Thomas Wictor

No more kowtowing to Snake Man

No more kowtowing to Snake Man

Boy, was my father defensive. He was always ready to take offense, no matter how innocuous the comment. And he was the master of the bait-and-switch.

His finest moment came when he decided to spend the day doing yard work to prove that he didn’t have terminal cancer. He mowed, trimmed, clipped, and raked until we had to cart him off to the emergency room. After they discovered that he was dangerously anemic, he was put in the intensive care unit.

In retrospect Dad knew that his osteosarcoma caused the anemia, but since he refused to admit that he had potentially—and then actually—terminal cancer, he made us take him to the emergency room four times because of his wooziness, and the hospital did every test under the sun to find out what the problem was.

Dad knew the answer, but he refused to cop to it. All I can think of is the hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted, the sincere and futile efforts of the medical personnel, and the days that Tim and I spent in waiting rooms, the ICU, and the hospital. Though Dad was acutely, agonizingly aware of the reason he was anemic, he pretended that it was all a sweet mystery.

“Sure hope they find out what’s wrong with me,” he’d say over and over.

His best bait-and-switch came when he was in the ICU due to this persistent, mysterious, severe anemia, the cause of which was the bone cancer he denied having. At some point he became uncharacteristically emotional.

“I don’t think I’m gonna get out of here this time,” he said to Tim, who sat next to his bed, only inches away.

Keep in mind that this was after Dad spent a day exhausting himself with utterly maniacal yard work.

“Let’s not talk like that,” Tim said. “You’ll just have to take care of yourself a little better when you come home.”

Quick as a wink, tearful Dad disappeared, replaced with the entity we called Snake Man.

His head snapped to the left, and he glared at Tim.

“Are ya sayin’ I’m weak?” he hissed. “You think I’m too stupid to know how to take care of myself?”

Tim handled it with grace, but that was a bad moment for me. I wanted to smash Dad’s face. And now that I know he hid his cancer for five years, his Snake Man shtick was quintuply uncalled for. We were trying to reassure him, and he assaulted us for it.

During the last two years of his life, Dad started looking really bizarre. He lost all his body hair, developed apple cheeks, breasts, and a magnificent silver mane. His skin became translucent. When he walked, he leaned forward and to the left. He moaned and grunted all the time.

Sitting in his rocking chair, he’d slide forward until his body was over his feet, and then he’d slowly, creakingly rise, making a strange uoy-youy-youy-youy-youy sound.

And if you said, “Are you all right?” he’d always give you the same response.

“Why do you ask?” Sometimes he’d shout it.

We couldn’t say, “Because you look like a cadaver. You look like a pickled, genderless alien. And you never stop making completely unnatural sounds. Why do we ask? Because you’re unrecognizable. You’re starting to look Chinese.”

But we stopped asking because we were sick of dealing with Snake Man. That made Dad upset. Now we didn’t care about him!

Wrong. Tim and I spent three hellish weeks showing him how much we cared. When Dad was insane and raving, we never once mistreated him or were even impatient with him. And I took part in his Last Rites, purely to bring him peace of mind and show him the mercy that others didn’t.

What happened was Tim and I decided that fifty years was enough. Snake Man had worn out his welcome.

Atheism versus unbelief

I recently got into it on a blog with people who self-identify as atheists but don’t even know the definition of the term. They all became Snake Man when I pointed out that atheism is as much an act of faith as theism.

Atheism is the belief that there is no God. Don’t agree? Check out Merriam-Webster. Yes, I know it’s popular to say that atheists are people who don’t believe in God, but that’s not true. People who don’t believe in God are unbelievers. Atheists are people who believe that God does not exist.

Since the existence or non-existence of God is unprovable, atheism and theism are both acts of faith. Unbelief is not an act of faith, because unbelief is an absence of belief. Unbelief is the opposite of atheism, a belief.

But as usual here came the comments about believing in the Great Pumpkin, the invisible friend, and—a first, I must admit—an invisible, transdimensional, purple rhino sticking his dick in your ear.

The defensiveness was truly amazing. Hostility, condescension, and a sudden inability to read simple sentences became the order of the day.


Well, look: No more kowtowing to Snake Man. Here’s what the year 2013 taught me.

Defensive people are terrified. People mock or attack what they fear. There isn’t a moral component to theism or atheism. Someone told me that he was angry at the religious because they kept saying he was going to hell unless he shared the magical friendship with the all-powerful being.

So what? Your anger proves that those people got to you. Which means you do believe in your heart of hearts that you just might go to hell if you don’t join the Flying Spaghetti Monster Club.

A grasp of basic vocabulary could help all you Snake Men. Atheism is the belief that there is no deity. Theism is the belief that there is a deity. If you don’t believe in a deity, you are not an atheist; you are an unbeliever. Finally, theism and religion are not interchangeable. Religion is either a set of beliefs and practices regarding the worshiping of a particular deity, or it’s the submission and loyalty to a particular deity.

I self-identify as a lapsed Catholic. The operative word is “lapsed.” I no longer practice that or any other religion. Simply put, I’m not religious in any way, shape, or form.

Let them say whatever they want

When I lived in Tokyo, there was this insufferable, boring, chirpy weirdo who had a pyramidal hairstyle and a brisk, ring-a-ding-ding, officious manner. She was like a chunky, 1950s human canary with a black pyramid on its head. Carmen befriended her because Carmen was a performance artist, and she wanted me to share the joys of being with really annoying, unsocialized freaks.

The three of us went to Working Girl, which Pyramid Head had already seen. In anticipation of every upcoming funny scene, she began laughing and rocking in her chair, saying, “Yeah! Yeah!” and biting her lower lip. By the end of the movie, I wanted to stuff her canary cranium through the cup-holder hole in the arm of her seat.

Pyramid Head accompanied the other English teachers and me on our after-school excursions to bars. As we filled ourselves with beer, she’d stand there with her hands in her pockets, smiling in a deeply irritating, I’ve-got-a-secret way. I had a hunch what was up, so one night I finally confronted her.

“How come you go out with us and don’t drink and never say anything?” I asked. I really hated her by then.

“My religion doesn’t allow me to drink,” she said.

“What religion is that?”

“I’m a Christian.”

“Well, so’s everybody here, nominally.”

She laughed her supercilious canary laugh and said, “No, I’ve given my life over to Christ. I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. None of you have, or you wouldn’t be drinking.”

“What does it mean to give your life over to Christ and accept him as your lord and savior?” I asked.

“It means I’m not going to hell.”

“So everyone who doesn’t follow your example is going to hell?”


I’ve never seen a more repugnant expression of triumphant glee.

“So all of us in this room—all your friends—are going to hell?” I asked.

“That’s rrrright!” On the word right, she dropped her head and then raised it in a sideways swinging motion, like a baseball pitcher winding up and throwing. Or someone hurling a shovelful of manure.

“How can you be friends with and hang out with people you think are going to be burning in flames for all eternity?” I asked. “Doesn’t that thought fill you with horror?”

“Hey, I don’t make the rules. Take it up with God. If you don’t want to go to hell, accept the Lord. Give your lives over to Christ.”

She was enjoying the idea that we’d all be roasting while she’d be in paradise, having her pyramid-coiffure done.

“Well, I’m not worried,” I said.

“What if she’s right?” asked a friend, a funny guy who played trombone with just his lips. He could imitate Tommy Dorsey perfectly. Pyramid Head had really gotten to him, I could see. He was terrified. I tried to reassure him, but we were all drunk; the whole exchange was just a mishmash of slurred gobbledegook that nobody could follow. My own words made no sense to me.

The point is that at the time—1989—I thought about this stuff constantly, and it scared me to my core. But I knew that Pyramid Head was wrong. Her babble didn’t bother me in the least. I never argued with her or made fun of her, because all she was doing was parroting giant blocks of text she’d memorized. There was no way I could follow her lead even if she was right.

As drunk as I was, I remember Pyramid Head saying something along the lines of, “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God sent him to die for our sins and then raised him from the dead, you’ll be saved.”

Well, I can’t do that. I don’t know any of those things. There’s no way on earth that I could ever believe them, so claiming that I did would be a lie. I’m not saying that all of that is false; I’m saying that I don’t know. It would never be possible for me to become the sort of Christian that Pyramid Head was. If it’s the only road to salvation, I’m screwed.

I didn’t believe that Pyramid Head was right, so nothing she said angered me. She angered me by being utterly unpleasant on every possible level. I’ve had the same conversation with at least a hundred evangelical Christians. Their worldview never angered me, but it’s not a discussion I have anymore.

If someone simply reveals himself as a theist, and that makes you angry enough to turn into Snake Man, the problem isn’t with the theist. And if you’re so unreachable that you can’t read plain English because it presses all your anxiety-buttons, you’re headed for the cliff. Trust me.

Having seen what repressed fear did to both of my parents, my unsolicited advice to you is to get this topic right in your head as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter if you’re a theist, an atheist, an unbeliever, an agnostic, or a religious adherent. We’re all on the same boat, and it’s a gorgeous luxury liner taking us to astounding destinations.

You have nothing to fear. I promise.

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