The Nonbeliever

A Novel by William Fowkes

Available for publication.


"I have found God, but he is insufficient."

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer


"If that's all there is, my friend, then let's keep dancing."
Peggy Lee




Tommy Hilton is on a spiritual quest. As a young man, no one in the Hilton household is more committed to St. Thomas's, the family's Episcopal church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. But when he goes off to Columbia University in the late 1960s and comes to terms with being gay, he slips into agnosticism. In the coming years, he finds solace and disillusionment in a variety of religious    experiences, including evangelical Christianity and eastern mysticism, as well as in his personal relationships. In the end, he questions whether he has made any progress, human or metaphysical, at all.


(80,000 words, 274 manuscript pages)



NOTE: The Nonbeliever is the basis of my full-length play, The Seeker.  My published short story, Power to the Pulpit, is based on an excerpt from this novel.





Chapter 1: Triangles


“Consider a triangle.”

Professor Brumbaugh paused to make sure we were paying attention. 


“Where does a triangle exist?”

Although I spent the usual amount of time studying triangles in geometry class in high school back in Ohio, no one prior to my philosophy professor at Columbia had ever asked me about their existence. He pointed to a painting on the classroom wall, some feeble work by an art major put on display as a visual aid. Not bad for an undergraduate’s effort, I thought. A dialogue among geometric shapes, I suppose.  

“Now focus on the green triangle at the center of the painting.”

“Are you going to hypnotize us?” someone called out.

“No, I’m going to blow your mind,” he replied with a sly smile, adopting one of the favorite expressions of our pot-soaked generation. “You see, this green object isn’t really a triangle at all, is it?”

“Oh, is this one of those gestalt things where you’re going to get us to see it as a rabbit or something?”

He laughed at the comment from the young woman from Barnard College sitting in the front row, the sole woman willing to cross-register at Columbia and brave Brumbaugh’s male-dominated classroom that semester. “No, there’s no rabbit up my sleeve today, I’m afraid.  Just some metaphysics with a dash of epistemology. What are triangles, anyway?”

“Three-sided objects.” The automatic response came from someone in the back row.

“Not quite,” he shot back, pointing dramatically at the young man. “To be precise – and you can have no greater aspiration in life than to be precise – triangles are nothing more than three-sided geometric figures. As such, they don’t exist in space. Triangular objects exist in space. But triangularity itself? The idea of a triangle? Where does that exist? An A-plus or a million bucks – you pick – to the student who can answer that question.”

When no one jumped at the opportunity to enrich themselves or at least improve their transcript, he rephrased the question.

“OK, when do you think the idea of a triangle came into existence – that is, triangularity itself?”

“July 4, 1776?”

“No cigar for the gentleman in the third row. You must have memorized the wrong answer sheet, my friend. But seriously, guys – and lady – triangularity existed in some sense long before any triangular objects ever existed in a physical sense, don’t you think? Suppose there had never been any triangular objects in the world and one day, all of a sudden – poof! – a triangularly shaped rock appeared on the scene. Would that have been the birth of triangularity per se?” When no one answered, he said, “The correct choice is B – ‘No.’ All the things that are true of triangles, all the things your geometry teachers taught you – that triangles are three-sided, that their angles add up to a hundred and eighty degrees and so on and so on – must have been true before that rock ever came along. How could it be otherwise?”

The poor unsuspecting soul in the last row suggested that this could only be the case if someone had been around at the time to think these things.

“Do you mean to say that before we homo sapiens came along, before some hapless caveman stumbled upon that rock, triangles didn’t have three sides?” Brumbaugh lowered his glasses and stared at the class defiantly. “I hope you don’t believe such a thing.”

But while he succeeded in shaming us all out of that belief that long-ago day, the big question remained. Where does the idea of a triangle or triangularity itself exist? I’ve never been able to answer that question satisfactorily, but it has always seemed to me that these things must exist somewhere. Brumbaugh went on to teach us about Plato and his notion of an eternal realm of Ideas that was somehow separate from but related to this world. At the time, I liked that, though I parted ways with Plato when I couldn’t make sense of The Republic. The fact that triangularity must exist somewhere other than in this physical world has always been enough to make me believe there must be something out there. An eternal realm of mathematics, at the very least. And maybe a whole lot more. I don’t know. And maybe if we think that all these mathematical ideas presuppose a mind that thinks them, this proves there must be a God, the thinker and guarantor of all mathematical entities.

I never found out if Brumbaugh would have approved of my logic or not. At my last college reunion, I was told he succumbed to lung cancer years ago, the notion of smoking apparently being more than just an Idea. With or without Brumbaugh’s blessing, however, this line of thinking opened the door to the spiritual world for me. It enabled me to look around this world and say, yes, there might be something more than meets the eye. Now, some people might accuse me of making a category mistake, saying that existence applied to mathematical entities is different from the existence of people and objects. What I’ve done is simply made an abstraction from the world and is no proof of anything. Yet I know the world is full of people who base their belief in God on the Bible, a much slimmer basis, if you ask me. And before you rush to point out that pure mathematics is no match for religion – with its beautiful churches and temples, comforting rites, concrete ethical maxims and all the rest – I’ll be the first to acknowledge the relative spiritual poverty of pure mathematics. But, for me, at least it’s a start.   I’ll take what I can get.