“Did you read Bob’s article a couple of days back?” asked Jack, referring to a mutual friend who eMs (that’s my short form for ‘e-mails’) essays to his friends from time to time. Some of these wind up on the pages of grubstreet-dot-see-eh.
I acknowledged that I had read that missive from our West Coast scribbler – a discourse on the death, character and opinions of Christopher Hitchens who died last Thursday. Hitchens was an avowed atheist. By now he may have changed his mind. Who knows for sure? Maybe being an atheist is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe God says, if you don’t believe in Me, I won’t believe in you. And that’d be that for the unbeliever.
I said “I’ve always wondered about atheists. It seems to me that in this regard the only real alternative to belief is doubt. To be an atheist you have to be sure that there is no God. Just as it’s often hard to prove that something is not there, it is often hard to prove that something is there, especially once one leaves the realm of physical reality. After all, absence of proof is no proof of absence. To be absolutely sure that there is no God seems to me to be untenable: how can you truly prove it? By all the evil in the world? By the pain and suffering endured by millions? Despite the presence of such evils in the world, evident to everyone, most people continue to believe in God. Even Mother Theresa confesses to have had her doubts at times, and surely she has seen more suffering than most people will see in their lifetime.”
“Hitchens called her a fraud,” said Jack.
“I think the fact that she did have doubt would serve as some kind of confirmation that she wasn’t one. There are lots of doubt-less frauds in religion and related fields, although some of these may not realize they are frauds. My trust in the proponents of “Fancymental medication”, for instance, with the holy men driving in Rollses, is very limited,” I said.
“I guess there are two separate but related issues here,” said Jack. “First whether there is a God, and second, whether there is life after death. I mean, if there is no life after death, why bother about God?”
I said “You take your chances, much as Pascal suggested in his wager: it’s better to suppose there is a God and act accordingly: You can’t lose. If you don’t believe, and don’t act accordingly, and He does exist, you can at best play even, but never win.”
“Maybe we just have a fundamental need to believe that there’s something that survives our earthly death. That things don’t fade to black when we die,” said Jack.
I said “I think that’s a universal need, and maybe that’s what spurs people to believe in an afterlife. But I’m fascinated by evidence there’s something of a spiritual nature apart from human beings; poltergeists, for instance. They may be manifestations of human forces beyond our understanding, but then again, they may not. And then there are other inexplicable thing, hinting at spiritual entities or spiritual contacts. I remember reading a priest’s recollection about an event while he was a missionary in an isolated area of the Belgian Congo. The village’s medicine man (competition, you might say) told him that his mother had died, two weeks before a letter came by boat informing him of her death two weeks earlier. How did he know? Did the medicine man engage in astral travel? Did he communicate with spirits? And once I read an article of a person – I can’t remember if it was a man or woman – who’d undergone an operation in a California hospital. That hospital stood on a hill, the highest point in the area. During the operation the patient’s heart stopped. After a while he or she was revived. Later the patient described what had happened to her: she had passed through the wall and risen above the roof of the hospital. She’d noticed a single running shoe there, white with a blue stripe, without laces. When someone went up to the roof to check, there was the shoe, just as described. There no way anyone could have seen that shoe for miles away. What did Lazarus have to say after having been called back from the dead. Surely he must have been asked what it had been like? I can’t believe that the Bible is silent on that subject. Surely someone must have asked him. I think it’s the most important question anyone can raise: is there life after death? I mean, if there isn’t, why bother about whether God exists?”
“That would be the next question,” said Jack.
I said “We know at our most primitive level, that nothing can come from nothing, and so there must have been a start to all of existence. And you either accept that the universe has always existed, and is in that sense God, or that there was a being that created that universe. Those are your only choices, as far as I can tell. Next is the question of whether either of these Gods is merely a cause, or whether He, She or It has a personal relationship with Its or His or Her creation.”
“If I may digress for a moment,” said Jack, “I’ve been thinking about how Muslim men on average seem to be so much more interested in their religion than Christian men. Mind you, I’m not talking from surveys, merely from what I’ve seen in my wanderings about the world. Maybe it’s the earthly delights, including sex, that is promised in the Muslim heaven. Even the Buddhist and Hindu Nirvana, at least to me, seems a pretty dry state of being. For Christians a city of gold and pearly gates isn’t much of a come-on, in my view. I think most men, Canadian men at least, would get much more involved if heaven would offer a fully outfitted workshop from Canadian Tire as a reward for their earthly travails.”
I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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