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Kip Tobin

The Athiest and the Believer

November 8th, 2009
by Kip Tobin


The atheist and the believer walked together on the path that followed the highway, looking for light.

Everything visible was dampened gray, as if some colossal waterlogged blanket was thrown on top of their sky and hung there, dripping. Incessant raindrops had been pricking their faces for over two hours, and the cutting wind foretold the road ahead without visible end. The others had gone ahead, and they couldn’t see anything except for the highway to their right, the miry path directly in front and the snow-quilted fields to the left that were melting reluctantly in the cold rain.

The panorama was muddy, leaden, soppy.

“That’s the thing,” the believer explained, whose face was hidden behind his poncho, “Of all the religions in the world, even though they say different things, you know, in the details, the principal belief –what everyone believes– it’s the same.”

“Really?” the atheist questioned. “Didya know that of the twelve official world religions currently in the world, one doesn’t agree.”

“Which one?”

“Jainism.” The atheist looked at the believer, who kept looking ahead. “From India,” he continued, “it’s the only religion that’s completely atheistic,” he detailed. “They don’t believe a God exists, nor do they believe in life after death. And in order to obtain salvation, instead of amassing wealth to guarantee a comfortable ending, they give up all their worldly possessions and go on ascetic pilgrimages. They wear surgical masks over their mouths and towels are their only clothes. They hold a little broom and carry a bowl to beg with. They sweep, walk and beg. The surgical mask is so they don’t swallow insects when they breathe and they use the broom to keep their paths clear of insects so they don’t step on ‘em as they walk. They have complete respect for all sentient life, as if it were a part ‘uh their own redemption. In fact, they believe that every soul’s the architect of his own salvation.

A long silence passed. The only sound heard was their plastic ponchos crinkling in the cold wind, constant and indifferent. The wide face of the atheist fully protruded from the hood. His white skin foregrounded the wrinkles that had been ridging around his eyes and his constantly contorted brow, as if he were perpetually aghast of everything around him. His enormous round head almost buried his moist face, and his unkempt beard gave him an air of indifference. He raised his walking stick and, looking at the believer, asked, “Whaddya think?”

The believer, whose friends called him B, did not meet his look and kept walking.

Interesting,” he responded, looking straight ahead.

Together they walked on without more words. The wind intensified. Suddenly a monotonic whistle resonated.

The atheist, whose friends called him A, tensed his brow and focused on B.

B looked at A; A extended his hand and tugged on B’s poncho softly.

The whistling stopped.

“You know,” B spoke, “ever since we got out here and started walkin’, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. And when I’m walkin’ through all this nature –even when it’s rainin’ like this— and I hear nothing but my own footsteps, and the breeze, and the birds chirpin’, or cows mooin’, and I’m surrounded by all this incredible beauty, all I can think of’s how much everything—even the silence—is God. There’s nothing in any of this experience that isn’t.”

B looked at the A and added, “God is everywhere.”

The atheist just walked, his head cocked upward.

After a long pause J asked, “What do you think?”

B looked a little to his left and caught A a few yards behind him in his periphery.


Further down the path A had to stop to readjust his boots, and before he bent down to do so he told B that he didn’t have to wait for him.

“No, man,” B replied.

From time to time they drew a waft of pollution from the cars; apart from that, they only breathed  the cold, the absence of scent. They kept walking together at a labored pace.

B asked A when the rain was going to stop, and B said he had no idea.

A asked B how far they were to final town for the day’s walk, and A said he really had no idea but would guess around 8 kilometers, which meant 2 or 3 more hours depending on the stops.

Without realizing they arrived upon a simple, lonely village adorned with a only few houses that was completely deserted.

The rain had diminished to a drizzle. B said he had to stop to attend to something.

“You can go on, if you want,” he offered.

“Naw, man,” A declined, shaking his head and reaching into his pocket, “I’ll wait for you.” A pulled out a pouch, grabbed some tobacco and rolled it into a piece of paper.

Both stopped in front of the only bench in the village. J removed his poncho, unhooked the straps of his backpack and threw it on the bench. Standing without the mass of gear and adornments he looked like a pallid cartoon rabbit. He took out a black kit, undid the zipper and, with a machine inside, pricked himself on his index finger and squeezed quickly with his other hand’s index finger and thumb. He sucked the blood dot that formed. He lowered his eyes on the apparatus and squinted.

To A, B always seemed like he was on the verge of smiling even when he wasn’t. Around his mouth, with the twenty-few years he had, wrinkles were setting in early from too much near-smiling. Concrete lines of happiness at which A looked with distant curiosity.

A scruffy dog emerged from behind the opened slit of a barn door and slowly approached the pair. A lit his cigarette, reached into his pocket, pulled out a plastic sack and dropped down to his knees like a catcher. “C’mere boy,” he said smiling, the cigarette perched unlit between his lips.

The dog approached A, sniffed the dried fruits that were proffered and turned away trotting down the path from where the travelers came from. A threw the nuts toward the dog, who looked back in feigned interest and then kept moving on.

Suddenly the rain picked up again. B put away the kit, strapped on the backpack and, with the help of A, the green poncho. He pulled out a candy bar from his pocket and unwrapped it.

The backpacks under the ponchos gave them hunchback appearances, like a pair of erect human-sized turtles.

They returned to their heavy pace, still looking for light.

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Comment by David S. Wills
2009-11-08 20:51:19

That’s a really nice story, Kip. You really paint a vivid picture of the journey they take. And of the journeys with the journey.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:25:53

Thanks David.

It happened pretty much like this.

And yes, as much as I hate the cliché, it’s too true (hence the reason it’s a cliché, I think).

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-11-08 21:03:20

>>“That’s the thing,” the believer explained, whose face was hidden behind his poncho, “Of all the religions in the world, even though they say different things, you know, in the details, the principal belief –what everyone believes– it’s the same.”<<

That argument really bugs me. They don’t believe the same thing at all. Yes, the Abrahamic religions share a common ancestry of belief, but the only thing all religions really share is the belief in some kind of higher intelligence that may be judging our actions. That isn’t very similar.

Even if a creator exists, or some kind of higher intelligence, it isn’t very likely He is one of the fictional gods we humans have made up for ourselves.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:30:05


I wholeheartedly agree. I once thought that if there are 6.5 billion people on the planet then there are 6.5 billion gods insofar as man has traditionally posited their likeness upon such an entity.

Of course, what I wanted to avoid at all costs was to get into an argument and get on a box.

I fell asleep the other night to a show on PBS by an intellectual believer who went looking for rational explanations that God exists. He spoke to scientists and philosophers and what he concluded was that science will reach a point when it will probably a pretty accurate picture of how the world began, and that still won’t dis/prove the existence of a monothestic god. The further we go the closer we return back to the original dilemma.

I like that.

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-11-09 11:15:00

Exactly. Nothing can prove or disprove the existence of God, which is sort of the point of having faith, right?

Seems like the louder you yell about proof, the weaker your faith. The strident believers do more to undermine their belief systems than any atheist ever could.

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Comment by josie
2009-11-08 21:40:59

This reminds me of an oral allegory of days gone by. It felt as though it were delivered from a wise elder in a dim lit room in that time of grace, just before bed.

I love tales like this, where two divergent perspectives are offered equally. Both are the reality for the man they belong to and therefore both stand as truth.

Nice piece, Mr. Robin. I loved it.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:35:57

Wow, I love that this evoked that in you Josie.

What’s interesting is that this happened to me half a year ago. I recently read a very interesting article about memory and how when we remember things, we don’t simply remember the action itself but all the times after that we’ve remembered it. Our memories are basically a pile of memories of one experience, and thus tainted so for better or worse.

And you dissected the core of this, which is that there is no answer, and never will be.

Thanks for reading, M(r?)s. Josie.

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-11-08 21:44:12

Lovely piece.
So gentle and well told.
I’m fascinated by Jainism. It’s difficult for me to fathom the amount of discipline and commitment required. Too much like hard work…

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:37:06

Thanks Zara. I initially thought it would be too dark because of the setting, but I am glad it was gentle.

Yeah, Jainism, what a belief! I love that a people see existence this way.

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-11-08 22:05:21

I know very little about Jainism. I’m going to have to check it out. But I’ll be coming back to this after I have.

Comment by Ryan Day
2009-11-09 06:58:13

Good stuff… I agree that it has that old man in a dim lit room feel. There is something that always strikes me as anachronistic, in a good way, about any piece that deals seriously with the possibility of God.

I think the beautiful thing here is that it refocuses the religious sentiment of the one character onto the ‘mystical’ appreciation of nature and contemplation of a mysterious life of the other. For me, the mystery of the universe is far more interesting and even more affective without allowing it to fall into the superstitious and preconceived context of religion.

But it remains respectful, I think, of both perspectives, which is probably a good thing too…

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:41:13

God + tale = Anachronism? Agreed. Every time.

Been listening to some classical mythology lectures and they have this feel to them. What’s interesting about them is how much their gods reflected their view/hopes/fears, etc of the universe posited onto that universe and they become gods manifested in that universe.

And I agree with you that the universe is far more alluring with mystery. And as much as S (the atheist) might not have said that nature was God, he was certainly awed by being within it, much in the same way as J (the believer).

Comment by Ducky
2009-11-09 07:10:33

The only sound heard was their plastic ponchos crinkling in the cold wind, constant and indifferent.

I love this line. Put me right there walking with the two (and my life long dream is to walk across the world, so thanks for that.)

I also like how they have an open discussion without any real resolution (like the issue itself, its unresolvable.)

A tiny suggestion - I preferred them being called The Believer and The Atheist. I got a bit distracted when J and S appeared.

I love stories that tackle big ideas, and you’re smart to keep your POV out of it. Really well told. I could smell and hear and feel everything.

Comment by Matt
2009-11-09 08:03:40

I agree. The Believer and The Atheist are preferable terms than J and S.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 10:33:29

I normally don’t do this, but I did change the atheist to A and the believer to B in the hopes that it would make it easier for anyone to read it.

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Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:51:18

Thanks Ducky! It seems like the intention behind the writing had its desired effect.

Also, I completely agree regarding the names. I was unsure at the time if they should go there, I just wanted to lend a bit more to their identities.

Maybe it would’ve worked if the believer had been B and the atheist had been A (to maintain the consistency)?

Actually, my a smattering of my own POV is in it, just not conspicuous in the third-person nature of the story.

Comment by Megan Power
2009-11-09 07:46:33

“Faction” facts + fiction (if that’s what it is?) is VERY refreshing after so much I & me / non-fiction. Yes, smart to keep it omniscent.

Nice use of ‘miry’ and ‘proffered’.

What’s more important would you say? Last lines or first ones? Your last is beaut. We are all looking for the light.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:54:41

I actually think that much of this current memoir trend would be much better off if we just posited ourselves as third persons and labeled it as fiction. It’s possible it might actually change our own narcissistic tendencies if we had to describe ourselves. (Then again maybe not.)

Thanks for the props on the last line, which ties back to the first, where they began, where much of this conversation ends up between two people of opposed viewpoints.

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-11-10 00:39:57

Memoir wouldn’t sell if packaged as fiction, because much of the world seems to have decided that fiction is worthless, having no practical payoff.

But of course all writing is fictionalized to a lesser or greater degree.

I’m a fan of first-person writing only because I always wonder at the identity of the third-person narrator. But this is only a view I inflict on my own writing. I’m fine with third-person writing by others, and as Megan, said this is refreshing, and as Ducky said, it’s very evocative.

You are one for pilgrimages, yes? I remember another account from a few months back.

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Comment by tip robin
2009-11-10 06:47:54


I’ve always been suspicious of first person writing, which this site has been exclusively since born, to date. If it’s done well I don’t have anything against it per se, and if it leads me somewhere without being overly self-indulgent (and much of the stuff up on here is so), then I enjoy reading it. But that hasn’t been my experience for much of of the internet.

Of course, like you said, this is probably the view that I impose upon my own writing. I become extremely critical of myself in the first person, I tend to think, “Am I really that interesting?” I usually answer no.

Also, this was the same pilgrimage of a few months before, just a different leg of it.

Comment by Matt
2009-11-09 08:05:14

Nice little tale, Kip. Very evocative of mood. I liked how they were conversant with each other without being combative. Wish we could see more of that in our national discussions of religion.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:56:04

Thanks Matt. I agree, the national discussion of religion like politics tends to be a screaming match where no one is listening.

Comment by Kim
2009-11-09 08:06:52

So S, how does it feel to describe yourself physically in a story? Although I think you did a pretty good job, minus the enourmous head (really?).


Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 09:59:24


It felt weird, really. I do think my head is enormous. Have you ever put a hat on that fits me? It rarely fits any other human I’ve met, even big burly football maniacs whose beer gut could probably kick my ass.

And even if it’s an exaggeration, well, it seemed proper to give the atheist a big head, as they tend to think themselves smarter because somehow they have figured out the puzzle of religion. Mind you, I am not saying this is true by any means, but at one point I was very much arrogant in my non-belief, and I’ve met many a person who thinks they are holier-than-thou while purportedly not believing a damn thing.


Comment by c++
2009-11-09 09:37:21

i knew a jainist once. he was kind of a perv.

seriously i think that’s the best thing you’ve written yet (that i’ve seen anyway).

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 10:02:33


seriously? damn, i had better capture this style and stick with it then.

also, it’s important to note that not all Jains become ascetics pilgrims hoping to starve the flesh in order to elevate the spirit. Mostly ascetic monks do it, but there are parts of the upper castes that also do it.

anyway, i didn’t think explaining this really lent itself to the piece, as whenever i mention this to people i don’t normally get into the specifics. i think is probably true of 99% of us when we speak. we speak in vague generalities and nod our heads a lot.

i think you should write a story about this perverted jain.


2009-11-09 13:22:39

I agree with c++–this is one of my favorite pieces of yours to date. Great writing. And I love that panorama pic; I feel as though I might need a copy of it.
There is something that a walk can accomplish … or maybe it’s the story a walk can tell … in any case, I’m a fan of this walk and this story.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 17:05:03



This story seems to be garnering the female vote for favorite piece. Will keep that in mind.



Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-11-09 14:27:48

Jainism. Huh. I’m glad the wish to know more about it came into my life through this.

Interesitng stuff, Kip. Very interesting stuff.

It kinda gets my goat when people of different beliefs go for each other’s throats about this stuff. I get the argument that religion shouldn’t be a sacred cow, that the idea that it’s somehow taboo to question someone’s beliefs is invalid. But at the same time, there’s no need to be a dick about it.

Of course, the argument applies to both sides of the debate.

I like the simple conversationalism of this piece. It’s nice to hear. And I don’t think there ever will be a definitive answer. Not unless the skies open up and a hand comes through, or after death we all find ourselves lined up in a giant basketball court and Richard Dawkins is there, looking sheepish.

Ha. As much as I respect that guy and his work, that would be an awesome sight.

Nice write.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-09 18:53:57

Thanks (again). Glad I got two separate-but-genuine comments from you on this.

I actually saw not Dawkins but the other funnier-looking version of him Christopher Hitchins vs. an American theologian/philosopher on some sort of late morning broadcast program during the week. It was very odd to hear two people bickering about this crucial and very personal matter, trying to clarify it with logical or faith-based arguments within the allotted 3.5-minute time frame before they had to go to commercial.

I perused some of the God Delusion and it was a well-written concise version of the same arguments I heard back in college in my philosophy of religion class, which basically mapped out each sides’ basis for their belief for or against. The differences between positive and negative atheism and so on…(something which I had previously never considered).

Comment by jmblaine
2009-11-09 20:31:58

The Jain I knew was a very kind and even tempered fellow.

‘Do no harm.”

That was their whole religion.
I thought that was nice.

I concur with the rest Mr. Rip
you painted this exquisitely.

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-10 05:22:14

Thanks JMB, and it’s good to hear another testament to the character of a Jain.

Comment by Erika Rae
2009-11-10 11:26:43

Kip, thanks for this. What I like most is that both A and B listened to the other and obviously considered what the other had to say. That felt nice. This whole story felt nice. I also liked how the sky was uncomfortable and yet they both had localized dry spots within their ponchos, too. Very symbolic.

Also, why didn’t those dogs go for the nuts?

Comment by tip robin
2009-11-10 11:37:32

Thanks Erika, I like your interpretation of it.

Dogs tend to not like nuts, or at least the one that I saw that day didn’t like the ones I had in my bag. Come to think of it, I’ve never met a dog that did like nuts.

This may seem odd, but I once read that a dog in a story represents god, possibly because of the reverse spelling but also possibly because of what is usually analogized to god love. Love, at least in many form of Christianity, is unconditional (well, one-conditional) and such is a dog’s love, right?

I’ve often used a dog in stories to represent my own childhood concept of God. And I think it fits nicely here in that these two wax semi-philosophical and very civilized about the existence of God, providing two of many different arguments for/against, and the symbol of God, the dog, really has no interest in these two people altogether. He just trots on.

Even without this symbolism, I thought it provided a image.

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-11-10 14:54:00

I have to say, my dog is crazy about nuts.
She loves every kind of nut there is. She won’t listen to a word I say, but if I have a macadamia nut in my pocket - she acts like the best trained dog in the world.

Comment by Kip Tobin
2009-11-10 19:16:25

That’s great. Now my dog-nut theory is completely decimated. Just like that, with your six words, my entire empirical experience has shown otherwise.

Wait, maybe it’s cause your dog’s kiwi?

Yeah, that’s it: American dogs hate nuts; NZ dogs love them.

Then again, the nut your dog likes is a Macadamia nut, which, if I’m not mistaken is the Elysian nut par excellence.

All other nuts are but a faint shadow of the macadamia.

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Comment by Zara Potts
2009-11-10 20:31:33

I’m sorry to have decimated your nut-dog-theory. But I agree, I think it’s easily explianed by my pooch being a kiwi.
And you are right… NOTHING beats a roasted, buttered, salted Macadamia nut.

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-11-10 20:32:02

* explained.

Comment by Kip Tobin
2009-11-11 10:21:08

hey Zara, all spelling errors are welcomed on my comment boards. spelling isn´t always intuitive, like on this one i constantly rewrote atheist as athiest.

your dog has great taste.

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