I have a remarkable story to share with you all:
Last Friday, I had made plans to go out with some friends after work. At the end of the day, I debated whether to go and meet them directly or whether to go back to my apartment first and change, but I ultimately decided to go home first. The subway was jam-packed, and the first train that arrived was too crowded to get on. Likewise the second. I was getting impatient and determined not to miss the third, so I went all the way down to the end of the platform and managed to squeeze onto the very last car when it arrived.
I almost always read on the train. This week, I’ve been reading The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville, which I was solicited to review by the publisher. I was standing in the subway car and reading it, not thinking much about what I was doing, when I felt a touch on my arm.
It was a woman, a stranger, who looked to be about my age. “Sorry to disturb you, but what is that you’re reading?” she asked.
“See for yourself,” I said, and gave her the book so she could read the publisher’s blurb on the back.
She read it, then gave it back to me. “Are you an atheist?”
“Yes, I am,” I said. “I have been since college. Why? What are you?”
“I’m an atheist, too. A new one. I was a Christian for over thirty years, and I just became an atheist, but I don’t know any other atheists yet. What I’ve been trying to find out is if there can be spirituality in atheism.” She went on to explain that she had read Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and was currently reading Richard Dawkins, and while she agreed with most of what they had to say, she wanted to know more about if there was a positive side to atheism and whether atheists had any kind of community. She said that she had been looking ever since she left her church, but hadn’t found anything like that yet.
It turned out that she was going to the Bronx, much farther than me, so I jotted down my e-mail address and gave it to her. “There are sources of community for atheists! You have to know where to look, but there are whole worlds out there that most people don’t even know about – sources of community, positive writings and philosophy. Myself, I believe an atheist can be a very spiritual person, if that term is defined the right way without recourse to the supernatural. Send me an e-mail and I’d be happy to talk about it with you!”
And that’s where things stand. I did get that e-mail, and pointed my new friend and fellow truth-seeker toward some writings I thought she might want to know about, including a few of my own (he said immodestly) and some essays by Robert Ingersoll. I told her about this website, too, so perhaps she may want to show up and identify herself.
If I had been a Christian, and a string of coincidences such as this had orchestrated my meeting a new fellow believer seeking to grow in the faith, our encounter would almost certainly be appearing on apologetics websites by now as proof of the unfolding of divine providence. For a wide variety of good reasons, I doubt anyone will ever make such a claim about the events that actually happened. I don’t think this was anything more than a coincidence, albeit an amazing and striking one. But as atheists’ numbers grow, coincidences like this one become more and more likely. So let me say this: Don’t ever hide that you’re an atheist. Don’t be ashamed of who you are. You never know when you may meet a fellow nonbeliever, one seeking aid or advice of some kind that you’re personally qualified to give. We do have reason to spread the good news of atheism, and we do have reason to establish a true community of freethought and reason. Chance encounters like mine are just the first step.