FIRST PERSON | Atheism and the Solitary Man

Over the past seven years I’ve written a number of letters to the editor of this magazine and have been fortunate in that about a dozen were published, along with a book review in 2016. Most of my letters have had to do with human nature, psychology, and philosophy. Some people reading my letters might think that perhaps I’ve had some formal education in these areas, but that isn’t the case at all. All of my ideas arose because of a peculiar psychological condition that I have—a personality disorder actually—that significantly affects my social interactions with others. It’s my hope that the reader will find interesting the following description of what it’s like to have this condition and how it reinforced my atheism.

Schizoid personality disorder (SPD) is described in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a condition where a person does not desire, enjoy, or have any close relationships, chooses only solitary activities, has little desire for sex, takes pleasure in few activities, and has flat emotions. In other words, a boring loner. The inclusion of this condition as a disorder may be unsuited because most people with this condition are not bothered by it and are able to function adequately in society, especially if they have jobs that don’t require a lot of social interaction.

What does it feel like to have this condition? Imagine coming home from a hard day at work. You’re very tired but not so tired that you want to go to bed. Your speech lacks energy, your emotions are a bit flat and you’re not in the mood to joke around. You lack vitality and enthusiasm. Going out and socializing is the last thing you want to do—you’d rather go into the garage or basement and work on your hobby project. Now imagine feeling like this all the time but without the physical fatigue. Basically, it’s a decrease in the ability to feel pleasure, especially intense pleasure, that is the main characteristic—and perhaps cause—of this personality disorder.

I haven’t always had this condition. I had a best friend in junior high school back in the mid-1960s and remember having a lot of fun with him. I also believed in God at that time. But this friendship started to fade and was completely gone by the eleventh grade. He was the last close non-familial relationship I had. In my senior year, I had a clinical depression (locking myself in my room all day, crying all night) that lasted almost an entire year. Depression, like SPD, decreases your ability to experience pleasure but also includes negative emotions such as hopelessness, sadness, despair, and self-hate that SPD does not have. I didn’t go to college in the fall even though everyone had expected me to because I did well in school and lived in a college town (Madison, Wisconsin). Instead, I worked at the post office for five months and then enlisted in the Marines, hoping that would get me out of the rut I was in.

I still had some depression when I entered the Marines but that seemed to disappear immediately. Boot camp gives you no time for self-absorbed ruminations—instead you spend most of your time trying to not get screamed at by the drill instructors. (I sometimes wonder if Marine boot camp could be an optional therapy for depression.) My depression was gone forever but what remained was SPD. I didn’t make any close friends in the service or have any desire or make any attempts to do so. Still, the service was a kind of rebirth that allowed me to go to college afterwards on the West Coast.

When I look back, my belief in God basically faded at the same time my friendship in high school faded. I think that my schizoid personality disorder renders me incapable of believing in God because I’m physically incapable of being emotionally fulfilled by the belief.

I did okay in college and I think that people with SPD can do adequately in school if the coursework isn’t too difficult for them. If it’s too difficult, then it would take more motivation in order to succeed and motivation is something that people with SPD don’t have a lot of. The lack of motivation shows in my work history. In the first twenty years after graduating from Cal Berkeley, I only worked 27 percent of the time.

Because of my low pleasure ceiling, luxury things bring me no more pleasure than cheap things. So a meal at a fancy restaurant is no more satisfying to me than a meal at Burger King (which I do like). And living in a ten-million-dollar mansion wouldn’t be any more enjoyable for me than living in a trailer. In 2001 I had to find a new place to live because my landlady had passed away. I couldn’t find a place I liked as time ran out, so I decided to sleep in my car for a few days until I found a place to rent. I soon found that living in my SUV wasn’t all that uncomfortable and those few days turned into sixteen years. Working full time in a high-tech job in Silicon Valley made it easier as I was able to use the shower facilities and other amenities at work. The most satisfying part of it was always having a short commute no matter where I was going the next day and never having noisy neighbors. It ended in 2017 when I retired and purchased a home in San Jose.

People with SPD aren’t bothered by their condition. I didn’t know I had SPD when I was in my twenties and thirties but the symptoms never bothered me. That is, except for the occasional media portrayal of “loners.” The one that upset me the most at that time was the end of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. It was the scene where George Bailey reads a note from his guardian angel Clarence that says, “Remember, no one is a failure who has friends.” So, an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable movie ended with a line that made me feel like a total loser. When I finally learned about SPD, the scene from the movie no longer bothered me.

Here’s how I finally discovered I had this condition. I was in my early forties and the only activity I had outside of work was going to the flea market, and I typically went at least twice a week. There was one fellow there who would always greet me and try to start a conversation. I typically replied with a curt “hi” or nod and then walked off. But he kept at it for a long while until one day I simply stated that I had no interest in conversation and he stopped. Sometime after that, I thought about it. What if this guy actually enjoyed small talk? This had never occurred to me because I never enjoyed it myself and it always baffled me as to how people can spend hours on conversation, whether in person or on the phone.

After that I went to the local college library and looked at psychology books to find out if there was a diagnosis for the type of behavior I had. I finally came across SPD, which matched my behavior. I satisfied six out of the seven diagnostic criteria (only four were needed). I next looked up the causes of SPD. Was I a loner because I simply didn’t enjoy conversation as I thought or was it because of something deeper?  At first, I found many different opinions about the cause, many of which were based on Freudian-type psychodynamic theories that typically pointed to deeper subconscious causes. This disappointed me because it meant that perhaps there was something inside me that was fundamentally sick or perverted. I researched more and finally came across a cause of SPD that matched my own view. The author was Dr. Theodore Millon (1928-2014), who many considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on personality disorders. A passage from the first page of his big chapter on SPD in his book Disorders of Personality: DSM IV and Beyond sums it up succinctly: “[in] the schizoid disorder, there appears to be a significant deficit in the person’s intrinsic capacity to experience the joyful and pleasurable aspects of life.”

It then all made sense to me that evolution has shaped us into social animals by giving us pleasure when we socialize with others. I then thought that this can be extended to say that basically everything we do—including a lot of what we believe—is because it either generates pleasure or it reduces anxiety, and that all it would take for evolution to “program” humans is to define what things generate pleasure or reduce anxiety.

This perspective reinforced my atheism by strengthening my understanding of evolution. The problem with simply saying that humans are a product of evolution is that biologists haven’t exactly explained how the human mind is a product of evolution, and that leaves open the possibility of still believing that the mind is something special and separate from our animal selves. I personally am convinced that evolution has programmed the human mind—and I don’t know if that’s due to decades of not completely following the programming because of a deficiency of the very thing evolution uses to program humans (read: pleasure). I wonder if SPD has allowed me to see more of the forest for the trees—because the trees don’t get in my way.