How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool” is a line from Shakespeare. When I found out that Aaron Belz was going to let us include his collection Plausible Worlds as a free Christ and Pop Culture Member Offering, the first thing I thought was “That fellow is wise enough to play the fool,” and the second thing was, “I am basically sure that that is from Shakespeare.”
The fool I’m imagining with that line is the broad-faced innocent, a person almost stuck out of time—a holy fool. Hilarious, not great with people, sometimes difficult to understand, a uniquely powerful noticer, maybe sort of a genius? That characterization may depart from the play, but hey, allow me my foolishness too for a hot minute.
My favorite review of Belz’s work says “Belz is refreshingly unpretentious, just a nerd who loves words and is, at turns, confounded and delighted by the nature of utterance,” and I think that is at least as true as anything Shakespeare may have said of Belz’s books. The delight warms every page of Plausible Worlds, and the confusion comes across as well. It’s worth saying, though, that like so many hilarious people—people whose humor is occasionally so brilliant as to be actually thrilling—Aaron Belz is also attuned to the deep sadness of things.
“Dear Spam King” starts with a straight-faced recounting of unsolicited email offers. “I know there’s a pill / To enhance my size / And make her worship me / In bed,” the narrator begins. He’s not interested in these things, however—he’d rather like something even more fantastical than “hundreds / Of college girls” or “$500,000 / Working for myself,” but still in pill form, if the solicitous universe can manage it.
Pills-wise, Belz too manages to encapsulate the full postural range of anonymous Internet message boards in a single, definitive gesture. The poem is called “Behaviorism” and it will likely seem to you very much like something you’ve seen a thousand times before in a thousand places online:
I just love behaviorism.
People who don’t love behaviorism are retarded!
The reason I do is because behaviorism is awesome.
Our narrator expands upon this position in order to prevent us from missing essential subtleties:
I love it how we aren’t responsible for our actions.
I love how behaviorists have the balls to actually
Belz is in his postmodern element in these poems. He pulls commercial lingo and ad language out of the ether and considers them as though he’s found the signal instead of the noise. He makes dumb jokes. He plays around with form and voice and discovers a moving scene here, a sudden bolt of pathos there. He dabbles in surrealism.
The feelings are the most surprising part of the collection to me. Here the wise fool idea is again useful: imagine being a child convinced that the endless chatter of the Internet is actually an infinite series of earnest attempts to communicate. Imagine now the same perspective but refracted through a very adult, very sophisticated intelligence. It’s maybe sort of like if Horse_ebooks were a receiver instead of a producer. It’s like if the professor at the grocery store in White Noise were on Twitter. It’s even kind of like if Aaron Belz were—well, himself, I guess. Whoa.
If you’re unfamiliar with Belz, this recent profile will illuminate him for you. If you think you’ve heard of him before but aren’t sure, there’s a chance you’ve seen him on your favorite social medium. Twitter-wise, his dry, subversive anti-aphorisms are a breath of sweet, hot, fresh air in my feed, which has lately been clogged with evangelical thought-leader gospel-y wisdom tweets.
In fact, the man is sort of prolific on social media. Belz also posts pictures to Instagram of beautiful bikes he and his son Eli are selling. Sometimes he puts up Craigslist ads. Sometimes he puts on his lit crit hat to analyze conceptual Twitter accounts with handles like @dadboner and @thesulk. The guy’s got a lot of range.
He’s also a “churchgoing Christian,” as noted in the above-linked profile. The writer there doesn’t seem to understand how ancient faith and modern snark can go together, but Belz, a “confessed misanthrope,” certainly does. Doctrines concerning sin paint a darker picture of the human race than any strain of materialism. Thankfully, our story doesn’t end there. Belz’s doesn’t either. While plenty of his poems have a caustic bite, they never fall into total despair. There’s just too much play involved for that to be true.
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