The Godless Life

By Keith Kloor | August 17, 2011 7:52 am

Despite my many faults, I’m a nice guy. I can be too sarcastic for some, and lately I’ve been cranky because of a growing sleep deficit, but those who know me know I’m a caring, good-natured person.

This is not meant to sound self-serving. Think of it as background context for the anecdote I’m about to share.

So I have an out-of-town cousin staying with us this month. She’s 25, bubbly, very sweet, and hoping to make her mark in NYC as a singer. She’s crashing on our living room couch until she finds a place of her own. I’ve known her since she was a toddler. Her family has treated me like one of their own since I was a boy. I have a deep bond with them. There’s a lot of love and respect between us. My 25 year old cousin knows this.

For a few moments yesterday, she couldn’t find her checkbook amidst the clutter of our living room, where kids toys now share space with her sprawling luggage (and impressive shoe collection). She was getting a little frantic. Then, presto, there it was behind the couch. “Thank you, Jesus!” she exclaimed.

I couldn’t resist. “What did he have to do with you finding it?” I asked, trying hard not to smirk.

It was just an expression, she said, but since I asked, she told me that she recently had her faith in God affirmed after a few health scares. (She is half-Jewish, half Christian.)  “My prayers were answered,” she explains.

I tell her I’m skeptical of such things, since I wonder why God would answer her prayers but not those from other people who are in dire straits and just as worthy as her.

She said that God must have his reasons. “Don’t you believe in God,” she asked?

No, I said. I’m an atheist.

A look of horror and shock spread across my cousin’s face. As if I wasn’t the same person she thought I was. I could see that she was trying to reconcile the good soul I am thought to be with the confessed heathen. How could they be one and the same?

I share this anecdote because coincidentally, a collide-a-scape commenter from yesterday explained the religiosity of American politicians this way:

Americans expect and are comforted if our leaders believe in a Power greater than themselves. That they have a known and familiar set of guiding moral principles in which they follow. Another way to look at it is we want some proof that our politicians have a conscience.

This association of personal morality with belief in God (widely held, especially among Christians) is something I reject. I know I have a conscience and that I am guided by a firm set of moral principles, though I am sure my cousin is now suddenly doubtful of this.

I decided to be playful with her and see how far my star had fallen. I told her that I used to debate a group of super polite born-again Christians in college, who tried hard to get me to see the light. It was no use. They had ruefully said I was going to hell, but that they would still pray for my soul. It was almost touching how badly they felt for me.

I asked my cousin if she too thought I was a condemned man.

“No, I don’t think you’re going to hell,” she said. “But you can’t get into heaven. You’ll just be in purgatory.”

Bless her heart.

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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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