The Atheist’s Way

Below the fold you’ll find a story written by my friend, Eric Maisel, reposted here with permission. It’s from Eric’s new blog, The Atheist’s Way, a companion site to his forthcoming book of the same title. I’ll be posting on that blog from time to time after I finish recovering from my summer trip. I just got back from Lithuania very early on Friday morning and I’m still a bit out of it. I plan to get this month’s reading selection posted during the week, but I’m not sure what else I’ll be posting on Skepchick in the near future. I feel a bit out of sorts with myself after seven weeks away, and I am going to be re-evaluating my writing goals to decide what to focus on in the upcoming months. Nothing like a long break from the routine to make you rethink your priorities!

And now, an atheist’s folk tale for your enjoyment:

In idle moments this past week I’ve been thinking about those collections of tales that some of us grew up with: Aesop’s Fables, Scheherazade and the Arabian nights, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, Kipling’s The Jungle Book; and their adult counterparts like Tales of the Dervishes, that collection of Sufi teaching tales. I’ve been thinking about these as I continue working on my collection of atheist tales.

I remember the effort of a fellow graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State to update and make more existential some traditional folk tales like Little Red Riding Hood. She produced a collection of these updated tales that she called Existential Folk Tales, which she and some other graduates students published under an imprint they created. I admired that effort and enjoyed her tales. You can still find a copy here and there of Margaret Switzer’s Existential Folktales (Cayuse Press, 1985), for instance here:

Today’s tale will make you smile. I do hope you enjoy it! To comment on the tale, use the link at the end.

The Missing Link

A young archaeologist, who happened also to be an atheist, had many and sundry religious friends. Knowing that he was both an archaeologist and an atheist, they took great and constant glee in pointing out how the gaps in the fossil record disproved Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Without the missing link,” they chortled, “you have nothing!” Although he had a sensible response to their gleeful accusations, the response was complicated to deliver, not wholly convincing, and typically met with gales of knowing laughter. So usually he made no reply—hardly a satisfying outcome!

Sometimes he dreamt that the perfect fossils had suddenly appeared all at once and answered every question. It was a lovely dream, usually set in a cream-colored desert that was also, as was possible in dreams, a lush savannah full of lions and gazelles. The dig and find were scrupulously recorded in every conceivable way so that no one could doubt that the fossils had been extracted from virgin earth. It was the perfect setting, the perfect dig, and the perfect result. The young archaeologist would smile in his sleep and not feel the slightest twinge of envy that he hadn’t been the lucky—and soon-to-be world famous—archaeologist of record.

One evening he found himself hanging out in a seedy archaeologist bar not far from the university. Lost in thought, he sipped his wine and dreamed of fossils that no one had ever seen and the creatures those fossils recorded. A tap on his shoulder startled him. A man he didn’t know, who looked like one of those all-but-dissertation thirty-five-year-old faded graduate students, was breathing in his face.

“May I join you for a second?” he said.

“Certainly.” The young archaeologist waved him to a chair.

“You come highly recommended,” the man said, sitting down and pulling his chair close. “I’m in sociology. I’ve been studying the worldwide harm done by religions. I’ve spent fifteen years at it. I keep thinking: can’t they be stopped? One day last week a light bulb went on. I had a brainstorm. But I need an archaeologist to pull it off. I asked around—and people recommended you.”

The archaeologist felt a tingle run down his spine. Flattered, intrigued, and excited, he learned forward.

“What’s your idea?” the archaeologist said, his voice lowered.

“You know the missing link thing?” the man said.

“Do I ever!” the archaeologist exclaimed. “I get smacked around with that all the time!”

“Let’s make believe we found it!” the man whispered. “You will ‘find’ it and I’ll enlist other archaeologists to corroborate the find. Maybe we’ll ‘find’ several missing links at once, like an underground meteor shower! Maybe we can get hundreds of archaeologists in on the gag and have missing links found in every country on every continent! Aren’t you tired of being bludgeoned by the gap argument? Let’s ‘find’ a ton of missing links, all the missing links anybody could want, and then we’ll lock them away like some religious relic and not let anyone else see them. We could pull this off!”

The archaeologist, disappointed at being presented such a ludicrous and unsavory scheme, nevertheless pondered the man’s idea. “Of course, we’d be lying–” he began.

“They lie with their every breath, going on about gods!” the man interrupted.

“It’s just tit for tat!”

“More importantly, that’s not the way science operates.”

“Science has to get down off its high horse and fight in the trenches. There’s a war going on!”

The archaeologist bit his lip. “I appreciate your argument and almost don’t disagree,” he said. “Almost.” His head swam. “But I couldn’t do it.” Suddenly his mind cleared. “And you shouldn’t pursue this,” he said. “It’s a bad idea. It’s beneath us.”

“Should I run through a litany of the horrors of religion?”

“Save your breath,” the archaeologist said, turning away. “I’m not interested.”

The man shrugged. “Some archaeologist will join me,” he said, getting up. “Of all the archaeologists in all the archaeologist bars in all the university towns the world over, some archaeologist will join me.”

“I wonder,” the archaeologist replied, turning away from the stranger.

The man’s plan disturbed him. He understood the argument that sometimes you had to fight fire with fire. Sometimes you had to pull off dirty tricks to achieve a righteous outcome. But that truth, while undeniable, was still a souring one. It meant that the battles and wars would never end. It let in everything you wished would one day vanish from the face of the earth. He finished his drink and left the bar in a bad mood.

That night he had bad dreams. Devilish fiends were making false finds in a coal-black landscape, cackling at their tricks, pulling out bones that never were and never could be and parading with them in monstrous dances around bonfires from hell. The archaeologist sat up in bed and shook himself; but as soon as he fell asleep the nightmare returned. It seemed that the man had ruined his beautiful dream of a righteous find.

About two weeks later the young archaeologist was having a drink with a colleague at the seedy archaeologist’s bar.

“Did you fall for that sting?” his colleague asked.

“What sting?”

“That thing that was going on here? That guy from the Freedom from Evolution Foundation, posing as a sociologist? They were trying to see how many archaeologists would be willing to falsify the fossil record!”

“No!” the young archaeologist exclaimed.

“He couldn’t find a single one. Not here, not in any archaeologist bar anywhere. There were some close calls—a fellow in Ann Arbor almost bit, and one in New Haven came this close. But ultimately no one agreed!”

The young archaeologist nodded. After a while, he found himself smiling. Yes, they would always use such tactics; they would fabricate, trick, lie, and scheme. On his side, the side of science, many unsavory activities would also occur: falsified research, unholy marriages with business, and more. But at least this time, in archaeologist bars in university towns everywhere, no archaeologist could be found to falsify the fossil record and provide the world with an unearned missing link.

That night his sweet dream returned. He dreamt that the perfect fossil had appeared and answered every question. It was the same lovely dream, set in a cream-colored desert that was also a lush savannah. The dig and find were scrupulously recorded, so that no one could doubt that the fossil had been extracted from virgin earth. It was the perfect setting, the perfect dig, and the perfect result. He smiled in his sleep; and in the morning he returned to work, a proud and happy archaeologist.

To comment on this tale, go here:


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Wait… Archaeologist bars? You mean archaeologists have their own bars?

    (And isn’t the kind of work described in this story better described as paleontology than archaeology?)

  2. I liked this story quite a bit. Way to stick to your beliefs.

    …now I have a question: What do you do when the religious believers are your very own parents?

  3. nighean: You do what I’m doing: write a letter to them in the form of a book, about all the reasons why you’re a bright and not religious. Be eloquent, impassioned, fair, and detailed. Then publish it and give them a copy.

    And I agree with Ghost of MN, it sounds more like paleontology.

    Incidentally, I dislike that episode of Friends where Ross, a paleontologist, harangues Phoebe for not believing in the theory of evolution. I can’t think of too many people who would actually talk like that. It doesn’t do the cause any favours.

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