Sunday, August 26, 2012


August 26, 2012:

          The New York Times Magazine has a piece today about evangelical, or is it pentecostal, pastors backing away from their religious beliefs and becoming atheists. Organizations are springing up as support groups for these people, who are now worshiping Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other saints of this movement, instead of the usual saints, Peter, Paul, Mark, Mathew and the like.

          I feel some compassion for these people. Jesus told his disciples at one point that they had to give up their family and friends to follow him. These apostates are doing precisely that not to follow him. The main focus of the piece, a man named Jerry DeWitt, has seen his wife walk out on him, has lost most of his friends, and has been shunned by his community in Louisiana since he went public with his loss of belief; and that seems unChristian to me. But the community no doubt feels betrayed. Jerry DeWitt once preached the Word to them. He gave fiery sermons that prompted his listeners to writhe on the floor and speak in tongues. One thing that makes a community is a common belief system, and here's this man, not only a believer but a leader, saying, not any more. I've been thinkin'. God doesn't make sense to me after all.

          Here in the East we don't have a whole lot of pentecostal preachers, so all this seems quite bizarre. Speaking in tongues? I'd be happy to be fluent in French, but that's not what they mean. Most of my friends are atheists, or else religionless. They don't give God much thought, they don't go to church. Some are culturally Jewish, some, like me, culturally Protestant, still others lapsed Catholics like my wife, Lorraine. A few of them make a point of being Atheists with a capital A, but most don't. Those who do I find myself smiling at more often than not, primarily because their atheistic fervor is so close to the religious fervor they condemn.

          I smile, too--no, smile is not the right word. I am bemused by them, puzzled, and by belief systems in general, for what they miss. Both sides. To be a fervent Christian in the fundamentalist mode is to miss the historicity of the Bible, which is a fascinating book precisely because it is such a human product, a bundle of legendary tales, contradictory advice, long, doubtful chronologies, weird Jewish laws, moving stories, and absurd miracles. It is to miss the astonishing growth of science, which is one of the glories of the human mind and the principal reason we now commonly live into our seventies and beyond instead of our forties. It is to miss the great pleasure of thinking for yourself--which, if there is a God, he surely had in mind as one of the tasks human beings were made for.

          But the other side misses a great deal, too. They miss the feeling of community that comes with shared beliefs, they miss the help such communities can offer, and they miss the hope of some sort of life after death. But the greatest thing they miss is the mystery. The things we cannot explain, that make no scientific sense. Take psi phenomena. I studied this in high school, for what was called my "senior essay." Way back then J. B. Rhine was publishing books about his experiments with ESP, using cards with symbols which subjects guessed, and those with talent--it seems to be a talent--guessed correctly at odds that were astronomically improbable, while the results as a whole, from people evidently without any great talent, also showed very high levels of improbability. These tests have been repeated again and again and again, always with improved techniques and more controls, with results about the same. I once ran such a test of my own with my first wife, who always seemed to be saying what I was thinking, at the same time I was thinking it. I put her in another room with a piece of paper and asked her to draw whatever came into her head. I then went to another part of the house and drew a diagram on my own piece of paper. When we compared them, they were identical. We did it again. Same result.

          The evidence for psi phenomena is quite strong, and there's a lot of it. And no explanation for it. How could it be that an image, a diagram, could travel through the space between my first wife and me with no carrier, no phone line, no energy transfer we know about? What gives with that? Or the evidence for reincarnation. There are a great many cases, all carefully investigated, the evidence run down, all possibilities for fraud checked out and discarded, for which reincarnation is the only available explanation. What are we to make of it? The CIA used remote viewers, people who can see things at a vast distance, to spy on Soviet military facilities; the information they provided turned out to be very useful, and largely accurate. That is another talent. But how does it work? Is consciousness not in fact confined to our brains? Could it be a field, like the magnetic field? We don't know. There is a great deal more we don't know. Why do subatomic particles not obey the laws of physics, except on a statistical basis? The writer Upton Sinclair was married to a woman who once described with extraordinary accuracy the picture on a postcard that a psychology professor from Harvard was carrying in his pocket. She could do this consistently, at large distances. No one has a clue how this works.

          Science is full of similar mysteries. String theory? Get your mind around that if you can. The universe appeared out of nothing? According to some astrophysicists, yes.

          The point is, we don't know. We have our little minds, our limited perspectives, and it is always dangerous to jump to conclusions. No God? Maybe not. Or maybe. Withhold judgment. Look up at the stars, imagine if you can the billion or two of them in our own galaxy, then multiply that by the billion or so other galaxies in the known universe--that's the visible galaxies--and you begin to realize, it's not about us. It puts a whole different spin on the God business. It encourages modesty on our part, true modesty, an understanding of how deeply insignificant we are. It should fill us with wonder. There is clearly more going on than we can understand at this preliminary stage in our evolution. We don't have all the answers; neither side does. The thing to do, then, is to keep an open mind. Live with what John Keats called "negative capability," the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time and not surrender to the need to choose between them. And while you wait for resolution, which is unlikely to come, live like a child. Let yourself be amazed whenever the chickadees come to feed out of your hand.