My story is a typical atheist’s story. We come into the world with a preconceived idea. It’s as if we had a pre-birth memory of better days. By the time I was fourteen years old, I knew the place was a mess. I was talking to God:
“Look, I think I’ll live through parental arguing even if I am an only child who has to carry it alone on her shoulders. But those innocent children lying, fly-covered, in gutters in India – I could do a better job!”
I was born in 1934, five years after the crash of 1929, and maybe people were just gloomy in those days. Anyway, on my fourth birthday I was presented with the ritual cake and told I would get my wish should all the candles go out in one blow. I took this as a guaranteed pipeline to that Person I seemed to have known in pre-natal days. I instinctively knew you didn’t have to pepper him with details so, after one successful blow, I told him to “make it all better,” period. Of course nothing got better. If anything, it got worse. At four-and-a-half I attended my first Sunday-school class.
Upon being told where we were going, I thought, “At last, a chance to meet God face to face.” A miserable Sibyl met her parents on return. “How did you like Sunday school, dear?” “Awful. We cut out white sheep and pasted them on green paper.” Organized, institutional religion never recouped itself in my eyes.
From that point on life was just something to be endured. There was nothing I or anyone else could do about it. As the only child of educated parents, I lived in commandeered luxury. It took only one “horror” a year to keep me shuddering at the prospect of coming to terms with the immense philosophical questions that plagued me. During my grade-school years, the blood-covered face of a drunk who was staggering upright. (“It’s all right, dear, he just bumped his head. He ’s fine.”) Hearing about newborn puppies on whom some boys were doing BB gun practice. Running into a flasher after wandering away from my mother in the supermarket. And ultimately, at eleven, seeing “by mistake” the beginning frames of a newsreel showing American forces entering German concentration camps after World War II. My mother and I groaned and covered our eyes, but I had already seen too much.
At fourteen, I had come to the end of my tether, inwardly. My perpetual demand to God for an utterly perfect world had gone unanswered. There was an overabundance of badness and, worst of all, I was beginning to see that the goodness was about ninety-five percent phony. Since the age of ten I had been methodically reading all the books in our house. I started out with The Diary of a London Prostitute. Other books I recall were Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and Black Boy, by Richard Wright. If my parents were reading provocative stuff like this, they weren’t the parents I thought they were. In fact, these books were in every house in town. But they made no dent in anyone’s life. Or did they?
I decided to give God one last chance. In California, a three-year-old was trapped in a narrow drainpipe she had fallen into. The entire nation prayed for her safe release, as men and machines tried to extract her without harming her in the process. It was time for a showdown. This is it, God, your last chance. Get her out alive, or we’re finished. Look, if it were left to me, I’d save her without even being worshiped. The girl died in the pipe.
That did it. The last shreds of my regard for God were gone. Now I knew we were only animated blobs of protoplasm.
Then there was the idiocy of human morality, which appeared to be deeply rooted in “what the neighbors would think.” And what the neighbors thought depended on where you lived. Morals, ethics, right and wrong – they were all purely cultural phenomena. Everyone was playing the game. I opted for nihilism and sensuality, and lived accordingly. Out with good and evil, out with morality of any kind, out with accepted cultural customs. A line from a movie summed it up: “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.” So I proceeded to live my beliefs, preaching them to any idiot who “believed.” I smoked hard, drank hard, and lived hard. But I could not suppress a wrenching, clawing feeling that there might be a meaning to life, after all. In retrospect I see that I was so hungry, so aching for God, that I was trying to taunt him out of the clouds.
I spent my last two years of high school at Emma Willard, a private school for girls, where I had two close friends. One was a suburban Republican WASP, so intelligent she later went mad. The other was a Baltimore-born black of NAACP descent. Endlessly we discussed philosophy, read books, worked on the God question, reaffirmed our atheism, and read C.S. Lewis so that, just in case we should meet him, we ’d be ready to “cut him down.”
Chapel attendance was required at Emma Willard. I refused to bow my head during prayers as a matter of conscience, but was caught and admonished. My punishment? Banishment to the back row, where I sat defiantly reading Freud.
Radcliffe College seemed as phony as church, and I soon dropped out and got married. Born in Madrid to a famous novelist, my husband, Ramón, was orphaned as a small boy along with his baby sister when Fascists executed their mother during the Spanish Civil War. When the New York PEN Club heard they needed rescuing, a well-to-do member offered to take the children in. Ramón’s childhood was even more luxurious than mine, but it meant just as little to him as mine to me.
Both bent on escaping the stultifying atmosphere of dull riches, we felt the kindred soul in each other when we met in 1951 or 52. In 1954 we dropped out of our colleges to marry. Each of us was nineteen.
We very soon ran out of money. For two ex-rich kids it was “an experience.” Wedding presents were pawned. It was sad, but we had to admit that money must be acquired at times.
The first crack in my hardened heart occurred after the birth of my daughter, Xaverie. She was so innocent – just like the hundred other babies in the maternity ward of the big New York City hospital she was born in. I wept inwardly, thinking that in fifty years half of them will be dying in the gutter, the other half rich and miserable. Why are such pure beings put here on this terrible earth?
While nursing her at night, I steeped myself in Dostoyevsky. Truths were coming at me, but I couldn’t have defined them then. There wasn’t time for philosophical musings anyway. By the time that baby girl, Xaverie, turned one, there was no father in the house. Ramón was coming and going, and a powerful, new force – the survival instinct called mother love – was taking hold of me. Get a job, get a babysitter, pay the rent, find a new husband.
The babysitter plus rent left $10 a week for food and transportation. Not that I let anyone feel sorry for “the poor young mother.” I was a rotten wife who was reaping what she had sown. I knew Ramón and I bore equal blame, and if I were him, I would have left me too.
My life descended steadily into the swineherd’s berth. Ramón and I were going through what I considered our final separation. I was currently “in love” with another man, and I was carrying his child, which he wanted me to abort. I kept hoping he would change his mind at the last minute, but that never happened. So I, tough atheist that I was, went through with the most devastating ordeal of my life. Though still dedicated to the proposition that there was no such thing as “right and wrong” (no one had been able to persuade me otherwise), I was burdened with guilt beyond description.
There soon came a time when I was sure that short of my own death (Xaverie was all that stood between suicide and me), I had reached as close to the bottom as a person could get. It was on a hot August night in 1957, in surroundings I will not describe, that I groaned to a Being I did not believe in: “Okay, if there’s really another way, show me.”
Ramón startled me when he walked into my Manhattan office. A year earlier, he had left me to join the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, et al. – in San Francisco, and we ’d not seen each other since. I was settled in Queens, across the street from my parents, and was working as an editor for a glossy magazine. I should have known Ramón could glide past the receptionist without question. No one in the office knew we were estranged, no one knew that this was but the most recent in a steady series of separations. He evoked no twinge of love in me.
Ramón launched into his story, the long and short of which was that he had discovered a religious commune upstate, that he felt drawn to it, and that he wanted me to visit it with him.
I couldn’t think of a worse idea. As a professional atheist, I abhorred the religious. They were people whose faces froze in disapproving grimaces, who worried about their reputation for neatness and niceness, who never said, “C’mon in and have a cup of coffee and a cigarette.” The religious were stiff and contrived and self-conscious. They seemed to be waiting for you to notice how good they were. Aside from that, there was Ramón. I wanted nothing more to do with him. He persisted. Eventually I agreed.
I picked my traveling clothes carefully. My fire-engine red, knit tube dress – that ought to ensure immediate rejection. All the way up from the City, my venom brewed. Then we were suddenly there, rounding the last curve and stopping under huge trees bearing swings for children. Xaverie made a beeline for them. It was October, and the colors were breathtaking, like a premonition of something good where I had hoped for something bad. I took twenty steps into the heart of the community and my resolve crumbled. “What if there is a God, after all?”
I tried not to show it, hoped it would pass. A woman came to meet me – peaceful, with loving eyes, a soft, makeup-less face. She didn’t even notice that I was evil incarnate in a red dress. Nothing was working. She greeted me as if we were long-parted friends, seemed ready to be my sister for life. All this in a nanosecond.
But I wasn’t ready to leap into the burning bush, not me. There was always hope that, in a minute, everything would reveal itself to be utterly phony.
The heavens and hells I lived through in the next forty-eight hours were as several entire lifetimes. Half my being was moved to tears; the other half scorned my reaction and reminded me that I was probably surrounded by mindless adults – a sort of spiritual schizophrenia.
On Sunday morning I looked forward to surcease in the battle. Surely the worship service would cure me of the strange leanings toward “goodness” I was feeling. It would be like every other nonsensical religious powwow I’d been to. Empty.
Entering the meeting room, however – the same room in which I’d already eaten three meals – I was struck dumb. Tables were shoved back, the kitchen chairs arranged in a circle. People were wearing their normal faded jeans and skirts, and there wasn’t a shred of religious stuff to be seen. Someone was speaking, but it was just some guy in a farmer outfit. But then: horrors! He wasn’t speaking. He was reading Dostoyevsky! It couldn’t be! God, don’t do this to me, I said to myself; don’t hit me in the literary solar plexus. It was The Brothers Karamazov, and Ivan the intellectual was telling Alyosha the believer that he, Ivan, refuses to believe in a God who would countenance the torment of even one innocent child. Worlds, galaxies collided; it was my spiritual denouement. Quietly I accepted and then embraced a new question: Is it God who torments the innocent, or is it Sibyl?
Sibyl Sender, who worked for Plough for many years, passed away in 2014. Her story is excerpted from the book Cries from the Heart: Stories of Struggle and Hope.