There’s nothing business-as-usual about Mark Salzman’s multimedia piece at the New York Public Library, “An Atheist in Freefall,” at least according to Beatrice Marovich’s highly intriguing review in Religion Dispatches. Coming from a long line of nonbelievers, Salzman found the more overtly humanistic elements to be overwhelming and crisis-inducing – after all, who wants that much responsibility? That he’s found solace in a Higher-Power-denuded version of the 12 Steps (oxymoron?) made this blogger look up and take note. He’s clearly onto something, morally indefensible or no, either a refreshing alternative to the ruthless achievism of the New Atheists or a convenient half-measure that seeks to address the intolerable burden of free-agency. And while I doubt Salzman’s take will prove terribly ascendant, given our high-octane religious climate (not that it’s necessarily meant to – this is being presented as a work of art, not a manifesto), a bridge by any other name is still a bridge, ht ME:

The small school of so-called “new atheists,” whose pop commentaries on religion, science, and political life have proven incendiary in recent years, have lately come up against the charge that they’re conspicuously homogenous: white, male, and squarely professional class [there are exceptions, however —ed.]. Personalities like the natty Richard Dawkins cut a profile that’s not much of a departure from the iconic white Protestant pulpit master. If you’ve been following the rise of this movement, noted Monica Shores on the Ms. Magazine blog last November, “you may have noticed that it sure looks a lot like old religion.” Surely atheism, to the extent that it is indeed a “movement,” isn’t comprised merely of stiff, aging white guys? The moment seems ripe for diversification on all kinds of fronts.

Enter Mark Salzman, the Yale-educated novelist whose multimedia piece, “An Atheist in Freefall,” was recently featured at the esteemed New York Public Library (watch the entire performance in video below). The event, it seems, was meant to contribute something to the developing discussion about the use, value, shape, or function of atheism in our often fanatically religious society. Perhaps part of that contribution was to diversify the movement, if only faintly. Granted, Salzman is white. And male. Indeed, aesthetically Salzman doesn’t seem to be telling a very different story.

He glided onto the small stage in an oxford shirt layered under a navy blue sweater. His tidy khaki pants were crisply ironed and his blonde hair was swept neatly back and to the side. The effect was a Joel Osteen-ish confidence and charisma. But, as became clear over the course of his tortured, animated performance, Salzman is different; he’s a more vulnerable, more contemplative (and, let’s be frank, far kookier) sort of atheist…

It was only during the closing of the performance that Salzman really elaborated on his a-theistic vision for healing and wholeness. It isn’t complex and can, perhaps, be boiled down to his paraphrase of the Alcoholics Anonymous “Serenity Prayer”: “…we do what we must as we fall through time.”

Salzman takes issue with atheist visions that attribute the ghost of the “human mind” with the almost magical potential to execute the demands of our personal, humanoid will in the chaos of the actual world. Too many atheists, he seemed to be suggesting, see too much intention and responsibility embedded in their human selves—in the selves of their human counterparts. “Is your own belief about your own power and autonomy sustainable,” he asks, “or is it tearing you apart?”

He wants, instead, a more blissed-out spirituality for the atheistically inclined… one that can put cosmic responsibility in the un-godlike hands of, well, something big. Something mysterious and entirely indeterminate. The reason isn’t, so much, that he wants to attribute any moral agency to this cosmic greatness (in fact, he calls his vision “morally indefensible”). Mostly, he’s looking for a spiritual technique to reduce personal anxiety and he’s convinced that “if your sense of responsibility is reduced, your anxiety should go down.” Think of it as a kind of spiritual back-cracking for non-theists, or 12 steps for the anxiety-prone.