The greatest challenge in life is to be realistic.” – Sigmund Freud
A recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 71% of the 36,000 Americans interviewed are “absolutely certain” that there is a God. Before you say that Nietzsche’s parable that “God is dead” is as exaggerated as the once premature rumors of Mark Twain’s death, please recall that for Friedrich the issue was not outward belief but whether God is the definitive ground of personal, social, and political life. Here you may rebut there are some who wish to turn our polity, founded by Deistic Freemasons, into a theocracy. This is true, but the “Moral Majority” never lived up to either half of its name. By and large, Americans relegate Godly concerns to the privacy of personal choice.
It should come as little surprise that so many of us may rely on the received wisdom of our forebears – as part of our identity – to mendaciously shelve the ultimate chicken and egg paradox by calling ourselves believers while this belief has little actual bearing on how we live. After all, more than having to give up weekends for socialism, religions would really cramp the lifestyle of those who lived them. How can we understand something so elemental and simultaneously perplexing as existence itself? Why is there something, anything, everything – rather than nothing? Why is there even an “I” who is now asking a question? Martin Heidegger, the infamous Nazi philosopher, had one thing right: the question of Being is tough and there is much reason to elide it. Is it even a proper question at all?
Thomas Henry Huxley, the father of Aldous and Julian, coined the term “agnostic” in contradistinction to those of us who believe that we can know God directly. By agnostic, Huxley meant that he believed that the question of God could not be answered. What, then, are we, the reflective-minded, to do? What happens to our moral vocabulary? Once Humpty Dumpty, the big egg from which our universe was hatched, our fons et origo, is no longer on the wall and has no longer fallen and can’t be found in our cupboards or skillets, how do we get through breakfast? Why bother? Why bother doing or caring about anything since everyone you’ve ever met and all that they have done will be forgotten and has no bearing on the cold, empty, eternal vastness that engulfs us? What does it mean to be alive, in this reality, this universe, in the situations we find ourselves in day after day until we pass away?
A short time ago I reached out to God. As a participant in ancient practices, I did not eat or drink or wash for 26 hours. I spent 11 of those hours in a prayer hall tucked away in an old tenement apartmentf, meditating, reciting, singing, and contemplating my life and what I know of the cosmos. There seemed to be an intimacy in the air itself. Some of that air had been in the family for generations. Once outside, I saw the trees sway. The temperate fall night caressed me. The streetlights shimmered. My experience wasn’t metaphysical in that I was flying or saw an angel. It was just a sense that life itself, and existence in general, contains a kind of tender magic, a subtle oneness. The profound and the obvious held hands. If this crazy world is possible, I thought, anything is.
Upon reflection, the pleasures of my mystical interlude seemed solipsistic, so I thought I’d assuage my nagging existentialist impulses by seeking answers in other ways. Some folks visit svengalis for answers, some search books and remote locations, and others simply believe what they’ve been taught. I thought I would visit someone who claims to have leaped across the chasm between doubt and knowledge. I visited Normal Bob Smith.
If you are now asking “Who is Normal Bob Smith?” then I thank you for raising question I can answer. He’s an illustrator and creator of atheistic home furnishings, like “Jesus Dress Up” refrigerator magnets, and he runs a wild, wild website. He also prints anti-religious pamphlets and takes them to the people of New York dressed like an archetypical medieval archangel dressed for the prom. Did I mention that he’s 6’3” of skinny badass? Bob went to the opening of The Passion of the Christ as the Devil carrying a family-sized jar of Vaseline. Last, Normal Bob Smith is one of seven Bob Smiths profiled in an amusing and affecting film entitled Bob Smith U.S.A. Here’s an excerpt.
COILHOUSE: What about you is “normal”?
NBS: I still think that I’m really fucking normal. If not, I think that people should be more like me to be normal, from examining themselves inward, to examining society at large. I think that I live a normal, boring life in a lot of ways, like not doing drugs, not drinking too often, getting to bed at a reasonable hour, having a girlfriend, doing my art. Sometimes my life seems abnormally normal. Maybe what I do – my site, dressing up as Satan, handing our “God is Fake” fliers – is to crush what is normal in myself. I grew up in Colorado in a suburban home by Christian parents.
Do you remember your first religious experience?
I don’t think that I ever had a religious experience. I was raised with religion from the cradle. I faked a lot of experiences and thought all the people around me were having them, so I would stir up feelings inside me, like having dreams that I would translate into religious experiences and predictions of the future. Having strong emotions, from going up in front of a lot of people in a big church, I would translate into the Spirit inside me, though these were normal feelings for a child around emotional adults.
It was Southern Gables Evangelical Church in Colorado, which has since become a mega-church. I returned a few years ago. They’ve bought some land. It’s gigantic.
How was religion part of your life?
It was told to me twenty-four hours a day by my mom, who was crazily obsessed with it, to church three times a week, Wednesday was our Youth Group, Sunday was church and night church, summer camps. I was part of the popular group at church, but not in public school.
How did you fall from grace?
I was thirty and going through turmoil to make sense of it. Forty percent of my diary entries had been attempts to use Christianity to explain my life. The other sixty percent were about sex. All of my neighbors and teachers and family had been Christian. The breakdown happened in Chicago. Life didn’t make sense with those ideas. I came to realize that I didn’t have guardian angels or an everlasting life waiting for me. I had a breakdown. Everything changed. I first drew “Jesus Dress Up” as a believer and felt naughty. My mom came into my room and I heard her say, “Oh Bobby, no!” She fled the room. I knew that it worked. I hid it, like pornography. It was rebellion.
Is this, at its core, a way of escaping an overbearing mother?
Back in the day, I would’ve said that my greatest influences were the cool ones: Johnny Rotten, Andy Warhol, Lenny Bruce, and Andy Kaufman. In truth, I’ve been most influenced by my mom. Not only was she heavily religious, she was a writer and speaker, though her examinations of life were from within the box of Christianity. I get along really great with my parents now. My mom thinks that I’ll repent like Saul-Paul.
Are you an atheist?
As an atheist, you know that there is no God. How have you come to such knowledge?
All of my logic and everything around me has led, even the core of me, to believe that there is no God. Richard Dawkins will even say that you can never be one hundred percent sure. He even has a scale of belief and calls himself a nine. I’m a ten.
Can you give me just one knock down argument against the belief in God?
We’ve invented so many Gods throughout human history. Clearly, inventing Gods is in our nature. I could name two dozen. According to my encyclopedia of mythology, there are over four thousand Gods.
Maybe since all of these different peoples and traditions have all come to representations of the divine, maybe there’s something about it that resonates in the human experience and in nature.
That gives them no truth.
What about the spiritual belief that the universe is alive, like the Gaia notion of our planet as one organism?
There is so much aching in us, as humans, to believe that it’s true. It would be such a nicer, friendlier universe if it were. When I became an atheist I came to the conclusion that if a belief feels good, it should be questioned even more. If it strokes your ego, soothes your fears, it is even more important to question. So many more questions are answered if you believe that the universe is not alive, but a physical space where things happen: chaotic things, things that we like, things that we don’t like.
Bob Smith by photographer Venessa Nina; part of The Bob Project
Why do you take such a hard, personal line against something ultimately unknowable?
Back in 2000, I felt like no one was taking it on in public. When I was searching for answers I wanted to find a website with humor, like mine. Besides, I can’t stop myself.
You seem possessed with non-belief. What do you hope to accomplish through your art?
I hope to satisfy myself. It’s nice when I get e-mails that tell me that I’m changing minds or giving them something that helps them through a tough time by reading how I handle hate mail or by playing “Jesus Dress-up.” By now, I would’ve regretted making a pro-Jesus website years ago.
In the 19th Century, there were a lot of “children of the Enlightenment” who predicted that religion would’ve long since been supplanted by science by now and yet religion seems as strong as ever. Where do you see the face-off with science going?
We are at an interesting time. With globalization, a Christian can see the ridiculous things a Muslim believes or the beliefs of someone like David Koresh. They don’t see the ridiculousness in themselves but when their kid is ill, they don’t pray – they call a doctor.
Aren’t things getting polarized? Many people are becoming more secular and many other people are becoming more religious.
In the future, religion will be seen as a “fringe belief.” We seem a hundred years from that. Science has yet to provide comforting answers.
Are you an empiricist? Although not from Missouri, do you live in a “show me state”?
It certainly helps when you see can things, but I also believe things that make logical sense.
What are the worst responses to your art?
I’ve had few direct threats. The closest was when I went to see The Passion of the Christ dressed as Satan. Through my site, I’ve had death threats from Christians claiming to have hired hit men and laughing about how I will repent. Some, of course, just tell me that they’re praying for my soul. I’ve had no hatemail from Jews, although one guy wanted to link to my site until I told him that I was against all religion. Most of the responses from Muslims have been bloodthirsty. They denounce me as an infidel and tell me that they will defeat my “monkey armies.” I’ve had Muslims tell me that they will drape me in the skins of my children and will behead my “American monkey head.” I just had one from Columbia that tells me that I’ll be the target of a New York Muslim fundamentalist group. They have been a regular thing, especially since I’ve posted “Mohammed Dress Up.” I do it to show that we need to not be intimidated.
How many hits do you get a month?
At its peak, in 2001, when I first posted the site, I had six million a month. It peaked again when I was on Comedy Central after Urban Outfitters was on the news for selling my magnets after Passion of the Christ. People complained, and when they were removed, it made the news.
What about the ethics of shocking and offending people?
I think that it’s necessary. You can’t have a society that is based on not offending. We need to question each other’s core beliefs, which is what offending does.
Have you ever thought that, when you walk down the street as the Devil, that you could traumatize a child or give an old person a heart attack?
It’s tough love and tough luck. If you are traumatized that easily, you won’t make it in the world. I became a better person by people telling me things that I didn’t want to hear. I remember my brother saying, “You know, Bob, you didn’t exist before you were born. Why believe that you will exist after you die?” It hurt, but, eventually, I was glad that I didn’t believe things on faith. I didn’t submit to someone who said they knew God.
You say that atheism has made you a better person. Can’t believing in God make one better? It has in many cases.
You can become a better person through lies or through truth. [Christopher] Hitchens wrote, in The Missionary Position, his book on Mother Theresa, that her exposed diaries reveal that she couldn’t find Jesus and that she didn’t enjoy her life. If you want to bring joy to other people, you have to begin by enjoying your own life.
Ayn Rand, a venomous atheist, argued that selfishness is a virtue. She argues that altruism isn’t internally consistent: you give up your life to preserve [someone elses’s] life.
You have to fight against that. Understand that our first breath is selfish, but we have to learn to make sacrifices to each other, like in relationships.
Isn’t that just a means to a self-serving end? If there is no God, then there is no Good and Evil, and no reason not to be selfish.
Something is Evil if it creates suffering.
What’s wrong with suffering? Buddhists tell us that life is suffering. Is life bad?
There are different kinds of suffering. Psychological suffering from self-examination is good, but being tortured is not. The goal of human life is to remove suffering.
Why believe that human life has a goal?
Thinking that the only purpose to life is to serve God is a waste. It makes you a slave, certainly not the most productive way to live.
Religious people may want to commune with a higher knowledge. Serving higher knowledge is serving truth. You give up immediate gratification for a higher form. There is freedom in it. Serving Truth seems to be no vice.
As an atheist, I have come to see human life as precious. It is a perversion to put anything above it. Religion devalues human life.
[Martin] Heidegger believed that Humanism is baseless. Why privilege human life as an a priori objective? Why use the religious vocabulary of Good and Evil to describe anything?
Maybe it’s semantics. Evil has been hijacked by religion. There are evil deeds, like Jeffrey Dahmer’s and religious wars that have slaughtered millions. Maybe it’s our job to re-define what evil means. Religion teaches us that killing a disobedient child is not evil and that slavery is not evil.
Why are they wrong? Why?
It is amazing what self-conscious, self-examining people can do. Our evolution is encouraging and unique in this universe. It would be an immeasurable loss if we made ourselves extinct.
Being that time is eternal and life has a natural history, it came into being and will cease to be so. So why bother? To a scientific mind, aren’t we just talking about energy in different forms? A decaying body and a living one are just energy in different states, so why belabor the distinction?
Because happiness is a wonderful thing and happens only in life.
Sounds like divine grace. Happiness always fades. You live for pleasure?
I enjoy life. There is a lot of satisfaction to be found. I enjoy life more now, as an atheist.
What does the Devil mean to you?
I have a fetish for the Devil. It’s the encompassing of all evil in one creature.
I thought that you’re against evil.
I think that dressing up like the Devil to sell Jesus fridge magnets and distributing fliers to people is amusing. I don’t have a hatred for religion or religious people. I enjoy turning it on its ear.
What are you current projects?
I’m doing cartoon animation. I’ve been invited again to speak at Arizona State University for their Atheist Club. There is a preacher, Brother Jed, and they schedule me as a counterargument. I’d love to have more speaking engagements. I’m also taking pictures of bizarre people for my “Amazing Strangers” collection on my website. I’d love to print a book. I do a podcast with DJ Snakeface. It’s on I-Tunes: “No BS Radio.” It stands for Normal Bob Smith, do you get it?
I don’t not get it.
I like to interview Christians and give them the questions that stumped me when I was a believer. There is a phone number on the site. People call in. We’ve gone to a few films, like Expelled, a film that argues that scientists who believe in God have been excommunicated.
Where would you like to be in ten years?
I want to continue the site. It would be nice to be shown in galleries. I’d like to print my comic book, get my board game produced, and speak publicly about religion. I’d like to make movies, too.
What do you think of Satanism? It’s been suggested that the greatest trick of the Devil is to get people to think that he doesn’t exist. Maybe the real Satanists don’t hang out with [Anton] LaVey, but preach the gospel that there is no Gospel.
Some Satanists are just people who were raised Christian who’ve switched teams. I think that Satanism is not honest.
“Spooky Fella,” an image from a set of of Normal Bob Smith’s Satan/Jesus illustrations
Aren’t all forms of life selfish? You have to eat other forms of life – even plants – to survive, so isn’t selfishness the ultimate law of nature?
In Howard Bloom’s Lucifer Principle, he talks about it. You have to be selfish to preserve yourself so that you can help others. You need to be healthy to get to the next life. By not being selfish, you can your quality of life in a broad way.
That’s what philosophers call your “enlightened self-interest.” Certainly it is always best to not appear to be selfish, as Ben Franklin elliptically implied. Selfishness creates art and knowledge. Why not give in?
At some point in our lives, we all give into it, but it’s seldom satisfying. It’s all about balance and it’s all individual.
Some, like the ancient Jewish sage Hillel, argue that the ultimate teaching of religion is that you should love others as you love yourself. What’s wrong with that?
That’s not the basics. Unfortunately, religions are more about divisions between people. They don’t tell you that everyone will go to Heaven. When it’s taught to you as a child, you have to see non-believers as going to Hell.
I suppose even Buddhists believe, unless you are on the Dharma, that your Karma is going to be bad and you will degenerate in your next incarnation.
Religions teach that they have all the answers. They don’t stick a thumb up your ass, which is the only way to get the Truth. Religion feeds on the selfishness we have for answers so that we can ignore the things that really need to be studied.
Why not do a Buddha dress-up or Moses?
They won’t sell as well. There isn’t the demand. Those faiths don’t place the same emphasis on images.
Since 2001, there have been hundreds of suicide bombings in the name of Holy Wars and President Bush claimed that we are on a “Crusade” in Iraq. Any reflections on Holy War?
There aren’t any suicide bombings in the name of atheism.
The Soviets murdered 20 million in the name of atheistic equality. Isn’t dressing up like the Devil to provoke people a form of suicide bombing?
It’s a healthy form. It’s just a joke, a provocation. It doesn’t kill anybody.
You’ve told me what makes you “normal,” but you haven’t told me what makes you “Bob Smith.” Is it your given name?
No. My last name is not Smith.
So, we can learn the truth through lies?
Yes. I did it to protect my parents and to keep my credit cards from risk.