The Tempter

It was on a wintry night last year, a night not unlike this one, that I met the Tempter for the first time. It happened during that season when the mood of the world begins to turn, when summer is a distant memory and the rustling sheaves of autumn are starting to give way to the chill of coming winter. Just ahead lay that season of secrets and whispers that comes with the annual dying of the harvest, the time when old superstitions creep back into the world and things better left unseen lurk outside doors on icy nights and scratch at the frosty windowpanes.

I have often observed that train stations are lonely places, because people do not live there, only pass through; it is built into the design. As it happens, this encounter took place at such a station: the junction of several lines, where wrought-iron stairs descended from a central rotunda down to long, melancholy platforms beside the tracks. I was standing at the foot of one such staircase, beneath the concrete span of the main building arching overhead, looking out into the distance where the tracks vanished into the dark. Evening lay in the past already, and still I was far from my destination. I had many hours of travel left through the dark and secret heart of the night before the coming of dawn.

It was a wet and gloomy night, that night. A thick pearlescent fog shrouded the world, coating the concrete pylons in a cold glaze, and a sleety swirl of precipitation, not rain but not quite snow, flurried through the yellow light cast by the lamps. It was easy to get the sense, there in the heavy, velvet silence, that all color and life had been drained from the world.

I was alone on the platform, save for a man standing in shadow at the very farthest end. There were no other passengers in sight, not even a conductor or station employee. It was easy to get the sense that all was abandoned and silent, that the whole world lay wrapped in darkness and slumber, not just that I was the only one in the train station, but that I was the only one awake for miles and miles around. Except for that other man…

I glanced up. No train had come, but the man standing at the end of the platform had disappeared.

For a moment I was utterly alone, and then the Tempter stepped from the shadows. Like me, he was wrapped up well against the cold, wearing a long overcoat and a broad-brimmed hat turned down low. He even looked a little like me, although of course that was to be expected. We wasted no time on greetings; he knew perfectly well who I was and I recognized him on sight.

“Have you ever given consideration,” he began, “to the inherent selfishness of humanity?”

“I’ve given thought to human selfishness many times,” I said, choosing my words carefully.

“I’ve read your essay on universal utilitarianism,” he said. “An admirable idea, to be sure, but thoroughly impractical. You call for people to be altruistic and to work to promote the happiness of others, but the brutal truth is that human beings just don’t behave that way. The overwhelming majority of people are concerned only with themselves and a few close friends and relatives, and once their lives are comfortable and secure, they can’t be persuaded to care about the welfare of total strangers. Why should they? What’s in it for them? If they bother to think about it at all, they view altruism as a waste of their time and energy to coddle the lazy. You’re deceiving yourself if you think the average person’s empathy extends any wider than that. UU may sound good, but it would be a dismal failure in practice.”

I was thrown off balance by the ferocity of the Tempter’s assault. I hadn’t anticipated getting off lightly, but I had expected him to work his way up to an attack this serious, not hit me with it right from the start. But this battle had just begun, and I wasn’t going to go down to defeat that easily.

“I don’t believe for a moment that human selfishness is intrinsic,” I said. “It does exist, but it isn’t the norm. I’ve witnessed more acts of human kindness than you know. A species that was intrinsically selfish wouldn’t be capable of the amazing acts of generosity and selflessness I’ve seen – not from saints, but from ordinary people on the street. What people lack is perspective, not moral sentiment. They care more about their friends and family because the well-being of people they personally know is more immediate to them. It’s easier to notice, so it’s easier to care. But this is a correctible error. Like any other part of human nature, empathy is a skill that can be taught and practiced. The only way to be a champion marathon runner is to go jogging every week; just the same way, the only way to be a champion empath is to practice raising your own consciousness and caring for others.”

“Hope springs eternal,” the Tempter replied with a sly grin. I noticed that his breath, unlike mine, did not steam in the icy air. “I like your analogy. You’re asking everyone to be a marathon runner – and who has the motivation or the time for that? Most people have to work their hardest and spend what little they have just to get by. And you’re asking them to set that all aside, to give you what precious leisure they have, and work for the benefit of others who may never thank them or even know about it? Who are you, to make such demands of them?”

“I reject that conception,” I said. “Being moral is not an activity in its own right that we do in addition to everything else. It’s a thread that runs through all the activities we engage in. We need honest, trustworthy, compassionate people right here just as much as we need them anywhere else in the world. Maybe I am asking people to be more thoughtful and do more to help others as their situation permits, but I see nothing wrong with that. We wouldn’t need to do very much at all to create a utopia if every person was willing to contribute. All I’m suggesting is that each person should do the little that would be needed of them in that scenario. And it is worthwhile: virtue isn’t a tax we have to pay, it’s an investment that bears dividends. Reach out to others, I’m saying, and you’ll find more happiness and meaning for yourself than you ever could have otherwise.”

In the darkness, the blare of a horn; a distant rumble increasing in pitch, a bright bolt of light spearing the dark, a whip of wind, a moment of thunder and then the other train had passed by, the windows of its cars lit, but no one visible within.

“We’re going to have to agree to disagree there,” the Tempter said, once the train had gone by. “If you’re determined to bring this gospel of yours to the masses, I can’t stop you. But I suggest you keep in mind the response you’re likely to get. Almost certainly, the vast majority of people will be uninterested and the ones who disagree will be actively hostile. It has ever been thus. Don’t forget, the majority of humanity is still religious, often very religious. What will they think of an atheist who claims to have the key to morality? Will they give you a fair hearing? Will they debate you from the pulpit? No, they will cast you aside with slander and scorn. You know this.”

“I don’t deny it,” I admitted.

“Then why?” he asked sharply. “Why try to enlighten people who will denounce you and fight against you every step of the way? Why proclaim what you see as the truth to people whose eyes and ears are closed against you, people who would silence you in an instant if only they could? You know the immensity of what you stand against. The institutions of faith are as old as humanity and control most of what goes on on this planet. They have truly enormous amounts of wealth, influence and power invested in them. Why try to sail into that wind? Why struggle against the current?”

“What else can I do?” I asked, realizing it was a mistake as soon as I said it.

“I’m glad you asked,” the Tempter smiled. “All along you’ve been viewing the religiosity of humankind as an obstacle, my friend. But just invert your perspective for a moment, and you’ll see matters in a completely different way. Human beings want to be deceived. They hunger for it, they plead for it. That castle standing before you could become a wide-open path if only you’d give them what they ask for. You would be doing them a favor. Tell them their beliefs are justified. Tell them their fantasies are all true. Tell them sometimes you just have to stop doubting and take a leap of faith. You know you could do it. You wouldn’t even have to believe it yourself, if it still offends your intellect. Just tell people what they want so desperately to hear, and they would reward you in ways you can scarcely imagine. You could have ten times the following you currently do, a hundred. It would be so easy.”

The Tempter was sparing no effort. I could feel his pull, an almost magnetic influence. For just a moment, I could see the world he sketched, like an image shimmering in the air between us. All it would take would be one step, one word, to divert reality from this track onto that one…

But then reason reasserted itself. I mustered my defenses and wrenched away from his pull.

“Most of what you say is true,” I conceded. “People might reward me for telling them what they wanted to hear. But how would I reward myself? Could I go before people every day and teach lessons I didn’t believe? Make arguments I myself can’t take seriously? And see them smiling and nodding all the while? No amount of fame or success could make up for that. What you don’t see is that I’m not doing this because I intend to get something out of it. I’m doing this because this, as best as I can possibly determine, is the truth. That’s what drives me, that’s what I respond to. I can see a better future than yours, a little further up the road maybe. It calls to me, like a lantern in the night, and I’m going to head for it. You don’t understand what drives me at all if you think I’d respond to something before that.”

“What’s this talk of lanterns in the night?” the Tempter scoffed. He had moved slightly back into the shadow, and his eyes glittered black in the snowlight. “You think that future you imagine is anything other than an illusion? You think you can drag humanity there by yourself? Face it, people haven’t joined you; they don’t use reason, they never have. That candle of rational skepticism you work so hard to shelter will burn out sooner or later. Night is falling, and you might as well take what you can get for yourself before that happens.”

“The dawn is coming,” I said firmly, looking into the east. It was still dark as deepest midnight.

“You see a dawn?” he scoffed. “There will never be a dawn, not after this night. There were a few flickers, but that was all, and they’re dying embers now. We’re hurtling toward the precipice, and people aren’t going to change their selfish, irrational ways in time. We have too much inertia to switch tracks now. Any change that you or anyone else could possibly bring about would come far too late.”

“People have been predicting doom for millennia,” I pointed out. “It hasn’t happened yet. We seem to have done well so far.”

“Just because the doomsayers of the past were premature doesn’t mean that no future predictions of the sort can come true. What you don’t grasp is that in the past, humanity never actually had the power to destroy itself. Now it does. We’re not a bunch of monkeys throwing stones at each other any more; we have weapons of unimaginable power, and people who still take their marching orders from a Bronze Age volcano god have their fingers on the buttons. We’ve learned just enough to destroy ourselves and no more; that’s always what happens when selfishness aspires to knowledge. And frankly, we deserve what we get.”

“Not so. It’s worked out that way because destruction is always easier than creation. But in our search for knowledge, we’ve also learned enough to get a glimpse of how much more we could be, and that vision has inspired many of us. Just look into the writings from the past – Jefferson, Paine, Ingersoll, Sagan – people who led us out of chaos and into enlightenment. I give humanity more credit than you do; there really are many of us who get it, and our voices are growing louder. All our problems are of our own making, and none are beyond our ability to solve. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.”

“And do those noble visions you mentioned show any signs of catching on among the rest of us?” the Tempter scoffed. “The world is still the nasty, ignorant and brutish place it’s always been. It’s easy to exaggerate the influence of a handful of people, but don’t forget there are still tens of millions who wouldn’t have any idea what you’d be talking about if you said that to them. If the great people you name haven’t solved our problems, then what makes you think anyone alive today will be able to do better? Do you think they’ll be building statues to you a hundred years after you’re dead?”

“They did some, now we have to do more. Moral progress doesn’t start all over again in each generation; we build on what has been passed down to us. And just as you say that predictions of doom were premature, I say it’s premature to declare all our utopian visions to be failures. History is still unfolding, and there are a lot of forces working for good. And no, I don’t want any statues. If people are still reading any of the things I wrote in a hundred years, I’d be happy with that, but I’d be even happier if they no longer need to. I’ll contribute what I can to helping humankind fulfill the potential I know it has, but it’s more important to me that it gets done than who does it.”

The Tempter scowled. “Believe it or not, I’m an altruist,” he said. “I want what’s best for you. It’s unfortunate you don’t want to listen, but one day you’ll see the wisdom in what I’m saying, and then you’ll see your current position for the foolishness it is.”

“I can’t discount the possibility that I’ll change my mind in the future,” I replied, “but that doesn’t affect the fact that here and now, I must make my decision based on the best evidence available to me.”

The Tempter looked back at me one last time – a long, steady look – then stepped back into the shadows. A moment later, the blare of a horn burst upon me, much louder than before; a brilliant light cut through the dark, a whistle blew shrilly, and a thunderous rumble shuddered to a halt. My train rolled up to the platform, its flanks steaming with vapor. A door hissed open, and a shaft of light from within fell onto the platform. Shaking off my dark and dreamy mood, I grasped the handrail and stepped inside, ready for the next phase of my journey.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Interested Atheist

    Great story! Nice ghost touches too!

    I’m going to post this on Christian Forums, if you don’t mind. Give them something to think about!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I have no objection to that, as long as you post it along with the URL of this site, of course. :)

  • Void1

    Posting from school.

    Lovely short story, any more planned? I could curl up near a heat source with a book full of these for hours.

  • Christopher

    Great little parable you have here, but I saw more of myself in the tempter than in your character. Who knows, maybe this tempter of yours is a deviant version of me?

  • Garinus

    If you’re going to go through with your idea on writing a book, you could use such segments as these before each chapter, to give a fictional and metaphorical overview on the subject you’re about to cover. Very well written.

  • bassmanpete

    I’m afraid I agree with Christopher, I can see more of the Tempter’s side of the discussion than yours. The problem as I see it is that, particularly with Catholics & Muslims, they have religion drummed into them before they even start to think, let alone think for themselves. Plus they’re told that, if they hear the sort of arguments that people like us put forward, it’s The Devil talking through us so they must rush to the nearest priest, pastor, imam or whoever for a good strong shot of whatever brand of religion they’re hooked on.

    When I’ve tried putting my belief, or unbelief if you like, to any of them this look comes on their face that says, in effect, “Oh you poor thing, you’ve not been saved and your going to suffer eternal damnation.” Their minds are closed, they’re much like Amway distributors :)

    I think that one way to make some inroads would be to find life on another planet that had a self-replicating molecule very different from DNA. However, I don’t hold out much hope of that happening in our solar system – though I would loved to be proved wrong!

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    This seems to come back to the old dilemma of, “Is winning worth it if you become your enemy in the process?” In this case, since it’s a battle of ideas, I think the answer has to be “No.” It’s a lot more difficult this way, but it’s the only way we can truly win.

  • Freeyourmind

    You know, I do agree with you in the argument but I do see at least some of what the Tempter was saying. From our perspective it’s sometimes very hard not to just give up and say “people are too ignorant and the battle too great to be able to make a true difference”. But at the same time, it’s reminiscent of a great struggle.

    Is it not more rewarding to die for what you believe than to live for what you don’t?

    That’s a little dramatic of course, but the fight Atheists face if we really want to change the perception of our beliefs is an uphill battle of great proportions. And if we aren’t going to stand up for what we believe and for truth in this world, then who will?

  • andrea

    Ditto what Freeyourmind said. This was a luscious bit of prose to greet me on this Monday morning.

  • Chris

    You wouldn’t have to stay a hypocrite for long, if you followed the Tempter’s path. Pretty soon you would (most likely) start believing your own pitch, like L. Ron Hubbard and other founders of religions. I don’t know if that makes his offer more or less attractive, though.

    But if you want to see the problem with starting a religion that will be beneficial to humanity rather than a parasite on it, you don’t have to look any further than the differences between the teachings of Jesus and the practices of Christians today. Religions shift position over centuries, even while appearing to exhibit the most rigid dogmatism.

  • Christopher

    Response to infophile:

    I’ll beg to differ on that: sometimes the only way to destroy a monster is to become one yourself. In order to defeat irrational beliefs that have become highly organized, we must develop similair means of organization that serve equivalent functions to the religious orgs. – including a fundamentalist branch of atheism to spur on the culture war.

    We have seen the face of the enemy, and he is us…

  • http://secularplanet.blogspot.com Secular Planet

    I wish my mind were able to appreciate this entry, but I’m afraid that I cannot. I mean, it may be an absolutely brilliant piece, but I just don’t “get” prose and I find it very difficult to follow and absorb. My brain is just wired differently I suppose. I have to skip everything except the dialogue. That’s not at all to say you should ever shy away from prose, but you should know some of your readers are going to be lost.

  • http://nes-ramblings.blogspot.com/ Nes

    It’s like poetry that I can actually understand! Beautiful, Ebon.

  • Jack

    Most enjoyable. The imagery was truly vivid and evocative. When my friend Patrick (or for that matter, any prospective publisher) asks to see samples of your writing, be sure to include this piece.

    As for the difficulty and possible hopelessness of the “uphill battle” we atheists face, my optimism fluctuates. There is good evidence that there is an instinct at work in the genesis of religious belief. Instincts are powerful forces. But then I see the power that education can have, and the emergence of societies (in Europe, mostly) more secular than our own, and I think there may be hope. It’s a fascinating question, the answer is as yet unknown, and your piece poses it in a delightful way.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello all,

    Truthfully, since writing this post, I’ve come to think that the Tempter was exaggerating – no surprise there, really. Despite its apparent strength, organized religion may be more of a paper tiger than we suspect. Just look at the results from this recent Harris poll:

    Nearly half of Americans are not sure God exists, according to a poll that also found divisions among the public on whether God is male or female or whether God has a human form and has control over events.

    The survey conducted by Harris Poll found that 42 percent of US adults are not “absolutely certain” there is a God compared to 34 percent who felt that way when asked the same question three years ago.

    42 percent! Elections have been won with much less than that. Notice, also, that the number of people who feel that way is growing. And the highest percentage of people who answered the question that way can be found among the younger age groups (here’s the poll itself).

    I don’t mean to suggest that atheists are one step away from social dominance; no doubt, many of the people who are less than totally certain of God’s existence are still theists of some stripe. But what this poll shows, I think, is that those people are not unreachable. I really do wonder to what extent it’s true that the majority of people are religious only because it’s the default position in our society and because they haven’t been exposed to an alternative. If we could present a strong and clear atheist message, in a way that would directly compete with religious messages and undermine the stereotypes they disseminate, who knows how many people we might persuade? There have been other examples of once-widespread attitudes and beliefs dissipating within a few generations. So, yes, we’d be wise not to play down the strength of the forces aligned against us; but let’s not psych ourselves out by assuming that their grip on people’s minds is unbreakable. It may not be nearly as strong as it appears.

    As far as the readers who see echoes of themselves in the Tempter… I’m not terribly surprised, to be honest. There will always be some people who listen to him.

  • bassmanpete

    I didn’t mean to say that I agree with The Tempter, just that I can see that his side of the discussion would appeal to more people than yours.

    Also, I know that before I REALLY started to think seriously about this issue, if someone had said to me ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would have said ‘Yes’ because it was, as you say, the default position.

  • Joe Hardwick

    “We’re not a bunch of monkeys throwing stones at each other any more;..”…????? When was the last time you checked the news coming in from “the holy land”?

  • bassmanpete

    Just reading the latest comments & noticed that in the first one I posted I typed ‘your’ when it should have been ‘you’re’. My apologies – what’s the atheist equivalent of doing 10 Hail Marys? :)

  • Jeff T.

    One of the impressions that I received after reading ‘The God Delusion’ was that people were moral because they were programmed to believe that morality would help them to survive. This impression bothered me and I probably misunderstood his intent. I hope we are not good because we are intrinsically selfish. I hope that I am not good because I am afraid to be bad.

  • http://alabaster.wordpress.com Alabaster Crippens

    This is a wonderful piece of prose. Well written and a wonderful argument backing it up. Glad I found it, thanks a lot for posting. I’m going to have to link to it in a debate I’m having elsewhere. Hope that it proves as useful to others as it was to me

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse, I am mesmerized by your words. Perhaps I can give an interesting perspective to you and the other atheists who happen by. Before I do so, may I say that I identify strongly with the following quote:

    “I can’t discount the possibility that I’ll change my mind in the future,” I replied, “but that doesn’t affect the fact that here and now, I must make my decision based on the best evidence available to me.”

    I feel the same way. It just so happens I came to a different conclusion. What is important here is the humility of your statement. You recognize that there may be more out there and that you are just doing your best. I am the same way. I know that I may be wrong. I will not dogmatically assert my view in the face of reason. This is why I come here, Ebonmuse, I really respect your viewpoint.

    So… here is the tempter from the theist’s point of view.

    I too know the tempter. He has whispered in my ear when I have been abroad and when I rested in my home. Oddly enough he said very similar things to me, with a different spin. Instead of making me doubt faith in humankind as he did with Ebonmuse, he tried to make me doubt my faith in the possibility of God and the hope I have therein.

    The commonality I see between myself and Ebonmuse is that we both have faith in something good. Ebonmuse believes in the good of humanity and reason, I believe in a good God. The tempter tries to destroy both of these faiths and bring all to hopelesness and chaos. He would have Ebonmuse betray his better judgement, he would have me betray myself in a similar manner, by chalking my experiences with God up to a psychological disorder and giving up the thing that gives me hope.

    I do not think that the tempter takes sides. I do not think that the Tempter is the voice of religion or the voice of atheism. I believe that the Tempter works against all humanity regardless of their belief system. He takes no sides for this would mean that he is for something; but he is not. The tempter is for nothing. He is against everything. He is against that which is and is for that which is not. He seeks to bring all hope and goodness and reason and joy down into the abyss of chaos and despair.

    Whether we believe in God or not, we must fight the tempter. He is against us all. So bravo Ebonmuse for defeating the tempter. I applaud you. He is defeated and he knows it. His only hope, the hope for destruction, is no hope at all!

    With high regard,

    Matt R.

  • anti-nonsense

    as the old saying says “What is right is not always easy, what is easy is not always right’.

    The Tempter represents what is easy and immeidately expediant. It is difficult to train yourself to think morally, especially when it seems that the rest o the world would prefer to continue to be selfish and narrow-minded. It is very difficult to maintain faith in our ability to make thw world better when it seems tha nothing changes, people keep fighting the same petty fights, ignorance and poverty runs rampant. It’s hard to be hopeful in those stiutations. It is much easier to just cease to care about the troubles of the world at large. But I know one thing, whether or not we are capable of making things better, we sure aren’t going to do it by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problems of the world. Our only hope is if we can go beyond what is easy and focus on what is right and what will help solve the world’s problems.

  • freebie

    I wandered across this today while at my computer, after a pretty lousy morning, and it gave me pause and put me in the mood to reflect on things, which quickly cheered me up, because on inspection, things weren’t as bad as I thought.

    thanks for the ray of light.
    Freebie G.

  • Mobius 118

    Brilliant story, and I wonder if it’s true. There are people like that, I have met them. In my staying up late marathons, I do a lot of trolling. In that trolling, I find many atheist blogs and sites that draw me in farther into the light. I’ve had my own encounters such as this, with far more thrown back and forth.

    This short story, though, has the imagery and style of some of the great poets. You sir, are a good man, and I’ll side with you on any front. Well, any front that stands to reason.

    Like all godless bastards, I salute you, and fight with you, against the delusions of faith.


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