On seeking to define ultimate reality

I haven’t been to high mass since November, although I ask myself every Saturday whether this will be the day that I return. It’s a wonder to me that I have lost all enthusiasm for that which I once found so meaningful. In thinking about this, it occurred to me that the beliefs of a given church are like the ingredients in a recipe in that some are considered essential and others optional. The fundamentalist church of my childhood held all of its beliefs as essential, while liberal Episcopalians hold very few as essential, and is fuzzy on them. For instance, everyone is expected to believe in God and Jesus, but it is up to the individual what the words mean. This is done in the interest of inclusivity, but it has the unfortunate effect of making the words meaningless, and the expectation that everyone believe in them absurd.

I’m reading Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) a Dominican monk who was posthumously excommunicated for thinking outside the box. For example:

God is greater than God. 
The ultimate and highest leave taking is taking leave of God…
…a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has in himself any place where God can act…
…my essential being is above God...
…if I did not exist, God would not be ‘God.’

What Eckhart objected to was envisioning ultimate reality as a definable object and then worshiping the object. Truly, the Church of Christ idolized many things—the Bible, baptism, weekly communion, a cappella music, the name of their church, etc.—while liberal Episcopalians idolize but few
primarily God and Jesusand separate even those from a required meaning. Yet, it remains that a primary goal of even liberal Christianity is to reduce God to an entity that can be defined and controlled. 

There’s a place in the soul where you’ve never been wounded.

This is the place that has riches beyond what any church, philosophy, holy book, or interpretation of God can offer, and Eckhart appears to have lived from such a place.

In my birth, all things were born...and if I had willed it, I would not exist nor would anything exist; and if I didn't exist, ‘God’ too would not exist.

In remembering childhood, we can all recall having knowledge that we have since relegated to the world of fantasy because it painted us as possessing a reality far grander than the one that we have been beaten into accepting. But does this mean that we have discovered reality or lost contact with it? I really don
’t know.
I remember the very place on the road where I realized that I was creating everything that I saw even as the family car passed it, and that apart from me, nothing whatsoever could exist. I later abandoned this belief because I thought that, if it were true, I should be able to control my creation. Even so, from that time to this, I have never been able to completely walk away from what I knew to be true that day, so I am forced to occupy a position of not knowing.

Something that strikes me as central to Eckhart
s writing—and my experience—is that it portrays the universe as monistic, meaning that it is composed of a single substance (energy in the parlance of modern physics) from which all things flow and with which all things are one. The strength of monism is that those who accept it usually view reality as good. By contrast, Christianity is dualistic. As the story goes, a bad guy named Lucifer rules an accursed earth and will eventually be defeated by a good guy named Jesus who is from a perfect realm known as heaven. Christianity is thus a religion of conflict based upon a belief in opposites. This has made it an age-old instigator of persecution as its defenders have sought to align themselves with Jesus by vanquishing the soldiers of Satan (i.e. everyone who disagrees with them, including other Christians).

By viewing himself as being of one substance with ultimate reality, Eckhart denies our own separation from it and from one another. I can’t see how this is congruent with the Bible, but the Bible is what he had to work with, and he often came up with interpretations that were as novel as they were delightful. Even so, he was rare for his era in that he didnt regard Christians as having a special access to truth:

Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.

I think this is true, two universal elements of mysticism being that All is One and All is Good. I can agree with the first part, but as to second, many things appear very bad indeed. But, if I could, would I will myself to believe the second part? Yes. By wishing this, am I not acting in bad faith? The answer is contained in two questions: (1) Assuming that a false belief has the power to bring good into the world, is it then preferable to a true belief that does not bring good into the world? (2) To what extent do our beliefs create external reality? I would say yes to the first question, and a great deal to the second.

I suspect that we’re all are quixotic in that part of ourselves where we have “never been wounded,” and I strongly believe that if we surrendered to it, the world would be a far better place. Unfortunately, I dont know how to surrender. I am too often filled with rage against the unfairness that appears to surround me.

My religious upbringing

I awakened this morning recalling that I knew a man such as the one in the painting. His name was Ira Redd, and he was my girlfriend’s great-grandfather when I was in my teens. Ira was in his 90s at the time, which was a very advanced age in 1967. Grandpa, as I called him, spent his days sitting in the same spot on the sofa reading his Bible. He was a kindly man who liked to talk of the old days (which would have been the 1800s for him), and one to whom I enjoyed listening. He never spoke to me of God, but I can still hear the prayer that he offered over his food: “Thank the Good Lord.” He was in the Church of Christ and always had been, although he had stopped going because of his frailty. My father’s father and his father before him had been preachers in that church, and most of my relations on my father’s side were still in it.

I had by then started attending the Episcopal Church occasionally, but I hadn’t completely stopped going to the Church of Christ. I even remember driving thirty miles one night to the little community of Four Corners to preach. You might say that I was being “groomed” for the ministry, so it wasn’t unusual for me to preach short sermons before the real preacher conducted the main event, but my Four Corners’ sermon marked the only time that I was the main event.

No C of C sermon was complete without the promise of eternal hellfire for sinners, and the description often included excruciating details about what it would feel like for a person’s entire body to be immersed in a “lake of fire.”  It was sometimes said that it would like touching a hot stove, only the pain would extend over your entire body and never end, which meant that you would be writhing, screaming, and colliding with other damned souls for a million years times a million years, and even that would be a drop in the bucket compared to what awaited you. I was exposed to such sermons from infancy, and would sometimes hide under the bed in terror when I got home.

I was baptized at age twelve. This was about what most people considered “the age of accountability,” which meant that I would have gone to hell had I died unbaptized. My best friend and I had “come forward” after a revival sermon in a country church one night and, the only baptistry being in town, we were taken there immediately because it was believed that, even after you asked to be baptized, you could still go to hell if you died before it happened.

I felt very good about myself afterwards, because I was free of sin, and because I had made a major step toward manhood. The feeling lasted until noon the next day when I had a sinful thought, and was back in danger of going to hell. The main benefit of being baptized was that I could now serve communion in church. The Church of Christ has communion every Sunday, and in my congregation, it took five men (it had to be men) to serve it. One man stood in the middle of the other four behind the communion table, said a few words, and offered a prayer. He would then hand the other men the large, silver-plated servers containing the Matzo crackers, and they would pass them up and down the rows.

Once they reached the back of the church, they would walk back to the front and start off again with trays of Mogen David. The four trays were stackable when not in use, and contained a lot of tiny glasses each of which nestled in its own little slot. After the bread and wine came the collection. There were no pledge envelopes because the Church of Christ doesn’t believe in pledges. Aside from girls, I thought that everything about communion was just the coolest thing in the world, so I helped with it every time I could which was fairly often. I also led the singing at times, despite the fact that I can’t consistently carry a tune (I didn
’t know about this problem until I married Peggy, wives being quick to point out that kind of thing).

Everything about the Church of Christ flows from its belief that it’s the only true church, that it has been in continuous existence (mostly underground) since Biblical times, and that it believes and operates exactly as Jesus intended. The truth is that it originated in the late 1800s, and has since split into three groups. The liberal group (ha) uses communion trays for the wine and has women Sunday School teachers. The conservative group uses only one glass for the wine (because that’s all Jesus used), and women aren’t allowed to teach Sunday School. My group was middle-of-the road in that it allowed communion trays but wouldn’t let women teach Sunday School. Because the C of C contains more than one division, and because every congregation is a law unto itself, it’s impossible to make belief statements that apply to every congregation, but, except for the part about women, the following should come close:

The Bible is perfect in every detail and should be taken literally except in cases of obvious metaphor.

If the Bible were shown to contain a single minor contradiction or to be in error about the least thing, the entire Bible would be discredited.

If a person seeks God with his whole heart, God will lead that person to the C of C even if he lives all alone on a desert island or in deepest Siberia.

Every adult who isn’t a member of the C of C will go to hell. Babies and little children will probably go to heaven, but we can’t know for sure.

It is essential to “Speak Where the Bible Speaks, and Be Silent Where the Bible is Silent.” For example, since the Bible doesn’t mention instrumental music, our singing is entirely a cappella. For the same reason, women aren’t allowed to so much as make announcements in church or ask questions during Wednesday night Bible study.

Only C of C baptisms are valid, and they must be done by immersion.

No church was more rigid because we simply couldn’t be wrong or acknowledge that any other church had the least valid point. As with all hardcore groups, the only reason we cared about other people’s beliefs was so that we could point out the error of their ways, yet we weren’t encouraged to look for converts due to our belief that if a person truly sought God, God would lead that person to us.

Around age twelve, I started to develop an intense and open-minded interest in other churches. Until my preacher stopped me, I went door-to-door with Jehovah’s Witnesses (at the time, the group consisted of three young men who had come to town to start a Kingdom Hall), and I eventually visited every other denomination in town. On the one hand, I would defend C of C doctrine tooth-and-nail, but on the other, I was losing my belief in it. From age eleven, I was angry with God because I had started to discover that much of the Bible portrays him as uncaring and unjust, although it claims the opposite. In my mind, this made his appear both vicious and hypocritical. A year or so later, I cursed him aloud, only to immediately worry that I had committed “the unpardonable sin.” 

Fire-and-brimstone sermons had left me in terrible fear of God since my earliest remembrance, and this new fear put me almost into a blind panic that returned again and again for years, but I was so ashamed of what I had done that I couldn’t tell anyone. One night, I went to the home of the preacher who had baptized me with the intention of telling him what I had done, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it. In college, I met someone who said he had once discussed religion with an atheist, and I developed an interest in that, but I couldn't make sense of it, and I had no avenue by which to explore it.

There’s no way I can know
the extent to which the C of C made me who I am, but I suspect that the church’s influence is far-reaching in my life even today and even into my relationship with Peggy. For example, I have wondered if her customary certainty that she is correct about all manner of things comes from her Baptist childhood, and my need for endless validation from my C of C upbringing. I say this because when a person is determined to not be the way he or she was raised, it’s easy to unknowingly carry out the same mindset but in different channels. In both our cases, religious certainty was emphasized, but her church lacked the requirement that she never admit that another person’s viewpoint was even a little bit rational. Therefore, could it not be that her need for certainty came from what she was taught, and my need for validation from what I was denied when I started to lose my faith?

Likewise, I have two former Jehovah’s Witness friends who complain of their inability to feel close to others. This makes sense when you consider that non-JW friendships were forbidden to them. While it was relatively easy for my friends to escape JW doctrine, they might never escape being the kind of people that the church made them. I know that, in my case, I was regularly told that, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (I Corinthians 15:19) and the like, and while it was easy for me see the idiocy in the church’s teachings about pianos and how much water to use during baptism, I have never succeeded in escaping that, and I’m 66-years-old. Can I know that I wouldn’t feel a similar despair had I been raised a secular humanist? No, because it’s the old nature versus nurture conundrum.

It is my thought that all religion is to some degree like the JW and the C of C, so I strongly believe that religious indoctrination constitutes child abuse or something close to it. Readers who say that religion is a private matter, and I shouldn
’t attack it, completely miss the point. Religion isn’t a matter of chocolate versus vanilla; religion is Satan, or at least it would be if Satan existed. The harm of the Hitlers and Stalins is minuscule compared to that of the christs.

Ye Olde Red-Letter

If God should exist, what do you figure he thinks about? Does he say to himself, “My back aches,” or “My arthritis kept me awake last night”? No, that fucker has it easy, living in a state of bliss while gazing adoringly down upon us, the most exalted beings in the universe. How odd then, that 3,000 years ago, he should have repeatedly thrown hissy-fits over the evil-doings of his “Chosen People” in the backwater nation of Iron Age Israel. Amazing, isn’t it, that of all the peoples upon the face of planet earth, Jehovah would have concluded that those old Jews were the crème de la crème? I should think that that right there would have cast doubts upon his stupendousness, but he’s still worshiped by millions, so maybe I’m wrong.

Peggy is off visiting her Southern relations (it only took three days for her accent to return even after 29-years in Yankee Land), so I have a lot of time to myself, and the cat and I are batching-it in isolation (right now, I’m tanked, but Brewsky only had three snorts of catnip, in case we need to get the car out). Last night, we (me more than he) dug out my old King James faux-leather, red-lettered Bible that I paid $3.50 for on April 2, 1963 (the price is on the box, and the date on the first page), so I could look something up. I used that Bible for years, and, being a neat-nick, I underlined passages with black ink and a ruler instead of doing it freehand (there were no highlighters back then), and there are a lot of underlinings. Last night, I right away came to I Thessalonians 7-8: “And to you who are troubled, rest with us, when the Lord Jesus should be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God…”

I guess that would be the end of moi, but if you
re a Christian why wouldn’t you “rest” in such a passage!? “Tough shit, Grandma, I told you that you should stop worshiping them old Roman gods, and now you’re going to catch hell (ha). See you later (NOT!), I’m off to heaven.”

I can’t for the life of me understand how, 50 years ago, I breezed by so many Biblical teachings that would be huge red flags for me today if I were to come across them for the first time. While I had my first serious doubt eleven years out of the womb, I more or less hung in there for a lot more years while doing my best to ignore my instincts in favor of what everyone around me knew to be true. The result is that I eventually lost ALL faith in the wisdom of ANY group or leader because what are leaders but, for the most part, stupid individuals who take group stupidity and multiply it many times over. For instance, some of the cruelest Christians are teenagers who suddenly find that one of their number is (God forbid!) an atheist, but I just know that if you were to set one of these Godly assholes down in Denmark where religion is considered a bad joke, he or she would turn atheist in no time, and how different is it for adults? We
’re herd animals, and those who dont go along, or at least pretend they do, have to pay the price.
I really must thank the Church of Christ, because had I been raised a liberal, who knows but what I would still believe in God, but because the C of C stressed the Bible and only the Bible (I never had a single Sunday School primer), I became disgusted early on. It’s really amazing, this image I grew up with of the most holy sort of Christian as being a wise and kindly old man sitting alone and reading the Word of God. The wonder is that I knew some compassionate people in the Church of Christ, but I have no idea how they retained their compassion. If you want to see a miracle, that would be it. Unfortunately, the miracle doesn’t extend to the Islamic State which is out bull-dozing ruins that survived 3,000 years before their sorry 20-year-old asses came along. Obama says that such evil has nothing to do with religion, yet if the Islamic State were doing good things, I bet he would give religion the credit...I wonder what he would say about the night that he had bin Laden murdered. Was that a Godly decision? I just bet he thinks Jesus told him to do it

What is it that I DO believe?.

 Eckhart 1260-1328

“Strip yourselves of the images and unite with the formless…” —Meister Eckhart

I never feel that I am—or even could—deny the existence of ultimate reality (that one thing which would explain all other things) but rather the use of the word God as a synonym for ultimate reality. This is because the terms that are used to describe God are problematic. Take the word supernatural, for example. Nearly everyone who believes in God envisions God as either having energy or being energy, yet energy is a natural force, so how can God be supernatural? Yet, what would it mean to say that God is natural? Would it mean that God occupies a certain spot within the universe or simply that—as the pantheists believe—God is synonymous with the universe?

Another way to describe God is to say that God is a spirit. The dictionary defines spirit as
a supernatural being, but it defines a supernatural being as a spirit. So it is that, in defining God, one indescribable word is used to define another indescribable word, yet we can only meaningfully affirm the existence of that which we can describe. To view it from the atheist perspective, we can only deny the existence of that which we can describe, as would be the case with a purple schnauzer or a winged kangaroo. So it’s not God that many atheists deny, but rather the claim that the concept of God is meaningful.

Maimonides 1135-1204
Moses Maimonides and others have tried to get around the problem by claiming that one can only speak of God in terms of what God is not. For example, God is not temporal; God is not encased within a body; God is not capable of evil; and so forth. The idea is that any attempt to say what God is represents an attempt to corral the infinite within the intelligence of the finite. For instance, if you say that God knows everything, you can then start checking off a list of what God knows until you reach the end of your knowledge, and are left with “etc.” (God knows how to fry an egg; God knows how pencils are made; God knows how many stars are in the Milky Way…etc.).

It is therefore claimed that the only realistic and respectful way to speak of God is in negatives, yet even this suggests that at least some things can be known about God, but the truth is that any statement we make about God limits God because if God is (or isn’t) one way, then God must necessarily be (or not be) the opposite way. For example, if God can’t do evil, there is at least one thing we can do that God can’t. Then, there is the old speculation about whether God can make a stone too heavy for God to lift. If God can, then God’s strength is limited; but if God can’t, God’s creative ability is limited. So it is that when we try to talk about God, we run into one vagueness or contradiction after another, and this is what I meant when I wrote that it’s not God that atheists deny but the belief that the concept of God is intelligible. Yet, all of Christendom goes on its merry way imaging itself to know all kinds of things about God. But does it do more honor to God to say, as the pope does, that he knows a lot about God or, as atheists do, that all human concepts of God are unintelligible?

As I use it, the term ultimate reality isn’t a substitute for the word God because it lacks consciousness except inasmuch as it is conscious through you, me, my cat, Brewsky, and the squirrel outside the window. All of these things constitute ultimate reality, so if you use the word God as a metaphor for ultimate reality, then you might say that I'm God writing this, you're God reading it, and Brewksy and the squirrel are God watching each other... 

Just as our knowledge of gravity enables us to understand and tie together many seemingly disparate facts, an understanding of ultimate reality would enable us to understand and tie together all facts. It would tell us where the universe—and therefore ourselves—came from and where it is going. My faith consists of believing that such answers exist, and that if my species survives long enough to find them, they will come through rational research. Mine is the same optimism that is implicit in science and metaphoric in liberal religion. As the hymn goes, “Farther along, we’ll know all about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why. Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine. We’ll understand it all by and by.” I think this might be true.

If you worship God, what is it that attracts you to God? If it is your belief that God loves you, how would you feel if you learned that the nearest thing to God is a formula that doesn’t even know you exist? That is how I feel. We humans create God in our own image  so we can look to God for love, meaning, and safety, but also so we can have someone to admire so completely that our admiration becomes worship. If ultimate reality is without consciousness, it can’t give our lives love, meaning, or safety, and we can’t worship it, at least not in the same way we would worship a conscious entity. As for our eventual knowledge of it, my species might never get there, but I’ll most certainly be dead before it does. 

Some people are tied to talk of God because it comforts them; Im tied to it despite the fact that it brings me no comfort. Perhaps, this means that my religion is more pure; I really dont know. It must sound strange for me to say this, but I dont care. This is simply who I am. I ask for no help; I pass no judgment upon myself; and I wouldnt choose to be in any way different. I consider my life inevitable, and I am content with it. My thoughts and my writing are my reward, and they are a considerable reward. Peggy used to love mountain climbing despite the fact that it made her cold and dizzy and caused her to vomit. She also saw other climbers have terrible accidents, yet she would come home burned and exhausted and talking about rewarding it all was. I am the same way.

I believe that a worthwhile use of religion is to keep us filled with wonder as we reflect upon that which we do not know. Religion too often does the opposite. The Islamic State doesn’t kill people because it humbly admits its ignorance of ultimate reality but because it imagines itself to be on intimate terms with an ultimate reality that is male, violent, and gives harems to martyrs. But not all versions of God are harmful. For example, some religious people are non-dogmatic and practice good works. Others are more selfish, but still innocuous. For example, they thank God for their food (at least occasionally), ask for his help when they’re sick, and imagine that his angels are guarding them while they sleep.

I can’t believe such things, so the best I’ve been able to do since my early teens was to go through the motions of religious ritual. I need this ritual, so I reduce it to metaphor and that enables me to be somewhat at peace with it. When something won’t let go, there’s nothing to do but to surrender to it, but I am clear that what I’m surrendering to isn’t God but to my need that there be a God despite the fact that I consider the existence of such a being impossible. Alongside the objections I’ve already raised, I have an even bigger problem with believing in God, and it is this: even if there could exist an all-good, all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful divine being (aka God), such a being could not exist in conjunction with evil and suffering. Anytime evil is done or a suffering occurs, the concept of a perfect deity is negated. The actions of a perfect God would necessarily result in the existence of a perfect universe.

Bonnie Blue 1997-2013
Those whom, despite it all, can believe in a perfect God remind me of something my heeler, Bonnie Blue, did late one night while she and I sitting in a parked car waiting for Peggy to get off work. When I finally saw Peggy, I said, “Bonnie! Where’s Peggy?” and Bonnie’s intelligent eyes became a study in concentration as she gazed into my own eyes, tilting her head this way and that while considering where to look. To my complete astonishment, she finally jumped down and looked under the seat. I too would like to have faith that the world is so delightfully magical that Peggy might pop out from under car seats, but I can’t and, because I can’t, I wouldn’t wish to because I don’t want to waste time looking for Peggy in shoe boxes. 

Many intelligent people believe things that I consider just as impossible. Why they believe is obvious, but how they believe is incomprehensible. I feel drawn to such people by a shared need, not by a shared belief. By contrast, most atheists don’t appear to experience such needs, so although I am as non-believing as they, I don’t feel that I belong among them. Unfortunately, theists have made it clear that I don’t belong among them either.

Part II
“Jew and Atheist”

The following is from the 1656 expulsion of 23-year-old Baruch Spinoza from his synagogue because of his radical theology and criticisms of the Bible:

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law…And we hereby warn you that none may communicate with him by word of mouth or writing, nor show him any charity whatsoever, nor stay with him under one roof, nor come into his company, nor read any composition made or written by him.”

Spinoza must have been an exemplar of non-attachment because he was unfazed by his expulsion from family, friends, and community: “…this does not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord had I not been afraid of a scandal.” He refused to teach because he knew it would limit his freedom, and instead made his living as a lens’ grinder, happily passing his life writing philosophy in a small apartment, and dying of silicosis at age 44. Religious people called him an atheist, and scholars ridiculed his geometry-inspired approach to truth. Only romantics praised him because they were inspired by his courage, passion, and devotion to ultimate reality, and I’m a romantic. It’s one thing to love a deity that promises you heaven, but quite another to love an ultimate reality that lacks consciousness except inasmuch as you and I are conscious. Such was Spinoza’s God, and such is my ultimate reality. I just wish I could love it as he did.

Ahmed Raslan

Fifteen months ago, I fell off a ladder and crushed my first lumbar vertebra. My internist sent me to Chris Noonan, a back surgeon. Noonan put me in a metal brace for six weeks and suggested a surgery called a kyphoplasty in which he would inject cement into the broken vertebra. I read up on kyphoplasty and found that it is of no longterm benefit, and that the cement sometimes escapes and breaks surrounding vertebra. Noonan became angry when I mentioned these things, and his anger, alongside his usual callousness and arrogance, inspired me to go to another surgeon, Jonathan Sherman. Sherman agreed with me about the kyphoplasty, and instead suggested monitoring the vertebra for further collapse. On my third visit, he announced that it had gone from 20 to 24-degrees in three months, and that a surgery called a pedicle subtraction osteotomy with thoracolumbar fusion would be necessary if it got beyond 30-degrees (in plain English, he would re-break my back and fuse four vertebra, two above the break and two below it). When I asked for further details, he refused to answer, saying that they would only upset me!

I went home and Googled the surgery and learned the following: he would cut through my belly to reach my backbone; the surgery has a 50% risk of serious complications; it would leave my entire body severely weakened; it has a very long recovery period; and it wouldn’t restore me to anything approaching normal. I also noted that it’s mostly done on people with severe scoliosis, so I questioned his competence in recommending it for a broken vertebra, and, if the surgery proved necessary, I had no thought of having it in Eugene. I then went back to my internist and asked for a referral to a surgeon in Portland at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU doctors see the worst of the worst). He said he would have recommended it if I hadn’t, so I started the four month wait to see Dr. Ahmed Raslan (pictured) in a sixteen story medical building that is just one of OHSU’s many facilities. My appointment was yesterday.

After an office exam, Raslan sent me downstairs for two X-Rays and two CAT-scans. Less than an hour later, I was back in his office. The first thing he said was that I didn’t need surgery. He then showed me how the angle of collapse is measured and said that Sherman measured it entirely wrong, but that even if he had gotten it right, I wouldn’t need such a surgery at 40-degrees much less 30, that is unless my back was so out of alignment that my head no longer rested above my hips, and even then, a lesser surgery should suffice. This was the best possible news.

I then told him that, between the pain in my back and the pain in both shoulders, I found it extremely difficult to sleep even with all the pills I take. He said he would send me to a pain specialist here in Eugene with a recommendation for pain-killing injections. I know what to anticipate because I’ve had fluoroscopically-guided injections into my neck vertebra, and they’re scary, but happy drugs make them downright enjoyable. I really like happy drugs.

When I write about my medical adventures, it is with the hope that those who are as naive as I once was will take note of the following: (a) the letters MD don’t, of themselves, mean squat, (b) half of all doctors are callous, arrogant, and incompetent, and (c) it is a serious mistake for the patient to simply sit back and trust that everything that should be done will be done, and that it will be done right. Even if your doctor is the best, many other “caregivers” will have an opportunity to maim or kill you (400,000 Americans a year die of medical errors, making it the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer).

Two of the few things that are more stressful than medical problems are medical care and, in America, the resultant insurance hassles. The more I am exposed to these things, the more I approach them with an adversarial attitude. On the downside, this sometimes makes it hard for me to hide my hostility when dealing with greed and incompetence, but on the upside, I’ve completely lost my adolescent notion that doctors are demigods. I have also learned that it’s good to have Peggy go to doctors’ appointments with me for moral support, to ask additional questions, and to remember what was said. We all like to believe that we’re strong enough to go it alone, but the truth is that having backup helps us get better care, and the stakes are too high to settle for anything less.

Peggy (who worked as an RN for three decades) says that she needs this support more than I because doctors don’t treat women, including women who are nurses, with the same respect that they treat men, so having me there makes it more likely that her thoughts, questions, and concerns will be taken seriously. There was a time when it was widely believed that the influx of women into medicine would humanize it, but it has been my experience that women doctors are as bad if not worse than men. It’s as if they had to renounce the virtues of womanhood (empathy and attentiveness) while taking on and exaggerating the weaknesses of manhood (haste, cockiness, and a contempt for weakness) in order to complete their training. 

I came away yesterday feeling that, although the pain is as bad ever,  the road has become a lot smoother. Now, Im just mad at that Sherman idiot for causing me so much unnecessarily anxiety.

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” —Jesus Christ

I’ve never known a Christian who obeyed this commandment. How, then, do they explain their disobedience? They say:

(1) Jesus just meant that everyone should be kind to everyone else. (2) I’m saved by faith rather than by works, so I will get into heaven even if I don’t obey every last commandment. (3) Christ meant this as a goal to work toward rather than something that we had to accomplish. (4) I have a family to support, but once the kids get through college, I should be able to help other people more. (5) God only gives wealth to those whom please him, so if I were to help the needy, I would be thwarting God by helping people who don’t deserve it. (6) God only requires me to tithe; beyond that I can do whatever I want with my money. (7) By neighbor, Christ meant those with whom I come in personal contact, and since I live in a good neighborhood, I don’t run into poor people everyday like those who live in poor neighborhoods. (8) Christ was only talking to those who wanted to be perfect rather than to every single Christian. (9) I’m under no obligation to love wicked people like Snowbrush because their hatred of God has made them into demons. (10) “In the present world, I am aware that if I have to survive I should go by the dictum - A SLAP FOR A SLAP, AN EYE FOR AN EYE OR A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH. Otherwise people will crush me to death.” [a comment to my last post]

Such efforts to rationalize disobedience to a straightforward commandment that allows no exceptions reminds me of a video I saw last night in which a Moslem scholar claimed that when Allah commanded Moslems to kill nonbelievers that he didn’t mean that they should kill nonbelievers. Perhaps, but how is it that the creator of galaxies is such a failed communicator that he can’t make his wishes clear to a primitive species in the hinterlands of the Milky Way, the result being that millions of us have been neglected, ostracized, disowned, imprisoned, tortured, boiled, stoned, burned, beheaded, and otherwise abused by people who mistakenly thought they were serving God?

But back to Jesus’ words, when he said to love your neighbor as yourself, did he mean it or not? If you think he didn’t, you have an excuse for not loving complete strangers as much as you love yourself, but if you take him at his word, how is it that you are living in a spacious house, driving a late model car, buying gifts for people who don
’t have room for what they already own, and watching lowlife morons make fools of themselves on a 42-inch TV, instead of using your money to buy food, clothing, and medical care for the poor? Thus have I stated my main objection to your religion, namely that it’s a sham, an attempt to feel good rather than to be good, a way to infuse your life with meaning, stability, and hope by imagining that you are under the care of a deity who created galaxies beyond number only to descend to a primitive Iron Age country on earth to die as a sacrifice to himself for your sins.

Yet, I have more sympathy for you than you might imagine because Christ was a hypocrite who laid a burden upon you that he couldn’t bear. If he had loved others as he loved himself, he wouldn’t have repeatedly and viciously denounced them as fools and snakes, or ordered working men to abandon their families and follow him around the desert, or condemned those who didn’t believe he was God to eternal misery in a place that he wouldn’t want to go. These were not the actions of a loving man, yet he expects you to be loving, and when you fail—as you must fail everyday that you live—you beat your chest, call yourself a miserable sinner, and beg a dead man to forgive you. It’s not atheists who are blind; it’s you.

But, as I am often asked, why do I care? I care because religion is surely the most divisive force on earth. If the difference between belief versus non-belief was like that of tea versus coffee, or if I could see that religion does the good it claims to do, I might never write of it again, but the fact is that I watch the news, and I read a newspaper* devoted to the coercive side of religion, so I care deeply and I hate deeply. Some readers say that I care too much, that I should simply let it go rather than to be made miserable by it, but I enjoy writing about religion. If I wanted a cause that would make me miserable, I would choose animal welfare because seeing the abuse and neglect that my species inflicts upon helpless cats and dogs might very well push me over the edge. By comparison, religion is a piece of cake. Besides, I know more about it than most and have seriously reflected upon it longer than most, so I have a lot to say. Most critical writings about religion disappoint me, and it is my sincere hope that I have a unique contribution to make.

*Freethought Today

About Prayer

A young American died recently while a captive of the Islamic State. Before they knew she was dead, her family asked people to pray that she was still alive. This isn’t an unusual prayer when someone is missing, but it is surely a strange one because how is God to grant it if the person is already dead, and why, when the missing person is found to be dead, does no one ever pray that he or she will be restored to life? Jesus raised Lazarus; Peter resurrected Dorcas; and Jesus promised that his followers would perform greater miracles than he, so it’s surely consistent with Biblical teachings to ask God to raise the dead.

My boyhood church—the Church of Christ—claimed that God stopped performing miracles after the apostles died because further miracles weren
’t needed to establish the divinity of Jesus. After I left the Church of Christ, I discovered that most churches think differently, and that some even have phone-trees so that if a person needs help, the faithful can be quickly asked to pray. I don’t know if such churches believe that the more people who ask God to do something, the more likely he is to do it; or that some people’s prayers work better than other people’s, so it’s better to ask a lot of people to pray in order to improve your odds of finding someone who is especially good at it. I’ve read many such prayer lists without once finding a request for corpse resurrection, leg restoration, deformed baby normalization, quadriplegic ambulation, or even fire damage reversal. I think that church people are almost as unbelieving as atheists, so they try to hold onto what little faith they have by not asking him to do anything that might not happen anyway.
Last year, when the Ebola epidemic was in full swing, an American missionary-doctor came down with it. He was flown to the States on a private jet and given the best treatment that America had to offer. After he recovered, he appeared on national TV to thank God for healing him (it had never occurred to me that
God watches TV). As to why he didn’t thank the hundreds of people who worked to save him, or why, if he really trusted God to do it, he hadn’t stayed in Africa and spared everyone a lot of trouble and expense, I can’t imagine. Most importantly, he didn’t explain why God healed him while allowing so many others to die. Was it because God like him better than all those children who perished or were orphaned, or was it because their names weren’t on a phone-tree?

I had an elderly friend named Mina who was a Methodist lay minister. Mina got lung cancer and was told she would die. When I visited her and her husband, Gordon, she told me in a matter-of-fact way that God had healed her. Astounded, I looked over at Gordon to see if he were similarly startled, but he simply nodded as if such miracles were an everyday event. A few days later, Mina appeared on the evening news and told the whole town about her miraculous healing. Within a month, she was dead, but no mention of it was made on TV.

Mina’s death probably shook the faith of some her believing friends, but I’ve observed that most people grasp their religion even more firmly when they’re threatened by the terror and emptiness of losing it. To protect their faith, I’m sure that some such people took the position that Mina had done the work that God had given her to do, so he called her home. Others probably speculated that, just as Peter sank into the tempest-tossed sea when he took his eyes off Jesus, Mina must have also doubted God. Still others might have concluded that her death was in punishment for sin.*

When the atheist Manya Skodowska (better known as Madame Curie) was 19, her cousin’s baby died. The cousin comforted herself by saying that God had called the baby home, and while Manya envied her cousin this comfort, she wrote the following about those who have such faith: “The more I recognize how lucky they are, the less I can understand their faith, and the less I feel capable of sharing their happiness.” She added that she respected “sincere” religious feelings “even if they go with a limited state of mind.”

Atheists would argue that a limited state of mind makes for a fertile field when it comes to religious conviction, and Jesus would concur: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” In contrasting his followers with the wise and learned, Jesus apparently had reference to the fact that children are so ignorant and gullible that they
’ll believe any damn thing, including his claim to being one and only virgin-borne son of God. One of the commenters to my last post was typical of far too many Christians in that he exemplified a child’s credulity but not a child’s sweetness, the fruits of his faith being hardness and intolerance. Yet Jesus said, “By their fruits, you will know them.” Indeed you will.

*I tried to find Mina’s TV appearance in which she said that God had healed her, but I wasn’t surprised that it no longer exists. I did find one that preceded it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QA8DQa85v6s. The fact that she was feeling so much better after being taken off chemotherapy might have been what led Mina to believe that God had healed her. She died in 2012, and Gordon in 2013, also of cancer. I miss them terribly. Just as Christians claim to "love the sinner but hate the sin," I love the Christian but hate the religion. What saddens me when I remember Gordon and Mina is that their love for me might have turned to loathing had they known I was an atheist because I've seen it happen too many times to ever trust that it won't. The main reason that I, an atheist, write about religion so much is that I've been so often and so deeply hurt by it, and the second reason is that I've seen how much it has hurt others.