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.
Bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s life is shrouded in mystery. From his birth to his death, there are multiple versions of nearly every significant event in his life. He was born before the turn of the 20th century in tiny Pendleton, Texas. He died in 1945 (or maybe 1949) of malaria (or maybe syphilis or pneumonia). He was married twice (or maybe three times, and possibly to two different women at the same time). He was born able to see, but was blinded at a young age when his stepmother threw lye in his face (or maybe it was from staring too long at a solar eclipse).
What we know for certain is that over the course of three years, from 1927–1930, Johnson recorded 30 songs that influenced legends like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and many other musicians to the present day. Johnson was born penniless and for the most part died that way. Though his recordings saw moderate success, he didn’t make that much money from them, often performing on street corners. After his last session in April of 1930, Johnson never recorded again.
Unlike modern studio recordings, crisp and bordering on sterile in their hi-fi clarity, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” crackles with the vibrancy of life. You can hear Johnson’s fingers clicking the frets as they slide along the neck of his guitar. Johnson’s melancholic singing, no words, just vocals, is accompanied by the sound of his breathing and the air in the room. It is “what it sounds like to be a human being.”
And right now “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is speeding beyond the outer edge of the solar system and into interstellar space, a passenger on board a tiny spacecraft built by fellow members of Johnson’s human race and flung into the heavens in an explosion of noise and fire, to represent all humanity to any civilization that may one day find it, to cause them to wonder, “What manner of being created this?”
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
—John F. Kennedy
Discovery is the instinct that animates the history of humankind. We looked to the edge of the horizon and built ships to cross it. We split the atom and gazed deeply into our past, to within seconds of the moment of creation. We watched the birds and built ourselves wings. From Da Vinci to the Wright brothers, the sheer absurdity of human flight did not deter humans from trying.
We’ve conquered Everest and polio, and despite the bewildering complexity of AIDS and cancer, we will one day ascend those summits too.
The insatiable thirst for discovery, whether it’s Johnson exploring the depths of the human experience with his guitar, or scientists pushing ever further out into the known universe, is part of what makes us uniquely human.
But our drive to discover isn’t limited to the world of explorers or the realm of science. Most endeavors undertaken by the human race: the art we create, the literature we write, the religions we observe, are quests to discover the true nature of ourselves, and the world around us.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes writing’s revelatory nature:
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.
You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads.
The most famous work at the Accademia in Florence, Italy, is Michelangelo’s David, and deservedly so. Despite being carved from pale marble, it’s hard to believe the sculpture is stone instead of flesh and blood.
For Michelangelo, “every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Perhaps nowhere is this idea of Michelangelo’s more apparent than in four of his sculptures known as The Prisoners.
Also located in the Accademia, the Hall of the Prisoners is less famous than the David, but no less affecting. Their impact is visceral. The Prisoners are unfinished and still encased in stone. Partially set free, you can feel the sculptures straining to break away from the rock.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Every child is also an adventurer. The only reason we’ve explored other planets and sent spacecraft beyond the edge of our solar system is because of girls and boys who gazed at the heavens and dreamt of flying among the stars and
traveling to distant worlds to see them up close. Like artists, those children remained adventurers when they grew up, and became pilots, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.
These are the explorers who first set foot on the Moon, sent landers to Mars and orbiters to Saturn and Jupiter, revealing the complexity and beauty of our celestial neighborhood in stunning detail.
Some of those kids grew up to design, build, and launch two spacecraft, both named Voyager, in the late summer of 1977.
Attached to the side of each Voyager spacecraft is a record of human existence, but it’s also an actual record that can be played with a needle (also, helpfully, included). Unlike the old vinyl stuffed in your attic, this record is copper, with gold plating. It is a time capsule of humanity, an introduction to our race for any civilization that may find it.
Engraved into its surface are pictures and sounds from Earth, spoken greetings from humankind, diagrams of the human form, and maps to our location in the Milky Way, a dubious inclusion if you’re a fan of War of the Worlds or Independence Day.
It also includes 90 minutes of music. In addition to Blind Willie Johnson, the record contains Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, Senegalese percussion, Navajo chants, and other music from around the world. The electrifying guitar licks of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” are included as well, leading to the distinct possibility that anyone or anything that plays the record in the distant future will gain the impression that humans are much cooler than we actually are.
Or were, as is much more likely the case. Voyager will not approach another star for 40,000 years and is likely to take millions of years to find another civilization, if there is even one out there for it to encounter. For comparison, the whole of recorded human history on earth is about 5,000 years.
Whether you believe we are alone in the universe, or find it probable that we are not, it is unlikely that Voyager will ever encounter alien life. But if it does, what will the spacecraft and the record it carries tell that life about the human race? The spacecraft’s mere existence demonstrates that we are a seafaring race who has taken to the stars. That we value new knowledge and experience, that we will always go further into the distance, plumb deeper into the depths, and climb higher into the heavens to experience and to understand that which we have yet to even imagine.
Voyager shows that we have traveled the paths necessary to understand the universe on an atomic level, the laws of physics, and mathematics. It shows that we also understand the world and interpret nature through artistic expression; as well natural law, and that humans are relational and spiritual beings who exist in a community with one another.
Eons after leaving our sun, Voyager may enter another solar system and fly past alien planets and stars so far away they’re not even visible from Earth.
The two spacecraft will essentially exist forever. Millions of years from now, long after our civilization on Earth has winked out of existence, Voyager — built by humans on a lonely outpost at the edge of the Milky Way — will continue speeding through the infinite expanse of space. And it will still carry the song of a blind musician who was able to explore the depths of his own existence and the nature of humanity with just his voice and a guitar.
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