My Friend, The Atheist

You ever come across someone who is just an asshole? Not necessarily a bad person from the social or global perspective, but the kind of person that could be described as insensitive, abrasive, and rude.  My buddy Mike (name changed to protect the innocent) is not that guy. He is actually probably one of the best people I know. When I first met him, five years ago, I was carrying a huge heavy box of stuff to my car and trying to open my truck without setting the box down because it would be harder to pick back up if I did. Mike comes along and waves saying “Mind if I help?” and after I oblige he grabs the box, allowing me to open the trunk, and sets it into the car.  Then he proceeds to ask if I need any help moving the rest of the stuff.  This guy seemed so genuine and concerned that I let him help me with the rest of the move. As an offer of gratitude he let me buy him lunch, we talked as we ate and Mike was more than attentive. He seemed to hang on my every word, nodding empathetically, and looking with concentration as I spoke.

I’ll describe him, because it helps illustrate my perspective. Mike was a lean brunette with a beard like a lumberjack and scruffy hair that you could tell was recently cut but not particularly styled at that time. It was a Saturday and he was dressed like any  you might find in say, umm, Echo Park (haha). He had a sort of James Dean thing going, wearing a plain white T-Shirt, dark denim cuffed outward showing off his classic Vans. He looked like an off duty rock-a-billy extra but it turns out he was an aspiring photographer. Mike was so nice it was kind of creepy. I couldn’t get my head around what his motive was. Why was he helping me? I suppose we all have a cynical side that is skeptical about people that seem extraordinarily helpful. At first, I thought maybe he was attracted to me (my ego is uncanny), but that was not the case. Then I thought that he was buttering me up for some big favor or something and this was his soft sell. Finally, it hit me MIKE MUST BE RELIGIOUS, he must be Mormon, or Christian, or Buddhist, or something right? Because he was so overly helpful and asked for nothing in return it must be that his God had compelled him to “Love thy neighbor.”

So straight up asked him if he was a church guy or not and why he was helping me. “Oh no, I have never been religious.”  Now I know that in Los Angeles, most people are often reserved about expressing their religious views and claiming faith but he said he wasn’t even spiritual.  Mike told me he didn’t believe in Karma, or fate, or metaphysics, and hadn’t really ever thought about a particular guiding belief system for his life. For me, this was mind boggling, I guess I had never come in contact with a real life atheist, at least not anyone who didn’t proclaim it. I had come across people that had stickers made by the best printer for vinyl stickers on their car with the little fishes that had feet on them, and they were pretty frank about the non existence of God. Never had I come in contact with someone who was so calm about it that  it actually seemed like a spiritual clarity. We got to know each other better over the next few years and I was perpetually curious about his beliefs and up bringing.

Had I met the first atheist monk?! This dude was Zed-ned out but not associated with Zen at all. I got very confused by his life philosophy.  Mike didn’t believe that he had a soul, but not in a morbid sense. It was just not an idea that he had ever been exposed to. Mike was home schooled in Seattle, and his parents were sort of ” Hippy-ish” to use his language, but they never really talked about God or souls or anything at all. He was not raised to disbelieve  in God but also not raised to believe either. From schooling and general culture he was aware that some people believed in God or gods, and that was okay but not something he “Got into.” He explained it the way I would explain seeing dinosaurs on TV growing up but never actually seeing a real dinosaur. Mike, didn’t feel strongly one way or another about other people’s beliefs in God at all but he had never experienced God and so it was not one of the beliefs he held. Mike had been to church a few times, while dating a girl who insisted he go with her, but he described it like being in a class. A class that had prerequisites he somehow missed. “Some of the stuff made sense to me, but a lot of it just went over my head.”

So what did Mike belief in? Or rather, why in the hell was he such a nice guy!? If you study theology you might call him an atheist,if you study philosophy and ethics Mike could best be described as being a humanist even though he doesn’t claim those titles either. If you ask Mike, he’ll say “I just live man, I try to treat people as best as I can.”  If you ask him why, he say “Because it makes me feel good.”  We’ve had long conversations about our beliefs, my perspective on the soul and eternity, and Mike concedes that it sounds beautiful and could actually be possible. Still, in the most natural way, it is not something he subscribes to.

Mike, get’s sad and lonely like everyone else, he creates art, his life doesn’t seem unfulfilled in anyway that I could recognize compared to my own. He even has a girlfriend now that he is in love with. So I asked him, if you don’t believe in God, do you believe in marriage? “Of course.” he said, and I thought that was funny because my concept of marriage was two people being united under God forever, (and ever). His was a little different, Mike describes marriage as ceremony that marks a commitment between two people to love and support each, indefinitely. Are you reading this? No not “forever” but “indefinitely”.

Mike’s world view is incredibly simple, fundamentally hedonistic in some way but rooted personal code of ethics. There is no religion or divine entity asserting morality upon him, it springs up from within him as a product of his upbringing and experience. I finally asked him recently, why he stopped to help me, of all people that might need help that day, and how he navigates which causes to get behind and his life trajectory in general. He had this to say.

  You say that I saw “you” but I didn’t know enough about you to recognize the person I now know you to be. Instead I saw a person, a guy, a human being, like myself, that was struggling. My decision to help was equal parts reflexive and calculated. I think we are empathetic beings who, through our imagination and emotions, can feel what others feel. I just put my self in your shoes, and if i were holding that box, I would have needed help. At the same time, I wasn’t doing anything that day, you said “Thanks”, we are about the same age, and I like meeting new people, so I decided to stick around.  Had I been in a rush, I might have still helped with the box but then continued on my way. If I had been distracted, I probably wouldn’t have helped at all. It was circumstantial that I helped “you” but I would have helped anyone at all. As to the conditions that created that circumstance, fate, fortune, or coincidence, I am not sure. The books I read don’t have those answers, but fortunately for both of us, the ones you read do.