Heathen: Arturo Vivante

By Arturo Vivante

Distinguished author Arturo Vivante submitted this article shortly before his death at age 84 on April 1. We are honored to be publishing Mr. Vivante’s story for the first time in Freethought Today.

I was slowly walking down the main street of the Vermont town where I taught when a man aggressively came up to me and asked me point-blank: “Are you a Christian?”

“No,” I said, unwilling to be pigeonholed, “I am a heathen.”

“Who made that tree?” he asked me sternly, pointing to a maple near where we stood. “It made itself.”

“Oh, itself, did it? Well, let me tell you, God made it.’’

I looked at the red, flame-like, burgeoning buds that would soon turn into tiny leaf, rosy at first, then broaden into lustrous green, and finally in the fall turn to fiery red, and lines from a poem of D.H. Lawrence that I had read to my class came to my mind, and I quoted them to him:

“Even the mind of God can only imagine
Those things that have become themselves.”

“Do you pray?” he said.

“No, but I do a lot of hoping.”

He looked at me as at a hopeless case. “Take this and pray,” he said, handing me a pink flier. “Read it every day.”

I looked at the words that perhaps someone of his sect had written. “When I hope,” I said, “at least I use my own words, and no one else’s. I don’t follow any dotted line.”

‘’What’s wrong with these words?”

“They are impersonal, dated. Said over and over, they become almost meaningless, while hope is new and fresh each time, and isn’t attached to any sect.”

“Pray to God and you’ll be saved.”

“I feel perfectly safe,’’ I said. “I have a home, a family, a job, even a philosophy.” “You have no faith.”


“No,” he affirmed. “Pray to God, have faith, and your prayer will be answered. You have only to ask.’’

“‘Ask and it shall be given unto you, knock and it shall be opened,’ do you mean?”


“But I think one needs each time a very cleverly made, subtle and fortunate key. And besides, I should think one who really loves God wouldn’t want to ask him favors all the time, bother him with this and that like a lobbyist. I should think it would be very trying even for God. I’d be afraid of taxing his patience.”

“God has infinite patience.”

“Do you think so?”

“I know so.”

“I see him as beyond reach, too high, like fate,” I said, and again quoted a line I had read to my class, “ ‘moved of no man’s prayer to fold its wings.’ ”

“You are an unbeliever.”

“I believe a beggar woman who said, ‘God don’t care.’ ”

“That’s blasphemy. Praise the Lord, don’t curse him.”

“I’m not cursing. I think it’s as vain to curse him as it is to praise him. You want him as the almighty and the all loving, but if he is both why does he allow so much cruelty in this world?”

“It’s well known, to test us.”

“A suspicious God. I don’t want a suspicious God.”

“Boy, you’ll go to hell.”

I smiled and looked at him, a man much younger than me. “I’m not afraid of hell since I don’t believe in it, hell or heaven. How can you be happy in happy in heaven if your brother is in hell? It doesn’t make sense.”

“You’ll find out. I’ll pray for your soul.”

“My soul won’t outlive my body. The soul is life, and death is the end, or at least I fervently hope so. This life is the real thing, not a rehearsal. And death is final, not an intermission. Dust and ashes, they can’t die; they are immortal, because they are not alive—immortality belongs to the unliving.”

“So you are a heathen.”

“Yes, if the word heathen comes from heath, the wilderness.”

He looked at me as if I were a lost soul, intractable so far, and yet grist for his mill, a substrate to work on, his chance to make a convert, to save me, and he wouldn’t let go. He gave me another flier of a different color. I took it. “You’ll read it?’’


Still, he was not satisfied. “God’s all around you, don’t you see?’’

“‘I see him in the flowering of the fields,
I see him in the turning of the stars,
But in his ways with men I see him not.’
“That’s from Tennyson.”

“So what are you, apart from being a heathen, I mean? Are you at the college here?” “Yes.”

“I thought so, a teacher. I pity your students. You tell them the things you told me?”


“You are a bad influence.”

“They are free to pick and to discard. I tell them to take nothing for granted.”

“But you are wrong, don’t you see?”

“And you are right.”

“Yes, I am sure I am right.”

“‘Man, little man, most ignorant of what he’s most assured.’ That’s from Shakespeare.”

“Don’t you ever quote from the bible?”

“Oh yes, ‘Where the spirit of the Lord is there is Liberty.’ St. Paul.”

“So you do believe in the Lord.”

“I believe in freedom.”

“What else do you believe in?”


“Ah, now we are getting somewhere. God is love. But the other things you said, they are wrong. You are not a heathen. I’ll tell you what you are, you are a doubting Thom. Look at me, I have no doubt.”

“Doubt,” I said, “I love doubt. ‘There’s more truth in an honest doubt than in half the creeds.’ That’s Tennyson once more.”

“Say that again.”

I repeated the line. It seemed to make an impression on him, and for a moment I wondered if, unintentionally, I hadn’t made a convert. But another passerby soon caught his eye and, himself again, he aggressively strode over toward him, flier in hand.

Arturo Vivante wrote more than 70 short stories for The New Yorker, many set in his native Italy. Mr. Vivante died at his home in Wellfleet, Mass., at age 84 in April. He was born in Rome on Oct. 17, 1923, to a Jewish father and a mother descended from American-Methodist stock. He moved with his family to England to escape fascism, and was deported to Canada as a teenager. Upon release, he enrolled at McGill University, where he graduated in 1944. He returned to Italy and earned a medical degree and practiced medicine for several years before moving to the United States. His stories, often autobiographical, were collected in books, including Three French Girls of Illini (1967). He also wrote three novels, including A Goodly Babe (1966) and Truelove Knot (2007), as well as articles for a variety of journals and newspapers, including Vogue and The New York Times. His wife, Nancy Bradish, and he had three daughters and a son.

Freedom From Religion Foundation