Atheist Feels He's
on 'Outside, Looking In'
by Ron Wiggins
Palm Beach Post Staff Columnist
Sunday, January 4, 2004
Atheist/agnostic/free-thinker (pick one) Gil Gaudia, 74, of Hobe Sound, recalls his first religious instruction vividly. He was a third-grader at PS 48 in The Bronx, lustily singing Go Down, Moses in music class.
He had recognized the song as a Black spiritual and wondered whether Moses was Black. So he raised his hand and asked. The teacher, a former convent elementary school teacher, came down on him like a ton of Old Testaments.
The question was sacrilege! It was also an educational opportunity.
"You see, class, what happens when a boy is raised without religion."
His homework was to write 500 times: "Moses was not a Negro. Moses was White."
The 8-year-old was not only humiliated to tears, he was confused. Neither his Catholic father nor his Jewish mother observed a cultural heritage, leaving Gaudia to pick up his religion on the streets. Which he did, at one time wearing both a Catholic Miraculous Medal and a Star of David around his neck, figuring the two symbols would double his clout with God.
"It never occurred to me that they might cancel each other out," the retired professor of psychology says with a smile. "I was a product of what was considered a mixed marriage in those days. Catholics and Jews didn't marry. It was scandalous."
By his late teens Gaudia had developed a thought grid through which other people's received wisdom must pass. This hair-trigger willingness to challenge assumptions -- cosmic or otherwise -- was acquired from an uncle on his mother's side, whose conversational stock in trade was:
"Who the (blank) says so?"
The notion of a personal God as described in Scriptures became increasingly difficult for him to take seriously. He learned to pick his moment for voicing his skepticism lest he become known as the nut case who was going to hell. It didn't work. People avoided him during lightning storms.
"I always felt like I was outside, looking in."
And so he named his book, a loosely autobiographical novel, Outside, Looking In, a life journey of an atheist dealing with believers and nonbelievers alike.
"What I've never understood is why, when I remark that I'm an atheist, people try to convert me. I don't try to convert them. If we get into a big argument, it just goes downhill." And since Gaudia has never been big on impulse control, he gets in a lot of big arguments.
His latest and most lamented cost him a fundamentalist Christian friend who lives down the street.
"I'm a good Scrabble player, but not as good as my neighbor. He would usually beat me. The last time we got together we got into a shouting match over religion and he stormed out. That's the last I've seen of him, and it's my loss. I miss the guy."
Gaudia and his first and only wife, Jeanne, bought a second retirement home in Oregon to be close to their kids but have put it on the market. The problem: preachy neighbors.
"They came over as a group, and one of them placed a Bible between us and started citing Scripture. We can't socialize without getting a sermon."
At such times Gaudia cannot stifle his contrarian streak, and he's impolitic enough to mention that the God Christians and Jews worship sent she-bears to kill 42 "little children" outside the gates of Bethel for mocking the prophet Elisha's bald head. "You'll find it in 2 Kings, verses 23 and 24."
Such polemical dust-ups usually remind Gaudia that atheists are outsiders. The faithful of all stripes, checks and polka dots have places of worship, lobbyists and organizations to defend them. Who speaks for atheists?
"Most people don't understand that to be an atheist simply means not to believe in God. I don't insist that there is no God, I just don't believe there is one. You believe. I don't."
The yin of the believer verses the yang of the nonbeliever is nicely bracketed by two philosophic positions recapitulated by the author in his book.
Two thousand years ago Epicurus proposed that, if God is willing to prevent evil but cannot, he is not omnipotent. If able but not willing, he is malevolent. If neither able nor willing to prevent evil, "then why call him God?"
The second argument is Pascal's Wager. Whittled to the nub, it goes like this: If Pascal bets there isn't a God, and he's wrong, he loses big: eternity in hell. If he bets there is a God and there is, he has a shot at paradise. But if nobody is driving the cosmic bus after all, Pascal has nicely hedged his bet and lost only a few thousand hours on his knees, praying to nothing.
"I never could understand why," Gaudia muses, "anyone who thought about it at all could believe that God would prefer a scheming, gambling believer to an honest atheist."
If God has no use for an honest atheist, Gaudia knows someone who does: his wife of 53 years. Of her he writes:
"I strongly doubt that there is a God who made us all, but if I am wrong (and I frequently am) then the finest example of his work is my wife, Jeanne, to whom I dedicate this book."
And does Jeanne share her husband's nonbelief?
"Oh, sure, since I was 13. But I don't make a big deal of it."