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(Author’s Note: “The Desert” is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapter so that you know what’s going on.)

II: The Penitent

The instant I crossed the boundary, the heat of the desert rose up to engulf me. It was suffocating, practically a solid thing, surrounding me like a wall of burning iron. The sun beat down white-hot from above, so hot it seemed to have mass, and the air rippled and shimmered as if in torment. Climbing the side of the first dune, I sank knee-deep into gritty white sand with every step.

The heat rolling off the dunes blistered my exposed skin and dried my mouth, but I pressed grimly on. I knew I had to be wary: the heat in this country could play tricks with the senses, making the most fantastic and unearthly visions seem solid and real. But I also knew that what I sought could not be far.

Time and distance were all but meaningless in this arid, trackless wasteland. Wherever I looked, the horizon was one level shimmer of heat, the dunes uniform and barren, seemingly empty of all life. Nevertheless, it could not have been more than an hour or two before I came across the first of them.

I heard the voice before I saw the speaker. I was too far to make out words, but the tone was clearly audible: a low, sorrowful murmur, a stream of syllables like a repeating litany, occasionally rising into what sounded like wails or sobs. I quickened my pace, climbed to the top of the nearest dune, and there I saw him.

At the base of the dune, the desert sands descended into a sloping pit, its sides frozen ripples of glassy flowstone. At the very bottom of the pit crouched a man. His age was indeterminate; he seemed to be an old man, but it could just as well have been the relentless scouring of this land. His skin was leathery, his hair crazed tufts of grey. For clothes, he wore only tattered, colorless rags.

“Hello there!” I called out to him.

He glanced up at me, startled, then returned to his wailing chant as if he had dismissed me as unimportant. He knelt down and pounded the stone with his fists.

I slid down into the pit in a spray of sand. “Friend, I’ve come to speak to you. What are you doing in this place?”

His gaze flickered up to me, seeming to notice me for the first time. “I belong here,” he said hoarsely.

“How can you say that?” I asked. “Look around! This place is a hot, suffocating wasteland. There’s no life, no growth. No healthy human being could flourish here. What makes you think you belong in this place? There are much better places to be. Come with me! I’ll show you some of them.”

“There are no better places,” he moaned. “The world is accursed because of our sin. Life is meant to be hard and bitter. It’s a just punishment for all the evil things we’ve done.”

“What evil things are those? Look, friend, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that humans are hardly perfect, but our potential for goodness is at least as great as our potential for evil. Only a cruel and unjust god would look only on the bad and refuse to consider the good. In any case, why would all the world be cursed all the time as punishment for only some things that some people have done? Do you think that’s an example of the punishment fitting the crime? A punishment that was truly just would be inflicted only on people who do wrong at the time they do it – not turning the whole world into a bleak, perpetual wasteland and leaving the innocent as well as the guilty to suffer.”

“God’s justice is higher than ours,” the man protested. “He must punish us for our wrongs. He won’t tolerate any sin.”

“Then what you’re describing isn’t justice at all,” I parried. “Justice requires fairness. It requires mercy where mercy is called for. Most importantly, it calls for judging the whole person, and taking everything about them into account – not an obsession with picking out only the wrong things they’ve done, neglecting any compensating good traits, and inflicting the harshest possible punishment in vengeance. That’s not justice, it’s just cruelty.”

His eyes flickered down to the ground. For just a moment, he sounded sullen. “It doesn’t matter. There are far better things in the hereafter. We have to suffer to prove to God that we’re worthy. We deprive ourselves now for a greater reward in the future.”

“That’s quite a gamble, friend! What if you’re wrong – what if there is no hereafter? Then you’ve thrown away something more precious than you can possibly know. You’ve deprived yourself of happiness senselessly during the one and only chance you’ll ever have to experience it. My philosophy is this: We don’t know what happens after death or if there’s anything else. But we know we’re alive, here and now, and we know that this world offers the possibility of much happiness and contentment. We might as well take advantage of that and live the most fulfilled lives we possibly can. If there is another life, we can deal with it when we get there, and if there isn’t another life, we’ll know that we didn’t let our opportunity pass.”

“And what if we die and it’s too late?” he growled. “What if our being saved depends on our believing the right things in this life?”

“And what if anything else? Look, like I said, no one knows for sure if there is a hereafter or what will get us there if so. No one has any evidence whatsoever about that. If there are no facts to constrain speculation, then any possibility is just as likely as any other. Maybe God wants us to deprive ourselves, but maybe he wants us to enjoy ourselves and be happy. Maybe he wants something else entirely. We just can’t know, and that being the case, all those infinite numbers of unsubstantiated possibilities cancel each other out. We’re still left with what I said before: we don’t know what else there is, but we might as well be happy now. There’s absolutely no compelling reason to do anything else.”

“Not so!” he shouted. He sounded triumphant – mad fires burned beneath his brows. “We know we have a good reason to steer away from pleasure. Pleasure corrodes the senses, weakens the will. It saps our virtue and makes us less likely to turn to God.”

I shook my head sadly. “And constant suffering instills virtue? I don’t think so. If anything, suffering leaves people traumatized, weak, despairing. It makes them more vulnerable, not less, to people who would give them false hope and fire up the flames of hatred by giving them enemies to blame for their situation. It fuels violence and totalitarianism. A life of nothing but luxury and ease won’t produce virtue, but neither will a life of ceaseless pain and struggle. To be virtuous, we need to experience the good things so we know what’s worth fighting for.”

The other man looked at me in shock, then glanced angrily away. “Your words are evil trying to tempt me. I know what the right way is. I feel it in my heart! I just know that this is how we’re meant to live. My faith tells me so and I won’t let you trick me!”

I sighed. “I can’t make you listen to me, friend. I’ve told you plainly what I have to offer. If you reject that, so be it. But you’re torturing yourself for no good reason. I think life is the most precious thing there is, and we should live accordingly; your attitude cheapens it and fills it with misery and despair. If we’re meant to suffer, why is there reason to be moral? Why show compassion to other people or try to help them when they’re in need? Your philosophy spreads misery not just to you but to everyone around you, all in the service of a senseless and forlorn faith. I think that’s a tragedy, and I pity you for it.”

The other man did not reply. He turned away from me, clearly refusing to speak to me any further, and resumed his wailing lament. Already he seemed paler, less animated, as if his very flesh was taking on the quality of the stone and sand. I had a hunch that in another few decades, visitors to this spot would find nothing but another eroded statue.

But as I said, I could not make him come with me. With a last, regretful look back, I climbed out of the stone pit, back to the blowing sands of the desert, and resumed my way.

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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...