FRIGHTENED ?

Sure, I’m frightened.  Of all sorts of things.  I can’t imagine what an imaginary,  supposedly benevolent Intelligent Designer had in mind in creating these horrors, but yes, I am scared of spiders (especially Australian redbacks), sharks (all of them), snakes (idem), salties (though I have never been anywhere near these ferocious sea-crocodiles in northern Australia), and other animals and reptiles for which I could be part of the food-chain.  More seriously, I am afraid of muggers, murderers, terrorists, burglars, con-men, the Mafia, people who would not hesitate to do me harm, in the most creative ways.

Death ?  No, I’m not in the least afraid of death.  Perhaps I have the advantage of having had to face it once – peacefully, mercifully with adequate, immediate effective medical care in the form of a triple bypass, after a near-fatal heart attack.  Even before that I was not afraid of death.  For this I thank my discovery of atheism.  I could croak tonight.  No worries, as we Australians infuriatingly say all the time.  It will be The End.  The movie “Harry Potter 1” was the first but far from the last of the series.  My life is highly unlikely to be the subject of a movie.  If it were, the film “Frank O’Meara” would no doubt have no sequel; my earthly life will most certainly have none.

Afraid ?  Of torture, yes.  Dependence, yes.  Pain, yes.  Alzheimers, yes.  Being a burden to my family, yes.  These are the things I fear most.  As for dying, I couldn’t care a fig.  How many Darwins, how many Dawkins will it take to get people to realize that God is a myth, that an “after-life” is a fairy tale, that death is the end of personal existence ?  It is no more worthy of fear than dozing off to sleep.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

SIX SACRAMENTS , NOT SEVEN

Most devout Catholics hope to receive six of the seven Sacraments available to them.  No one asked them to agree to receive the first, Baptism, nor the second, third and fourth (Penance, the Eucharist and Confirmation).  But they did have their choice about the fifth – admittedly limited in the Catholic social environment in which they grew up; it would never have occurred to them to “get married outside the Church”.  The Sacrament of Matrimony, they were told, was in fact the only Sacrament (apart from Baptism, in case of emergency) that they could themselves administer (in the presence of a priest, of course).  With five Sacraments up their sleeve, and with little (up recently from no) prospect because married – there have long been exceptions – of receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the sixth and last would be Extreme Unction, the Final Anointing, symbolizing the strengthening of the soul for the final journey at the hour of their death.

Although I am not on my death-bed, my sacramental score is already six out of seven.  And it will remain so.  I had the rare “privilege” of receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony, officially sanctioned (but “sub rosa”, secretly) after my dispensation from the obligations attached to my earlier reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  There remains only one for me to have the full sacramental deck.  I can understand the desire of some well-meaning, sincere relatives to facilitate my crossing of the Styx.  But when the time comes, whether I’m conscious or not, I want nothing of the “Extra Munction”, as we used to call it as kids.

Vikings put their dead on a drakkar, pushed it out to sea, then shot lighted arrows to set it alight : more dramatic than a priest’s discreet anointing of the body of the moribund in a hospital or at an accident in the street.  Kirk Douglas’ cinematic passing was far more moving than our Last Rites, tombside funeral included.  The only trouble is that neither Valhalla nor Heaven exist.

The Church used to forbid cremation, long considered a denial of physical resurrection, and to impose burial, along with some other obligations like no meat on Friday and no work on Sunday.  Holy Mother Church has become far more liberal and no longer insists on certain of the obligations I grew up with.  About to end up six feet deep or burned to ashes, I do not need or want Extreme Unction.  On principle.  It will be my formal statement of my firm belief that death is the definitive end of personal existence.  I need no help for the “journey” to another, imaginary life.  But I would appreciate it if my loved ones, when I die, revived the Irish wake.  Leave out the religious trappings, just break out the Guinness and the Tullamore Dew (“give every man his Dew”), Frank’s dead and gone (“Thanks be to God”, some will say).  He had a good life, a life worth living.  May we all be as lucky.  May he rest in nothingness (I will), but for a while at least, remain in our memories (I might).  “For he was a jolly good fellow” – or perhaps “For he was a damn lucky bastard”.  The lyrics chosen will depend on the amount of liquor consumed.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

 

DEATH : WHERE IS THY STING ?

Christian saints were often portrayed contemplating a human skull.  They knew, and apparently were determined never to forget, that before long they too would be nothing but dry bones.  Death awaits us all.  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” ?  Not at all !  On the contrary, their message was “walk the line”, “clean up your act”, “stick to the straight and narrow”.  Before you know it, you’ll be facing your Judge.  Put your life in order.  Sin no more.  We will soon be the ones for whom the bell tolls.  More importantly, here come da Judge !  Johnny Cash said it best in “Riders in the Sky” : “Cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride, a-tryin’ to catch the Devil’s herd, across these endless skies”.

“Pilgrims and strangers on this earth” is the way Paul of Tarsus and the Poverello of Assisi put it.  And they were dead right.  Four score and ten, max.  For Francis, a lot less.  But then he was never kind to Brother Ass, his own body, aged prematurely and weakened by constant “mortification”.  Of course, he was dead wrong about death, “Sister Death” as he quaintly called it, her.  That skull was meant to remind us of the folly of wasting our lives in wastrel ways.  “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his immortal soul ?”  Is life worth living?  Of course it is, so long as you use it to ensure beatitude in the next life, after our brief sojourn in this ante-chamber which we call, contrasted with the eternal bliss that awaits us, a vale of tears.

Most people believe in the immortality of something they call the soul.  All our religions are sources of consolation precisely because they would have us believe that though our body will rot, our soul will not.  Make the most of the short time you’ve got to make sure that your eternal life is spent in Heaven and not in Hell.

Faith in eternal life is an illusion we can understand, up to a point.  It would be wonderful, if it were true (a trifle long, perhaps ?).  The Faithful Departed are in the bosom of Abraham (frankly, I’d prefer not), or at least up there behind the Pearly Gates.  We know that our Redeemer liveth, and that our deceased loved ones are in His hands, living in one of His many mansions (Netflixing day and night ?).  We ourselves will one day join them, after this short pilgrimage and brief life in the foreign land we call Planet Earth.  Pilgrims and strangers, on our way home !  Believe it if you like.  I cannot.

                                               RIDENDA      RELIGIO    

 

DEATH IS REAL ; AN AFTERLIFE IS NOT

Death is a universal, inescapable phenomenon, that marks “finis” not only to every living creature’s life, but to its, his, her very existence.  It is at the center of the reasons for the creation of religions, which offer both the imagined assurance that our death – good news-bad news – is but a passage to perfect, eternal happiness as a reward, and the terrifying threat of equally imagined eternal suffering as a punishment.  Its implications deserve at least the reflections suggested in the posts that follow.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE ?

 

 

We will, no doubt, never know.  Many eminent scientists have long been convinced that it is, to use an astronomical understatement, highly improbable, that among the billions of galaxies, each with a hundred billions stars and the ten billion billions of planets that make up the Universe, there is only one, tiny, insignificant planet – ours – which has intelligent life.  Some of these same scientists, fifty years ago, at the time of the launching of Pioneer 10 and 11, fearing that there is, in fact, such life out there, opposed the sending into space of Carl Sagan’s famous golden plaque, designed and destined to introduce us to potential extra-terrestrials, because this, they felt, would allow the latter to identify our location in the cosmos and to . . . attack us !  Orson Welles redivivus : “Mars Attacks !”, the famous radio hoax which caused uncontrolable panic in the U.S.  The message of the fearful scientists was similar to that of Descartes, centuries before, who however had far more down-to-earth motivations : “Qui bene vixit, bene latuit” (“He who has lived well has lived well-hidden”).  Let’s keep our existence secret; it’s safer.  Today well-heeled celebrities do not have accessible phone-numbers, e-mail or snail-mail addresses available to their cohabitants of Planet Earth.  At the time of the Pioneers, some did not want even our situation in the Universe to be known to outsiders.

One thing of which we can be certain is that whether or not there are little green people out there, there is no God, no Creator of the Universe, no Intelligent Divine Designer, just stupid evolution which may or may not have produced life elsewhere.  Personally, I am not sure I would count on our possible galactic neighbors to help us solve our existential and ecological problems.  They and we should stay at home, minding our own terrestrial or extra-terrestrial business.

Whether we are alone or not, we will continue, “sine die”, to live as though we were.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

” THE END IS NEAR ! “

The message on the fanatic’s sandwich-board – most of us saw them only in cartoons – used to make us smile.  It turns out that it is, indeed, later than we used to think, and few of us are smiling as the Amazon burns and the ice of Antarctica plunges into the sea.

Before ecologists began, in the last couple of years, to tell us we have till 2030 or at best 2050 before we are engulfed in an apocalyptic, global, end-of-the-world disaster, an eminent French scientist, Director of Research in the prestigious Institute of Astrophysics in Paris (“Science et Avenir”, July, 2008) told us we need to plan for exiting Earth.  Questioned about how long we have left before we need to leave to settle on another planet, he replied : “In one hundred or several hundreds of years, we will have nothing in terms of resources.”  Hence the absolute necessity, he said, of allowing our species to survive by developing the technology that will permit a tiny fraction of humankind to move to Mars or to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa (he is a scientist, so he never even mentioned exoplanets).  He believes that our first emergency exit is closer to home – the vast oceans of our planet.  He seriously envisages humans living on the ocean floor, to give us time – a thousand years at best – to develop the means of a definitive departure into space and one of the rare planets with enough water to allow our species to survive.

The idea is not entirely new.  One hundred and fifty years ago, another Frenchman, who was not a scientist but a novelist, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) wrote : “When the Earth is worn out, humanity will leave for the stars”.  Science fiction ?  Apparently not.  We are living the End-Times.

Believers and unbelievers must surely wonder about God’s supposed rôle and intentions in all this.  A minuscule number of human beings may survive.  We have long known that whatever about biblical prophecy, our world is destined anyhow to disintegrate and disappear … in five billion years.  We now have to revise the estimation of the time we have left.  We, personally, you and I, will not be around to worry about this a century of two (or perhaps just decades) from now.  But surely this scientific projection is a wake-up call for those still naïve enough to believe in God and Intelligent Design.  The majority of people, however, will probably dismiss all this as absurd.  And believers who recognize the reality of impending annihilation, will beg their loving Father in Heaven to deliver their descendants if not from Hell on Earth at least from the other one.

But many non-atheists and their godologians will buy the following “reasoning” :  the demise of the superb planet God gave us is our fault, not His.  It’s the Garden of Eden all over again, only this time , after our disobedience and sinful waste of His precious gift, He does not expel us; we expel ourselves.  He is not only a God of Love but the God of Justice.  If we are so stupid as to ignore His commands to care for the Earth, to love one another and to share His gifts with our brethren, we have only ourselves to blame.  Q.E.D.  None so blind as those who will not see.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

WHO’S IN CHARGE ?

In the intergalactic game of expansion, destruction and survival, one could, from our infinitesimal, insignificant observation post at the edge of our galaxy, ask the question : “Is there anyone, or anything, in charge ?”

It would seem that the Universe is crashing ahead, creating new galaxies, black holes, stars and planets, with no end or purpose in sight.  But some people prefer to see it differently.  There must be a God, they say, a Master-Mind, who is in charge.  However, non-atheists do not understand and cannot explain, anymore than we atheists do and can, what He is supposed to be up to, or why He bothered to create an expanding Universe, including at least one pocket of living beings, some of whom consider themselves intelligent, on a minuscule planet its inhabitants call Earth – all of which and of whom are destined for extinction.

We atheists do not believe that “God” exists, nor therefore that “He” is behind all this.  There is no one behind all this.  It just happened.  Hard to accept, yes.  But more credible, when you look at the facts, than those theories, pipe-dreams and beliefs about a Creator, Intelligent Designer, Divine Watchmaker and Grand Architect of the Universe.

We will never know.  But, as a punter from Randwick race-course, I would bet my hair-shirt on a God-less Universe running wild, intent only on its own mindless, purposeless expansion.

In the meantime we can make the most of what we have : a volatile but manageable micro-climate where human life – for the nonce – is possible and potentially enjoyable, fulfilling, rewarding and worth living … for as long as it lasts.  No need of a God for that.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

“WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD !”

Louis Armstrong’s signature song : a great tune, memorable lyrics, an inimitable interpretation.  Our world is indeed full of wonder, full of awe, wonder-full, awe-full.  We all have our reasons for admiring the grandeur of our planet – the Alps, the oceans, the Grand Canyon, Antarctica, the beauty and bounty of nature, and, perhaps most of all, the staggering immensity and complexity of the Universe.  All this is so breath-taking that many are tempted to attribute it to the hand of God.

Such a reaction is eminently understandable.  To both simple and sophisticated individuals, primitive peoples and highly evolved civilizations over the millennia, belief in God has seemed not only reasonable but self-evident.  Many never even discovered that the existence and intervention of gods or God could be put into question.  God is a given.  He comes with the territory.  An omnipotent, omniscient, wonderful God gave us a wonderful world.  Period.

I have friends who tell me that I, like so many authors far more gifted than yours modestly, should not destroy or even disturb the faith that has given meaning to life to countless millions from time immemorial.  But if we propose hard-hitting questions, if we sow doubts in the minds of the faith-full, if we rock the boat of religion and even the barque of the Rock himself, first Pope of the Catholic Church, it is because people deserve the truth.

We do live in a wonderful world, though we have no illusions about the dangers it presents, nor the chaos that can, and does too often – often through fault of our own – disrupt and devastate apparently providential order.  But for those who can take it, for those courageous enough to wonder about the origins of this wonderful world, we propose liberation from myth and a chance to discover the mystery that good old Satchmo could not even suspect.  Which is no reason not to enjoy a wonderful song.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO

INTERLUDE : A GUEST-POST CONCERNING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH’S DEVOTION TO RELICS

ALBAN  DOPPEE, a regular reader of our blog, has permitted me to publish here a piece he wrote recently, in his mother-tongue, French, which immediately caught my eye and which I am pleased to present here in my own free translation.  Among the posts I have myself included in this blog, “The Relevance of Relics”, dated May 9, 2017, provides another insight into this thoroughly extraordinary if not disgusting practice of the Catholic Church, along with references to other posts on the subject.

Alban Doppée is a talented writer who wields a pen dipped in vitriol, in particular in his ferocious vivisection of Biblical texts.  Check out his name on the Web to discover the list of books he has published.

” I would like to share with you something that has always intrigued me.  Among the most credulous if not brain-dead people I know are Catholics who venerate a collection of the relics of Saint Whatsherorhisname, which would fill the holds of giant ocean-liners like “Le France” or the “Queen Mary”combined.  O.K. : profaning a dead body – or perhaps a skeleton – is in itself an abominable practice.  But hacking it up and displaying the bits and pieces for congregations of semi-hysterical sadists, marks the perpetrators as rivals of primitive Homo Ergaster, whose sole conscience was his Basic Instincts.

“How can we imagine that the most deserving object of pious devotion could disappear from the face of the Earth without having a follower or hero-worshipper snip off a piece of nail or a clump of hair of the “Lord” before He rose from the dead, made that trip to Emmäus and lifted off in the grand finale which was His Ascension ?  It is true that certain crackpots did manage sneakily to salvage His foreskin, umbilical cord and milk-teeth, although curiously all of these “holy relics” appeared miraculously only in the Middle Ages – which puts a certain strain on their credibility . . . “

“A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL ?”

It is amazing that many people are not amazed at the immensity of the Universe and its literally astronomical dimensions.  Some of us need glasses to correct our myopia.  But just about all of us are astronomically short-sighted when we look at the night-sky, with or without a telescope, or read about the numbers (“figures” in English) that fill astronomers’ descriptions of the world of which we, and even our planet, are only infinitesimal parts.

Just a few, mind-blowing examples :

  1.   It takes me twenty hours, stopovers excluded, to fly from France to Australia.  18,000 kilometers.  Fifty years ago we began flying to – and, fortunately, back from –  the Moon, 386,000 kms away.  Soon we will attempt to fly to, and return from, Mars.  The Sun, our own unreachable star, is a little farther out : 150,000,000 kms.  Already we are at a point where figures become meaningless.  Think of some place 150 kms from your home – and then imagine having to do the trip one million times.  Man, that’s a long haul.
  2.   Earth is one of the Sun’s planets.  Some of the others are smaller, some a lot bigger, all of them – like the lover of the lady with the yellow ribbon around her neck – far, FAR away.  Mars is in our backyard.  Pluto is forty times the distance between us and the Sun.
  3.   We speak of distances in space in terms of light-years.  From our school-days we may recall Einstein’s formula, E equals m multiplied by c squared, and even remember that E stands for Energy, m for Mass, and c for Celerity, the speed … of light !  But 300,000 kms/SECOND (!), compared with the already impressive speed of our space-ships (56,000 kms/HOUR (!!)), makes us sound like space-snails.  That sunlight you are enjoying took more than eight minutes to get here.  For us to get to the Sun – if we were crazy enough to want to try – would take us over 393 years.

Anyhow, let’s keep out of the Sun and settle – if possible – on Mars.  Tests have been performed on volunteers to see how they would stand up to an eight-month trip and several years – to make the trip worthwhile – of confinement, as well as the stress and isolation from Earth contact (forty minutes back and forth between radio-communications), and the total lack of a safety-net if something went wrong.  Now consider going even further, let’s say to the edge of the visible Universe (nothing tried, nothing gained).  The distance is at least 90,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles.  But that’s just OUR Universe.  Astronomers consider there may be a lot of others.

The Milky Way, our galaxy, was believed, just a century ago, to be the only galaxy there was.  We now know that there are thousands of billions in the visible Universe, all desperately rushing away from each other to avoid collapsing into a Black Hole.

I could go on.  But the point is, in the context of these Reflections, not the numbers but Napoleon, and his permanently pertinent question : “Et Dieu dans tout cela ?”  (“And God in all that ?”).  The scientist Laplace famously replied : “Sire, God is not included in my hypotheses”.

Many people, aware of the beauty, grandeur and immensity of the Universe, see it as evidence of God as Creator and of His infinite power and intelligence.  Some nombrilistic and credulous earthlings even suggest that all this is part of a divine plan, of which WE are the center !  There is one fatal flaw in such self-centered, wishful thinking.  We, not just as mortal individuals but as a species, will inevitably disappear, to become, like so many of our companion species on Earth, extinct, like our Sun, because precisely of its own extinction – unless of course we jump the gun and pollute our planet to death before then.  The Sun has five billion years left, which means that our Universe will have had a pretty good run, 18 billions years’ existence.  After that, the party’s over.

We may not have to wait that long.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change five years ago modified its 2007 estimate of a two feet rise in sea-level by 2099 to three feet.  More recent studies suggest that even a 8.9 feet rise is “physically plausible”.  We are told that if all the ice in Antartica melts, the sea will rise 71 meters !  However long it takes for seawater’s thermal expansion and the melting of land-based ice-sheets and glaciers to flood the Earth, it would seem that our planet will one day be a worldwide Atlantis.  “Waterworld” will no longer be just the name of aquatic parks in the Costa Brava or of a Kevin Costner movie.  In the meantime, let us enjoy – for as long as we have left (personally and globably) – what is still a minuscule, astronomically insignificant but wonderful world.

P.S.   I wouldn’t count on either a modern Noah’s Ark or a Cosmic Exodus to a backup exoplanet.  As Johnny Cash sang : “How high’s the water, Momma ?  She said it’s six-feet high and risin’ “.

RIDENDA      RELIGIO