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.
On a rough clearing ringed by a fence keeping the surrounding thicket at bay stands this menacing building. Two smokestacks flanking it like minarets, it rises into the sky like a grim temple.
Prayers raised from within the cathedral-like interior unto a mad, deaf god go unheeded.
With the passage of time and rotation of the earth the sunlight begins to angle overhead and fall unimpeded through the ravaged roof of the machine room. I have wandered out of here twice, but am called back by the lure of the ever changing play of light and shadow that the other building cannot hope to compete with. The third time I enter this room is also the first time I see it with full direct sunlight. Up above me glittery spider webs refract the light and even while I delight in the sight I fervently hope that their creators stay where they are.
At first I cannot decide at first if the strong light is helping or harming my attempts here, and when asked Tabula Rasa replies in the negative. I pause and consider for a moment, then I see this.
A steampunk garden of brick, brass and steel
Industry, the likes of which licked those Commies but good!
Sundial terrarium at noon.
On one’s approach, the vast, rotting campus of the Armour plant seems a lost Shangri-La. The twin smokestacks are the guiding beacon, the buildings themselves being lost from view in the foliage. When the factory walls finally loom into view, crowded with trees and mad with ivy, the entire edifice seems like a ship lost in storm, slowly being dragged under by the verdant waves.
From inside, one is a witness to a shipwreck, albeit one unfolding in glacial, almost epochal, time, though no less sure of its final destruction for its torpor.
“…I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.”
H.P. Lovecraft, Ex Oblivione
Mere minutes away from the everpresent Arch, in an overgrown neighbourhood of East St. Louis dotted sporadically with industrial sites of unknown purpose, peeking out over the dense grove of trees that seem to guard it on all sides, stands this massive, crumbling brick edifice. Shuttered since the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, this plant was the focal point of our trip to St. Louis, and would not prove disappointing. We arrived at sunrise, partly for the complementary light, and partly in attempt to avoid the rumoured self-appointed neighborhood watchman of the place who might try to chase us off. The purported do-gooder never appeared, and we plunged into the brush to find our way in. Soon after, the morning light broke over the treetops and flooded the plant with gold.
The sun was barely peeping over the horizon when Tabula Rasa and I stumbled forth from our hotel into a cool Sunday morning in St. Louis. This was the day we were going to explore the old Armour meat packing plant which was in operation from 1903 to 1959. The reason for our early rising was the many reports of the elderly gentleman who patrols around the building and chases off people like us whenever he can. I was hoping to meet him since the rumors are that he once worked there and I had some questions, but I’d rather it would be at our exit than entrance. This building was the reason we were in the St. Louis area to begin with, everything else was just icing on the cake.
The building itself, or buildings, since this is a whole complex of which only two large buildings remain to any degree, is in a barren stretch of East St. Louis and tucked away in a mini forest of dense vegetation full of spiders and creeper vines. A short hike through the tall grass and into the woods brought us to the back way in and my first close up sight of Armour told me that even if we failed to gain entry into another building in the upcoming week, this trip was worth it.
Early morning is my favorite time for an explore, much to Tabula Rasa’s dismay. This day was perfect, and the only sounds to be heard was the dawn greetings of birds I am mostly unfamiliar with, the chirruping of crickets and the crackling of the vegetation as we approached. The light filtering in through the trees lent the whole place a magical air and I forgot my weariness at the early hour and trepidations over the reports of how dangerous this location could be.
It didn’t take long for us to wander apart and get lost in the silence and it would be well over an hour before we would see each other again.
The green has swallowed these buildings whole, and we were in the thick of it. One building has gone so far that it is nothing but a skeleton of itself, and the creepers have scaled its bones, slowly tearing it down, making it part of the green once again.
This is not a place of humankind any longer, and our trespass into this land is against the reclaiming forces of nature rather than human law.