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, I’m just mad at that Sherman idiot for causing me so much unnecessarily anxiety.
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.
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.
One of the sweetest girls on the Internet* posted this video on her blog, and it overturned my resolve to avoid religion for awhile.
I have two main reasons for being an atheist. One is that I find absolutely no evidence for the existence of a deity. The second is that belief in an all-powerful, all-wise, and all-good friend in the sky contains numerous internal contradictions. The most obvious of these contradictions concerns the question of how a perfect deity could create an imperfect world and then abandon the residents of that world.
The supposed answers to these problems imply that God is limited. For example, it is claimed that God wants us to be virtuous and worshipful, but that he would find it unrewarding to simply make us virtuous and worshipful (the way he made the angels), so he is forced to endow us with the freedom to choose evil and withhold worship. It is also said that God wants us to appreciate love, happiness, and beauty, but that to do this, he must expose us to hatred, misery and ugliness.
God is therefore extolled on the one hand as having unlimited power, but on the other as being limited in ways that are disastrous to his creation. He is also said to be whole within himself, yet he so wants our worship that he punishes us when he doesn’t get it. Like us at our worst, God only cares about himself. He could have spared us hatred, misery, and ugliness, but to satisfy his own needs, he made a world in which not only children suffer, but in which squirrels, dolphins, wildebeests, and every other creature that ever lived or ever will live suffers. God might tally dying sparrows, but they still suffer, and they still die.
As for God’s absence from the world, I’m told that he isn’t absent at all, but there’s little agreement about what this means. Some say he came to earth as Christ; others that he spoke through Mohammed; and still others that he commanded Joseph Smith to transcribe some mysteriously absent gold plates, etc. Nearly all believers say that he answers prayers, yet none pray for the dead to rise, amputated limbs to be restored, or for anything else that might not happen anyway.
I am told that it is my job to figure out which of God’s self-proclaimed representatives is the right one, and all will be well, but I’m given no basis for my decision. If God wants me to know him, why doesn’t God speak to me directly? Better still, why doesn’t God speak to all of us directly?
It is also claimed that God isn’t responsible for our problems because he simply gave us free will and we chose evil. The fact that our choices cause innocent children and animals suffer is not seen as an objection to this view, nor is the fact that if we really had free will, a great many of us could be expected to choose good, yet the amount of time that even the best of us can maintain virtue can probably be measured in hours. It is also the case that much of our suffering doesn’t come through us. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and many other problems afflict us without regard for our goodness.
In the Hebrew Bible, God allowed Satan to take away everything the righteous Job had including his health and family, only to later restore them all, as if that constituted justice. This solution bothered me even as a child because justice is only served when the innocent don’t suffer. For example, if a drunk driver kills a child, there can be no justice for anyone involved except, perhaps, the drunk driver. But even if the drunk driver is punished in exactly the right way and to exactly the right extent, this would not bring justice to the child, or to the family and friends of the child or the drunk driver. Even if all of these people were rewarded in heaven for their suffering on earth, it wouldn’t constitute justice because it wouldn’t erase the fact that a supposedly just God had allowed an injustice to occur.
Believers demand that nonbelievers respect their religion, but they give us no reason to regard their religion as other than absurd. If I doubted gravity, global warming, or the existence of the three-toed sloth, they could present me with evidence, but when it comes to religion, they can but say that I must have faith in whichever god they think is the right one. I would ask how they know which one is the right one when all they did was to take the word of their parents and neighbors. But even if they had searched the world over for the right religion, how could they prove that their choice was correct, and how would they explain the fact that other searchers make other choices?
While I can respect those rare believers who use religion in a salutary way, I know from personal experience and the daily news that cruelty and bigotry are far and away the most common fruits of religion. I would not object nearly so much to the groundlessness of religion if I could but see that the good it does outweighs the bad, but unfortunately, the good is minuscule compared to the bad. I’ve heard it said that we create God in our image, and I would add that we nearly always instill him with our deepest flaws. God is but a way to proclaim the evil that is within us as having its source in divine authority. This makes it chief among our depravities.
We met Fran a couple of years ago when we petted her blue heeler, Sheila. Seeing that we liked dogs and were good with her dog, Fran asked if we would babysit Sheila on Tuesday nights when she (Fran, not Sheila) went bowling. We said yes with no thought that she would pay us, but when she picked Sheila up the first night and handed me a $20 bill, I took it because I’m just that way. (You might want to jot down the fact that it would be a mistake to offer me money as a gesture based upon the assumption that I’ll refuse it, e.g. “Thanks for the doughnut; here’s a thousand dollars.”) Fran has since retired from her job, so we don’t see her or Sheila much anymore except by accident, but when she wrote several weeks ago to ask if we would keep Sheila for three days, we said yes. She offered us $150, but, as with keeping Sheila on bowling nights, we would have done it for nothing.
So, here I sit with Fran’s cow dog nudging me for a cuddle and her (Fran’s, not Sheila’s) Honda Element in the driveway. I’ve had sex with people who didn’t trust me that much. I don’t know how I could have ever been so stupid, but I assumed that if a woman made love to me, it meant that she trusted me, but when a couple moves in together, it’s not the sharing of sex or the professions of eternal devotion that represent the ultimate in confidence, but the putting of the other person’s name on your bank account, especially if there’s anything in it.
When Peggy and I were married, I doubt that we had $3,000 between us, so sharing a bank account didn’t seem like a big deal, but now that we have enough money to keep us “comfortable” for the rest of our lives, I can’t imagine putting another woman’s name on my accounts. This brings to mind the fact that I’m growing older and there might come a day when I will need someone other than Peggy to handle my financial affairs. I think that what I might do would be to ask my friend, Lee, to take charge. He’s the father of my grand-daughter, but I have no blood relationship with him or his wife, Robin, which means that I haven’t known them for years and years (about 6-8 years). I have observed them, and they’ve consistently impressed me as being people of integrity. One of the things they did that got my attention happened last year when we were shopping for baby clothes a short time after Sidney started walking well enough that she was no longer prone to doing face plants. Lee warned me not to put her down, but I wanted her to have a good time—especially since she was with her remarkably adorable Grandpa—so I did.
She immediately began to shop like her father, mother, and grandmother, only at a hundred times the speed as she ran through the store pulling clothes off the racks and carrying them with her (whenever she got too many to carry, I returned the excess). It was just her and me since everyone else was involved with the real shopping, and we had a grand time. When Lee and Robin were ready to go, Robin asked Lee if they should pay for the clothes that Sidney had been carrying around the store, and Lee said that, no, they hadn’t been soiled, so there was no reason to buy them. That Robin broached the subject and Lee took it seriously made quite an impression on me. Never once have I seen them show less than total integrity, and this makes them more like Peggy than like I because while it is in my heart to show unblemished integrity where my friends are concerned, how I treat others is dependent upon how they treat me.
You might wonder if I don’t have any blood kin whom I would trust with my money. I don’t have much in the way of family. There’s a half brother whom I don’t know, a half sister who is a good bit older than I, and a full sister whom I wouldn’t trust with pocket change. Peggy has many relatives, but they’re all on the other side of the country, and they’re either getting old, or I don’t trust them, or I don’t know them well enough to trust them. Even so, the sad fact of life is that we all have to trust someone. I say sad because if I could be eternally competent to do everything for myself, I would greatly prefer it, but sickness, accident, and aging, have taught me that, sooner or later, we all have to make ourselves vulnerable to other people.