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Switch to Forum Live View interesting literary passage on atheism
10 years ago  ::  Apr 28, 2008 - 1:22AM #1
Posts: 721
My apologies for the length of this, go to another thread if you're not in the mood.  If you do read it, please make sure you go all the way to the end of it.

I just read a novella, published in 1898, called "The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility" by Morgan Robertson.  It's intersting mostly because of some coincidental parallels with the Titanic disaster, and can be found in some of the anthologies about than incident.  Other than that, it's just a so-so melodramatic sea tale, in which the main character, an Annapolis graduate, has been reduced to a drunken deck-swabber due to his love for a woman who did not want him, one reason being that he is an atheist (how villainous!).  Some years later, he encounters her, with her husband and child, on board the Titan.  When the liner hits an iceberg and sinks immediately, he is one of the few survivors, and gets stranded on an ice floe with the child.  [To avoid confustion, you need to know that the woman and her daughter are both named Myra.]  After some laughably improbable incidents, such as killing a stray polar bear with his pocket-knife, his situation becomes desperate, and the following passages are what is interesting:

"Up there," he said, moodily, looking into the sky, where a few stars shone faintly in the flood from the moon; "Up there--somewhere--they don't know just where--but somewhere up above, is the Christians' Heaven. Up there is their good God--who has placed Myra's child here--their good God whom they borrowed from the savage, bloodthirsty race that invented him. And down below us--somewhere again--is their hell and their bad god, whom they invented themselves. And they give us our choice--Heaven or hell. It is not so--not so. The great mystery is not solved--the human heart is not helped in this way. No good, merciful God created this world or its conditions. Whatever may be the nature of the causes at work beyond our mental vision, one fact is indubitably proven--that the qualities of mercy, goodness, justice, play no part in the governing scheme. And yet, they say the core of all religions on earth is the belief in this. Is it? Or is it the cowardly, human fear of the unknown--that impels the savage mother to throw her babe to a crocodile--that impels the civilized man to endow churches--that has kept in  existence from the beginning a class of soothsayers, medicine-men, priests, and clergymen, all living on the hopes and fears excited by themselves?

"And people pray--millions of them--and claim they are answered. Are they? Was ever supplication sent into that sky by troubled humanity answered, or even heard? Who knows? They pray for rain and sunshine, and both come in time. They pray for health and success and both are but natural in the marching of events. This is not evidence. But they say that they know, by spiritual uplifting, that they are heard, and comforted, and answered at the moment. Is not this a physiological experiment? Would they not feel equally tranquil if they repeated the
multiplication table, or boxed the compass?

"Millions have believed this--that prayers are answered--and these millions have prayed to different gods. Were they all wrong or all right? Would a tentative prayer be listened to? Admitting that the Bibles, and Korans, and Vedas, are misleading and unreliable, may there
not be an unseen, unknown Being, who knows my heart--who is watching me now? If so, this Being gave me my reason, which doubts Him, and on Him is the responsibility. And would this being, if he exists, overlook a defect for which I am not to blame, and listen to a prayer from me,
based on the mere chance that I might be mistaken? Can an unbeliever, in the full strength of his reasoning powers, come to such trouble that he can no longer stand alone, but must cry for help to an imagined power?  Can such time come to a sane man--to me?" He looked at the dark line of vacant horizon. It was seven miles away; New York was nine hundred; the moon in the east over two hundred thousand, and the stars above, any number of billions. He was alone, with a sleeping child, a dead bear, and the Unknown. He walked softly to the boat and looked at the little one for a moment; then, raising his head, he whispered: "For you, Myra."
Sinking to his knees the atheist lifted his eyes to the heavens, and with his feeble voice and the fervor born of helplessness, prayed to the God that he denied. He begged for the life of the waif in his care--for the safety of the mother, so needful to the little one--and for courage and strength to do his part and bring them together. But beyond the appeal for help in the service of others, not one word or expressed thought of his prayer included himself as a beneficiary. So much for pride. As he rose to his feet, the flying-jib of a bark appeared around the corner of ice to the right of the beach, and a moment later the whole moon-lit fabric came into view, wafted along by the faint westerly air, not half a mile away.

He sprang to the fire, forgetting his pain, and throwing on wood, made a blaze. He hailed, in a frenzy of excitement: "Bark ahoy! Bark ahoy! Take us off," and a deep-toned answer came across the water.  "Wake up, Myra," he cried, as he lifted the child; "wake up. We're going
away."  "We goin' to mamma?" she asked, with no symptoms of crying.  "Yes, we're going to mamma, now--that is," he added to himself; "if that clause in the prayer is considered."
Fifteen minutes later as he watched the approach of a white quarter-boat, he muttered: "That bark was there--half a mile back in this wind--before I thought of praying. Is that prayer answered? Is she safe?"

After this, I expected the usual 19-th century blather about his conversion and redemption.  Surprise!  No further word on matters religious, and although he does eventually rise back up to a good, responsible position in the world, it is entirely through his giving up drinking and working hard for it.  Not a god in sight!  This was so refreshing, particularly for fiction from that time period, that I just wanted to share it.
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10 years ago  ::  Apr 28, 2008 - 1:45AM #2
Posts: 1,962
Well, for the times it was nice. 

So, they didn't claim he became a good fella because of the prayer?
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10 years ago  ::  Apr 28, 2008 - 1:58AM #3
Posts: 721
Well, I particularly liked that the man noticed the rescue boat was there, out of sight, even before he tried praying.  I also like his definitions of religion and belief.

For some reason, I am hooked on Victorian-era fiction, but so much of it has blatantly pro-christian overtones.  This one just barely brushes it, then more or less dismisses it.
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