David McReynolds: Religious Atheist
Life Reflections from the Late Peace Activist
By Nathan Albright
David and his cat Shaman in their Lower East Side apartment.
Author’s note: The bulk of this article was compiled from an interview with David McReynolds conducted in April of 2018. David passed away just a few months later on August 17th, 2018. He is missed by a large circle of friends and family.
David and I met a few years ago through mutual friends at the New York Catholic Worker, where I was living at the time. At the beginning of the 2016 election season, knowing that the NYCW didn’t have TV or Internet access, David invited me to watch all of the debates and primary coverage at his place. We got a lot closer during that period. It was disheartening to watch such a dismal and regressive series of political events unfold with someone who had devoted his life to a vision of the exact opposite, but David held on to a remarkably positive outlook. He was horrified by the current administration, but in our conversations he would faithfully return to the idea that our representatives do not actually represent the public will. There’s been widespread support for things like gun control and healthcare reform for a long time, and the idea of socialism as a viable option for the US is gaining momentum. David believed the state of politics were a poor reflection of common people. In our daily lives we are much less complicated, much less vicious, and our differences much less pronounced. If we could only make a good-faith effort to communicate, we’d find that most of us want basically the same things out of life and that those things are actually pretty simple.
I didn’t always agree with David, but I did always appreciate hearing his perspective. His wisdom and experience were expansive and his warmth and patience encouraging. I feel particularly lucky to have had this last conversation with him.
You are loved and missed, David. Rest in peace.
“Okay, who wants to start?” says the voice of David McReynolds to a pitch black room. Someone volunteers, fumbles in the dark, lights a candle and begins, “a person who knew me all my life died in January…” It’s late December, a few days before the New Year and David, a six foot three, 88 year old with a gentle smile, has invited some of his closest friends to gather in his tiny studio apartment on the Lower East Side for a ceremony to commemorate those who died over the past year.
As I’ve gotten to know David over the past few years, I’ve slowly come to learn—usually through casual anecdotes or asides—just how much ground he’s covered in his fifty-plus years as an activist and organizer. During the Vietnam War, he co-authored the very first public anti-war statement with A.J. Muste, was one of the first people to publicly burn his draft card, and played an active role in mobilizing the anti-war movement. He worked closely with a wide variety of notable figures including civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, socialist minister Norman Thomas, and Catholic anarchist Dorothy Day. He was arrested with Grace Paley and Allen Ginsburg, and had a close relationship with Alvin Ailey. And in 1980—the first time he ran for president for the Socialist Party USA—he earned the distinction of being the first openly gay presidential candidate in the US.
But tonight, as usual, David is focused on the people around him: making sure everyone has a drink, something to dip into his homemade hummus, enough candles and matches. For David, who identifies as a “religious atheist,” the night is about ritual. “We need ceremony to get through life,” he explains, telling me later that when it came to his childhood memories of church, “my favorite part was anything but the sermon.”
The ceremony lasts about an hour, and afterward David invites people to stay and watch some British comedies he has on DVD. Later in the week I ask David if he’ll talk with me about what he means by “religious atheist.” His first response is to send me an excerpt from a story by the Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber about how God created atheists to teach us about true compassion. “When someone reaches out to you for help,” it concludes, “for the moment you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I can help you.’” David appreciates a good paradox.
Born in Los Angeles in 1929 to a conservative Baptist family, David knew at a young age that he didn’t belong in the church. “There were a couple of problems for me,” he recalls, “one of them was that it was clear that being homosexual was out of bounds,” and the other was that, “I was really horrified at the god that I was supposed to believe in. I found him really hateful, vengeful, and I remember—I don’t know how old I was—but I remember the thought sticking in my mind, wishing I had the courage to be an atheist because I really did not want to be involved with this God.”
David was a young teenager during World War II, and he forged some of his first political thoughts trying to understand the conflict. By the Korean War he knew he was a pacifist, and faced a personal dilemma when trying to decide whether to file as a conscientious objector. At that time he still believed in God “in a general sense,” so he applied for his C.O. card, but ultimately didn’t feel right about it. “As I became aware that my friends did not believe in God and could not get the exemption,” he explains, “I thought that it was wrong for me to have that exemption. So at some point I turned the card back in.” Looking back on the experience, he thinks it probably played an important part in realizing that he no longer believed in God.
Eventually, David moved to New York, where he settled into the Lower East Side and got more involved in the kinds of radical organizing that would become his life’s work. He was involved with The Socialist Party, worked at the War Resister’s League, and got a job at Liberation Magazine. It was in this new environment that David’s current spiritual views began to take shape.
“If you’re lucky,” David tells me, “you may have one or more moments in life that you really can’t put into words, which are really transcendent.” In his own lifetime he counts two. The first, he recalls with a nostalgic look in his eye, involved peyote. Still clearly affected by the memory, he recounts the lessons he learned involving his own neurotic fear of death, they way his ego clung to reality, and the experience of meeting the god he didn’t believe in. “I did find the taking of peyote a religious experience, but not one that taught me there was a god,” he explains with a grin. “I think there are levels of reality that we really don’t grasp and so it’s entirely possible that in one level of reality there is a god and in another level there isn’t.” The ability to make sense of a paradox like this for David is less about inconsistency than flexibility. The experience helped him understand that “a rigid set of beliefs can be shattered,” while an open mind is free to appreciate complexity and apparent contradiction.
His second religious experience came to him “in a bombed out city in Germany,” when he was struck by the reality of war:
“I can be so stupid, I’m amazed sometimes at how dense I am, I thought ‘why are there empty lots in a city this old? why aren’t there buildings there?’ Well there had been buildings there, they’d been blown up and the Germans being very tidy had leveled them … and then I thought about how the working class were the ones that were bombed because the Allies knew that the Germans could repair their factories but they couldn’t repair dead workers, so the target was the working class—to kill them literally, to take out the skilled workers—terrible thought but that was the tactic. So I’m looking at the whole thing politically but then maybe the third or forth day, there’s a church with a tree growing in the middle of it, there’s a department store which is empty inside but the stairs go up partway and are broken and then go up, the city was ruined. And I came to the street where a building had been destroyed but the ground floor had been fixed up so there were shops on the first floor, and I had been shocked at what I had been seeing but then I remembered. I was the one in Junior High School who was so proud, and I remembered the headlines ‘800 Bombers Blast Bremman,’ ‘1,000 Bombers Make Hamburg Hamburger,’ I remember these headlines and how excited I was, now I’m looking at it. There was an old lady running one of the shops and I’m wearing an American flyer’s jacket that was my father’s and I said to her, pointing to the ravished city, I said ‘bombs?’ And she didn’t speak any English. And I said ‘American.’ And she didn’t say anything. And I said ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I broke down. Because I was the one who had done this. It was without any question a religious experience, no hallucinations, no visions of god, but religious. It made me aware of what bombs do.”
In the 60 years since, David has seen a lot. His experiences, along with his ecstatic view of the world can best be seen in the tens of thousands of photographs he’s taken over the years. These capture his time in Los Angeles in the 1950‘s, some incredible moments during civil rights demonstrations of the 1960‘s, his own travels to Vietnam and Cambodia during the War, countless rallies and marches up through the present day, and a wide assortment of cats.
In reflecting on it all, David seems content in his understanding of what it means to be a religious atheist. “I find it really impossible to believe in a personal god,” he says, “on the other hand I don’t know why, for instance, Christians are so upset by the idea of evolution.” He gets a little excited:
“I would think its sort of miraculous, incredible, totally unbelievable that all of this—a single flower!—has occurred over millions of years without a design premise, a magic person making it up. I find evolution really absolutely incredible, and I don’t know how one can look at the world as it exists, including music and art, and not really be stunned or have a sense of awe or a religious feeling about it. I don’t think you have to believe in god for that.”
It’s fitting that David’s favorite religious text is a passage in the Upanishads about what god is not. “God” he believes, “is that which you cannot pin down with words.” He’s also fond of the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the first three Christian gospels (he’s not a fan of John), and some aspects of the letters from Paul. “While I think Paul is haunted by sexuality (the whole structure of hostility to homosexuality rests with him), there is also a haunting humanity to Paul,” he explains, citing a passage, “‘The good I would do, I do not; the evil I would not do, I do.’” David’s relationship with the religion he was once steeped in is complicated. He finds it altogether too arrogant to believe that Christianity is the only path, but finds Jesus an inspiring figure. “It matters not whether he was resurrected,” he tells me, “it matters that he lived!”
It was this same focus on the way life is lived along with a desire to reconnect with the ritual of his childhood religion that first inspired David’s candle-lighting ceremony. It started more than 20 years ago, when David’s father, a devout Baptist, passed away:
“I don’t think I’d ever really paid enough attention to my father whom I didn’t get along with well—not his fault—so the lighting of the candles was a tribute to him, to all people who had left during the year. Nothing more than that. The dead needed a space to be remembered.”
I ask David one last question, about the end of life, his own death, and what he thinks comes next. “Of course each of us does live on through others we have touched,” he laughs, “but this is small comfort to our egos which long to be immortal.” He pauses for a minute and takes a more serious tone:
“I am pretty well convinced that the ego dissolves and vanishes. So in that sense the effort to hold onto your life is wasted. It’s moronic for someone to try to hold onto things, to think whatever you send across may be there waiting—you won’t be there, you’re not going there! You’re just a drop of water going back into the ocean, but that’s a great fact in itself. You’re being reunited with a huge, vast universal. I don’t think I’m going to meet the cats and dogs I knew, my family members. I don’t think it’s an afterlife in that sense. But I do think there’s a river or a sea to which we return.”
He smiles again, “I think life is a great thing and I think people should enjoy it. I don’t have a sense of being close to the end.” He talks to his cat a bit more and seems content with his answer, then adds, “Perhaps if I lived another ten years I’d become a mystic and a vegetarian.”
Nathan Albright is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.