Now more than ever

Witnessing hell has made me a born-again atheist.

Published September 14, 2001 10:10PM (EDT)

Walking down Houston Street in New York this afternoon, in what a few days ago was the shadow of the Twin Towers, a woman lowered the umbrella that had been shielding her daughter and herself from the tapering rain. "Those were God's tears," she explained to her little girl.

My mother had a very different explanation for her daughter today. "To me, this rain is proof that there is no God," she said on the phone from Boston. "People say that God can't help terrorism, that he gives people freedom to act as they choose. Fine. But a God who would hinder the rescue workers with rain? If God can't control nature, then what's the point? How can anyone believe today?"

It's a bewildering day for us atheists, this state-appointed "Day of Prayer and Remembrance." Like the faithful, we mourn. We look for guidance. We look for answers. Our commander in chief tells us to find solace in churches and temples. In those churches and temples, people stand at podiums, survey their mass of grief-stricken congregants and intone the unfathomable words "God will protect us."

Like many New Yorkers, I've seen the shattering hell of mass destruction this week. None of this is metaphor: I have touched the ash-covered shoulders of gasping survivors. I have trudged through the debris that thickly coats the ghost town of Tribeca, staring in shock at the five-story pyre that was a tower of human life and achievement. I have watched families crumple into each other in shaking, tear-soaked sorrow outside St. Vincent's Hospital when they are told, no, there is no information about your sister, your husband, your daughter. And I have done so without experiencing what some people have described to me as a uniting surge of faith in some omniscient, everlasting force that will make us all whole again.

I have long wondered if in the face of tragedy I would suddenly rely on faith. As a member of a generation that came of age in a peacetime society, I have always assumed that this transcendent tragedy would mean losing my mother or father. I've seen friends -- skeptics like me -- pray in the aftermath of such personal suffering. One of the lucky ones this week, I've lost nobody close in the rubble downtown. Perhaps if I had, I would seek solace in those exalted institutions that offered comfort to millions today.

Instead, like my mother's, my atheism has only been strengthened by this week of human catastrophe. At a "Healing Eucharist" service at a church around the corner form St. Vincent's hospital, I got up to leave when the rector chanted: "Bless the Lord who forgives our sins," and the congregation responded: "His mercy endures forever." In a nearby house of alternative healing, I snuck out the side door when I was told, "As spiritual seekers we must understand these things happen for a purpose. If we don't accept that, all we'll have is anger and animosity in our hearts." I believe anger and animosity is an appropriate response to mass murder.

But while my Day of Prayer has been free of trust in saints, swamis and shamans, it has not been without a resurrection of sorts. Again and again this week, I have found my faith restored by the immeasurably selfless valiance of earthly heroes. Last night I met a holy trinity of ironworkers among the believers who congregated on the western end of Houston Street. There, on the corner of Sixth Avenue, was a mass of citizens waving flags and cheering for each truckload of rescue workers speeding north for a few hours of rest before reentering the inferno.

Mike, Ron and Steve are all local ironworkers who were blowing off steam with a few six-packs of Bud, yelling AC/DC lyrics and flirting with girls before they headed south for another 15-hour shift. (That's how they were planning to spend their Day of Prayer, fighting smoke and falling debris to cut steel beams away from trapped bodies.) These guys, and thousands like them, marched into ground zero without training or enough fear to hold them back.

"It's too graphic," said Steve, as he fidgeted with the gauze that covered a new wound. "Piles of death. I don't have the words to tell you. But nothing's gonna keep me away from going back." Mike wrapped a grime-blackened arm around his buddy Ron, still wearing his hard hat. "Let me tell you, I hung my head low today," he said. We left a lot of dead people today. But I've got faith in my boys here. True faith. Religious faith. We're ironworkers! And we'll show them what America can take; I don't care if we have to die trying."

Of course many of these rescuers are strong believers, able -- some say obligated -- to do their brave work because of their faith in God. But listening to the parade of preachers speak in the National Cathedral today, it was these dusty and unshaven faces that I meditated upon like religious icons.

With this astonishing human bravery to bless America, who needs God?

By Lauren Sandler

Lauren Sandler is Salon's Life editor and the author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement."

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