Are You There, God?

John Semley on HBO's The Leftovers

THE PROBLEM WITH being an atheist is that every time you open your mouth you sound like a twelve-year-old boy who just heard Bad Religion’s Recipe For Hate for the first time. Or worse, it makes you sound like a smirking British intellectual. It’s hard to defend a non-belief in God—or, maybe more precisely, a belief that there is no God—without coming off like some smug caricature: fingers steepled insufferably, eyebrows cocked like loaded handguns, all (un)holier-than-thou, bleating stuff like, “It’s not rational,” and “the burden of proof isn’t on me, it’s on you,” and “it’s all a fairy tale, mate!” and “if God exists why would he make earthquakes?” The problem with being an atheist is that it makes you sound like Ricky Gervais’ Twitter account.

I should clarify, for the record and all, that I’m an atheist. That is, I believe that there is no God and that it’s just us, human beings, me and you, puttering around bumping into each other until such a time as we plotz or the Sun burns out, whichever comes first. That said, at 29, my days putting my elbows on the table over Thanksgiving dinner and rolling my eyes while my half-Catholic, half-United Church of Canada family earnestly says grace, offering their sincere blessings over the food, the home, and the people they love, are well behind me. This is because despite my persistent idiocy and ignorance on basically every other imaginable front, I’ve acquired something of the patience and tolerance that comes with age.

Or maybe it’s just because the snarling, overstated intellectual bad boy personas of prominent New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al.—and the chuddy, Reddit-trolling internet frogspawn they’ve hatched over the past decade or so, the kind of people who begin every sentence with “Um, well you know, ack-tually…”—have made it impossible to want to identify, openly, as an atheist. Despite being essentially right, the contemporary pop atheist refuses to stop loudly announcing their claim to correctness, like a petulant child banging pots and pans screaming, “TWO PLUS TWO IS FOUR! TWO PLUS TWO IS FOUR!”

Beyond sheer obnoxiousness, the bigger problem I have with these wildly self-congratulatory (“I am the one who is the most rational one!”) types is that they seem, in their own way, wholly unrealistic. Yes, sure, granted it would be nice if concepts of God and religion and belief had never been invented, literally infinite years ago, and if the world hadn’t fallen into the bloody, religiously stirred violence of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the current wars in the Middle East, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. Duh.

But the history of religion and theology, sadly, is one of those things you can't swiftly undo. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. You can’t un-ring that bell. The prophets and Messiahs may hold bogus claims to legitimacy, and God Himself may well be phony, phantasmal, a not-good delusion. But no matter how inconvenient or troubling, religion is very much a fact.

 Justin Theroux as Chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. in HBO's  The Leftovers

Justin Theroux as Chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. in HBO's The Leftovers

On HBO’s The Leftovers—the best new series on television, or at least my favourite, anyway—the opposite holds true. Set a few years after a Rapture-like event in which 2% of the global population (something like 140 million people) suddenly vanish, with no apparent rational or logical explanation, The Leftovers is basically a sci-fi melodrama where the structuring premise is that, yes, God exists.

In the series pilot, a congressional hearing broadcast shows scientists presenting their rationed, reasoned explanation for the so-called “Sudden Departure.” And…they don’t have one. Years of research and rigorous analysis have yielded a shrug and a half-hearted admission of, “We don’t know.” In the fourth episode, small town police chief Kevin Garvey, Jr. (Justin Theroux, suntanned and ripped despite the show’s winter setting and his character’s tendency to consume nothing but booze) takes the Lord’s name in vain while driving, and his car suddenly stops. Given what the viewer knows about the show’s narrative universe, how else can we read such an event if not as a sign of divine intervention, a modestly vengeful reminder of God’s actual-factual existence?

In The Leftovers, it’s not the matters of God but those of religion that are thrown into disarray. The English actor Christopher Eccleston plays Matt Davis, a protestant reverend steadfast in his belief that the Departure was not an act of God. He collects information on the departed, on their sins and misdeeds, and circulates it in the streets, in order to prove that those who disappeared have no business being conveyed straight to the bounty of Heaven. He believes that these sinners cannot be redeemed. His faith has turned itself inside out.

In The Leftovers, religion is disorganized, splintered into bizarre clusters of cults (indeed, the US federal bureau of the ATF has expanded into ATFEC—Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults). Chief among these sects is the Guilty Remnant. Clad in white, vowed to silence, and committed to chain-smoking cigarettes (their faith in God is so strong that they believe they’ll be raptured before complications from such a nasty habit can set in), they stand as an insistent reminder of the humbling power of God. Elsewhere, a wayfaring prophet called Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) charges exorbitant sums to hug the pain out of people. It sounds ludicrous, but it seems to work. And why shouldn’t it? In a world where God raptures 100-plus million people, why shouldn’t a man be capable of dispensing enchanted hugs?

In plenty of ways, the show—which returns for a second season this year—is silly and melodramatic, getting caught up in subplots where Eccleston’s character tests his faith at a casino, or Theroux’s chases around a plastic baby Jesus doll. But there’s a vitalizing seriousness to its premise, in its turn against the secularism and voguish atheism of the present cultural dialogue. Ours is a world assailed by, if not the fact of God, then certainly the fact of the belief in God. And while the New Atheists may very pompously see themselves as providing a balm to the fractured (and ever-fracturing) post-9/11 religious tensions, the tenor and tone of their argumentations tends, to me, to exacerbate those same tensions.

Take Sam Harris, who in a 2011 column for The Huffington Post lapsed into dangerous, narrow, anti-Muslim rhetoric of holding Islam to be a somehow uniquely dangerous religion. “While there are undoubtedly some moderate Muslims who have decided to overlook the irrescindable militancy of their religion,” Harris writes, “Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed.” 

Clownish mock-liberal pundit Bill Maher adopted the same pose in late 2014, smirking like a melting wax museum ghoul as he called Islam, “the only religion that acts like the mafia” on his late night political gab show, Real Time With Maher. Besides proving wildly generalizing and unhelpful to constructive interfaith, geopolitical dialogue, such comments illustrate the magical thinking of so-called “rational atheism.” Guys like Harris, Maher, etc. may be valid in their criticisms of religion writ large. But it’s pointless to just stand there and hope that religion weren’t so, to merely try and wish it away. Like God in The Leftovers, religion in our own personal godless world is not some mere proposition. It is bracingly, humblingly, violently a matter of fact.

And in the fictional elseworld of The Leftovers, a violently attenuated sense of belief is a uniquely Christian affair. The Rapture is, after all, a religious event distinct to Christian eschatology. Websites like meticulously, and seemingly indiscriminately, keep track of historical events that previse the Second Coming of Christ and the great tribulation, from the rise of recreational drug use (signifying submission to “ungodliness and worldly lusts”) to the development of high-speed microprocessors (which enable the Antichrist to easily control the global economy).

In The Leftovers, the charge of “irrescindable militancy” finds its form in the scheming of the Guilty Remnant—who incite a riot at the end of the show’s first season, after antagonizing the citizens of Mapleton by replacing their departed loved ones with bespoke mannequins—and the self-destructive hysteria of Eccleston’s manic street preacher. What the show imagines is a world where the beliefs of Christianity have been fortified by the Sudden Departure, unyoked from nonchalant secularism and reinvested with a clenched, ferocious, frankly terrifying strength of conviction. It asks the viewer to imagine not merely what it might be like to believe, but to really know.

This is the kind of cultural inside-outness that I find almost maddeningly fascinating. What would it be like if the world were the opposite of what it is? What if belief were totally meaningless in the face of verifiable fact? The burden of proof is shifted from hardened religious devotees back to non-believers.

And in this way, weirdly, The Leftovers invests modern, snarky, conceitedly acerbic, eyes-half-rolled atheism with its own renewed sense of purpose. What if it wasn’t a matter of self-righteous “rationality” and reason argumentation? What if non-belief was its own kind of deeply felt, impassioned gamble on the way the world is? What if God existed, up there above all things, roosting over the choirs of Heaven and the souls of the dead in Christ and the Suddenly Departed? And what if, in our intensely human spirit of rejectionism, we turned our backs on Him anyway?

John Semley is a lapsed Catholic living in Toronto.