Second floor view looking up in an abandoned infirmary tower stairwell.
The structure is filled with natural light, but is haunted by the living.
Tonight we return to St. Louis for the final entry in my record of our October adventure.
The party is indeed over folks, and soon the hunt will begin for yet more new locations. In the meantime Tabula Rasa and I have some plans to play in the winter wonderland while the snow lasts.
Unsurprisingly, given our predilection for urban decay, some morbid humor has seeped into our lexicon. “Preabandoned” refers now to a promising site in rundown condition that is, alas, still occupied or inhabited. Vulturelike as the sentiment can be, I thought I could present a more positive alternative today: postabandoned. Sure, “renovated” or “restored” works too, but I’m working within a theme here. Anyway, St. Louis’ main rail station, built a hundred years ago in an age when every city contended to build the grandest rail palace as a show of civic pride, is a splendid example of the concept. By the seventies, time and a decline in rail travel had reduced the station to less than grand status.
The terminal has since been completely renovated. Though Amtrak still utilizes a sliver of the property, most of the building is a mall, with the canopied railyard now a parking lot. The area around the old station’s grand hall is now a hotel, with the hall itself restored to its Art Nouveau glory as the lobby/lounge. We stayed here because the price and location were right, and really, how could we not?
Some of the best finds are incidental as in this case where we were leaving one location only to spot another. While our visit was short we were both amused by the forest of catalpas and other softwoods that had sprung up within the shell of this former church. Leaving aside the contemplations others may have regarding the common negative stereotype of an atheist in America, I do take some small joy in witnessing the demise of the church, both figurative and literal.
I believe our world would be a better place without religion and faith while at the same time I recognize that people will always be individuals and irrationality will never cease being a part of who we are. I just hope that we, as a society, can grow up and leave behind the toys of our childhood and create a society based in critical thought and rationalism. It would not be an easy thing to do, nor would it provide us a utopia. But any increase in the happiness and health of a society is something we should all strive for and religions only give us the tools to inspire conformity, tribalism, apathy and wishful thinking. One does not need faith to be a decent person, to find meaning in life, relieve suffering or to improve the world. I disagree with Tabula Rasa that faith is a necessary part of humanity; I think it only a necessary part of childhood and part of growing up is letting go of the binky that keeps the monster under the bed away.
I’ve never discussed my atheism in any detail here because in general it was not relevant, but as Tabula Rasa tends to prod me into action I could not leave his last post unanswered. While we are both godless we don’t always agree on matters pertaining to atheism since he doesn’t follow the movement while I do. Perhaps it is because I used to be so fervently religious, perhaps it is because I came to lose faith later in life.
I confess that I dream of the day when most churches have been returned to nature, or repurposed for community service even while I know that day will not be in my life time. In the meantime I will work towards encouraging people to let go of the binky of faith and embrace the wonder of a natural, complex world in which we are the only ones who have the power to imbue our lives with meaning.
As Tabula Rasa is so fond of saying, a large part of what makes us who we are as humans is our irrationality; I happen to think that critically reviewing and recognizing our irrational thoughts, emotions and impulses will allow us to turn them to positive and productive forces. Despite the fact that Sir Isaac Newton was not only a Christian and alchemist he is also one of the greatest minds in our recorded history and most of us recognize this (despite how the media portrays the atheist movement) . There is a very real reason that Newton’s scientific works survived in history and cultural memory while his alchemical ones did not. The science works.
Just as on the other hand the broad slate of avowed atheism allows for a wide range of characters to claim the title, from PZ Myers, to Dave Silverman, and even the Raelians to Stalin. But atheism is only a tool, the blank slate to write upon, while some may use it for creating a cult of personality or to brutalize others, others use it to further science education and to improve society for everyone. Just as faith does. My argument is that atheism is a better tool and that while we will always have both overtly good and overwhelmingly bad people using both religion and atheism for divergent purposes the tools of rationality and critical though may help us filter out those who would abuse others.
Yet here we are, contemplating the beauty of a fallen place of worship, one which now harbors a small forest within it complete with squirrels and sparrows. We are all individuals, even as we are are all part of a greater whole. In the end many of us find some sense of beauty and wonder when confronted with a place like this even as others may not, though I suspect those in the latter category are not readers of this blog. No matter if you hold a strong faith or stand godless so long as I have managed to impart at least a small portion of the elation, wonder and sorrow I feel in this place then I have achieved what I set out to do and gave some measure of happiness to one person, even if it is perhaps a little bittersweet.
A bemused onlooker may be forgiven if, looking on the culture wars raging in the States currently, she judged all atheists to be obnoxious zealots in pitched battle with their adversaries, the ignorant forces of religious intolerance. In the cold war over hearts and minds, the stakes are high, and surely the fight to keep the calendar from being rolled back a century in ethics and science is worth fighting. But atheism is just an absence of faith. It can no more be “against” religion than a vacuum can be “against” pressure. It needs something to inform and fill it, but if all that thing is an opposition to faith and religion, it has chained itself to the very thing it claims to transcend.
The adapted position of most atheists as paragons of rationality against reactionary bigotry misses both that some of humanity’s greatest scientists were fervently religious, and that some of history’s bloodiest episodes were instigated by avowed atheists. The question of whether it is somehow “better” to have faith or not is moot; there will always be the believers as there will always be the faithless. And each in turn, being human, are capable of both the greatest and basest deeds. Moreover,each side is necessary, as each offers something to society at large that the other can’t.
If all this is true, what can we tell our rhetorical onlooker that atheism actually is? It is the great blank slate we are each handed, which we have the freedom to accept or reject. It is being able to write one’s own script, though some of us know we make lousy playwrights. It is the freedom to find beauty and meaning wherever we choose. And in the end, it is seeing the struggle between faith and the lack thereof as part of the eternal human condition, and seeing the beauty in that struggle. In the photograph below, I see the beauty and drama that the confining walls of the church impart to the wildly growing foliage. But to you, it could mean something entirely different. It is, after all, a tabula rasa.