A Dialogue with the Tempter

At the end of a long and weary day, with the last drops of twilight bleeding out of the darkening midsummer sky, I turned my key in the lock of my front door. I set my bags down, stepped inside… and paused, one foot on the threshold. I was certain I had shut off all the lights before leaving that morning, but my home wasn’t fully dark. From the door of my office came the unmistakable blue glow of a computer screen, and in that harsh light, I could see a long shadow thrown on the wall.

Gathering my courage, I stepped into the room. There was a stranger sitting at my desk, silhouetted in the glow of the monitor, his eyes and teeth visible as bright glints in a face full of shadow. But his profile was familiar, and it took me only a moment to recognize it as so very like my own… and then he swiveled his chair to face me, smiling over steepled fingers.

“Good evening,” said the Tempter.

My first heart-pounding jolt of adrenaline had already melted into the peaceful familiarity of dreams. “Make yourself at home, why don’t you,” I said dryly.

“Thank you, I already have.” He chuckled. “You’ve been working late. I thought I would do you a favor.”

He beckoned at the screen. I glanced at it and saw what he had typed. “This is… you want me to publish this?”

“But of course. I know how you hate to fall behind on your writing.”

“Some of this phrasing looks familiar,” I said, scanning his half-written essay. An uncomfortable realization was creeping over me. “I think you had a hand in some of my last few essays. I think you were holding the pen sometimes.”

He grinned, saying nothing. The light glinted white off his teeth.

“I should have known,” I muttered. “I’ve encountered you too many times not to realize when it’s your hand on my shoulder.”

“And yet,” the Tempter said reasonably, “what have I said that was untrue? Didn’t I tell you the last time we met that elections don’t bring change? And now, a few years later, look where we stand. Was I right, or was I right? I know you consider me your enemy, but I’m really not. Think of me as the part of you that tells you the hard truths you don’t want to hear. I’m your inner skeptic, the one who keeps you from straying into self-delusion.”

“And what is this truth that I don’t want to hear?”

“You cherish the thought of a world in which the wealthy will be benevolent, in which power will be freely shared. It doesn’t work like that; it never has and it never will. The wealthy want to accumulate more wealth, the powerful want to gain more power. That’s the one great truth of human nature you persist in denying. Ironic, isn’t it, since you so often excoriate religious theology for being built on a false conception of human nature?” He smiled lazily. “All I ask is that you acknowledge this. Doing anything else is like repeatedly sticking your hand into a fire. You’ll get burned every time. You can help a few people, your family and friends, maybe. I’m not denying that. But to cling to the hope of making any larger change, that’s just a fool’s dream.”

“We went through this last time, didn’t we?” I parried. “Not even you can deny that progress does happen. People do change their minds. From an individual vantage point it seems glacially slow, but on the time scale of history, it’s incredibly obvious.”

“I don’t deny that change happens in unusual and isolated cases,” he said. “When the time and the place are right, when a thousand other random factors line up in just the right way, it can happen. But we neither understand, nor can we create, the conditions that bring it about. And when we try to force it, all we get is chaos and disaster. Look at what’s going on in the Middle East. They rose up to demand democracy, and what has it brought them? Civil war and disintegration, people being beaten or slaughtered or raped, economies even more depressed and stagnant than before, and Islamic theocrats winning elections when they hold them. You call this progress? Defenders of free speech being shot down in the streets. You call this progress? Skeptics and atheists being punished and imprisoned for debunking people’s comforting delusions, or even just for existing. You call this progress?”

“I would be foolish to claim that there’s no evil in the world,” I acknowledged. “I see things every day in the news that depress or outrage me. That’s why I’m driven to write in the first place, as you well know. Nor did I ever say that social change was as easy as riding an escalator. There are always setbacks, local reversals. There’s a lot in the Middle East that doesn’t look hopeful, it’s true. But then again, democracy is a hard thing to get right. Every other country that’s become a democracy went through convulsions just like this. Sometimes it took several tries. Some of them, including this one, had civil wars!

“But I think people, in general, are more good than evil. The biggest obstacle to our progress is superstition – false beliefs about the nature of the world that persuade them to do evil in the mistaken belief that they’re doing good. In almost every case I’ve seen, when they shed those beliefs, people really do treat others better. That’s what you always miss – evil comes from ignorance, and ignorance can be corrected! It’s not going to end all our problems, but it’s a big step forward, and I think it’s one that’s worth fighting for.”

The Tempter let out a long, slow breath. “Ahh. I’ll grant that the majority of people aren’t actively malicious; you and I both know we could never build a stable society if that were the case. But I think what you miss is that they aren’t actively good either. By and large, they’re simply apathetic. They don’t care about injustice, as long as it’s not happening to them, and even then, they’ll usually rather put up with it than try to change it. You noticed yourself – maybe with a little help from me,” he added with a low laugh, “that so many of them don’t even bother to vote. Why do you think that is?

“You think they don’t have the time? You think they mean to, but forget? Year after year, they forget? How very unfortunate.” His tone was singsong now, mocking. “Please. Don’t be naive. It’s because they just don’t care: either they’ve given up, or it never mattered to them to start with. Face it, all the political issues you’re so passionate about – they’re a niche interest. The majority of people think of politics as weather – things in their life just change from time to time, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but not predictably or for any reason. They don’t know the real causes of what’s going on, and they don’t want to know. They’re not involved because they don’t want to be involved.”

“In times of prosperity, I think people do tune out of politics,” I admitted. “But when things get bad, when the times demand action, they rise to the challenge. Just look at the headlines these last few years. Sure, we’re seeing disappointments. We’re seeing oligarchies cracking down, old guards trying to reassert themselves. But we’re also seeing people, ordinary people, take to the streets and take a hand in shaping their own destinies, in ways they haven’t done in decades. They’re realizing how much power they have if they choose to exercise it.”

The Tempter scoffed. “Those democratic protests, whether they’re crowds in the Middle East or people sitting in city squares in the U.S. and Europe, aren’t the will of the people. It’s not a tidal wave of ordinary citizens ready to rise up and change the course of their democracy, as I know you imagine. In reality, it’s a tiny minority of the disaffected making noise, and even they have no real plan for what they want to accomplish. Disgruntlement isn’t a political platform. And if by some miracle they did seize power, they’d soon descend into squabbling and authoritarianism just like their precursors did. It’s not an unfortunate fluke that this keeps happening, it’s inherent to your psychology. Face it: human nature is something you can’t change. The more you struggle against this, the worse off you’ll be.”

And just like that, I saw through him. “Oh, you wily Tempter,” I said, almost with admiration. “I see what you’re trying to do. You attack people in so many ways. If you can’t appeal to their pessimism, you appeal to their optimism. Raise their hopes high so you can dash them. Persuade them they can pick up the world so they’ll be crushed when they can’t budge it. Encourage them to take every evil as a personal affront, so they’ll be devastated by the ones they can’t prevent.

“I know I can’t change the world singlehandedly,” I went on. “How could I? No one can do that, not billionaires, not people with much bigger platforms than me. The world is a huge place, with a lot of inertia, and it takes a heavy shove over a long period of time to change its course. I can’t move it myself, no matter where I stand or how long my lever. All I can do is join in when I see other people pushing, add to their effort however I can, and not torture myself with all the things that are beyond my power. Sometimes I forget this, I know, and when I do, I need to be reminded of it. If I ever fail to temper my optimism with realism, if I ever fall into the trap of believing I can fix everything myself, I trust you’ll be there to disabuse me of that notion. But for now, you’ve taken your best shot, and I don’t have to answer you any further. It’s time for you to leave my house.”

“You can’t get rid of me forever, you know,” he said menacingly. “Whether you see me or not, I’ll always be whispering in your ear. I’ll always come back, and when you least expect it, I’ll find my way in again.”

“I’m well aware of that,” I said. “Now get out.”

In mid-glare, the Tempter flickered, and the room was suddenly empty. My computer monitor was dark and quiescent, and I was alone in a silent house.

With a sigh, I sat down in the chair so abruptly vacated. I turned on the lamp, instantly filling the room with warm light. With the press of a button, my computer screen shimmered into life, and I slid out the keyboard and began typing. There was much more that had to be said before I could rest.

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.


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