Friday, June 17, 2011

The Atheist

A completely different personality from the zealot, the atheist served aboard the Hayes during part of her long layup at company headquarters in Bayonne, New Jersey.  He was a caretaker night mate on the 4:00pm to midnight shift.  All who knew him would agree that he needed a caretaker to take care of him.

The Hayes was docked on the south side of the long peninsula that jutted out from Bayonne proper into the Upper New York Bay.  Warehouses, offices, railroad sidings, and parking areas occupied most of this peninsula.  Our company offices were located in one of these buildings.  Despite the Hayes’ proximity—she was within walking distance—the office folks paid scant attention to her.  Several buildings stood between them and the Hayes, and with little to nothing going on aboard the ship, they had little to no incentive to check up on things.  The crewmen, then, left on their own with no one really in charge, soon took on the appearance of a group of vagrants.

The atheist maintained even more of a ragamuffin demeanor than anyone else.  Unlike some of the others, he just would let himself go to seed for long stretches of time.  A casual passer-by would never guess that he was the mate of the watch aboard the Hayes.  The rest of the crew just laughed it off.  But even with this atmosphere of extreme informality that sometimes crossed the line into slovenliness, most of the guys knew that there was a time and a place for everything.  Hence, all but the atheist were clean shaven and decently dressed on Sundays, whether or not they attended church.

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, our friend came aboard the Hayes for his shift dressed and groomed to his customary standards. The engineer on duty, a church-attending Lutheran, had already come aboard fully cleaned up and neatly attired.  When he saw the mate, he shook his head in disgust.  Unable to laugh it off on such a day, he spoke up.

“Come on, now,” he implored.  “Can’t you do any better than that?  It’s Easter Sunday!  It’s the most important day of the year!  Can’t you clean up and put on some fresh clothes for just this one day?  It’s Easter Sunday!  Have a little respect!”

“Huh!” grumbled the mate in reply.  “I don’t believe any of that religious garbage.  I’m an atheist.  It’s just another day.  I ain’t gettin’ dressed up for it.”

Crestfallen, the engineer dropped the subject and walked away shaking his head.  A few hours later, he tried once again to work religion into a conversation with the mate, but this effort only accomplished a deadlock.  The engineer could not understand how anyone could not believe in God, and the mate could not understand how anyone could believe in God.

A few months later, the mate went into the medical office at headquarters for his annual physical exam.  A heavy smoker, he got into trouble with the medical staff when a chest x-ray indicated a spot on one of his lungs.  Against his wishes, he was relieved of his duties aboard the Hayes and sent to the Bayonne Hospital for treatment.  Tragically, however, it was too late.  Surgery and subsequent chemotherapy could not arrest the cancer, and a year later the mate died.

A thinking person cannot help but wonder about this situation.  At the end of this man’s life, what did he have to look forward to?  Was this life, with all its sadness and suffering, the best that he would ever have?  How could anyone go through life believing this and be happy?  As a matter of fact, this man’s personal life was not very happy.  He lived alone, had no family and no real friends, and outside of work spoke only with a few casual acquaintances.  Except for his limited duties aboard the Hayes, he had no real purpose in life.  He had no one and nothing to give purpose and meaning to his life.  Additionally, with no faith in a Supreme Being and no hope for a better life to follow this one, he not only had nothing to live for, but also had nothing to gain by dying.  How sad.

When I learned about this man’s situation in life and his attitude toward religion, I recognized immediately that this was not the way the Lord intended his children to live.  Far from being mere “religious garbage,” faith in God gives people a purpose in life.  It gives them a sense of what is important and what isn’t.  It gives them a reason to lead good lives and a reason to have hope for the future even in the face of terminal cancer.  Faith in God forms the basis for close-knit and loving families, warm and caring friendships, and relationships that endure beyond death.  People of all the Christian denominations believe and even expect to see their families and friends again in a better life after this one.  If we add to this foundational belief the knowledge of the sealing ordinances of the temple, then people’s faith in God and hope for reunification with loved ones in a better world can become intensified, strengthening the bonds that they already share with their families and friends. 

In a broader sense, faith motivates people to move the world, as President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote:

When I discuss faith, I do not mean it in an abstract sense.  I mean it as a living, vital force with recognition of God as our Father and Jesus Christ as our Savior. When we accept this basic premise, there will come an acceptance of their teachings and an obedience that will bring peace and joy in this life and exaltation in the life to come.

Faith is not a theological platitude.  It is a fact of life.  Faith can become the very wellspring of purposeful living.  There is no more compelling motivation to worthwhile endeavor than the knowledge that we are children of God, the Creator of the universe, our all-wise Heavenly Father!  God expects us to do something with our lives, and he will give us help when help is sought.1

Millions of faithful people over the centuries have sought and received the Lord’s help in worthwhile endeavors both great and small.  From local service projects to the founding of universities and hospitals to the building of temples all around the world, faith has propelled good people into good actions.  Their faith in God has inspired them to lead good, happy, useful, and productive lives.  It has enabled them to rise above the level of mere mediocrity and achieve a level of excellence in inherently worthwhile pursuits that they most likely would not have otherwise.  Their faith has not only compelled them to lead such good lives in this world, but also has given them the assurance of a happier life with their beloved families and friends in the next world.  Their faith has enabled them to live happy and also to die happy.

What a contrast to the meaningless life and lonely death of a friendless and irreligious merchant seaman in an anonymous hospital bed.  How dark and desolate the close of his days seems in comparison to the passing of a man of faith whom the Lord has blessed with a loving family.  Looked at in this light, the engineer’s puzzlement comes to mind:  How could anyone not believe in God?

1 Gordon B. Hinckley, Faith: The Essence of True Religion, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1989, p. 84.

No comments:

Post a Comment