I awoke from my sleep with a start.
It had been a long and wearisome day. I had turned in early, as the late autumn light waned from the sky, and it was now dark and deep outside my window. But now something had roused me, and I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone.
I went from room to room, searching for intruders. At first glance, my home seemed silent and empty. The Observatory was silent, its holographic displays a pale flickering in the darkness. The screens in the Rotunda were banked to a dim blue glow. The Library was wrapped in shadow, its shelves of books motionless and still, and through its high windows, the Garden slumbered in the depths of fall, yellow and black, with only a few tiny jack-o-lanterns glimmering in the moonless night. I checked the empty Foyer, where the fireplace had died to a few feeble embers, and was about to put it down to a stray dream and return to bed – when something caught my eye. Up above in the Loft, a light was on.
I climbed the stairs and emerged into the room. In the far corner, at my writing desk, a reading lamp cast a pool of yellow light from its green shade. Someone was sitting at the desk, his back to me.
I was not taken entirely by surprise. I had almost been expecting it, given the date. But this time, I was going to take the lead. Anger rising, I crossed the room… and then the person in the chair turned around, and it was not who I had expected.
My opening accusation died into surprise. “You— Who are you?”
My unexpected visitor smiled. “Not who you expected, perhaps?”
Then, although his countenance did not change, I looked more deeply at him – saw him suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted away, and I knew who he was after all.
“You look different this time,” I observed.
The Tempter smiled a slow, lazy smile. “Of course.”
I tried to hide my astonishment. The Tempter was here. He had not accosted me while I was traveling, or in the wild; he had come here, to my home, to confront me. It was either a bold show of confidence or a risky gamble, and I wasn’t sure which. I knew he was going to challenge me, but I had to get in a question before he did. “Last year, in the wilderness on the way home from the desert, I met a stranger. He looked – and sounded – a lot like you. Was he?”
He shrugged. “One of my shadows, perhaps. But that’s not why I’m here. I trust you’ve had much to think about since last we met. I’ve brought some new ideas for you to consider.”
Once the Tempter has found you, there’s no way to get him to leave without hearing him out. “Fine. I’m ready.”
“Are you now.” He grinned that patient, amused smile again. “We’ll see. I hear there’s an election coming up soon. Hopeful, are you?”
“The polls say—” I began, but he waved me to silence. “I’m not interested in polls. It’s not specific candidates I care about, but a more general conclusion I want to establish.”
“And that is?”
“The pundits and the media say this is a ‘change’ election. And it does look good for your side, I have to admit. But have you ever considered how much ever changes because of an election, really?”
“Of course things change because of elections. Are you really denying that?”
“Yes, I am.” His teeth glinted as he grinned. “The excitement that always comes with elections may have temporarily overpowered your good sense, but the day after the votes are cast, you’ll come back to earth. The truth is that politics is a series of disappointments, and it always will be. The nature of the system practically guarantees it – it ensures that the only candidates who get into office are the ones who are most willing to do the bidding of the establishment and exploit popular prejudices. It rewards politicians who appeal to the worst in all of us – and it works, you know. Nothing unites people like a common enemy, and as far as most of them are concerned, you’re that enemy. Those ads you ridiculed are more effective than you think they’ll be. And the allegedly progressive ones aren’t much better. Most of them are apathetic, bought and paid for; you know as well as I do how much of a disappointment they’ve been. And when it comes to religion, they pander to delusion just as much as their opponents. They’d never welcome you to their side. In fact, they’re probably embarrassed by your support and would gladly shut you up if they could.”
“It wasn’t like that with Robert Ingersoll.”
“Those were different times, and he was a rare exception. Every era has its flukes.”
“Be that as it may. Even granting that much of what you say is true, I think you’ve misconstrued my position. I’m not saying that atheists are welcomed in the halls of power now. I know we’re not. Religious prejudice is still much too common. I see our mission differently: effecting change not from the top down, but from the bottom up. With time and patience, we can win enough support and sympathy that politicians will have to acknowledge us. That’s the same template that successful social reform movements have followed in the past. Surely not even you can deny that we’ve made progress. What about women’s suffrage? Ending segregation?”
“That we have made progress, I don’t deny,” the Tempter said. “But I doubt whether we can so easily extrapolate this, as you do, to the conclusion that progress will continue. Just because past reform movements have been successful, it doesn’t follow that all future ones will be successful. And I think you’re going up against an opponent that’s far more powerful and well-entrenched than those past movements were.”
“I don’t doubt that the atheist revolution will be quieter than previous revolutions, and that it may take longer,” I said softly. “But it’s no less real in spite of that.”
“Ahh,” the Tempter said, a thoughtful hiss. “And that leads into an excellent point. I want to correct a misconception in your thinking – one that skews your opinion without your being aware of it.”
“And that is?” I said cautiously.
“You wrote recently of what you call ‘the bubble‘ – the way religious groups surround themselves with the like-minded. I think that essay hit closer to home than you realized. We’re all far more sensitive to flaws in others than those same flaws in ourselves, and this is a perfect example. Don’t you have a bubble too? You seek out rational, skeptical people; you read their writings daily, you immerse yourself in their thinking, you surround yourself with them. Understandably so – but that colors your thinking. You look out and see so many people who think like you, and it makes you think the whole world works like that. In reality, you and your allies are a vanishing minority in a sea of obstinate, ignorant faith.”
“Yes, but I think you consider that acknowledgement just a footnote,” the Tempter said pointedly, “a side consideration to an otherwise well-positioned and successful movement. In fact, it’s the major obstacle facing you, and one that can very easily block whatever change you might seek. Think about it: there are churches on every street. They’re woven into the fabric of society, from major cities to tiny towns. They all have congregations that meet every Sunday to receive their orders. What can atheists possibly offer to match that?”
“Organization makes people more visible and makes them appear more numerous,” I persisted. “And you can’t just imply that everyone in the pews is a brainwashed fundamentalist. The larger a group becomes, the more diverse its membership gets, and the more impossible it becomes to enforce one belief or ideology on every member. I know there’s a hardened core of fundamentalists, but I think a large portion – maybe the majority – are there just because it’s the default choice. We can sway them – and that’s the value of that bubble you referred to. I prefer to call it speaking with one voice, myself. The more we speak out, the more we can peel these people off. Our efforts absolutely do have the potential to have a far greater impact than our numbers would suggest – not that those numbers are so bad, anyway.”
“Deftly spoken,” the Tempter said, grinning. He stood from the desk, rising so his shadow streamed out against the light behind him. “There’s that optimism I mentioned. You’ve done a marvelous job convincing yourself, I don’t doubt. But, again, you’re underestimating how easy this mission will be. Even if there isn’t ideological unanimity, most of those people in the pews have been religious so long it’s sunk into their bones. It’s part of their identity. Tell them to abandon it? You might as well try to persuade them to get a sex change! They like where they are, and except for a few outcasts, most of them will never budge.”
“Change in society’s opinion doesn’t come about by mass conversions among the old guard. It comes from new generations who’ve grown up with new ideas and are comfortable with them. That’s just a fact of human nature, but it’s one we can work with.”
“I think you aspire to more than generational change,” the Tempter said accusingly. “Don’t try to change your position now. But even if I were inclined to grant your point, that’s where that bubble you spoke of works against you. The vast majority of believers live in isolated, insular worlds. They’ll never hear of your message, or if they will, it will only be as a background annoyance, a boogeyman tossed off from the pew. You still underestimate – by far – just how durable received opinion is. Sure, you may chip off a few flakes. But that’s not what you dream of. You dream of an avalanche of change, a new wave of enlightenment. That’s a foolish, self-deluding dream, and it’s not going to happen, not in your lifetime or any other. Those little scratches you’re making aren’t even enough to hurt. If anything, you’re doing the religious cause a favor by giving them a visible enemy, and as I said, nothing unites people like that.” He moved forward, looming over me. His grin grew wider. “Face it: you’re not making a difference.”
I bowed my head. “What did you say?” I asked quietly.
“You’re not making a difference,” the Tempter said emphatically.
I looked up, meeting his eyes. “Say that again.”
The Tempter seemed to hesitate. “I meant what I said. You’re not making a difference.”
I took a step forward, into the pool of light from the lamp. “No difference? Really?”
“I acknowledge your point only as far as this,” I said, advancing. “If we only talk to each other, we may underestimate the difficulty of what we’ve set out to accomplish. We have to be careful of that. But atheists, unlike believers, don’t have a bubble. How could we? We don’t have a single leader or authoritative text. We disagree with each other, often emphatically. And we don’t isolate ourselves. On the contrary, we set out to engage with the world, to confront different perspectives. We welcome the debate. And when we take that light into dark places, it does make a difference. And do you want to know how I know that?”
The Tempter stared at me, but I didn’t wait for his reply. “I know it because they tell us so. I hear from them when they realize they’re not alone. I hear from them when they find the courage to stand up for themselves. I hear from them when they leave darkness behind and make the journey to reason. Look past the uniformity of the crowd; they’re out there, and there are more of them than you think.”
The Tempter took a step back. I advanced further, pressing my attack. “Have I entertained thoughts of leading a revolution? Of course. Who doesn’t daydream? But I know those are fantasies. The most important work is always done at the individual level, one person to another. I’ve always said I’ll consider my work well served if I could affect even one other person’s life, and I have. But there’s more to be done. How many more people do you think are out there like the ones I’ve spoken to? How many more are waiting for us to bring that message to them? They’re ready, if only we can reach them. And that’s why I write, that’s what I’m fighting for. It’s not to shake the foundations of society, not to make the mighty tremble – it’s for the sake of compassion. That’s something you’ll never understand.”
I stepped forward to deliver the coup de grace, but it wasn’t necessary. The Tempter, a look of mingled astonishment and defiance on his face, froze and then faded into shadow. I was alone in my study, standing in the little golden pool of light on the edge of darkness.
For a moment I stood there, and then something new came to my senses. There was a faint light creeping in around the edges of the world, softening shadows, turning the black to pale gray. I shut off the lamp, then went to the window and pulled the shutters open. The world still lay in silent dreams, but along the horizon, the first glimmers of gold were rising. The dawn was coming, and light was returning to the world.