Monday 30 September 2013

Albie : Why I Am an Atheist, Part I (Belief)

Dear Albie,

This one is a long time coming – and long, too.  You wanted to know how I became an atheist.  You’ll notice that isn’t the title of the letter, however, and that’s because I don’t want to imply that I was originally something else; as if atheism is a temporary break from my true nature, or an anomaly of the human spirit.  I am an atheist because I am convinced that any and all religion I have encountered and expect to encounter is false, anachronistic and dangerous; because I choose not only to refuse a part in it, but to challenge it; and because I’ve done my homework and have accumulated enough evidence and experience to support my philosophy.  This, then, is the story of how I came to think the way I do, and what it is that I think.

The other day I returned from my morning exercise to my room here in Kilindoni.  The landlord was hanging out at the entrance and made his usual running joke about my exercise (pardon the pun) and how one day he’ll join me when he’s feeling more fit.  “I just come back from church,” he said.  “Oh yeah, it’s Sunday,” I said.  “Are you Christian?” he asked.  “No,” I said.  He looked puzzled, as if it didn’t make sense for me (a fair-skinned North American) to not be Christian.  He then shook his head and raised his arms as if to say, “So?”  My answer clearly wasn’t good enough.  “What?” I asked.  “What do you believe?”  “I don’t.”  Now he shifted from puzzled to dumbfounded.  “You don’t believe?”  “No.”  He shook his head again – still, my answer wasn’t good enough.

I find it interesting that, in a context such as this, it is the non-believer, the non-participant, who must defend his position, rather than the one with the extraordinary and supernatural claim.  This is sort of like a Marmite lover demanding that the person who doesn’t like Marmite not only defend their lack of interest, but defend it according to how Marmite tastes.  As if it were not enough for the non-eater of Marmite to simply say he doesn’t like it, or doesn’t want to.  Likewise, my Christian landlord didn’t feel the need to explain his omnipresent father figure, original sin, the virgin birth, or the forgiveness of sin via the brutal execution of a divine avatar.  He felt no weight from the burden of proof, and instead put me on the spot.  He asked not so much why I didn’t believe, but instead why I had chosen to refute his beliefs. 

The thing is, I am not an agnostic, nor an indifferent non-believer, nor a casual atheist.  I actively dispute.  If I meet an evangelist, I want to have it out.  If a shirt-and-tie Bible-tapper knocks on my door, I get a thrilling rush of adrenalin, like stepping out onto a playing field.  If religion comes up in conversation, I sit up in my chair.  It’s not that I want to persuade all the world, or tell everybody how clever I am, or because I’ve got a personal beef with the a verse of the dogma or the hands of a priest or a negligent Holy Father.  It’s because I am in fact interested in religion as a subject, as a debate, as a recurring character in human history.  I’ve got an imagination, too, and I think it can all be wildly exciting.  The difference between me and my prodding landlord is that, while we both like watching the show, I see actors playing roles, and he doesn’t.  And I enjoy it because I know this, and maybe he enjoys it because to him it’s real.  But the thing is, if they are indeed actors, isn’t it a little dangerous, and a little sad, to believe otherwise?  And then I remember, when I was a kid, I thought it was all very real too.

In the Beginning

Neither of my parents were particularly religious.  My mother was raised Anglican, but in the years I knew her she was chiefly an agnostic who scoffed at institutionalized religion but may or may not have believed (or, who may have gone back and forth between faith and skepticism) in a god or a greater power.  My father identified as a Catholic, and he was brought up by a religious mother in a society where the church was a prominent, sometimes controlling feature of everyday life.  As a Quebecker, the Catholic label held a deep cultural value for him; he probably went through phases when he wore a cross around his neck, or appropriated heaven and hell as the carrot and stick.  But I don’t recall mention of priests, Bibles, commandments, holy water, Jesus Christ or forgiveness.  For him, if the chips were ever thrown down (they never were), I think brand would have trumped faith, and belonging eclipsed belief.

Nevertheless, my parents elected to raise me right, good and proper by the standards of their society: I was baptized and circumcised, and I’m sure one or both of them took me for a few Sunday outings before I knew what was going on.  They also entrusted me to a devout nanny on the other side of town who served sugary porridge and always had the television and VCR turned on to a handful of Christian films on repeat.  They were about Moses, Jesus, and a bunch of other bearded white guys who hear the same echoing voice in the sky.  I was too young to appreciate the moral significance of the stories; for me they were as plausible and fantastical as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  But while the lessons were fluid, the images were as sticky as my nanny’s porridge.  When I remember her, I also see the following: a basket with a baby inside, wading through the reeds; a temple flooding with blood and robed men running away; a rod turning into a snake; and a half-naked guy on a wooden cross with thorns in his head and nails through his hands a feet.  I always liked the basket part, but the blood pouring down the stone steps was pretty cool too, and that image wasn’t really outdone until I saw The Shining.

Until I was about eight, I seem to have understood and internalized basic religious principles such as church, prayer, heaven, hell, and always being watched and judged by an invisible god.  To be honest, I accepted the programme without thinking too much about it, sort of like how I must have accepted the moon, or aunts and uncles, or photosynthesis.  I was informed, perhaps by the nanny in evangelical chats I don’t remember, but probably for the most part incidentally  (as in, “Oh god,” someone says; “what’s god?” I ask; and so forth…), that the world worked a certain way, and I had no need or reason or desire to question it.  My imagination was far more interested in kung-fu superheroes and interplanetary travel, and none of this was interrupted by the idea of an omnipotent spirit or the afterlife – in fact, one fantasy may have encouraged the other.

At eight or so I learned where I belonged in the spiritual realm.  I attended a secular boarding school far from home with a mixed group of other kids.  A conversation sprang up with the dorm master, and a boy asked what you were supposed to do if you were Jewish.  The dorm master said something about Hanukah and candles, and the boy said he was Baptist.  Then another boy said he was Catholic, and the Jewish boy announced, proudly now, that he was Jewish.  They were all very happy and friendly about their revelations, and I stood there totally confused.  “What am I?” I asked the dorm master later on in private, to prevent the embarrassment in me not knowing who I am.  “You’re a Protestant.”  “Okay,” I said, and in the following days I tried it on for size.  “I’m a Protestant,” I said.  They smiled and nodded and some said they were Protestant too, and I thought these were excellent new premises for friendship.  Finally someone asked me what kind of Protestant I was, and I said I didn’t know.  I asked the dorm master, he asked my parents, and a few days later I was born again, as an Anglican.  At the time of my ascension, I truly had no clue what this label meant, and didn’t bother to ask because it felt so fundamental, so essential, like my eye colour or blood type.  It was not a choice, but an inheritance.  I was Anglican, therefore Anglicans are the best.

The First Miracle

At ten I experienced my first miracle.  I was home from for the holidays and was supposed to spend some of my time doing a school project on the state of Utah.  I don’t know if Mormons popped up in my pre-pubescent research, but there was plenty to be said about salt lakes and potatoes.  Anyway, I did everything but my homework, and the project slipped from my mind – until the night before I was supposed to fly back.  I suddenly realized that the time had gone and I had done nothing; the next day I would fly back to school via Salt Lake City, though there would be no time for research.  And then it would be due, first thing the following morning.  Everybody else would have theirs finished, tied up with ribbons and thick with two weeks of hard mental labour and the help of doting mothers.  I was in big trouble.

It was late and I still had to pack my bag, and the flight was in the morning.  I thought of what I could do, and I remembered that guy called God, that he had special powers, and that you can ask him for help.  So I did.  I didn’t just pray, I begged.  Please, can you make a report on Utah for me?  I got off my knees (if I knew to go on my knees), packed my bag, and fell asleep.  The next morning I woke up and my mom asked me why I’d packed.  I said I had to fly back to school.  No, she said and laughed, that’s still five days away.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  God had given me five extra days.  What a guy!

In fact, God didn’t just give me an extra five days, during which I completed a masterly report on the Beehive State with the help of my dad’s friend and his many almanacs, but he then told the teacher to award the whole class a one-week extension.  I had to be a little disappointed about this double miracle: did everyone pray?  And if everyone prayed, why the time-warp?  And if only some prayed, why help out those who didn’t?  Oh well, whatever, I still experienced a magical event and divine intervention was the only possible explanation.  No way could I have simply got stressed out and mixed my calendar up.

The Time-Warp Miracle had two main effects.  First, I tried praying when I wanted things, and nothing happened.  Was I saying the words wrong?  Did God not care anymore?  Or maybe I needed to be desperate?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t working, so I stopped and waited for another emergency for the Big Man to get me out of.  The second effect of the Time-Warp Miracle was that I was much more receptive to the bigger, heavier guns of religion when they fired in full volleys just a year later.

Getting Religious

This is the part where I got religious – and, as much as a 12- or 13-year old can be, very religious.  I was sent to another boarding school, this one a bus ride instead of a plane trip from home.  If 10 is fully religious, and 1 not at all, my new school was somewhere between 7 and 8.  Yet despite its logo being a cross on a shield, and the fact that it was owned and run by a religious group, the school was very adept at advertising itself as Christian to the Christians, and merely as morally sound to the wary.  It was the other elements that grabbed my family’s attention: hard work, responsibility, adventure, discipline, brotherhood.  My mother’s big fear was that the school still employed corporal punishment (spanking).  The guy with nails hammered through his hands and feet was a byproduct.

The religiosity of the school was manifest in more than just its philosophy and image: it was indeed a part of the daily fabric.  Grace was said at every meal, which meant a hundred boys in the dining room suddenly standing up, going silent, lowering heads, and throwing pork bones at the geek table when staff weren’t looking.  Mandatory services were hosted in the tiny wooden chapel every Thursday, and all sorts of other gatherings took place here, accompanied by reverent faces speaking “warts in heaven”.  Everyone had to participate in the choir: we divided into treble, alto, tenor and bass, learned glorious, belting Christian songs like “Good News” and “Hallelujah”, practiced how to move the mouth and whole face without making any noise, got progressively worse under progressively worse teachers, performed for an Edmonton Christmas service,  and eventually got so bad that, suddenly, we weren’t singing there anymore.  On outdoor trips there was Compline prayer every breakfast (short) and dinner (long).  There was lots of talk going around about God and Jesus and generally how suffering is good.  And underpinning the whole thing was Religious Studies class.

Religious Studies, which for grades seven through nine would more accurately have been called Bible Study or, better, Christian Indoctrination, was compulsory for all students.  In terms of hours, homework, and contribution to overall grade, it was on par with every other subject for grades seven through ten.  Here was a typical class: reading the Bible, listening to the teacher tell us about a section, discussing what it meant, and then being told, if we were too far off the mark, what it actually meant.  Typical homework: memorise the names of the books of the Old and New Testaments (I still know Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – it’s easiest to divide the Bible books into groups of five), fill in the blanks of Bible history, and write in your personal journal / write to God.  Typical exam: What is the seventh commandment?  Who were the ten apostles?  Why did Jesus die? (long answers allowed). 

It sounds mighty boring, doesn’t it?  It sounds worse than having to sit through church.  And yes, it probably was for some – but not for me.  You see, for the first time in my entire scholarly career – in fact, for the first time in my life – someone was giving me answers about living, and it came at just the time I was trying to learn how to live.  It didn’t matter (obviously) that many of these answers contradicted facts, experience or each other, because at the time I had no way of knowing or differentiating.  They were answers; tough, too-bad, get-over-it answers next to god-is-love, god-is-listening, god-is-within-you answers.  They presented a whole philosophy of life – unto neighbours, other cheeks, camels and needles’ eyes – that seemed just and malleable, and could be applied to personal problems, economic problems, political problems, and universal problems.  They explained the step before (say, before quarks), the step after (say, after death), and whatever other step you wanted (say, gorgonzola).  And they were answers wrapped up in a pretty good story about a thoughtful, charismatic, selfless young carpenter who loved everyone, including the guy who would eventually betray him (finally, the nails and thorns explained!). 

I had no reason to doubt the answers, because I thought there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who are interested in the package, and those who aren’t sure yet – I didn’t yet know there were other packages altogether (or, later, the fact that you don’t need a package at all).  So, paradoxically, it was my very inquisitiveness that drove me further into the parables, the debates, the literature.  Contradictions, paradoxes, doubts were all welcome: there could be no answer beyond our consciences and the words of God, so let’s dig deep and find them within.  Why does the Bible say the Earth is flat?  What if someone is born, lives and dies on a remote island without ever hearing the Gospel?  Did Moses go to Heaven when he died, or, being a Jew, did he have to wait until Jesus came to save him too?  And why was God (I wouldn’t have said it so succinctly at the time) such an asshole back in the old days?  So long as the questions were posed from within the realm of theology (which meant discrediting as blasphemous any questions from without), the solutions, however absurd in retrospect, seemed correct. 

Try this: Why does life suck?  Original sin.  Why do I have to pay for Adam and Eve’s mistake?  You don’t, Jesus did.  Why did Jesus do that?  You’re imperfect but he still loves you.  But were Adam and Eve even real?  Yes and no.  But the Bible says they’re real?  The Bible speaks in parables.  How are we to know what is a parable and what is literal?  We ask God.  Why doesn’t God just answer our questions directly?  God works in mysterious ways.

And why does God work in mysterious ways?  So that we don’t get bored.  You see, I found the whole thing absolutely fascinating, and not just because of the pedestrian discussions about the virtue and meaning of prayer, or the even debate about whether it’s okay to kill people who are trying to kill faith.  Because I was never ushered towards Christianity via the spiky, spooky gate – they didn’t get me keen by inserting nightmares of a sulfurous afterlife into my dreams or shocking me into believing in order to save my soul – I didn’t approach it with fear or shame or desperation.  Instead, I went through the garden gate of the deeply curious.  It was Christianity’s labyrinthine ecology of devils, angels, trinities, ghosts, trumpets, seals, purgatories and infernos (what I would later correctly call its mythology) that really captured my imagination.

There are good guys with swords and shields, and bad guys with swords and shields, and spiraling angelic orders, and a Devil named Satan named Beelzebub named Lucifer (what fantastic names!) with whole fire-and-brimstone books written about all his awesome shapeshifting ultraintelligent superpowers, and weird Holy Spirits, and terrific, booming words like Alpha and Omega, and neat-sounding New Age explanations for the trinity which related it to photons, and giant set-piece battles in Heaven, and stuff that would fit perfectly into the X-Files, and oh yes, even blood pouring down the temple steps.  It was a gigantic, glossy-paged comic book that had been worked out for thousands of years – and best of all, it wasn’t just another cartoon, it was real!  Satan was a real guy and God was a real guy and they were duking it out on the smash-bang-pow pages of right now in front of me!  I mean, how fun!  Just imagine if I’d been a Catholic.  Need I even mention the Book of Revelations?

Yes, I’ll mention the Book of Revelations, but only to say that it was Revelations which I showed my mother when I brought the Bible home with all my enthusiasm.  When I found it at the back of the Bible one day in Religious Studies, and started to read it when I was supposed to be studying another section, I got so excited I couldn’t wait for the holiday show-and-tell.  I wasn’t excited about Armageddon or End Times or the Second Coming; I skipped the literal for the literature: the words, the symbols, the fantasy world.  All those numbers – threes, sevens, twelves – and all those strange symbols – the Beast, the Whore, the city of Babylon – were ciphers, and if God was in me, then surely I could crack them if I only listened?  It was like I had learned the big secret, and suddenly I had access to all the knowledge of the world.  I didn’t just want to talk about it, I was supposed to talk about it.  So I told my mother I wanted to talk to her.

She was not amused.  She wasn’t judgmental or discouraging, either; just indifferent, like this was all old news.  She was even a little cold.  I prodded her, provoked her, tried to debate with her, tried to get her interested.  But she just shrugged, avoided my traps, and let me carry on.  This was her way, of course: to let me figure it out for myself.  But I couldn’t help but detect a little fear in her.  And I couldn’t help but wonder, what is she afraid of?  I probably put it down to hellfire, damnation and the devil at the time, but I’d later learn (for myself) that she was afraid of something far more pernicious.

The Second Miracle  

The Christian teachers at the school were clever: they didn’t preach creationism, a New Earth or a literal interpretation of the Bible.  They encouraged discussion and debate, and tried to get us interested in the subject as participants instead of mere observers.  They didn’t resort to the cheap tricks which could well work on young, impressionable minds, but appealed to our natural thirst for narrative, parable and mystery.  They asked us to ask questions, and we did.  Above all, they told us the answers lay within – they circumvented the whole Bible-authenticity dispute before we had even got that far.  Our consciences were our reading-lights, and God was inside.

Early on, I asked my first Religious Studies teacher, who was the school Reverend’s wife, what she meant when she said that God spoke to her, as she had said in class.  “Does God actually speak to you?”  “Yes,” she said.  “What does he say?”  “He helps guide me in my life.”  “Why doesn’t God speak to everyone?”  “He does, you just need to listen.”  “God will speak to me?”  “Of course.  He already does.”  I had thought she was nuts; no one else said that God spoke to them.  God worked in mysterious ways, and he didn’t just talk to people.  If he talked to people, there’d be no question of doubt and faith; there would be proof.  “How do I start talking to God?” I asked.  “Ask him a question.”

So later that day, when I was alone, I did.  I said, Are you there?  And he answered, Yes.  I was surprised but suspicious.  Are you God?  Yes.  How are you doing?  I’m fine.  Can you help me?  Yes.  I want to do better at soccer.  So, do better at soccer.  How?  You need to practice, you need to focus, and you probably need to take more risks out on the field.  But I’m scared of looking like an idiot, I said.  Don’t be afraid of that, it doesn’t matter what they think, you won’t get better if you don’t put yourself out there.  You’re right, I said.  I know, he said.  Thanks, God.  You’re welcome.

It wasn’t as shocking and earth-shattering as the Time-Warp Miracle, but it was profound in a quiet sort of way.  Just like that, I could chat with the Supreme Being any time I wanted.  Hey God, I’m having trouble with girls.  I know, he’d say.  What should I do?  And then he’d tell me.  It took me a while to figure out that what he was telling me, I already knew – but he said it in such a calm, sagely way, that I listened.  It no longer seemed ridiculous that the Reverend’s wife talked to God, or that anybody talked to God, or that God existed, or that the Bible was actually written by God, or any of it, really. 

I never told the teacher about my discovery (I still thought she was making her talking-to-god thing up) or anyone else, but it remained my secret second miracle, and it propelled me into not just appreciating the magical fun of religion, but believing it at the same time.  The hidden hand to this magician’s trick, however, was remarkably insidious, and terribly human.  It had been played upon me a long time before my first Religious Studies class.  It is the same with artists, scientists, politicians, journalists, astronauts, everyone.  It goes: the longer you presume something, the more that presumption resembles fact.  Luckily, I only spoke to God for a couple years at most before I realized I was talking to myself.  But it only takes a few seconds of presumption to turn god into God.

The God of the Mountains

In the final year of Religious Studies, grade ten, the school figured that we were conditioned and protected enough to take a summary look at the other religions around the world.  It was more cultural studies than theology, of course, because we were meant to see the other faiths as linked to skin colour, foreign language and weird rituals, rather than doctrinal truth or scriptural plausibility.  And the first religion we took a look at: Judaism – which, to anyone who paid attention in the previous semesters of Bible-bashing, meant those guys who are still waiting for the Messiah and who will finally turn to him when he comes for the second time.

Now, I don’t know what they expected, but surely they knew we’d get that anything you say about Judaism before 0 BC/AD will bear upon the Christians who came after, right?  Maybe, maybe not.  Anyway, the history went something like this: there was a guy named Abraham (check) who said he spoke to God (check) and who started up a religion (wait, Adam and Noah – they weren’t part of this religion? – oh well; check) and gathered followers (check) and battled other religions (check) and phony gods (check) like Baal (check), and his god was the God of the Mountains (he didn’t just call him God?  Okay, check…) which was one of many gods (what?) until Abraham announced that his god was the only god (really?), thus revolutionizing religious and world history by creating monotheism (I know that word) from polytheism (which means, before Abraham’s announcement, his God of the Mountains was content to hang out with the others as equals?  What?  Hold the check).

The only possible conclusion was: God evolved.  The same God I believed in, the same God I chatted to, the same God who got all paternal and friendly a few thousands of years later – he changed.  So, how does anyone know about the Seven Days, and Adam and Eve, and the Flood and all that stuff?  God just told them about it?  Why didn’t he tell someone else beforehand, why didn’t he tell everyone, why did he wait until Abraham?  If God is the One Way, and God is a monotheistic god, then monotheism is the Way, and the Way must be eternal – but why was there one Way for Adam, probably another for Noah, a bunch of Ways in between, another Way for Abraham, another for…  Jesus, how many Ways are there?  That’s kind of stupid of God, isn’t it?  Oh, right, I forgot: mysterious Ways.

On we plodded on the history of Judaism, and there was Israel and Egypt and Moses (who burned in hell until Jesus came, apparently), and a lot of plagues and bad stuff because, remember, this was God’s asshole phase and, remember, he happens to evolve over time (how does that fit with the whole omnipresence business, again?  Never mind.), and I took it all in with a skeptical grain of salt.  The pro-God skeptic still, mind you.  I asked God what he thought about this and he shrugged his shoulders, probably said something about how mysterious he was.  And then we got to Year Zero, and turned the pages to Christianity.

Wait a minute, this can’t be right.  What?  It says here that the Gospels weren’t written until decades after Jesus died – and not even by those who knew him.  How did they remember everything?  I don’t know, but look at this: those guys, those Gospel writers, they never said Jesus was God.  What, no, that can’t be.  Yep, they called him the Prophet and the Son of God and all this stuff, but this whole thing about him being God, no, they never said that.  Who did?  Hm, let me see – it says here, that happened in the 4th century, something about a council and an emperor.  Wait, wait, so Jesus evolved too?  Apparently.  What, was he just some guy?  Some chosen guy.  Right, some chosen guy – was he impregnated into Mary by an angel?  It says he was, but, well, they changed all the other stuff, so – who knows? 

I didn’t need to go any further.  I envisioned a bunch of people through the ages sitting at tables or on mountaintops, just making stuff up; some who believed what they wrote, some who didn’t; some who were lucid and intelligent and tried to come up with a good reason for people to follow their laws and orders, and some who were just bash-faced stoned (Revelations).  I knew there would be many, many more contradictions (all the other contradictions we’d previously put to rest in class came back and made sense – as contradictions) and obvious inventions and evolutions and arrows pointing straight to a gigantic pile of bullshit.  They would pile up far beyond my adolescent powers of rapidly diminishing faith to explain.  And not only that, I also realized I was having this very conversation with my own personal God.  I decided I’d ask God point blank the big question.

Do you exist?  Yes, of course I exist.  (Phew.)  Are you God?  Yes.  (Double phew.)  Are you me?  Yes.  (Oh, shit.)  How can you be me and God at the same time?  I work in mysterious ways.  (He’s just me, isn’t he?)  You’re just me, aren’t you?  Yes.  (Oh my god.)  So, you’re not God?  No, I suppose not.  Why’d you say you were?  Well, I thought I was at the time…  (He’s an asshole.)  I know.

The Other Guys

My own evolution, however, was not over, and the superstitious side in the battle for my soul still had a few cards to play.  For guess what came after Judaism and Christianity?  Islam!  Hinduism!  Buddhism!  I think the intention was to indicate to us that, if indeed we don’t like Door A, we can always try Door B, or Door C, and so on in the Hall of Infinite Doors where not going through a door is not an option (there was no non-religious section on the Survey of World Religions, of course).  I’d heard about all of these other guys, but I hadn’t give them much thought: they just didn’t know what I knew.  But now that my own illusions had been shattered, I was looking at the heathens in a softer light – deep down, I thought I might find a god who didn’t evolve, and an explanation that worked.

Though I found their codes and systems and architectures as elaborate, intricate, ancient and even profound as the Christian one, I didn’t like what I learned.  It seemed more of the same: lies, opportunism, manipulation, murder, a hell of a lot of war, and a bunch more guys making a bunch more stuff up, though now in caves or under trees.  All the religions did seem to have common ground between them.  They all liked talking morality, suffering, sacrifice, the afterlife, and a certain kind of prayer or worship or practice.  Were they all trying to say the same thing?  This was what the teacher and his curriculum was aiming at, for those of us unwilling to stay below: what is the great link between them?  God is all gods.  God is the truth they’re all striving for, the ultimate package to encompass all packages.  God is love.  (Are you still there?  Always.  Are you love?  Yeah, man, I’m love.  Oh, shut up.).

I bought this one.  I liked it.  It seemed very friendly, welcoming, non-judgmental, and it totally dispensed with the need for proof, consistency, miracles or anything other than an a feeling.  God morphed into eternal truth, the Indifferent Creator, the “hunch we have” that there’s “something bigger than us”, the space between atoms, the Big Bang itself.  The new god was Einstein’s god, Hawking’s god, whatever god-shaped crevice he could cling to.  And he clung for a while.

I got confirmation of my revised attitude from my grandfather one day when he was visiting my mother and I was home for the summer.  We always liked to talk history and politics, and somewhere in the conversation I said, “Religion is dispensable, but faith is everything.”  He smiled that lips-pressed-together smile of his, nodded, and there was a twinkle in his eye.  He approved.  I thought I was onto something.