Return to the Desert: The Scholar

A gust of stinging wind assailed me as soon as I passed through the portal, blowing fine grit into my face. I coughed and staggered back a step, tasting a bitterness in my mouth. It was a few moments before I could clear my eyes and look up, and when I did, the lay of the land was different than it had been. Instead of steep, rising dunes, it was a flat plain of barren red and brown, cracked and crazed in unearthly patterns by the pounding of the sun. Weathered red mesas rose in the distance ahead.

This was no more than I had been expecting. It was impossible to map this trackless wasteland; no traveler was likely to find the same terrain twice. That was just as well, since I had no desire to repeat my fruitless conversations with the same people I’d encountered here last time. There were other things to explore. Shouldering my backpack and taking a firm grip on my walking stick, I set off.

Several lonely hours of walking passed without seeing another living thing. I scaled low hills and forded dry wadis, but the mesas seemed to get no nearer. Never had I seen a place so still, so dead. Not the lonely cawing of a vulture nor the slightest whisper of wind disturbed the vast silence, nor did the smallest splash of lichen or cacti interrupt the remorseless monotony of the sun-dried land.

Rather than sand, this part of the desert had a powdery soil, the color of ashes, as fine as dust. Every footstep stirred billows of it, until I was trailed by an enormous, sluggishly swirling cloud. A ragged haze drifted across the face of the sun.

I crested another rise and saw a strange vision: the earth ahead was sheeted with pale white. Snow in this desolate furnace? Then I realized the truth: it was a salt flat. Water had once flowed here, but it had been dried up for a very, very long time, leaving behind only a salty residue, and the land was parched and lifeless. But more important to me was that, in the midst of this desolation, there was a small, tumbledown stone cottage, with a roof of white-crusted slate.

I thrust open the door, and inside was a single, low room. Shafts of light rayed through tiny windows, and at the far end, a hunched, wrinkled figure was bent over a stone desk. It was clad in a faded, threadbare robe the same color as the ashy sand. Something about the cut told me it must once have been a garment of some majesty, but it had faded under the relentless chiseling of this land.

I raised a hand in greeting, but the scholar had heard the door open and turned to meet me. “Welcome, friend, to my home!” he enthused.

“Greetings!” I hailed him. “It’s good to meet you. You know, I couldn’t help but notice you’re living in the middle of a desolate salt flat. I have a home, not far from here, where there are beautiful gardens. Do you want to leave here and come back with me?”

His eyes narrowed. I saw the corners of his mouth turn down. “Are you one of those people?”

“If by that you mean I’m one of the people who want to help desert-dwellers find a more peaceful and fulfilling life, then yes, guilty as charged,” I admitted cheerfully. “So, are you interested?”

“I hope you know how rude you’re being,” he huffed. “There are millions of people who live here and don’t want to move. It’s arrogant for you to tell them differently! By what right do you claim to know better than them where they should be?”

“By the same right as everyone else has,” I replied, “the right to speak the truth as I see it and defend my point of view. You seem to think that inhabitants of the desert are owed some special respect, some unique right not to be disturbed that we don’t afford to anyone else. I say that every opinion, no matter how old and venerable, no matter how sacred it’s believed to be by its adherents, can be questioned. If it’s true, it should have nothing to fear from being asked to prove itself.”

“But you’re not questioning the right arguments!” the scholar cried triumphantly. “I know your sort. You’re ignorant, brutish, uneducated. You don’t care to know anything about what you ridicule. The arguments for staying in the desert that you attack are pitifully simplistic. There are much more sophisticated arguments for staying right where I am that you never talk about – they’re all in those books!”

He pointed to one corner of the house, where a squat, blocky mass sat in the shadows. I looked hard at it. It could have been a stack of books; it had the right rectangular shape. But the leather bindings, if that was what they were, were fragile and spiderwebbed with cracks, and the whole mound was thickly encrusted under a layer of salt deposits.

“I don’t think anyone has so much as opened those books in decades, if not longer,” I observed. “We could debate all day about what’s in them, but whatever they say, those obscure arguments clearly aren’t why most people who live in the desert are here. Most of them are here because they were born here, it’s all they know, and they’ve never thought much about it beyond that. It may be courtly manners where you come from to ignore those people, but the truth is, they’re the vast majority. I haven’t come to talk to the tiny minority of scholars like yourself – I’ve come to talk to those people, the majority, and to deal with the reasons they actually present for staying. Those beliefs are the ones that cause the most harm, to themselves and others, and those are the beliefs I’ve come to engage.”

“You’re not helping,” he said petulantly. “My goal is to make the people of the desert happy where they are. I go out every day to tell them that they don’t need to leave.”

“And who says I’m supposed to be helping you? What makes you think that our goals are the same? My goal is simple, as I’ve told you: to speak the truth as I see it. Everything else is secondary to that. If I truly believe that the garden is better, why should I not say so? Yes, I may step on some people’s toes; true, I may never be the most popular person in the desert. I’ll probably never be a scholar like you and live,” I added, glancing around the dark interior of the little house, “in luxury like this. And that’s fine with me. Besides, don’t the people of the desert deserve a chance to make up their own minds? I want to show them that there are alternatives and let them make up their own minds. You want to protect them from views that don’t agree with theirs. You called me arrogant, but don’t you think that you’re being the arrogant one?”

The scholar frowned. He hunched deeper into the shadows. “You’re just making the people of the desert hate you and turn away from you. When you come to argue with them, when you criticize them and ridicule them, you’re showing that you don’t respect their deep convictions about wanting to stay here. Those tactics just make them want to stay where they are even more.”

I smiled. “Friend, I’m sorry to be blunt, but you’re being cowardly. You’re acting as if people’s opinions are immutable, as if they can never be convinced to move from where they are. That’s not true. I’ve seen it happen – not all the time, of course, but probably more often than you think. For all your talk about respect, has it occurred to you that I respect these people more than you do? I treat them as adults who can listen to persuasion, who can rationally consider contrary arguments and make up their own minds, and who can be criticized when they do wrong. You treat them as if they were children who need you to shelter them from possibly upsetting truths for their own good. I don’t doubt that I may say things some people would rather not hear, but you know what? I make no apologies for that.”

But I wasn’t finished. “As for the ones who won’t listen, well, trust me, they don’t need any prompting to hate and fear us. They already despise people from the garden, regardless of what we say or don’t say. They’ve always been taught that we’re the villains, intruders from a strange, frightening, far-away land. If we stay silent, if we hold back out of some misguided notion of politeness, all we accomplish is to permit those hurtful stereotypes to survive and flourish. If we come out here, if we speak up and introduce ourselves, we may at least make some of them realize that we’re not the monsters they’ve been told we are. You talk as if we have to leave them alone or they’ll fall on us in a great wave. Do you not see that that’s already happening? They’ve already organized against us. They’re already trying to spread their desert into my garden. They started this fight, not me. Can you blame me for defending myself? Speech is the only weapon I have, and I intend to use it. Whose side will you be on?”

I waited for a reply, but none was forthcoming. The scholar was a hunched shape in the shadows, his back turned to me. Clearly, in his mind, this conversation was over.

“I see you’ve made up your mind,” I murmured, and turned to depart. A bitter wind swirled around me as I left the shack, pulling the door shut behind me and plunging the interior into darkness.

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.

  • Izkata

    Yes, go door-to-door and proselytize about the atheistic Garden of Eden…

    Wait, what?

  • NoAstronomer

    I love these essays. I’m convinced you have a superb book in the making here.

    Mike.

  • Nathaniel

    An excellent fictionalization of the courtier’s reply.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Based on a true story, with real events and real people.

    It is amazing how much you can get by with saying that (I still note that “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” proudly claims “Based on a True Story” on my edition).

    A great cautionary tale. The rainy season will return to the desert one day, I can hope.

  • Joffan

    Well Zietlos, hopefully the people will experience rain; but they may need to move out of the desert for that.

    Depends on your interpretation of the imagery, I guess.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Desert… A fitting analogy, I suppose, for they have parched the marvelous wellspring of the human mind. I must say, though, I was expecting something more political in light of the date, on yours and PZ Myers’ sites.

  • paizlea

    Nice story, but any religious person could very well think it was written by one of them. They’re trying to save atheists from the desert of faithlessness.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I don’t usually write in this format, but at this time of year, it seems appropriate – and it’s fun to take a break from the way I usually do things around here and tell a story in a somewhat more imaginative setting.

    Based on a true story, with real events and real people.

    Heh. Actually, Zietlos, I’d preface this series with the standard Hollywood disclaimer, “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” ;)

    The rainy season will return to the desert one day, I can hope.

    What a lovely image! Yes, we can hope. As I mentioned in one of the posts about my previous trip to the desert, there are ruins to be found here – the crumbling foundations of great, ancient cities. I’m not prepared to rule out the possibility that the desert was once a very different place than it is now.

    Nice story, but any religious person could very well think it was written by one of them. They’re trying to save atheists from the desert of faithlessness.

    A fair point, paizlea. Allegory is a viper in that respect – it can turn around and bite at its creator. Still, I think there are aspects of this story that can’t easily be fitted into the proselytizer’s narrative of the world. And the next encounter, I hope, will leave no doubt who’s playing what role.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Oooh, a sequel again! I look forward to it! :)


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