It was an old joke that Thomas Godfrey, given his name, had no choice but to become an atheist.
“I’ve considered changing the spelling to G-o-d-f-r-e-e,” he said from behind the lectern, “but then even more people would hate me.”
Most of the audience laughed, but not the man sitting in the second row, behind Thomas’s wife, Louise. Before Thomas continued his lecture, it occurred to him—a premonition, what someone religious might have called a sign from God—that the man might harm her. True, the man was long-necked and spectacled, more bookworm than psychopath. But he had been staring at Thomas, creepy and blank, since the lecture began. Thomas would have preferred an angry expression—he was used to that. The man was close enough to the stage for Thomas to notice that he hadn’t even blinked. Thomas had grown up next door to a kid who never blinked and who had tied him to a tree and singed his eyebrows, then a few years later was hit by a train. “He was a child of God,” the priest had said at the funeral. Thomas, despite having hated the kid when he was alive, had believed this. But the same priest used these words at Thomas’s sister’s funeral, three years later, and that was the moment it dawned on Thomas that there was no God, at least not the supernatural God most people referred to when they used that word. The sadomasochistic, genocidal, bloodthirsty bully of the Old Testament was no more real than Emma Bovary or Huck Finn.
In the past month, since his most recent book had made the Times best seller list, Thomas’s hate mail had increased in volume and malice. A priest had tried to convince him that he was possessed, then offered to perform the exorcism. A woman from Alabama wrote that unless Thomas repented, the world was going to end in sixty-six days. One lunatic threatened to sodomize him with a cross. A week earlier, he had received a bullet in the mail. His initials, T. G., were carved into its side. He was shaken—three drinks that evening even though he had given up alcohol since his heart attack—and Louise had noticed and asked him what was wrong, but he lied to her, told her it was nothing, just another crackpot letter.
Someone had sent him the same five-word letter every day for two weeks: Time to meet your maker. There had been phone calls, too—a man’s voice in the middle of the night. “Time to meet your maker.” Click. Before Thomas had entered the auditorium tonight, he’d heard someone behind him say these words. When he’d turned around, he’d seen the man who was now sitting behind his wife. Whether the man had spoken these words Thomas couldn’t be sure, but he was unnerved now that the man hadn’t laughed—hadn’t even smiled—at his silly joke about his name. It was entirely possible, he decided, as he tried to regain his composure and continue his lecture, that this man was behind the letters and phone calls, but then again, there were other people at this lecture who hated him.
His wife had urged him to cancel. Why take a chance? she had told him, but it was his first public appearance since his heart attack four months earlier, and he didn’t want to wait any longer to respond to some of the comments people had been posting about him on their blogs: that God had been the one to stop his heart, just as God had been the one to start it again; that his brush with death would finally make him see the light.
“I’ve received so many letters over the years urging me to be more Christlike,” he said now, “that I finally decided to take this advice and rise from the dead. As most of you know, I died four months ago. I collapsed in Rittenhouse Square Park, right across the street. My heart stopped beating for two minutes. I’d like to set the record straight about something. Contrary to popular but very delusional belief, God did not stop my heart. There’s a much more rational, medical explanation: too many cigarettes and french fries.”
Again the audience laughed, but not the man sitting behind Louise. He leaned forward in his seat, his fingers laced together as if in prayer. If he was praying, it would be oddly appropriate: on Sundays the space was used for unitarian services. There were a few hundred chairs arranged in rows, potted flowers in the center aisle, three large bay windows, a white piano.
“I’d also like to give credit where credit is due for my resurrection,” Thomas said. “An emergency medical technician was responsible for bringing me back to life. I find it disrespectful of his skills to imply that it was God who saved me. The truth is, this man’s breathing into my mouth, his pressing down on my chest—this saved me, not the snap of God’s omnipotent fingers.
“And now that I can speak from personal experience, let me say that the light at the end of the tunnel must have been out, because I didn’t see one. There was no life review, no choir of angels, no predeceased relatives welcoming me into paradise. It will no doubt disappoint some of my biggest fans to learn that Satan himself was not waiting for me, pitchfork in hand, to drag me down to the bowels of hell. Where I found myself was nowhere. Dying was like being asleep without dreaming. And then, suddenly, I was alive again, unhappy about the pain I was experiencing but happy that I would get to spend more time with my wife, Louise, who is here tonight. Whether she’s happy about more time with me, I really can’t say. But I can say that it’s great to be alive and to be here in my hometown, at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia.”
The audience applauded. The man sitting behind Louise unlaced his fingers, made his hands into fists. When the applause ended, before Thomas continued, he heard a click: he knew this sound, but couldn’t recall where he had heard it before.
“So many times I’ve told my wife that I shouldn’t get paid for writing my books, because devout Christians, just by stating the preposterous things they believe, do more to discredit their own religion than I ever could.” (Click.) “Think about it. If you’re a Christian, you believe that a man was born to a virgin, the first and only human in the history of humankind who came into being without need of sperm.” (Click.) “This man commanded his dead friend Lazarus to rise from the dead, and Lazarus did exactly that: he stopped rotting, his heart started beating again, and his rigor mortis reversed itself.” (Click.) “Our hero also rose from the dead. Then he joined his father in heaven, who can see every action and know every thought of every person, and can intercede to save people, provided they worship him and only him, and if he doesn’t help people, then it’s simply his will.” (Click.)
As he heard himself telling the audience what he believed, his fear abated. Let the man kill me, he thought. Let him rush the stage and put a gun to my head. Let him tell me to repent. Even then I would say no, I’m sorry, God is a placebo, a sky fairy, a convenient way to fill the gap of I don’t know.
And then he remembered: when he was in Catholic school, one of the nuns, Sister Richard, carried a clicker to mass, and would click to let the students know when to kneel, when to sit, when to stand, and if you sat when you were supposed to kneel, or even half kneeled with your ass against the bench behind you, Sister Richard would give you detention every day for a week, an hour of her scowl.
The man behind Louise was doing something with his hands—tensing his fists, it looked like. Was he holding some kind of clicker or counter? Was he actually keeping track of how many offensive things Thomas said during his lecture?
It wasn’t one of his best lectures, he had to admit. He couldn’t help but be distracted by the clicking, and by the end of his lecture, when he saw that the man behind Louise wasn’t clapping, he regretted not having told his wife about the bullet. If anything happened to her, he thought, he’d never forgive himself. One night, early in their marriage, he’d failed to lock the door when he left to meet a friend for drinks. He’d realized this omission three blocks from home and had decided not to go back. When he came home a few hours later, he found the house in disarray—books pulled from shelves, glasses and plates broken on the kitchen floor. He went through the house, calling Louise’s name; he feared the worst. Then he heard her crying in their closet, where she’d been hiding. She was shaken but unharmed. He hugged her and kept telling her how sorry he was, and she kept saying, “It’s not your fault.”
He should have told her, he realized now, should have given her the choice to attend the lecture or not—after all, some religious fanatic hell-bent on hurting him might hurt him most by harming his wife. It had been his initials on the bullet, not his wife’s, he reminded himself, and that gave him some comfort, but now he wanted to get to her as quickly as possible.
Before he could, though, the president of the Ethical Society, who had invited Thomas and paid him generously for his appearance, asked if he might take some questions. This was the part he used to relish earlier in his career but now dreaded: the inevitable questions from fundamentalists determined to turn a lecture into a debate.
An older man with a gray beard, an arm missing, perhaps a veteran, asked the first question: “Aren’t believers happier than nonbelievers?”
“If you’re implying that atheists are nonbelievers, that’s simply not true. I believe in many things. Natural selection, reason, honesty, kindness.”
“What I meant was, aren’t people who believe in God happier than people who don’t?”
“A drunken man might be happier than a sober one, but that doesn’t mean we should all become alcoholics.”
A pinch-faced, skinny woman with straight brown hair pulled back severely from her face: “What if you’re wrong? What if there is a God?”
“If I’m proven wrong by rational, scientific means, then I would celebrate. Not that there’s a God, but that science is so beautiful.”
“Do you love your wife?”
Thomas wasn’t sure where the question had come from; no one was standing.
“Excuse me?” he said.
The man sitting behind Louise stood. “Do you love your wife?”
Thomas’s chest tightened. “Of course,” he said. “Why would you ask such a question?”
“Given that you don’t believe in a soul, it follows that when either you or your wife dies, that’s it—that’s the last time you’ll ever see each other. I wonder how that makes you feel.”
“It makes me value my time with her even more.”
More people raised their hands, but Thomas said, “I’m sorry, but that will have to be the final question. Thank you for listening.”
The president of the Ethical Society said that Thomas was going to sign books in the lobby, and audience members could ask questions there. They surrounded him as he walked to the back of the auditorium, and he lost sight of Louise. He looked for the man who had been sitting behind her, but didn’t see him, either.
He was led to a chair behind a table stacked with copies of his most recent book, its shiny silver cover meant to be a kind of mirror. He had liked the concept: when you look for evidence of God, when you really look, what you find is your own reflection. There were around fifty people waiting in line, most of them holding his book, a few carrying other books he was familiar with, books his God-fearing critics had been sending him for years, beseeching him to read them for the sake of his soul.
Through the glass doors, under the glow of a streetlamp, Thomas caught sight of Louise’s purple coat. She was standing beside a tree. The January day had been sunny, and ice from the previous week’s storm was still melting, dripping from the tree onto Louise’s shoulders. She moved her hair away from her face—a nervous gesture, but one he loved. Her dark hair was starting to gray; he liked that she didn’t color it. He liked that she didn’t wear makeup, that she wrote notes to herself on her hands, that she whispered in her sleep. He found her most beautiful on winter nights like this, standing in snow, her breath visible. He regretted not having thought to say these things when asked if he loved his wife—something more than “Of course,” something more specific. But how could he explain to these people that he didn’t need a God when he had a Louise?
“I really loved your book.”
Thomas looked up. “I’m glad. Thank you.”
The young man, his nose pierced, his neck tattooed with the word truth, said, “I mean, I just hate religious freaks, and your book made me hate them even more.”
Thomas put his pen down and sighed. “Actually,” he said, “that’s not the point of the book. That’s not the point at all.”
“I don’t mean hate,” the young man said, flustered. “I only mean that religious freaks—I mean, people—tend to hate anyone who isn’t religious, and so . . . ”
The man who had been sitting behind Louise was now standing behind her outside—much too close to her, Thomas felt. He walked out from behind the table and in the process knocked over a stack of his books; he didn’t stop to pick them up. “I’m sorry,” he said to the people in line. “I need to get some air.”
As he approached the glass doors, he saw the man put his hand on Louise’s shoulder. He ran outside, pushed his way through the crowd gathered in front of the Ethical Society, and pulled the man’s hand away.
“Get away from my wife.” Thomas pushed him against the tree; the man’s glasses fell from his face.
“Thomas,” Louise said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Thomas said. He grabbed the man by his coat. The man’s eyelids fluttered; he put his arms in front of his face.
“Please stop,” Louise said. “I know him.”
“What do you want from me?” Thomas said. “Why were you making that noise during the lecture?”
“I know him!” Louise said. “He used to take my yoga class.”
Thomas released the man’s coat, stepped back, and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not feeling very well, and I kept hearing this clicking during my lecture, and . . . ”
“It’s all right,” the man said. He straightened his jacket.
Thomas picked up the man’s glasses, which hadn’t broken but were covered with snow. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Thomas has been getting hate mail,” Louise explained.
“Someone sent me a bullet,” he told Louise. “I should have told you. And then, the next day, just a piece of paper with the word click on it. And when I was talking, I kept hearing this clicking, and I thought . . . I’m very sorry,” he said to the man.
“Really,” the man said. “It’s all right.”
“Maybe we should go,” Louise said.
“No,” Thomas said. “I’m just being paranoid. I should sign some more books.”
He turned away from them, embarrassed yet relieved, and walked back to the entrance. As he reached for the door, he felt a sharp pain in his head. At first, he thought it was the start of a migraine, but then he was on the ground and wasn’t sure how he had gotten there. Someone was touching his arm, asking him if he was okay. His vision was blurred: he could see only shapes and colors. A face above him looked like three faces; it was like trying to see underwater. A patch of red appeared in the snow close to his face. Then the world went dark, as if a hand had reached down and closed his eyes.
Every morning for three weeks, Thomas got out of bed while it was still dark and locked himself in his office down the hall—actually locked the door—and stayed there until midnight, leaving only to use the bathroom or to heat soup for lunch and again for dinner. When Louise left at ten to teach her yoga classes, Thomas was in his office, and when she came home four or five hours later, he was still in his office. If she knocked on his door, he wouldn’t open it. When she offered to bring him food—a real meal instead of soup—he refused. Three weeks of the Times lay unread in a pile outside his door. He had abandoned the morning routine he had kept religiously—routine was perhaps his only religion other than science—for the past twenty years: walk to the bakery for a corn muffin, eat in the park, give what he didn’t finish to the pigeons, walk to the deli for coffee and the paper, smoke a cigarette on the way home.
When Louise told Thomas through his office door that she missed him and was worried about him, he came to the door, as if his proximity to the wood between them was some kind of intimacy, and told her that he was sorry but he needed this time to himself. She asked what he was doing in there all day, even though she knew: she could hear him scribbling away, could hear him flipping the pages of his legal pads.
“Figuring things out,” he told her.
What concerned Louise more than the fact that someone had thrown a rock at her husband’s head (had tried to kill him, really—and almost had, the doctors said), what concerned her more than his secrecy, his retreat from her into his office, what she couldn’t quite clear from her mind when she meditated each morning, was that he was forgetting things. Not his name or that Louise was his wife or where the bedroom was, but how to do things. Thomas was turning fifty in the spring, and so Louise had assumed his forgetfulness, if that’s what it was, couldn’t be a sign of senility. This was something different, something stranger. She had noticed it one morning when she’d gotten up early with him and they’d brushed their teeth side by side. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his toothbrush until he watched Louise—almost studied her—as she squeezed toothpaste onto her toothbrush, then put the toothbrush into her mouth and moved it back and forth over her teeth. Before Louise was able to spit out her toothpaste, Thomas swallowed his.
The first time he made soup after he came home from the hospital, he couldn’t figure out the stove. He got as far as putting the pot on the stove top, but then he kept opening and closing the oven door. At one point, he stuck his head inside as if he had lost something in there. When he finally turned the oven on, he seemed surprised to feel its heat. Then he put the pot of soup inside the oven.
“I think you should go back to the doctor,” Louise said now, from the other side of his office door, but he told her he was fine, he was just having some headaches, it wasn’t a big deal.
Louise got up early the next morning while Thomas was still sleeping and sneaked into his office. Stacked on the floor beside his desk were dozens of legal pads filled with his writing. If the date of the first entry was accurate, he had written all this—not just words but charts, symbols, formulas, codes she couldn’t decipher—in the past three weeks: more than two pads each day. Most of his handwriting was illegible, but she could make out in the first pad that he was writing about his sister, who had died when he was sixteen, and about his father, who had died when Thomas was in graduate school. When she skimmed the rest of the pads, she saw that Thomas seemed to be writing the same things over and over. Louise knew that he tended to blame himself for his sister’s death (there was no God to blame, he always reminded her), but he had never written about it, at least not in any of his books, and she could understand how what had happened—the heart attack, the hate mail, the rock thrown at his head—might have triggered a need to tell more personal stories related to his atheism (she assumed all these legal pads were filled with notes for a new book). But the obsessive repetition concerned her, not to mention the cryptic symbols and charts, not to mention his strange behavior.
She was trying to decipher a chart that looked like some kind of pyramidal divine hierarchy with God at the top, followed by oversouls, followed by souls, followed by humans (she wondered if he had copied this from one of the religious books people were always sending him), when she heard him get out of bed. She made sure to put the pads back exactly where she had found them, then hurried into the kitchen, where she pretended to be looking for something to eat, even though she never snacked during the night. Thomas didn’t seem to find it strange that she was in the kitchen at three o’clock in the morning—at least he didn’t say anything—but he did stare at the toaster as if wondering what it was and how it worked.
When Thomas thought of his sister’s death he thought of the day three years before that, when his parents had taken them to the museum and during their walk home had stopped to watch a mime try to escape from an imaginary box. At the end of his act, the mime had given up without having escaped. He fell to the street, his chest heaving with each exaggerated breath until finally it stopped and he played dead, no doubt listening for change dropped into the can he had set on the ground. Ruth, who had cerebral palsy, smiled and blinked once, which was how she said yes, meaning: she had liked the mime’s act.
But as Thomas was wheeling Ruth away from the mime, a different young man, wearing black pants, a black tie, and a white short-sleeved dress shirt, stopped him and said, “Excuse me, may I ask you a very important question?”
The young man had blond hair slicked back with pomade. He smiled with his mouth but not with his eyes. “If you were to die in your sleep tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?”
Thomas’s father asked the young man why he wanted to know, but Thomas’s mother, a devout Catholic, said, “I want to hear his answer.”
Thomas was a good Catholic, too—he went to confession every Saturday and to mass every Sunday and had even considered the priesthood before he discovered how much he liked girls. “I would go to heaven,” he said.
“How do you know this?” said the young man.
“Because I believe that Jesus died for our sins and that’s why everyone will be forgiven if they ask to be.”
The young man leaned over Ruth’s wheelchair and smiled. “And what about you? Where will you go?”
Ruth made one of the two sounds she could make; it was like a bear cub crying for food. Her other sound was a loud sigh meant to be a laugh when accompanied by a smile.
“This must be your little sister,” the young man said. “Where will your sister go when she dies?”
“That’s enough,” Thomas’s father said. “No more questions.”
But Thomas wanted to answer. “To heaven,” he said.
The young man looked at Thomas’s father as if for permission to speak; his father gave none. After a long pause, the young man said to Ruth, “Is that what you believe?”
Ruth frowned, then blinked twice, which was how she said no.
“She says yes,” Thomas said. The young man, still smiling, gave Thomas two Bibles so small they looked meant for dolls.
“I’m very proud of your answers,” their mother said after the young man had walked away. Their father, who Thomas had noticed never spoke his prayers in church but only moved his mouth, asked if he could see the Bibles. He opened one and said, “This is so small it’ll make you go blind before you’re saved.”
Thomas would have slept peacefully that night, confident that should he die he would go straight to heaven, if it weren’t for the lie he had told. It was a one-word lie, a yes rather than a no, but given its subject—his sister’s religious beliefs—it seemed a sin more mortal than venial. Beyond that, there was the question of his sister’s soul. What if she did die during the night? What if they both died? Would he go to heaven and his sister to hell? How heavenly could heaven be if his sister weren’t there with him? He woke that night from a dream that Ruth didn’t have cerebral palsy, and as she was running down their street, a force like gravity in reverse pulled her up and he grabbed her leg and tried to hold her down, but the force was too strong and unless Thomas let go, he too would be pulled away, and so he let go and watched as Ruth became smaller and smaller, until she was so high and far away she looked like a balloon, and then she was through the clouds and beyond the earth’s atmosphere, where she would float alone in space for eternity—all those light years of darkness, so far away that the earth, to his sister, would become a speck, then nothing.
By the time he was sixteen Thomas had become, as his father liked to call him—not without some resentment—the “Why Man.” If a person leads a moral life but misses one week of church, then dies before confessing, why should that person go to hell? Why would God ask Abraham to murder his own son? Why did God turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt just because she turned to look? Why did Job have to endure such suffering before God said, “Enough, you passed the test”? That he even asked such questions, that his father was incapable of answering them, thrilled him. After he saw his high school English teacher hide a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra when the principal, Brother Aquinas, walked into the room, Thomas began to read Nietzsche.
But when Ruth died, on a Saturday afternoon in December, while Thomas’s parents were Christmas shopping and he was home alone with her, he found himself turning not to philosophy or science, or to the superman he had come to believe resided somewhere inside him, but to God—the old reliable, the superman above all supermen. He called 911 and begged God not to let Ruth die and apologized for reading what he had been reading and for doubting what he had been doubting, but God couldn’t clear Ruth’s airway, couldn’t make her cough up the cherry pit she was choking on. God didn’t have hands, but could show himself through Thomas’s hands, so Thomas got behind his sister’s wheelchair and reached around to put his fist over her diaphragm and his other hand over his fist and pulled back three times and waited, and when her face started to turn blue he tried again, and when she lost consciousness he opened her mouth and reached into her throat and felt for the pit, and then he shook her and yelled at her to breathe and yelled at God to make her breathe and tried the Heimlich some more and threw a tantrum, swore, kicked the wall, started to run out of the house to find a neighbor, a stranger walking past, anyone, but decided that he couldn’t leave her, that this was only a test of his faith, and so he tried the Heimlich again and reached into her throat and shook her and prayed and then he stopped and everything was quiet, and during this silence he waited for God, and when he heard sirens he decided that God would show himself through the hands of the men who came into the house and put a tube down Ruth’s throat and took her away.
When, a month after his concussion, Thomas told Louise that he had accepted an invitation to speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia, she wondered aloud if that was the best idea. After all, whoever had thrown the rock had not been found. Whether Thomas was still receiving hate mail no one knew, because he hadn’t opened his mail since the incident and wouldn’t allow Louise to open it for him.
Louise searched the Web for bloggers’ reactions to Thomas’s injury. Some conservative Christians wrote that Thomas deserved what he got. They made sure to point out that they didn’t advocate murder and wouldn’t have wanted to see Thomas killed, but hoped his injury would be a “wake-up call for a man who so blatantly disrespects God’s word.” Some bloggers expressed outrage over the incident and support for Thomas “at a time when we desperately need serious thinkers committed to rational thought based on factual evidence rather than doctrinarians who make decisions based on gut instinct or divine message.” These more sympathetic comments, though Louise had no idea who had posted them, reassured her to some degree that Thomas was no longer in danger, that his talk at the Free Library would be fine.
Still, she was nervous when the evening of the talk arrived, two months later. It helped that the man introducing Thomas repudiated what had happened at the Ethical Society. There were also the two police officers standing guard near the stage, and two more at the exits.
Despite her concern for his safety, Louise had been looking forward to Thomas’s talk, not just because she was curious what he would say—she couldn’t help wondering about the symbols and charts she had seen on his legal pads—but also because she hoped that giving this lecture might return his life to something approaching normal: his morning routine of coffee and the newspaper, then his usual four or five hours of work, no more locking himself in his office for sixteen hours. The past few months Louise had felt husbandless: they went to bed at different times, woke at different times, didn’t eat together, didn’t talk much, didn’t have sex. Thomas had become more of an eccentric roommate than a spouse.
She thought he looked handsome as he walked to the dais. He was as thin now as when they’d met (he had lost weight since the heart attack), and in the past month he had grown a beard that came in more gray than not, yet made him look younger by covering the wrinkles that had formed around his mouth during the past few years. He started speaking but no one could hear him: he didn’t seem to understand that he needed to speak into the microphone; in fact, he had moved the microphone away from his face, and the man who had introduced him had to come onto the stage, tap the microphone to make sure it was working, then move it back where it was supposed to be.
Once he started speaking, Thomas could be very eloquent and persuasive. Louise knew this firsthand: though she had been a religious skeptic before she’d met Thomas, she hadn’t become an atheist until she’d heard him speak. And she was grateful to him for this: she was much happier now that God wasn’t even an issue in her life, now that she lived, or tried to, in the moment, now that now was enough.
But he looked uncharacteristically nervous as he sipped his water; his voice shook when he thanked everyone for coming. “I have to admit,” he said, “I’m more nervous than usual tonight, not because I’m afraid someone will throw a rock at me, but because this might be the most important, the most personal talk I’ve ever given.”
He sipped his water again, took a deep breath, then began talking about his life: how he had wanted to become a priest, how he had grown up taking care of his sister, what had happened the day his sister died and his subsequent guilt and anger, his break from religion, his embrace of science, his admiration of Darwin and Einstein and Sagan, the meaning he found in the beauty and vastness of the universe, how he was able to find this same sense of the divine in the woman he’d married, how he was happy simply watching her breathe.
Louise was moved by what Thomas had said about her, but then she checked herself: she wasn’t sure she should believe him, given how distant he had been lately.
“I’m not sure how to say this,” Thomas said. “I know this will come as a shock, especially coming from me, of all people, but I’ve been speaking with God.”
The audience laughed. Louise waited for a punch line. God says stoning went out of fashion, at least in most parts of the world, centuries ago . . . God says he really likes my new book.
“I’m sure you must think I’m joking, and it’s perfectly all right that you’ve laughed—I would have laughed, too—but I assure you that I’m not joking. Don’t be too alarmed—I’m not going to tell you that I’m a Christian or that I believe the Bible is true, but I have had contact with God or with something Godlike.”
Louise couldn’t help watching Thomas’s speech over and over on YouTube, partly because she couldn’t quite believe that it was true. She kept asking him if this was a hoax or some kind of psychological experiment, a role-playing exercise wherein he would take on the persona of someone who believed in God, but he told her it wasn’t a joke.
Thomas’s sudden belief in God wasn’t the real problem. Louise was secure enough in her own atheism that she didn’t need his to bolster her. She was content with her yoga and meditation, her daily dissolving of self. The problem was that Thomas wasn’t Thomas anymore: he was still scribbling furiously on his legal pads sixteen hours a day; he seemed to have lost interest in everything else. He told Louise that he was sorry but he had to keep writing: he didn’t want to forget any of the information he was receiving from God.
Because she didn’t know how to talk with him about this, Louise listened to others talk about him on TV. Thomas, who still had no interest in the news, had no idea what big news he had become: one of the country’s most outspoken atheists, a respected scholar of science and religion who taught one semester each year at Penn and whose most recent book, The God Myth, was a national best seller, suddenly believed in God.
On news talk shows, pundits debated what Thomas’s apparent conversion meant. A barrel-chested televangelist with a Vandyke beard said Thomas was evidence that it was never too late to accept God into your life, that God was willing to save anyone who would embrace him and ask for divine salvation. “I would welcome Thomas Godfrey on my show anytime to speak about his conversations with God,” he said. A biologist, one of Thomas’s friends and colleagues at Penn, said, “I’m shocked, disappointed, and concerned. The old Thomas Godfrey would have said that everything, even what seems to be supernatural, must have a natural, scientific explanation, that evidence and rational inquiry always trump personal anecdote.” A psychologist, a lisping woman who had written a book about the psychological profile of Jesus, suggested that Thomas, given what he had said in his speech about understanding the meaning of the universe, might also be a theomaniacal megalomaniac suffering from hallucinations and delusions. It was possible, she added, that Thomas might be showing symptoms of schizophrenia, that the voice of God might be one of many voices inside his head. At the very least, she concluded, he might be suffering from post–traumatic stress disorder, given that so recently someone had tried to kill him. A short, balding doctor named Garcia—he called himself a “neurotheologist”—said he strongly believed there was a biological basis for Thomas’s symptoms. The televangelist said, “Why must you think of this man’s acceptance of God Almighty as a symptom, as if it’s something he must be cured of?” After the show’s host chided the televangelist for interrupting, Garcia explained that for the past five years he had been studying the human brain and had discovered that humans have a God spot—a part of the brain that, when electrically stimulated, can create a kind of euphoric experience of God: the sensation that God is communicating with them. “It’s ironic,” he said. “I’ve always joked with my staff that I’d love to bring in someone like Thomas Godfrey—you know, to see if the God spot functions even in the staunchest atheist. More than ever now, I’d like to run the test on him, to see if stimulating his left temporal lobe in a controlled setting produces some of the feelings and experiences he described in his speech.” That was all well and good, the televangelist said—he wasn’t a man of science and so couldn’t speak about the brain except to say that he and many millions of God’s flock didn’t need Dr. Garcia’s electrical stimulation in order to embrace God—but even if such a spot in the brain existed, it would prove nothing except that God had put it there so some people, especially those people who had been led astray, might better hear his message.
Louise moved a chair near Thomas’s office and waited several hours for him to open the door; he’d have to use the bathroom eventually, she reasoned.
When he finally opened his door, around noon, he looked surprised to see her there. Before she could say anything, he said, “I’m not sure what’s happening to me.”
Louise asked Thomas if he would see Dr. Garcia, but he didn’t seem to be listening. He closed his eyes while she was talking, then opened them a few seconds later and stared through her. “It’s happening right now, isn’t it,” she said.
“It’s frightening at first,” he said. “I feel it on my skin—do you see the hair on my arms? It’s like a soft wave of static electricity that spreads through my body. And then the smell—that metallic smell after summer rain. I can taste it, too. Pennies in my mouth. Then my ears feel like they’ve popped. And then not so much a voice as a feeling—an overwhelming feeling of peace. A certainty, though it’s almost impossible to put into words, that everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be, that there’s a plan, that there’s meaning in everything, that we’re all here for this—to experience this feeling.”
“Sounds nice,” she said. “Like the one time I tripped.”
“I’ve tripped, too,” he said. “It’s not the same. My memory becomes supersharp. I remember things I never would have remembered otherwise: exact lines from books I read to my sister when I was seven; a pink butterfly sewn onto the label on her favorite shirt when she was five; the shape and color of a leaf I kept between the pages of my Bible when I was in grade school.”
“Yet you aren’t quite sure how to toast bread and brush your teeth.”
“It’s just that everything feels new. I’m seeing everything as if for the first time. It’s like I was blind . . . ”
“But now you can see. I think I’ve heard that one before.”
“I wish you could feel this.”
“Apparently, I can,” she said. “Anyone can. All you have to do is make an appointment with Dr. Garcia.”
“I told you—I don’t need to see a doctor.”
“But you’re not you,” she said. “It’s like that movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
“I’m me,” he said.
“If you were you, you wouldn’t be afraid to look into this. You would want to know everything about it. If you were you,” she said, “you would see this doctor because I asked you to, and that would be reason enough.”
It was Dr. Garcia’s theory that Thomas might be having brain seizures, the first of which would have been caused by the rock. Dr. Garcia explained that these seizures could cause a process called “kindling.” They opened certain pathways in the brain, and set the emotions relating to God afire.
After examining Thomas, Dr. Garcia led him and Louise down a long hallway at the end of which was the experimental chamber, a large, bare room with one chair. One of Dr. Garcia’s assistants asked Thomas to sit in the chair and try to get comfortable. The assistant pressed a button that tilted the chair back the way a dentist might before commencing a root canal, then slathered conducting cream on Thomas’s temples, then fit onto his head what looked like a snowmobile helmet. Wires extended from the helmet to a small metal box, set on a table behind the chair. There were no windows and just one steel door. The room was soundproof, Dr. Garcia explained, but on the chair’s arm was a button Thomas could press if at any moment he became anxious and wanted to stop the experiment.
“Tell me again that this is safe,” Louise said to Dr. Garcia.
“Aside from anxiety in a small percentage of people,” Dr. Garcia said, “we haven’t had any problems.”
Thomas couldn’t quite get comfortable. The assistant, who was so young Thomas wondered if he was a student or an intern, taped Ping-Pong ball halves over Thomas’s eyes. He was suddenly anxious and he realized it was because he could no longer see Louise. As if she could read his mind, she put her hand on his shoulder.
“So,” Dr. Garcia said. ”Are you ready to be zapped?”
“Excuse me?” Thomas said.
“A joke,” Garcia said. “It would be a lie to say that you won’t feel a thing—most likely you will. But it won’t hurt. If it does, or if you feel anything you’d rather not feel, simply press the button or call out or wave your hands—there are microphones and cameras in the room. I’ll be down the hall in the computer room, and your wife will be with me. Do you have any questions?”
“No,” he said, but he reached up to grab Louise’s hand.
Louise kissed Thomas and thanked him again for doing this for her. He released her hand, then heard them walking away from him; the door opening, closing.
He was anxious, and with every minute that passed, the sensory deprivation became increasingly unpleasant, especially the total darkness, which made him imagine that he was floating in a universe devoid of stars.
Dr. Garcia had said that the transcranial magnetic stimulation might first be directed to other areas of Thomas’s brain, and so he should pay attention to anything unusual he felt, whether physically or emotionally. So far nothing was happening, except now a vivid memory came to him of his father each night after work falling asleep in an armchair. How old could his father have been? Forty? Forty-five? Younger than Thomas was now, yet he had seemed so tired all the time. He had repaired furnaces for a living but had done other handyman jobs for money under the table, much of which paid for the mortgage on their modest house in south Philadelphia and for Thomas’s education. It would have been different had his father willingly gone to bed so early—some nights he was asleep by eight o’clock—but Thomas found it sad that his father fought sleep before giving in during a TV show he had wanted to watch.
Thomas used to imagine that his father was dying—that this was what death was like: a struggle, then a giving up. And it was like that when his father died, except that his father, or, rather, his father’s body, was fighting in sleep to stave off an even deeper, more permanent sleep: such unusual, spastic breathing, at the very end up to twenty or thirty seconds between breaths, his father’s mouth open, one of his fingers twitching almost imperceptibly. Thomas had watched his father’s finger until it stopped, that was how he knew, and as soon as it was over he regretted their last conversation, the night before. By then—Thomas was in graduate school—he didn’t believe in God or an afterlife, and his father said to him, “So this is the end of me, right? No more me, no more nothing.” Thomas knew it wouldn’t have been too large a sacrifice—a temporary suspension of his authenticity—to say to his father, “No, this is not the end of you.” But he said nothing, looked away. And then his father said, “Your father’s death is not the death of a bug.” It was such a strange thing to say that Thomas had no idea how to respond. Then his father lost consciousness. For years he regretted his stubborn silence, even though he came to believe even more adamantly that this life was the only life, that his father no longer existed except in memory and in Thomas’s genes. Still, he would have liked to have been the kind of son willing to give his father that final kindness.
His own finger was twitching involuntarily now; he tried to stop it but couldn’t, and so he held it with his other hand, and as suddenly as the twitching had started, it stopped.
A few minutes later he began shrugging his shoulders, puppetlike, and could do nothing to stop this and almost pressed the button to end the experiment but didn’t.
And then after a few minutes at rest—just as he started to remember the quiet way his sister had snored, how happy he had been just to see her so deeply asleep, how light her body had been when he carried her from bed to chair, from chair to shower, from shower back to chair, from chair to couch, from the couch to the small square of grass in their yard—he felt it, the electricity on his skin, the taste of pennies, the smell after summer rain, and then he was certain that someone else was in the room even though he hadn’t heard the door open, had heard no footsteps, and then he knew, was absolutely certain, that God was with him, a warm light surrounding him, and he felt his father in the light, and his sister, and the meaning behind everything was clear to him yet he had no words for it, and he wanted Louise and Dr. Garcia to see that God, this feeling, this something, was here, and so he pressed the button and called out to them to hurry, but by the time they got to the room, Thomas was alone again. Whatever had been there was gone.