way. On my morning and evening walks, I haven’t seen a train stop here yet. Perhaps, Olde Town Gaithersburg is not really one of the hot spots en route to Washington DC. It gives the impression of a town past its heyday. There are immigrant workers from South America, either doing tough jobs or waiting beside some of the TexMex restaurants and old specialty stores which might have been quaint at one time. The old town rubs its antiquated shoulders against the economy of the Beltway – that ribbon of asphalt is quite close, with exits to countless office suites where men and women work for government agencies.

Inside the station is what appears to be a functioning Amtrak ticket dispenser. There are a few wooden tables and the place is very clean. Some paper flowers adorn the walls, and there is a time table of bus routes. There is only one other room, in which two Asian women run a cafeteria with a predictable and disappointing name: Java Junction. The ladies don’t talk much but they make very good sandwiches. Their servings are small, unlike the huge Virginia-style portions that they serve at the hotel in which I am lodging. I have half a mind to ask these ladies whether they have bought the station premises and whether the ticket dispenser is just a showpiece, like the steam engine from the museum next door.  But I find it hard to communicate with them; they are not exactly loquacious. They are also quite short and most of the counter is half a foot taller than either of them; they remain  invisible busybodies who surface with sandwiches, take your money and retreat behind the glass.

So, like the two afternoons before this one, I take my sandwich and go to the empty  room with the paper flowers and the Amtrak machine. There is a clean, but now defunct ticket window. In front of the window’s railing, are some black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings from 1926. One of them carries the title, “Two Alexanders Perish”. The other describes how Dunn posthumously received the Carnegie Medal of honor for trying to save the little boy.  I read this article again, just like I have for the last two days. Some details commit effortlessly to memory, like the light snowfall on the morning of the accident. I think of the snowfall, and imagine the train rumbling through the flakes. I think of Mike Daisy’s fabrications about Foxconn factories in China, and wonder whether the snowfall had really occurred.

It is calm inside the empty room. Well lit and not at all gloomy. I replay the story of the two Alexanders for the third day in a row. But, I don’t think about the grizzly details of the accident, or the families of the dead. I feel exhaustion sweeping over me slowly and recall the never-ending commitments at work in recent weeks. For three months I have been counting the days until these deadlines go away and leave me alone. Without complaint, I mentally tick off the checklist of fear, worry, petulance, expectation and sadness that have accompanied these ten workweeks from hell: Each project, each paper, each program, each collaboration, each deliverable has been its own self-sufficient bedeviler. I note how it has been impossible to make anyone else understand this. I think of the classic loneliness of our time, where each person is truly an island, and no one really understands him. We listen to one another and think to ourselves, “I know how that feels”. Sometimes, we really do want to know how that feels. But mostly we can’t. We don’t know people’s private demons because most people do not or cannot share their private demons. Every person is unhappy in his or her own unique way.

Why this story of an improbable tragedy calmly brings me face to face with an existential crisis, I cannot say. I allow myself the admission – exceedingly rare for the optimist I imagine myself to be – that work and life may not all turn out well, that arbitrary and terrible things could happen at any time and that the most one can wish for is to have some equilibrium between tragedies. Strangely, the out-of-control negativity of this does not alarm or depress or worry me as it would normally have done. I step out into the cold, but there is still no sign of the airport shuttle that was supposed to pick me up. I look for telltale signs of the ditch where the old man and the boy must have fallen. I don’t find them.

On the other side of the building, a steam engine looms in repainted black and silver, like a dragon meticulously groomed in a coat of new mail, but dead without its flaming breath. I become interested in the ridiculously large brakes and dampeners on the wheels. Behind it, a metal carriage from the old Baltimore and Ohio railroad briefly catches some sunrays. In the carriage windows are reflected vistas of tree branches with spring-green leaves and a cloudy sky on the other side of the railway tracks. Their incongruous beauty intrudes on my emptiness a little, and I stop to take a picture or two. Then I haul my bags and walk away.

Wheel Love


This made me smile.

It also made me think two thoughts.

First, I thought of a wizened man in white kurta-pajamas who would come and shout in our neighborhoods: “Do you have something to sharpen?”  He would come with a bicycle fitted to a sharpening wheel. It was a basic contraption – a wheel with a hard, rough surface that could be coupled to the pedals using a belt. Housewives would take their old knives and scissors and flock to him in groups of two or three. That was how it used to be – people didn’t throw their stuff away to buy new things only to throw them away again. Pay a few rupees to this periodic visitor and the knife would be as good as new. As kids, we weren’t interested in the sharpening; it was the sparks that made our day – orange flickers along the wheel’s tangent. Not oppressive welding sparks that you couldn’t bear to see, but sleek flecks of energy accompanied by a hiss of roughness and metal. I longed to touch the wheel to see if it was hot. But, I never did.

Then, I also wondered how we don’t do things with our hands anymore; we touch them on a screen and think it is all very cool. We don’t fix things; we just replace them. We don’t make things; we just buy them not knowing who made them or what went into their making. I know it’s about civilization and technology and how it makes for a better life – the greatest good for the greatest number. But still, it’s reached a point where we think that making things is something cute, a sort of playful deviancy for slightly crazy persons. So cute, that like the Peseta Caps in the video, we keep them in a museums. At arms length. So we can entertain ourselves when we are bored. This makes me a little sad.

Dormant Pond

Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

On a recent visit to Walden Pond, my little sister and I had the opportunity to experience first-hand some of the descriptions in The Pond in Winter, a small essay in his Walden collection. The pond, situated about a half-hour’s drive west of Cambridge, is still quite remote and peaceful and alive with intermittent birdsong and there are a number of short hiking trails in the surroundings. It also has one of the best visitor centers I have been to, where, in addition to pond memorabilia, they sell books by Thoreau, Emerson and other transcendentalists. In a small photo gallery adjacent to the visitor center, there are pictures of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, both of whom were strongly influenced by Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience. There is also a poster about the historian Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the United States and who, despite his advancing years, gives energetic and interesting speeches about the state of current American politics.

Henry David Thoreau lived in the woods near Walden Pond in 1845-46 on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here, he wrote two books: Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He lived quietly in a small cabin (which he had built himself) with few possessions, desiring to be as close to Nature as he could. There is a small memorial now where Thoreau’s little cabin used to sit. A path leads from the cabin site to a cove in the Pond which, in 1846, might have served as a decent place for mooring boats. Walking in the opposite direction, one is greeted by the bizarre sight of railway tracks – the Boston Commuter Rail roars by Walden Pond every now and then, and the water and the adjoining meadows must present a spectacular sight to passengers.

Having walked along the Northern rim of the Pond, we debated the possibility of taking a short cut back, by walking eastward across the icy surface of the Pond. There weren’t too many people about – it being at least ten degrees below freezing – but we did see two men in overalls take something resembling a sledge and making some markings at various places on the frozen surface, so we figured it wasn’t too dangerous a thing to attempt. The ice seemed very thick beneath our feet and the windswept surface was utterly smooth – our shoes left no marks, and we were walking softly anyway. At many places on the opaque white surface, someone had cut holes in the ice, which had then filled up with water and frozen over. The ice in these holes, apparently sheltered from the wind, was translucent and looking down into them, one would guess that the icy sheet on which we were walking was definitely more than 8 inches thick.

I wonder if the holes were made by people who wanted to measure the thickness of the ice, or for the purpose of ice fishing. In the winter of 1846, Thoreau dug such a hole through the ice sheet and tied a weight to a line to measure the depth of the Pond. Interestingly enough, he found that the deepest point was at the center i.e., at the intersection of its major and minor axes of the roughly elliptical pond.

Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads. […]

As I was desirous to recover the long lost bottom of Walden Pond, I surveyed it carefully, before the ice broke up, early in ’46, with compass and chain and sounding line. […]

Having noticed that the number indicating the greatest depth was apparently in the centre of the map, I laid a rule on the map lengthwise, and then breadthwise, and found, to my surprise, that the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest breadth exactly at the point of greatest depth…

In a couple of these dug-and-frozen-over holes, we found something that Thoreau might have loved. The wind had blown oak leaves into these holes before the water froze. So the leaves have been encased in ice.

Here it is, in close up:

A brutal, forgotten history

…its aim is not to establish a quantitative record to qualify the event as one of the great evil deeds of history, but to understand the event so that lessons can be learned and warnings sounded. Differences in degree, however, often reflect differences in kind, and so a few statistics must be used to give the reader an idea of the scale of the massacre that took place sixty years ago in a city named Nanking. – Iris Chang, Introduction to The Rape of Nanking.

I heard about the Nanking massacre only about four years ago, from a labmate who was brought up in Nanking. She was the one who told me about Iris Chang‘s book. Even though it figured in many group conversations, I have been putting off reading The Rape of Nanking for many months because I feared that the book and its gruesome contents would spill over into my life and mess up my mind. Now, with the thesis in the committee’s hands for perusal, it is probably alright to start reading about the forgotten holocaust of World War II. Ordinarily, it would make sense to wait until one is in the right frame of mind to read a certain book. But I wonder what frame of mind is “right” for a book like this.

I had made a scrapbook on Japan in my middle school days, as part of a competition. This was pre-internet, so the source material was encyclopedias and magazines such as the National Geographic and Time, much of it painstakingly gathered by my mother . Needless to say, we didn’t encounter any material about the massacre in the Chinese city of Nanking in the late 1930s. I have only just begun the book, but in the following pages, I hope to find out why the killing of more than 250,000 people was left out of the history books. I hope also to find why some people deny that the genocide ever took place (much like those few who ignore mountains of documentary and photographic evidence and eye-witness accounts to assert that the Jewish Holocaust never happened).

The book contains a few photographs which are unbearable to look at, with disembodied heads, contorted and tortured bodies and their grinning captors. In this last respect, they are reminiscent of the recent graphic images from Abu Ghraib with the prison officers taunting the prisoners. It is natural to wonder how whole groups of human beings can bring themselves to kill, maim and torture while actually enjoying the process. What does it take to strip the varnish of civility and expose our prehistoric tendencies to serve the law of tooth and claw?

[In late 2004, Iris Chang committed suicide following a nervous breakdown.]