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DarkForest

On a dreaming night not long ago, I was walking by myself along a lonely road, in search of reflection and solitude. The nearest homes were only a far-off and fuzzy glow, a fleeting scent of woodsmoke through the bare and tangled arms of dark trees. It was a chilly, blustery night, and the snap of frost hung in the air like a premonition of winter. Shredded clouds scudded across the tarnished moon like a rake pushing dry leaves.

I had been walking for the better part of an hour in silence, the better to think and clear my head. But suddenly, I felt I wasn’t alone. The intimation of presence tingled like hot breath on the back of my neck. Some old and vigilant instinct whispered of eyes watching, where a moment before there had been none.

I turned about and surveyed the road. It ran off, empty and silent, into the darkness. In the livid sodium-yellow wash of the streetlamps, my shadow streamed out behind me, distorted and monstrous, but there wasn’t another living soul to be seen.

Then, like the shift of perspective in an optical illusion, the scene changed. My shadow was gone, and in its place stood a tall, silhouetted figure, almost close enough to touch. He had eyes like dim embers, a glint of teeth in the shuddering darkness. The shadow was his long, dark coat, his arms tucked into the pockets.

“It’s time we had a talk, you and I,” the Tempter said with a grin.

“I was expecting you sooner or later,” I acknowledged.

I resumed walking, and he fell in line beside me. His footfalls, unlike mine, were silent on the crackling carpet of fallen leaves.

“So,” he said, too casually, “there was an election lately. Just before it happened, you may recall, you wrote a little essay about how demographic change was tilting the deck in favor of secularism. Yet your side still took a beating. Do you have any theories about what happened?”

“I’m sure you have one to propose.”

“That I do,” he said with a low breath of laughter. “Oh, there’ll be no end of superficial explanations, in the days to come. You’ll hear about voter disenfranchisement, about how politicians ran lackluster campaigns or adopted bad messaging that didn’t emphasize their accomplishments, about how deliberate obstruction has made people cynical about the ability of government to do anything worthwhile. But the real explanation is simpler. I’ll tell you what it is. Your side traffics in optimism, and optimism is a poison.”

“Come again?”

“Optimism makes people complacent. Lazy,” the Tempter said. “It’s human nature to assume that, when things are going well, they’ll continue to go well indefinitely. The trouble is, when you tell people that everything is going to turn out all right, they believe you. The people who are motivated to act, and therefore carry the day, are the ones who don’t believe that. The ones who are angry, upset, resentful. The ones who believed the world was theirs by right, not to be shared, and fear that it’s slipping away from them.”

“There’s some truth in what you say,” I admitted. “But the problem with your theory is that it explains too much. The turnout in this election wasn’t just low, it was historically low. It’s not always like this. Why should optimism make people disinclined to show up this time, but not the time before that?”

He moved his shoulders slightly, in what seemed to be a shrug. “Optimism can inspire people to act, but only for a brief time. Then their unrealistic hopes are inevitably disappointed, their motivation fades, and you’re back at square one. But fear, now; fear is everlasting. People like you don’t grasp that. The other side does.”

“Look at the people you’re up against,” he continued. “You may decry their fear tactics, but the one problem they don’t suffer from is complacency. They keep mashing that panic button, and while you may laugh it off as shrill and ridiculous, it works. You keep expecting the fear-peddlers’ audience to realize that they’re being fed a diet of needless terror; that all these predictions of imminent doomsday never come true. But they haven’t realized it, and they won’t. You should learn from that example.”

“What are you saying?” I demanded. “That I should reshape my political ideology around sowing fear? Tell everyone that those who don’t believe as we do are the enemy, that they’re a horde of monsters who can’t be reasoned with, and they want to destroy everything right and true? Tell them that we’re the only righteous ones and everyone else is the evil Other? Sink to the level of the worst fundamentalisms that I’ve devoted my life to opposing?”

Another eloquent shrug. “It would be close enough to the truth, wouldn’t it?”

“No.” I shook my head. “I won’t be the mirror image of what I despise. Besides, even if I tried it, it wouldn’t work. The worst reactionaries use this tactic because it fits their goals, but it doesn’t fit mine. Fear can make people cling to what they have, but that’s all. Fear makes people huddled, sullen, defensive. Fear can’t motivate people to seek, to explore, to discover. Fear can’t make people want to bring a better world into being.”

The Tempter snorted with laughter. “Noble dreams. But if you want to win, you have to do what works. You can’t build that better world of yours with idealism alone. If you try, you’ll get beaten every time. You should accept the fact of what motivates people and then build your strategy around that. Isn’t the end worthy of the means? Does it really matter how your better world is created as long as it is created?”

“I can’t help but believe that some ends are excluded by certain means,” I said. “What I want is a society that’s liberal, free, tolerant, where everyone treats everyone else with respect and leaves them alone to pursue their own vision of the good. You can’t achieve that goal through absolutism and paranoia. If you tried, even if you won every purely temporal victory you sought along the way, you’d find that things inevitably went wrong in the end. You’d defeat current prejudices only to find that you’d replaced them with others just as harmful. You’d end up creating a society that was rigid, closed-off, hostile to new ideas.”

He gave me an accusing stare. “I can tell you your problem. It’s that you’re a good person yourself, so you think that goodness is the natural state of humanity. You really believe that if people could just sit down and talk reasonably, if they could learn to listen to each other, they’d overcome their differences and see that their fears and suspicions were unnecessary.”

“You don’t agree, I take it.”

“No. It’s not like that. You cherish the thought that people could come to understand how similar they all are under the surface, given the right opportunity. But paranoia and xenophobia aren’t just a bit of grit in the gears that you can wash out. Human minds are fraying bundles of fear, prejudice, blind acceptance of tradition, and the desire to protect the in-group. Mostly, you’re a collection of unconscious associations. Even you are, you know, more so than you admit or realize.”

“And you aren’t? What makes you the only one able to rise above and see us as we truly are?”

The Tempter grinned. “Just think of me as the one willing to face what most people flinch away from. One of your better writers said that seeing what’s in front of your nose is a constant struggle. I’ve just had more practice.”

I thought hard about this. “I’m not going to deny that you make some good points. But again, your argument proves too much. If people were as stubborn and irrational as you say, there’d be no sense in ever trying to convince anyone of anything. And if that were the case, what are you here talking to me for?”

“Clearly, society as a whole can shift, even if individuals are stuck in the mud and resistant to change more often than not. It’s happened many times before. What we often forget,” I went on, “is that change is generational. Pollsters, when they do their job right, are very good at detecting emerging trends. But elections aren’t scientific samples, and that means we often see momentum building in the background before that change filters into the body politic. It’s an easy error to fall into to assume that long-term trends dictate short-term fluctuations; like confusing weather with climate. And when you make that mistake, it’s likewise easy to confuse optimism about the future with complacency for the present.”

“And are you prepared to wait your whole life for things to change?” the Tempter said in a low hiss.

“I don’t think I’ll have to, but if I must, I will. I can’t control what other people do or make their choices for them. All I can do is speak, try to persuade. That’s all I’ve ever been able to do. When the principles that I advocate win the day and advance, I’ll speak. When they lose and suffer setbacks, I’ll speak. If you know me as well as you say, then you know that I couldn’t do otherwise. And if I have to wait a while for the world to catch up, then so be it.”

The Tempter gave me a look of mingled disgust and contempt. Then a shiver and a sigh ran through the world, and he was gone. I stood by myself on a darkened country road, the wind whipping dry leaves into a spiral around my legs. My shadow spilled out from my feet, a silent companion in the night.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...