On Marriage Licenses

“It’s about time somebody stood up for religious freedom,” Mr. Bates said. “That one clerk in Kentucky is a true American hero.”

Mr. Magundi looked thoughtful. “No one respects religious principles more than I do,” he said, “and I would certainly admire a woman who would resign from her job if the job required her to do something against her religious principles.

“But why did that point not come long ago? Are there no Catholics in that part of Kentucky? To an evangelical Protestant who believes that the Pope is the Antichrist, surely it must be the greatest of all sins to be a Catholic; and to provide marriage licenses to Catholics is nothing short of abetting their satanic rituals.

“Or what if the clerk is Catholic? How much worse the situation is then! A Catholic believes that marriage is a sacrament. No marriage outside the Church is a marriage at all. Every Baptist or Hindu or Unitarian couple that comes in for a marriage license is demanding a license to live in mortal sin. How could a Catholic clerk issue those licenses with a clear conscience?

“Here we run against an absurdity buried so deep in the American political consciousness that we never even see it as an absurdity at all. We are permitted to work ourselves into a foamy lather of righteous outrage over inconsequential things like government spending or immigration or sex, but the principle of ‘freedom of religion’ is embedded so deeply in our minds that the really important things, the fundamental differences of opinion on the nature of truth and the eternal destination of every human being, leave us blandly indifferent. A county clerk who broke through that wall of indifference and realized that she was, according to her own most deeply held beliefs, paving the way to hell for countless couples who held the wrong beliefs about the things that affect immortality would fall on her knees and beg Jesus, or Kukulkan, or Guanyin, or Allah, for forgiveness. And then she would immediately resign her job, which is what this woman in Kentucky should do. If she cannot reconcile herself to the absurdity that government as such must be indifferent to the very things to which no sane human being can be indifferent, then good for her. She is a splendid and consistent human being. But the job requires that indifference; if she is above that indifference, she cannot do the job, and the government needs someone who can do the job.”

On Atheism

“But your Internet friends aren’t really atheists at all,” Mr. Magundi told Brielle. “They say they’re atheists, the way they might say they’re Steelers fans, but they don’t believe what they say. When they insist that the Bible, alone among ancient texts, is without literary merit—when they insist on spelling ‘God’ with a lower-case g, though they still capitalize ‘Woden’ and ‘Kukulkan’—then I know that they’re not atheists at all, but believers in a state of desperate rebellion. An atheist would judge the various books of the Bible the way he judges Gilgamesh or the Bhagavad Gita; he would treat the Christian God the way he treats the Greek Apollo. He would not insult a being he did not believe in. Your friends are desperately trying to convince themselves that God does not exist the way a five-year-old desperately tries to convince himself that Santa Claus does exist. There are thoroughgoing atheists in the world who exhibit none of these peculiarities; they do not rebel against God any more than they rebel against the Easter Bunny. The so-called atheist who is in a state of constant rebellion actually clings to belief in God with more tenacity than a revival preacher.”

On Pretending to Believe

“But they can’t possibly really believe that,” I said. “I know they’re not that stupid. So I think we have to ask, What are their real motives?”

Mr. Magundi shook his head a little sadly. “That’s the thing we always tell ourselves when we’re faced with the unaccountable obtuseness of the other side. We know for a fact that we are right and they are wrong, because we are sure the truth is blindingly obvious. So either they must be so stupid that they can’t think straight, or they must be only pretending to believe what they say they believe for the sake of some hidden motivation. We have hope for the stupid ones, because we may be able to explain the truth to them; but we can only conclude that the intelligent ones are actively evil.

“The existence of God is perfectly obvious to a Christian; the absence of God is perfectly obvious to an atheist. The inferiority of the female is so transparently clear to a fundamentalist Muslim that he knows no intelligent man can deny it; the wickedness of sequestering women is equally clear to an ordinary American. If anyone does deny these obvious truths, therefore, it must be from wicked and selfish motives. And that ought not to be allowed. People who preach falsehood ought to be stopped; they ought to be punished for allowing their wicked selfishness to prevail over truth.

“We get very angry about that kind of deliberate falsehood. And we can never admit to ourselves that it is not deliberate, because the alternative is simply too dreadful to think about: that intelligent people, having examined the very ideas we know to be correct, can come to different conclusions; and that it is possible, however remotely, that some of the very ideas we hold as most fundamentally important and immutably true are false.”

On Understanding Islam

“So I was surprised,” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “I guess I’d never talked to a Muslim about her religion before.”

“Considering that we see the conflict between Islam and the West as the central problem of our time,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “most Americans know extraordinarily little about what Muslims believe. I happened to be reading Sir John Mandeville—the famous medieval liar—the other day, and I noticed that, even though he tells us that cotton comes from a tree that grows literal lambs on the ends of its branches, and that lowers its branches whenever the lambs want to feed; even though he fills his book with extraordinary monsters and fabulous miracles—in spite of all that, he gives a far better account of what Muslims actually believe than your average American journalist could give. When it comes to Islam, we are more ignorant than the most notoriously mendacious medieval traveler—and that in spite of the fact that most of us live in places where, if we wanted to know about Islam, we could walk down the street and ask a Muslim.”

On the ‘God of the Gaps’

“I’ve heard it called a ‘God of the gaps’ argument,” I was saying. “He thinks there are some things science can’t explain, and that’s what proves there is a God.”

“If I were a theologian,” Mr. Magundi replied, “I’d never allow anyone to make such a foolish argument in my presence. The idea seems to be that God exists in the empty spaces in our knowledge; the inevitable corollary would be that, as we fill in our understanding of the way the world works, eventually God will be squeezed out like the last drop of toothpaste.

“If I were a theologian, I’d say your friend has it exactly backwards. Wherever we know that the world is explainable; wherever it operates according to elegant and simple mathematical laws; wherever astonishing complexity rises from utter simplicity with beautiful inevitability—there is where we see God plainly. Where there are gaps in our scientific knowledge, those are the places where we don’t quite see God yet. But we keep working toward filling in those gaps, coming to a closer and closer understanding of the mind of God.

“That’s what I’d say if I were a theologian. But, since I’m not a theologian, you’re free to pretend I never said it.”

On Play

“I was almost like, ‘I shouldn’t even take your money,'” Brielle was saying, “cause the kids didn’t need me. They had this whole fantasy role-playing thing going on in the back yard, and they were so totally into it, and so serious about it, it was like the most important thing in the world. So I just like sat there and did school stuff.”

“I remember what it was like to be their age,” Mr. Magundi said. “Children’s play, whenever it’s most satisfying to the children, is always solemn and religious. The most devout and fanatical mystic is hoping, in fleeting moments of ecstasy, to recapture that divine thrill we all experienced on the most memorable days of our childhood.”