I’ve been reading a lot of atheist literature recently. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and today I started on the Origin of Species. I also listened to a two hour monologue called Letting Go Of God by an actress named Julia Sweeney, that was both hilarious and insightful.
She talks about her journey with her doubts about God. She goes through phases. She begins Catholic. Then as she questions her faith she becomes a more free-thinking open agnostic. She tries finding God through Bhuddism, but she just sees more of the same rituals. She tries through new age meditation and crystals, but she just sees money scams with no scientific evidence. She tries finding God in nature, but nature doesn’t attest to any kind of loving creator, it’s savage and cruel.
She tries every single thing that one can to find God, until she finds: science. At a point in her story, her creationist then-boyfriend says that there must be intelligent design because, for example the human eye: all of it’s parts make up one whole. Half an eye doesn’t work, you have to have the entire eye. This must prove that it must have been designed by a creator (based on the first two books I mentioned earlier, which both deal with this argument, I assume this must be a very common statement made by believers of intelligent design). So she looks into this, but she learns that half an eye is actually about… well, half as useful as a whole eye. The evolution of the eye makes perfect sense for where and when it’s needed in time during evolution.
So, she thinks to herself, “Okay well, what if God uses evolution to carry out his design?” But that doesn’t make sense either… because evolution is a process of failures and mistakes with the strong surviving and the weak dying. If God created evolution, he either did a terrible job of it, doesn’t care about his creations, or created evolution in such a way that it functions exactly as it would without a creator.
And then finally it creeps up on her and hits her: there is no God. She hates this idea, it’s so upsetting. Her faith was based on evidence: the evidence of how she felt. She genuinely felt more calm and at peace when she prayed, she even had one of those otherworldly spiritual experiences when she had uterine cancer and she found herself waking up bathed in a white light, chanting “Heal me, heal me, heal me,” to God. But then she says, all of her life, every step of her journey as a person has been about accepting things the way they are, and not the way she wants them to be. She learned that the right temporal lobe of the brain is the one that causes people to have “spiritual” experiences, and that experiments have been done on people’s right temporal lobes, and everyone who participated reported feeling calm, comforted, loved, almost all described a white light, and many described feeling close to God (and some mentioned aliens).
She took a couple of weeks. She let it slowly sink in. She knew she didn’t believe anymore, but she had to grieve the loss of God, and of her faith. She scrambled to her knees on last time and prayed for faith… but realized she was just talking to the air, and to herself, and felt silly. And then she talks about the fact that all scientific evidence points to the idea that consciousness ends at death, and your mind doesn’t go anywhere, it simply stops. This is because the brain can’t perceive it’s own functioning, so you think that your brain is the part of your body that does your thinking, but you actually are your brain. That’s where your consciousness (or the illusion of it, since the brain can’t perceive any of it’s own functioning) is. She doesn’t say this conclusively, just says this is what all scientific evidence is pointing to.
So she comes out as an atheist and her family flips out. And finally her mom asks her, “Where do you get your peace? Aren’t you depressed all the time?” And she thinks about it. If she believes that nothing happens when you die, that means she has to truly and completely experience the utter and final deaths of everyone who she’s ever loved who has died… and she tells her mother, yes there are times when she’s more prone to being upset, but she’s still a happy person, still herself.
And she finally makes her point: if you believe and understand that you genuinely only get to live once, how much more important does everything become? How much less of your life do you waste worrying about what happens after you die, and how much more valuable does every moment become? She said it was hard, that she had to go through her memory and kill off everyone she’s ever loved and experience their death again.
And this is where I come in. As soon as I heard this and it started to sink in, I felt peace. The same kind of peace, perhaps, that religious people claim to have through God. And I thought: “Alright, this is how it works. This is the truth, finally. There is no God, no afterlife. I didn’t exist before, and now I do. What a marvelous and lucky chance that I’m here. How special and miraculous and indeed, Heavenly, is every moment, every feeling, everything I do.” And this is the first time in my life I’ve had peace about the ideas of death. It’s harder to accept, because yes, it means that we really will never see the dead again, never be reunited… but how much more precious does our time become.
I feel like for the first time I’m actually seeing the world and living in it. I’ve come to realize that what I choose to leave behind is the only way I will live on. It’s my only legacy. And when I think of that, I think about the way people in movies and other fiction say, “They live on inside our hearts and our memories.” I always thought that was sentimental nonsense… but now I realize that even though, yes, that is sentimental nonsense, it’s the only thing we have. The only precious way we have to preserve people.
I kind of just feel like I’m seeing reality for the first time now. I think religion is humanity’s way of trying to create reason out of a seemingly cruel and reason-less world. And in an age before science, it makes sense that the people did that. In the early days of human history, all we had were the stars, the sun, the things we knew existed, the things that we could see, the sun whose heat we could feel, the moon whose light we could see. So we made them deities. We had no way of knowing how the earth worked or who we were. But now with science, we don’t have every answer, but we at least have the potential to investigate and try to find the answers.
Julia said another thing, about coincidences. She used to say that there are no coincidences, but now she realizes that there are coincidences, and she can see how amazing they are. I think that maybe religion has just been one big placebo humanity has been giving itself for it’s entire history. It’s allowed us to continue living on in hope, it’s given us the drive to carry on and continue with our lives. How blissful was the ignorance of those who believed, and who indeed, had all the evidence their time could offer to attest to it’s truth, the idea that their loved ones were safe in an after world.
And so, though it sheds a harsh light on the realities of loss and death, by the same measure this revelation about the simple of truth of reality also makes so much more wondrous the idea that I am here, in this moment, right now. It makes miraculous every creature and every living thing, and everything has so much more infinite meaning. The grains of sand are all unique and each have a history, and that history is valuable and meaningful. I have respect now for the trees that live for hundreds of years while I only have a mere hundred or so. I understand now the great quest throughout human history for immortality, because truly death is a frightening, unsettling, and difficult thing. But it does happen to be real, and all religion does is, in essence, pretend that death isn’t real. We pretend that people aren’t really dying, that they aren’t really gone from us, that they’ve joined the others who have died. But if we look at what we know, what we have evidence of, we can assume that when someone dies, maybe they really are genuinely dead for all time. And though it makes it so much more heartbreaking, it does at least give us the peace of mind of knowing that it’s final. That the hammer has fallen one way or the other, and we don’t have to live our entire lives wondering if really those people who died are living on somewhere, or if they’re truly gone. We can’t truly grieve for the truly dead in that state of mind because we don’t believe they are truly dead.
Paschal’s wager is that it’s better to believe that there is a God because you have everything to gain and nothing to lose: believe, and if you’re right, you win an eternity in Heaven. Believe, and if you’re wrong and there is no God, then you’ve lost nothing. But I think you’ve lost something, in fact the most precious thing you can have: life, and experience. I offer the opposite: believe that there is no God. If you’re correct, you get to live your life to it’s fullest and richest, reveling in each sensation, feeling every moment for it’s true and ultimate worth. If you’re wrong and there is an afterlife, then congratulations, you get an eternity in paradise, or you get to be reincarnated, or even, silliest of all, if the Christian God does truly exist, I would think that as an intelligent and all-knowing deity he would prefer that I live my life honestly, and do all that I can to experience life in it’s fullest, and help others without expecting God to pay me back a reward either here or in Heaven, and give of myself to the world truly out of the desire to do so and experience the giving as it’s own reward and reap the benefit of giving, and of living.