Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Religion (Two)

Like most kids, I had a religious upbringing, albeit in a family of generationally diminishing fervor. Great grandparents were founders of temples, rabbis; grandparents lit the Sabbath candles more often than not, insisted on Holy Day get-togethers, trips to the Temple, and following the proper rituals. Once in a while my mom tried valiantly and mostly in vain to get us to services on Friday nights; my dad had an abiding dislike of all men of the cloth except for the priest (later Bishop, then Archbishop) who presided over the University of Portland. I attended Sunday School until I graduated high school, took a certain amount of pride in my heritage, went through the usual adolescent period of religiosity, even imagining what it would be like to give moving and soul-expanding sermons to my future flock. At about age fourteen, I received a scholarship to a religious camp in California, where I had what some might describe as an experience of the divine, one evening in the woods, away from the bonfire, with a girl from Piedmont...

But that's another story.

I have a clear recollection -- clear enough almost to be able to re-conjure the feeling -- of asking my mom about death, probably around age six or eight. "Will I die," I asked. Her affirmative answer included nothing about afterlife, no heaven: Jews are pretty silent on that subject, especially we of the Reform variety. I recall feeling the numbing and transfixing coldness of terror, deep and abiding, palpably physical. It was the foreverness of it, the infinitude: less the idea of death itself but that there was no end to it, I'd be dead always and evermore, millions of billions of years. That feeling has stayed with me, lessened with time by the realization that it must be like it was for the infinity in the other direction, before I was born. And that seems to have been all right.

In that moment, whether I fully apprehended it or not, was the existential engine of belief: even a little boy could feel the terrifying certainty of death and the panic it engenders. That's an (if not the) essence of us: before there is belief, there is dread. Enough to drive us to the certainty and peacefulness of ignorance, in the "ignoring" sense of the word. The need is too great to resist.

And yet, I do; and I can only wonder what it is that separates those that do from those that don't. It's not intelligence or even inquisitiveness. Is one, or the other, more evolved? Is one, or the other, more felicitous for the future of man? I don't know, and I won't live to find out.

At some point it just stopped making sense.

I guess belief, by definition, isn't supposed to make sense. I'm okay with fantasy books and movies, but there has to be internal consistency. In my single-digit youth, Saturday morning serials pissed me off when the next episode showed King of the Rocket Men free of his impossible predicament without ever explaining how it happened. I like good science fiction that creates improbable worlds with imaginative rules that make a sort of sense of their own and that plays within them. And so I think it should be with belief: even if unrooted from reality, it ought to follow a sort of esoteric logic. I can't -- nobody really can, convincingly -- reconcile an omniscient, omnipotent god who has a plan for us, loves us, with what we see around us every day. Or with free will. Or miracles. Or the power of prayer. Or, for that matter, with the idea of eternal reward and eternal punishment. It takes theologians to do that, which is to say people willing to suspend reason and call it scholarship.

That's why I said, in post one on this subject, "The fact that I'm no theological expert makes my thoughts particularly worthy, because since there's no true religion, there can be no true experts. The world needs a little input from that perspective." There's much to say, lots of fascinating subjects; in the name of brevity, let's start with the biggest -- and easiest -- one: who created God?

Contemplating the Universe, one has to accept the idea of existence without creation. Either of stuff, or of God. Or gods. People look at the complexity of our world, of life, of nephrons and nucleotides and say it can't just have happened: such intricacy implies a creator. And yet what could be more complex than that creator: a tinkerer with tryptophane, a meddler with mitochondria? It's a lot easier, for me anyway, to accept the primordial existence of atoms and rocks than of a big guy with jewelers' forceps and loupes. Who sat around for an infinite number of eons with nothing to do until twelve-thousand (or is it six-?) years ago, when it occurred to him to create something.

So that's the first thing: if you can get your mind around the idea of the most complex, powerful, brilliant and perfect being imaginable existing forever with no creator, why not protons and electrons? If neither is explainable, isn't the latter a hell of a lot simpler? More sensible, even? Occam's razor.

Given a little more time, I intend to spout off on those other issues, too.



  1. Just wondering, as a surgeon who is familiar with the intricacy and complexity of human anatomy, have you always been comfortable with evolution being responsible for the form and functions of life? As a young medical student who is convinced by evolution, the complexity of life still often overwhelms me. Embryogenesis alone is mind-boggling.

    Sorry if this is not directly related to the post, but I was reminded of this issue since you wrote on religion. :)

  2. This is why I really like my Unitarian Universalist church, Sid. A bunch of smart, interesting, productive people, none of whom claim to (or care about) having The Right Answers, and most of whom care deeply and work devotedly for social justice. Inspiration comes from each other and from many non-theologians who have gone before: MLK, Lincoln, May Sarton, the transcendentalists. People develop their own beliefs and guiding principles, and don't inflict them on others. True freedom of religion, indeed.
    Sherry Gardner, Psy.D.

  3. changyang: I think that's an excellent question. The answer is yes, there have been times when I've wondered how systems of such intricacy could have "merely" evolved. It just happens, for me, to be easier to accept that idea than one of an intelligent designer who exists with no creator. I always come back to these thoughts: who created the creator; and, a few billion years is a long long time. We see the amazing things that can happen, biologically, in a few hundred years, or thousands. We can't even grasp the idea of a million years, let alone a few billion...

  4. I embrace both the religious and the evolutionary theories.

    I think, far too often, people get caught up in the black and whites of an issue and lack the ability to see the gray areas.

    Do I think that a Creator is responsible for the world? Yes, I do.

    Do I think it happened in 7 days (as we mere mortals consider a day to be - 24 hours), I do not. Evolution proves that. To me, at least.

    After having been brought up in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and not agreeing with their teachings for many years...I finally found a Church that I'm happy with.

    A Non-Denominational Christian church who doesn't subject itself (or us) to the 'it's us vs. them' philosophy.

    Obviously, a lot of people feel the same way as I do, as on any given Sunday I'll see people from all walks of life from former LDS to Elder Native American Women in full dress.

    Teens attending with their friends, bikers in full leathers, young families, older couples, white, black, Native American, Indian.....even purple. (not really, just seeing if you're still with me here) But, I have seen purple hair.

    But, whenever I start getting deeply introspective, I just think of one of my favorite lines from the movie Forrest Gump.

    "I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

    Then, I feel better.

  5. It has been 30 years since the horrific mass suicide of Jonestown. Just watching the documentary on MSNBC sent chills down my spine. It's so disturbing to see where fear and blind "faith" can lead. Fortunately, I was too young to remember much of it. Does anyone recall how they felt when this nightmare ocurred?

    Kristi: I also embrace both views.

  6. I read this every year or so and love it each time:

    It's not what you are getting at in your post, but it helps me come to grip with religion. It's also very funny.

    Sam Spade

    P.S. I read some older posts of yours and ran across a particularly lucid comment. It was with mixed emotions that I realized I wrote it. From now on I'll honor your plea for us anonymous folks to use a name.)

  7. Life is here, then it's not. Suspending any belief (or lack thereof) in an afterlife, I would think, makes it difficult for someone to open a human body and accept the awesome responsibility of what happens next. I know you've touched on this in your medical blog and your book, Dr. Schwab. But I'm surprised and pleased to hear you express your awe (fear?) of the finality of death as a "normal" (non-medical) person might. It is also confounding... For goodness sake, what awesome focus you surgeons must have when operating.

    Regarding: "I can only wonder what it is that separates those that do from those that don't." I won't pretend to understand it either, but personally speaking I think it has little to do with genetics and more to do with a very high valuation on logic (the scientific method, in particular) and the personal integrity to follow their independent conclusions come-what-may. I have noticed, however, that as people get older and life gets more difficult, even staunch atheists and long-time agnostics meander toward some form of monotheistic belief.

  8. JP: the old "there are no atheists in foxholes" theory. I'm sure it's true, although, so far anyway, not for me.

    As to the first part of your comment: one could argue another way, too. Wouldn't you prefer a surgeon who accepts that responsibility for what it is, rather than having the mental "out" that if he screws up the patient will be fine, in heaven?

  9. It was late when I commented -- sorry -- so I'll be more clear: yes, I would ABSOLUTELY prefer a surgeon (if given the choice) whose conscience is unequivocally unobscured by (in my opinion false) reassurances of an afterlife. But it doesn't end there. I'd also prefer them to be extraordinarily upstanding family members, honorable citizens, with a home lit by CFLs and a car that remains parked at least two days a week. The list goes on... In the end, I have to suspend all of this and have faith in their training and dedication. Which is why I wish you weren't retiring!

  10. JP: thanks. I guess competence is number one through nine on the ten important things. But I've always felt those intangibles make a difference, too, if for no other reason than a belief (to use an ironic word, in this context...) that having human connection between surgeon and patient affects recovery in a positive way.


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