In this long post (about 8 typed pages) I finally get down to business.
It is divided into two parts: (1) God and not God; and (2) Behind the
sky. Part 1 is a prelude to Part 2, in that many people (although
probably a minority of the readers of this blog) believe it is God
behind the sky, and I wanted to explain why I am not one of them. In
part 2 I offer some meditations on life and death and what it's all
about (more than the hokey-pokey, I suspect). Needless to say, I don't
have any answers. And I hasten to add another disclaimer: If at times I
say ``we should do this'' or ``we should be like that'', I certainly
don't claim that I myself have succeeded in the doing or the being.
Often I've failed miserably. But I keep trying.
Part I: God and not God.
According to common useage of the term, I would undoubtedly be
considered an atheist. I reject this label, however, because at best it is
loaded with invalid assumptions, and at worst conceals a dishonest
agenda. The common useage is that an atheist is one who asserts
``God does not exist'', this being one of three possible alternatives:
1. Theist: God exists.
2. Atheist: God does not exist.
3. Agnostic: God may or may not exist; we don't (yet) have enough
evidence to decide the question.
I don't agree with any of these assertions. The hidden assumption is
that the statements ``God exists'' and ``God does not exist'' have a
definite meaning, which is clearly a prerequisite for deciding between
them. But they do not. What is meant by ``God''? A ``Supreme Being''?
Well then, what is a ``Supreme Being''? One can unwind the definition of
``God'' ad infinitum, yet only a sequence of tautologies will result.
Thus even the agnostic's assertion is meaningless, as no definition of
``God'' has been given that is, even in principle, amenable to empirical
evidence. The question was hotly debated at a recent meeting of the
North Kirkland Philosophical Society, with visiting scholars Abigail
Mitchell and Oliver Henderson in attendance. It ended in a stand-off. I won't
argue the point further here, but for a good approximation to my own
view see A.J. Ayer's ``Language, Truth and Logic'' (mentioned in
earlier post), under the headings ``Impossibility of demonstrating the
existence of a transcendent god...or even proving it probable...saying
this does not make us atheists or agnostics in the usual sense''.
Unfortunately, religious people often use the term ``atheist''
dishonestly, with a hidden agenda. They are not so much concerned with
the existence of God as with the existence of their particular
God, who invariably comes equipped a heavy load of additional
baggage. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, once referred to Thomas Paine
as ``that filthy little atheist''. The epithet is evidently a reaction
to The Age of Reason, in which Paine subjected the
bible-as-Holy-Scripture to the withering criticism it so obviously
deserves. Rejecting the nauseating anti-morality of the Old Testament
(putting homosexuals and non-virgin brides to death, Jehovah's incessant
exhortations to genocide, etc. etc.) does not make one an atheist.
Rejecting the absurd mythology of the New Testament---the virgin birth,
the resurrection, etc.---does not make one an atheist. Of course, if one
insists on defining ``atheist'' in this prejudiced way, then I am indeed
one, and proud to say it.
Another example: Some years ago a column by fundamentalist writer Cal
Thomas was published on the editorial page of the Seattle P.I. The topic
was the evolution-creation ``debate'', and included this zinger:
``Without God, what hope is there for any of us?'' This non-sequitur
reveals either deliberate dishonesty or monumental stupidity. There is
absolutely no conflict between evolution and the idea of God; the two
are perfectly, one-hundred percent compatible. What offends Thomas has
nothing to do with God per se; his problem is that that evolution
contradicts the particular brand of random, irrational nonsense that he
has chosen to believe in, based on a ``literal'' interpretation of the
bible. I put ``literal'' in quotes because, as I have argued at length
elsewhere, a literal interpretation is not even logically possible, to say
nothing of the absurd consequences of such a reading.
Alas, there is nothing new under the sun. In 1615 Galileo wrote a letter
to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, entitled ``Concerning the Use of
Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science'' and dealing with exactly the
same issue in the context of Copernicus' theory, pushing it as far as
one could in those days without getting burned at the stake. I highly
recommend Galileo's masterful, surprisingly modern analysis; you can
find it in ``Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo'', a collection of
writings translated by Stillman Drake. The depressing reality is that
four hundred years later we are still dealing with the same stubborn
ignorance that so exasperated Galileo. (Incidentally, returning to Cal
Thomas, the P.I. later went out of business. I can only assume this was
God's punishment for publishing such drivel.)
To sum up, then, I contend that the question ``Does God exist?'' is not
a meaningful question, and I will consider it no further. In contrast, the
statement ``I believe in God'' DOES have meaning. But it has nothing to
do with the existence or non-existence of God; it simply expresses an
emotional state experienced by the speaker. Here the term ``emotional
state'' is not intended pejoratively; the key point is to be honest
about it and admit that this ``belief'' has absolutely nothing to do
with empirical evidence or any physical reality. On the other hand, if
the assertion is ``I believe in the God of the Christian bible, that
Jesus was born of a virgin, turned water into wine, died on the cross
and was resurrected, etc.'' then we are moving beyond the emotional
state into alleged matters of fact. In this case I can say definitely
and non-emotionally that I do not believe in the Christian God.
Incidentally, I'm picking on Judeo-Christianity only because it is
probably the religion(s) most familiar to readers of this blog. I would
have similar things, and worse, to say about Islam. As to the
Mormons--well, they are too easy a target and I will refrain.
Setting aside whether the tenets of a particular religion are true in
any factual sense, there remains the well-known fact that religion has
numerous practical applications. For example, it has proved singularly
useful as a way of inducing young men to sacrifice their lives in
pointless wars, or more precisely wars whose point is to increase the
wealth and power of those pulling the strings behind the scenes, and
above all as a justification for male dominance over women. In fact it
is very clear that one of the main purposes of the
Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions has always been to provide a phony
authority for male supremacy, and I suspect this is true in many other
world religions as well. But it is also true that religion has inspired
some people to do great and good and amazing things. And that
religion---faith, belief in God---has been a great comfort to many in
times of suffering.
I think of Wendy's cousin Scott, for example. As I understand it from
the funeral service, he became a Christian at some point after
developing multiple sclerosis. Now, multiple sclerosis is a terrible
disease. If his newfound Christian faith helped him deal with it, that
is a very good thing indeed. A familiar song/hymn (whose title I forget)
was played at the service; it has the refrain ``He walks with me and He
talks with me, I know I am never alone''. I was struck by this because
it displays so clearly that the role of Jesus is that of an imaginary
friend. But if this imaginary friend helped Scott, that too is a very
good thing indeed.
My amazing mother recently self-published a beautiful little book of her
own poetry. She had an older sister who died at the age of 12, the child
referred to in the following poem entitled ``Belief''.
If there were a heaven,
would I face life's end
believing I would see again
those I loved and who loved me?
As my mother lay dying,
she called to the child
who died years ago.
Then it seemed that she saw her;
I doubt it was so.
What comfort to believe in a heaven somewhere.
But although I have tried,
it's a faith I can't share.
And yet--for my mother--
I would hold fast
to believing she found
her lost child at last.
I can't, and wouldn't, argue with that. The fact is that so far in my
life I have not experienced any significant hardship or suffering. Even the
cancer is insignificant in that respect, at least so far. If I were put
to the test, who knows?--I too might seek comfort in some version of
God, or an imaginary friend (although that would assume that my real
friends, who have been so wonderful, were somehow out of the picture).
But ``belief under duress'' does not really prove anything, beyond
suggesting the practical utility of faith. In the amazing Summer of the
Freedom Rides (the definitive movie of that summer has yet to be made),
many of those enlisted in the cause were religious, and many were not.
According to one engrossing account that I read, the religious folks
were gratified to see even the non-religious types praying as racist
thugs with chains and gasoline cans surrounded their bus. Hell, I'd be
praying too under those circumstances. Similar remarks apply to
``deathbed conversions'', in which a non-believer declares faith in God,
Jesus, etc. at the last minute. I have always found it puzzling that
such events are reported triumphantly by the True Believers, since a
deathbed conversion is the ultimate in conversion through fear, and as
such is meaningless. Thomas Paine had assorted Christians hovering about
as he lay dying, hoping for such a conversion or at least a repudiation
of ``The Age of Reason''. They were disappointed, however, and
succeeded only in annoying the great man in his final hours. (On a
lighter note: when I was a little kid scrambling up rocks in Joshua Tree
National Monument, I'd get into predicaments where I was scared to climb
down. I'd pray thusly: ``Please God, let me get down from here and I'll
never do this again.'' But within five minutes of making it safely to
the ground, my new thought was ``that wasn't so bad'', and off I'd go
In any event, what I will never understand and never accept is a faith
in ``God'' that has as a prerequisite checking one's brain at the door.
Around age 19-20 I tried out a very liberal Presbyterian church in San
Diego that Mom, Ken and Victoria were more seriously involved in. One
thing I noticed immediately was that its charismatic Pastor was key and
perhaps indispensable to the success and popularity it enjoyed. This is
a common phenomenon. I also met a lot of great people, mostly through
the youth group. But before long I felt too much like a total hypocrite,
mouthing the words to hymns about Jesus that I didn't believe and often
found quite ludicrous. Indeed much of what is found in the gospels (and
yes, there's some good stuff there) is so completely ridiculous that I
am constantly amazed that otherwise rational people can read it without
bursting out laughing, let alone take it as the ``word of God''. One
amusing example pointed out by Thomas Paine (you know, that filthy
little atheist) is Matthew 27 verses 45-54, in which quite remarkable
events occurred after Jesus took his last breath on the cross: The earth
shook, the rocks split, and ``many bodies of the saints who had
fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the
tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.'' Paine notes the
curious fact that none of the other gospels even mention this
astonishing event, and goes on to wonder: ``...whether they came out
naked, all in natural buff, he-saints and she-saints; or whether they
came fully dressed...whether they went to their former habitations and
reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property, and how they
were received...whether they remained on earth, and followed their
former occupation of preaching and working; or whether they died again,
or went back to their graves alive and buried themselves.'' To read
passages such as the Matthew citation in a bible-study group and keep a
straight face would have been impossible for me, and my brief
experiment with Christianity came to an end.
Part II: Behind the sky.
To begin with the Big Question, what happens after death?
Comforting though it may be to believe in some kind of heaven (or hell,
if you get your kicks out of scaring children), why don't we just admit
it: We have no idea what happens. ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE. Based on what we
can actually observe, the most likely possibility would be that nothing
happens; it is the end of our existence and that's that. But the fact
remains that really we haven't the slightest idea. My question is this:
Why are humans so frightened by the ``end of existence'' hypothesis?
It has been said that humankind suffered three major blows to its ego in
the last few centuries: Copernicus' discovery that the earth revolves
around the sun; Darwin's discovery of (and proposed explanation for)
evolution; Freud's theory of the subconscious. That last and much lesser
item is there only because it was Freud who said it; evidently his own ego
was in top condition. In any event, why anyone's ego should be
threatened by Copernicus or Darwin is a complete mystery to me. So what
if we're not the center of the universe in the childish literal sense of the term?
To date we don't know of a single other planet that
supports the glorious variety of life we have here, or indeed any life
at all, and if feeling special is so important we ought to be more than
satisfied by that. As to evolution, one of the most brilliant
discoveries in the history of science, one can hardly improve on the
famous closing sentence of ``The origin of species''.
``There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,
having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that,
whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of
gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and
most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.''
Against this we have William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes trial,
decrying evolution because it ``puts man in a circle with lions and
tigers and everything bad''. (You can shake your head and laugh at this,
but it's hard to keep laughing when you consider that millions and
millions of people in this country still think the same way.) Far from
threatening my ego, Darwin's ``endless forms most beautiful and most
wonderful'' are an inspiration to me. When a strong wind is blowing
across the lake, the eagles come out to take advantage of the easy
soaring. And it occurs to me, as I admire how effortlessly they stay
aloft: that eagle and I probably have a common ancestor. What could be
more awesome than that?
Although belief in an afterlife is understandable, as a way to cope with
loss, it can also be another manifestation of human conceit. Other
life-forms just die, but not us! We're special; we alone get to go to
heaven (although I've heard that special dispensations are available for
pets). Setting ourselves apart from other living things is wrong, and
is even, I believe, the source of much of our unhappiness. Another of my
mother's poems--short and deceptively simple--describes a large red bull
standing shoulder-deep in water (seen somewhere in New England, I
think). What I love about it is the final line: ``Just one living thing
among others, and quite content to have it so.'' We would do well to
follow his example.
At any rate, taking a deep breath and fully cognizant of A.J. Ayer's
warning about mystics and their visions, I will now attempt, with some
trepidation, to explain my own view of life and death and our place in
the big cosmic scheme of things.
First of all, I hasten to acknowledge that my take on the matter is, for
the most part, hardly original, and that it represents nothing more than
my own personal attempt to process the unknown and the unknowable. But
without God, and without fear. In a nutshell, albeit a very unflattering
one, my view could be summarized with a trite phrase such as ``we are
all one with the universe, blah, blah, blah''. Trite though it may look
in print, however, there is much to be said for such an assertion. We
humans are but one small part of a universe so vast (to us) in both
space and time that we can't even begin to comprehend the whole---yet we
ARE part of it, and that is the key. All living things die. In most of
the observable universe, there are no living things at all. We should be
happy, gloriously happy, for our time on earth, and content to know that
when we die nothing has changed; we have simply returned to the place we
were born. There is little point in asking WHY we are here, and even
less in complaining about our fate and the finiteness of life.
I would put it into a poem, if I were a poet, but instead will quote a
beautiful poem from (gasp!) the bible. From the Book of Job, of course,
in the translation by Stephen Mitchell (no relation). After a lot of
ranting and complaining and a long argument with his friends, Job is
finally answered by the ``Voice from the Whirlwind''.
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Tell me, if you are so wise.
Do you know who took its dimensions,
measuring its length with a cord? What were its pillars built on?
Who laid down its cornerstone,
while the morning stars burst out singing
and the angels shouted for joy!
The voice continues in this vein, giving a lengthy resume of its
marvelous creations, until finally Job concedes:
I had heard of you with my ears,
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet,
comforted that I am dust.
For most readers of the bible, and certainly for the primary author of
Job, the ``Voice from the Whirlwind'' is God. I don't think of it that
way, and find the above passages beautiful and profound for other
reasons. The Voice reminds us that we have no clue as to why we are
here, where we are going, and what happens when we die; all of this is
beyond our understanding and we have to accept it--comforted that we
are dust: that is, comforted by the knowledge that in our short stay on
a minor planet in an out of the way corner of the universe, we have
played our part of the great mysterious Whole, and we will remain a part of
it after we die. At the same time, and I love this part, ``the morning stars
burst out singing and the angels shouted for joy!'' In fact I first came
across this passage in the writings of John Muir (and ignorantly assumed
it was written by him). At the time he was describing his solitary
wanderings in the High Sierra, and as a kindred spirit I recognized
immediately the feeling of joy, of reveling in the beauty of the
mountains, that he was trying to convey. We weren't there when the earth
was planned, and we don't know where we'll be tomorrow. But we are here
NOW, and it's a beautiful world.
We spend a lot of time thinking about, and perhaps even agonizing about,
what happens after we die. But what if instead we go backward in time,
to before we were born? Think of it: Homo sapiens has existed for about
half a million years, and earlier versions of ``humans'' go back another
two million or so. And in all that time you didn't exist! Indeed, as it
is hard to imagine how time could have a beginning, one can even
speculate that before you were born you were non-existent for an
INFINITE period of time. Think of all the things you missed! Does it
make you sad? I doubt it (although it would have been really, really
cool to see the dinosaurs, from a safe distance). Perhaps we will miss
another infinity after we die, but why is this any different? It's true
that if I die within the next few years (whether from cancer, a heart
attack or being run over by a herd of pygmy hippopotami) I will miss
seeing my grandchildren grow up. If I die within twenty years I would
probably miss meeting any great-grandchildren, and so on. It would be
wonderful to meet my great-grandchildren, of course, and I have every
hope of doing so. But one can't have everything. I have already missed
meeting my great-grandparents---not to mention Experience Mitchell, our
ancestor who arrived in America in 1628. For that matter, it would have
been fascinating to chat with Galileo, or Archimedes. My point is that
we are granted but one short interval in the great continuum of time,
and if our existence simply comes to an end after death, it is no more to be
feared than our non-existence before birth. The important thing is the
here and now, the moment. We have each other, we live in a beautiful
world, and we should make the most of it.
One of the serendipitous side-benefits of my study of Italian is that I
discovered the writing of the late journalist Tiziano Terzani. Born to a
poor family in Florence in 1938, he was fortunate to have a teacher who
recognized his talent and urged his family to do whatever it took to send
him to a good school. He eventually landed a lifelong job as a reporter
for Der Spiegel, which gave him virtually unlimited freedom to choose
his own path and own stories. Terzani and his family lived for many
years in Southeast Asia, where Terzani reported firsthand on the fall of
Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnam war and the fall of Saigon.
He was one of the first foreign reporters allowed into China after the
cultural revolution, taking his family with him and even putting his
children into the communist schools, just for the experience. After
several years he was arrested, subjected to a month of ``re-education''
and then expelled from the country. The first book (of many) by Terzani
that I read I chose almost randomly, mainly because of its intriguing
cover photo of Terzani with white beard and white clothes, communing
with an elephant, and even more intriguing title: ``La fine e` il mio
inizio''; ``The end is my beginning''. It turned out that this was his
last book, actually an extended interview conducted by his son, written
when he was dying of stomach cancer (he died in 2004, at 66). His
previous book ``Un altro giro di giostra'' (``Another turn on the
merry-go-round''), which I read second, recounts his attempts to cure
his cancer by whatever means possible, from conventional treatments at
the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, to more exotic (at least to
some of us) Asian and even ``new-Age'' alternatives. He had been for many
years a student of various Asian philosophies, particularly those of
Indian origin. But by the time of ``The end is my beginning'', it was
clear to everyone, including Terzani himself, that his days were
numbered and there was nothing more to be done.
I read these books several years ago, long before I knew I had cancer. I
found them inspiring then, and even more inspiring now. The following
brief excerpts (translated by me) give some of the idea.
``Why does dying make us so afraid? It's something everyone does!
Millions and millions and millions of people, the Assyrians, the
Hottentots, all have passed on. And when it's our turn, ah! We are
But why? Everyone's done it.
If you think about it, and this is a nice observation that many have
made, the earth on which we live is a big cemetery. A great, immense
cemetery full of all that has been. If we were to dig, we would find
bones everywhere, by now reduced to dust, the remains of life. Can you
imagine the millions and millions and millions of beings who have died
on this earth? They're all there! We are constantly walking on an
enormous cemetery...over it flowers grow, the ants and the elephants
run. [He laughs.]
If you see it this way and return to become a part of all this, perhaps
what remains of you is that indivisible life, that force, that
intelligence that you can put a beard on and call it God, but it is
something that our mind doesn't succeed in understanding and that
perhaps is the great mind that holds all together.
So I'm going to this appointment---because that's the way I think of it
and wouldn't want to miss it---because it's as though I were already
dressed for a party, with a light heart and a certain almost
Moving on from the past to the future, it's interesting to think about
the distant future--the very, very distant future. Not only will those
of us alive today die; our children and their children and their
children's children and so on for thousands of generations (if we don't
destroy the planet first). Eventually, though, the sun will run out of
fuel and all life on earth will vanish. Does anyone worry about this? In
the movie ``Annie Hall'', as a young boy the Woody Allen character
refuses to do his homework because he's heard that in a billion years
the sun will die. In reality no one gives a second thought to a billion
years from now, or a million, or even a thousand. Not a serious thought
anyway. We don't mourn our descendants who will pass away in the year
3015 any more than we mourn for our ancestors who died in 1015. Viewed
from a distance, death seems more natural and less tragic.
It helps to take a broader view in space as well as time. If we imagine
pulling away farther and farther from planet Earth (I love the way this
was done in the movie ``Contact''), in a short time the Earth is just a
bright dot circling around the sun, and before long the sun is just another
tiny, distant star, while the solar system can't be seen at all. Moving
still farther away, our entire galaxy is reduced to a point, one galaxy among
millions. Far from making us feel small and insignificant, it should
inspire wonder and awe and make us happy to be alive, privileged to be a
part of it even if only for a moment.
Well, I've been rambling on too long. To sum up, I don't ``believe in
God''. As the French mathematician-physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace once
said to Napoleon (although the story may well be apocryphal), ``I have
no need of that hypothesis''. All that I know is that we occupy one tiny
point in space-time, in a vast and glorious universe of which we are a
part, that we have each other, and we should make the most of it. In the
here and now, in this moment. It's a beautiful world.