The letter was in response to one she sent shortly after my mom's funeral last month. In it she asked about my religious standing. She's essentially an agnostic as well and similarly outnumbered by religious members of her family (e.g., one of her nephews is presently in a seminary studying to be a priest). And she's my godmother, ironically enough.
I define myself as an agnostic, but perhaps an atheist with respect to any religion I'm aware of presently. Best definition of an agnostic: "I don't know, and you don't either." I'm not dogmatically taking the position there is no god; I'm just saying we can pretty conclusively debunk many to most of the tenets of any given religion. If there is a god(s), he certainly doesn't answer prayers, intelligently design life, or effectively deal out karma among the living.
I've never brought up the topic of religion with either of my parents, although my mom did try to corner me on the subject on several occasions. Not that what I felt overall wasn't apparent. I haven't been to a church in years other than for a few friends' weddings (two of the last seven weddings, I mean; most friends don't go to church either). For our own wedding we asked a friend to be internet-ordained in the Church of Spiritual Humanism so he could perform what was likely the most secular service held in Texas to date. Mom knew these things, but I never waved it in her face.
I don't know if I deserve the "courageous" label because I don't especially advertise my beliefs. Personally I find the topic of religion interesting, but it isn't something I debate, except maybe in the sense of "preaching to the choir," to use the most ironic metaphor. It's something like-minded friends and I joke about, but that's about it. As far as I'm concerned, the non-existence of any supreme being described by any religion is as obvious to me as the fact that it doesn't make any sense to have rooftops that are black in Southern states. But people do. The majority of them even. Why? Tradition. Folks never question it. They're content to pay unnecessarily high electric bills. Me? I sprayed a fine layer of white latex paint on my roof and watched my bills fall in the summer. This isn't rocket science; you just have to realize things aren't "just so"; they're the product of unchallenged assumptions.
Religion is characterized by promises with a paucity of factual backing or even credible projections (which brings to mind the current economic crisis). For example, how is the afterlife depicted? Sitting around on clouds? All the food you can eat? A harem of seventy-two virgins? There's no legitimate first-hand reporting because obviously there can't be. It's an imaginary place. As a result, the best anyone can conjure are hyperbolic attempts to play upon very human desires, even ones that presuppose a body or at least the desires associated with it. What about sensible questions such as if a widow and a widower marry one another subsequent to the death of their respective spouses, who will they be reunited with upon their inevitable deaths? Their original spouse(s)? Does the pre-deceased partner have to share custody when the surviving spouse's partner finally joins them? Is Heaven a swingers' party? If so, where are the Muslims getting all the virgins? Sacrifices from pagan rituals? These are the kinds of questions that ought to be put to the religious authorities who claim to have a direct line to their boss.
Ultimately, if you take away the promise of life after death from religion, what's left? Good stories? We've got cable and public libraries full of them. Moral direction? Hardly. Need I cite examples? You read the news; I don't have to enumerate headlines going back decades.
I realize no one likes to think of us as purely physical beings, but that's what we are. Our consciousness, memories, emotions, and all that's associated with life comes out of a physical substrate. The dying process is one more thing that confirms this fact. We tell ourselves little fictions that skirt the uncomfortable reality, and tv reinforces the delusion. Cancer patients in dramatic fiction always have their wits right up through to the end. They seem worn but manage to say something clever or poignant at the last just before they succumb. It invariably looks like they've just fallen asleep.
My partner Dani works at an in-patient hospice unit. She sees the reality every day, and what my mom experienced at the end was typical of that: A gradual loss of function. Her memory faded. There were periodic moments of lucidity, but she didn't recognize the people around her. Her emotions were disconnected from the situation. She'd sometimes hallucinate and have panic attacks. This is all part of the dying process. It's unpleasant and anything but graceful. There's nothing holy about it.
When a priest came by to give Mom the Last Rites, a portion of the ritual involved conducting a simplified version of a confession. "Do you renounce all your sins," the priest asked her. "Yes," she said. "Do you renounce Satan?" Of course she said yes to this too. "Do you love Jesus?" And another yes. He could have asked if she was in favor of late-term abortion, and if he'd said it in the same tone, she'd probably have given him as committed a "Yes" to that as well. She literally didn't know my name.
By this time she'd slipped pretty far. Good Catholics know how to swear, and Mom couldn't even do that anymore. I don't know how many times in my childhood I heard her say "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." She tried to say that one night during her last couple weeks and could only make it two-thirds of the way through. "Jesus, Mary, and Coca Cola," she said, pausing on the third one. She tried again, and this time it was "Jesus, Mary, and Jerry." It didn't inspire much faith in any dogma, expressly referenced or otherwise, just a confirmation of what I've thought for years.
When religious folks ask for wish-fulfillment in the form of prayers, one of two outcomes occur: They credit their god when their wish is "granted," or they say "it wasn't meant to be" when it isn't. I suspect some part of even the most pious realize that they're just talking to themselves, that it's best to hedge their bets if they want to go on believing.
At the point a few weeks before her death when Mom hadn't eaten for five days, my Aunt Mildred prayed to St. Joseph. "They say if you use this prayer," she told me, "you better be sure it's something you really want because you're going to get it." Sure enough, Mom resumed eating for a time. But this is common with end-stage cancer patients, of course. Many will spontaneously emerge from this stage more than once as though it never occurred. Aunt Mildred, however, credits St. Joseph for my mom's temporary recovery. God gets credit here for something that was statistically favored right from the start. The Special Olympics don't make odds this good.
Personally, I would have used any magic spell in my possession without hesitation, and it wouldn't have been something as trivial as asking that an end-stage cancer patient would take solid foods to prolong the inevitable and imminent. No, I simply would have asked that Mom be cured outright. After all, this is a "sure thing" request to an all-powerful and all-knowing (i.e., omnipotent and omniscient) being, right? Of course not. And even the most religious know deep down to hedge their bet because imaginary friends will stand you up every time.
Charles' [my second cousin] attempt to cover his bases you mentioned is known as "[Blaise] Pascal's Gambit." Unfortunately, that's a narrow attempt at risk management since going to church in the hopes of pleasing a god (just in case) assumes the options are A) There is no god or B) God is Catholic. That sounds to me like the premise for a Woody Allen script. The problem is, okay, but what if God's a Muslim? Or Protestant even? Religion is characterized by people saying "You're doing it wrong!" (and not just about how you chose to worship). Theologically speaking, odds are pretty good they're right about most people being wrong since there's no majority consensus across the world. It's ironic that in speaking about a concept as universal as a supreme being, solipsism prevails and most people limit themselves to the single culture in which they were raised.
As for reading on the subject, Christopher Hitchens makes for a good talk show guest (dry sense of humor and combative yet sufficiently well-spoken that he gets across points, not just emotion), but my overall impression of his book [God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything] was that it was alternately a series of anecdotes and literary theory. Interesting to some, sure, but I'm more after logical arguments and epistemology. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is probably the best on the subject from my preferred angle, and Sam Harris' The End of Faith is easily the last word on the subject of the worthless subject of "faith." His Letter to a Christian Nation was written later, but it's a good primer on the case he makes in Faith, only framed less as philosophy than as a relevant second-person appeal to the senses of those who have taken leave of theirs for generations.
And for a quick laugh, here are some choice websites:
http://godhatesshrimp.com - For the literalists who cherry-pick from Leviticus.
http://whywontgodhealamputees.com - Exploring a plot hole in the Greatest Story Ever Told.
and for the fundamentalist/creationist crowd:
http://www.venganza.org/about/open-letter - Home of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Good video on open-mindedness a friend forwarded to me earlier:
Sorry to sound like I'm on one track with all of the above. Like I said, I usually don't talk about this sort of thing publicly. File this under "blowing off steam." Like I said, Mom's death was a depressing confirmation of what I'd already suspected in this area. No amount of wishful thinking will change reality, although I'm not going to take away the comfort religion seems to give my dad or aunt. They need that crutch. It just doesn't fit me.
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