The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella,
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.
— Lord Charles Bowen (attrib.)
In the context of last night, it was about a recent episode of A Gifted Man, in which a shaman who volunteers at the clinic that Patrick Wilson’s character works at wants to perform a blessing on a baby that was abandoned. The argument was that the baby is too young to really register what’s going on, or to be negatively affected. Yes, it’s nonsense, but there are people in America even who really believe in that idiotic nonsense—that there are spirits in the world that can be entreated, summoned and appeased.
In keeping with my New Years quasi-resolution, I’m trying to not be a wet blanket when it comes to religion, especially considering some of my previous blogs and letters on the subject, and the fact that I’m striving not to alienate the religious friends that I still have who want me to be a part of their community.
… I’m just not 100% sure how that’s supposed to work.
In another episode of A Gifted Man, this same shaman character tells a hypochondriac boy who is side struck by lightening and suffers traumatic brain injury that lightning strikes are often ways of calling a person to be a shaman, a variation on the “everything happens for a reason” theme. “What harm can that really do?” To a boy morbidly terrified of the world, how can such a notion not do harm? It’s assuring him that there is a spirit force guiding his steps, and introducing the notion to him that he too could share this nonsense with others.
Yesterday I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from season five, “The Body,” in which Buffy’s mother Joyce suddenly dies and everyone reels from the fallout. Throughout the episode everyone asks why it happened, and at one point the character Anya (a vengeance demon divested of her powers, reduced to a human, and exhibits a Temperance Bones-like understanding of humanity) explodes,
“I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s– there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”
This is why religion is damaging—because the answers it gives to these huge questions beg more questions. We know why people die. We are fragile, organic beings, susceptible to the elements and to physical damage. We don’t know for sure what happens after death, but it’s more than probable that consciousness is tied to the brain, that it too is a biological function which will cease to exist like all other bodily functions. Neuroscience, in its quest to identify the origins of human consciousness, is increasingly finding that we are our brains, and that “I” can be altered by traumatic injury or physical changes to certain areas of the brain. One episode of WNYC’s RadioLab tells the story of a woman who suffered a major aneurysm and basically woke up a completely different person.
There is no evidence in the world that anything happens other than for the reason that it happens. A 30 kiloampere bolt of lightning strikes a gnat flying through the air at the moment of the discharge. A boulder is dislodged from a mountain after the wind and the rain works upon the stone for thousands of years, and it rolls down the steep incline where it crushes a car that is driving through the pass, killing everyone in the car. We are human. We are subject to same conditions as every other life form on the planet.
My friend Emily told me to wait until I’ve experienced death personally a few times before passing judgement on those who choose to find comfort in religion, and perhaps she’s right. My friends and family are still alive (knock on wood), and I’ve never experienced the kind of loss that violently tears away a person’s sense of security in the world and brings you face to face with human mortality as someone you’ve known your entire life ceases to exist.
I have thought about this. Someday I will inevitably be faced with the death of the man I love more than anything else in the world. Someday everyone I have ever known will die, and someday I too will be tapped on the shoulder and told that it’s time to take leave of the party, which invariably will go on without me.
We are born to die, and while this thought may drive many to despair (theists and non-theists alike), for many atheists this makes our present life all the more meaningful. Our mortality drives us to make every moment on earth count, for we will never be presented with another of its like. It makes the wine a deeper red, for it is the only wine of its kind that has ever been set before us. It makes the sunset that much richer, for it is the only sunset of its kind that will ever pass before our eyes. It makes the kiss that much sweeter, for it is the only kiss of its kind that will brush our lips. Religion robs us those moments, for it tells us that there is a greater reality to come that causes all present experiences to pale in comparison.
Bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad.
The rain rains on the just and the unjust.
Religion tells us this isn’t so.