Despite my new medication, I almost lost my mind last night and wrote something about religion to post in this space. If I’d done it, I’m not sure how things would have turned out for me afterwards. A scriptural phrase might describe it well—something like “lamentation.” Yep, I think I’d have a lot of lamentation going on today if I’d gone whirling into a religious discussion.
My dad told me that you’ll never change anyone’s mind about politics or religion by talking to them. That’s not entirely true. Through religious debate I’ve changed people’s minds from liking me to wanting to torture me to death in ways that would make an Apache blush. As I get older I find that I care less about whether people hate me, but I don’t try as hard to make them hate me, either. Wisdom of Age? Cowardice of Age? Maybe it’s the Seems-Like-Too-Damn-Much-Work of Age.
Maybe I hold radical religious beliefs, but I’m not radical about them. I intended to tell you the “Cucumber Story,” and the story about “The Ant, the Flower, and the Bottle of Vodka.” These are stories of compassion and insight that would immediately make a lot of people hate me worse than syphilis. That’s far too much work.
I considered trying to be humorous and sarcastic to share my thoughts on religion. Then I remembered Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian fellow who wrote The Prince long ago and whom history has ever since kicked in the nuts for being a very bad man who advocated awful things. The funny thing is that Machiavelli loved democracy, republicanism, and the judgment of the people. Most of his writing shows it. But for what I’m sure seemed wonderful reasons at the time, he wrote The Prince, a manual for despots who want to get and keep absolute power. It coaches them on how to behave worse than a demon with crotch rot in order to do it. But he wrote it as a satire. He didn’t mean it. It was okay if the bad people thought he was serious, but everybody else was supposed to get the sarcasm and see how much he really hated despotism.
Niccolo, I’ve got to tell you—a lot of people just don’t get sarcasm. Now everybody thinks you’re a hideous bastard. Sorry, dude.
I don’t need that either. So, this chat is mainly religion-free. I’m trying to swear off hate, although I did yell at the nice Time Warner salesman at our door when he kept pushing after the fourth “no.” I think I hit the wall, too. Scared the crap out of my wife. So I’m going to take a deep breath, go somewhere quiet, and engage in my own, private religious/non-religious practices. And eat ice cream.
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and
Demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life,
Beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and
Its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
Even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and
Bow to none. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and
For the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks,
The fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing,
For abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts
Are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes
They weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again
In a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
Like everybody else, I wonder why things happen. I mainly wonder why bad things happen. Thousands of years ago some guy saw lightning and thought it was cool. Let’s call him Chuck. Then lightning burned down Chuck’s hut and killed his cows. At that point he became really interested in lightning and why it happened to strike a certain place. He needed to understand what caused it, and he might not sleep well or enjoy his boiled rabbit until he understood.
Sadly, Chuck lived long before guys like Alessandro Volta figured out electricity, so he didn’t have much data to work with. By the way, I might have referenced Ben Franklin, but there’s a reason why we have 9-volt batteries and not 9-franklin batteries. But let’s return to Chuck, our fellow with no hut and a bunch of fried cows. He needed to understand why lightning had hurt him and not his neighbor, who everybody knew cheated on his wife, and who deserved to have his hut burned.
It couldn’t have happened by chance, could it? If it had happened by chance, what could Chuck do to keep it from happening again? Lightning must have singled him out for a reason, and if so maybe he could convince lightning to instead strike his jerk of a neighbor next time. So Chuck came to understand that someone was up there telling lightning where to strike. He realized that a thunder god resided in the sky, with a colorful name like “Teshub,” and maybe a fanciful costume covered in live lizards and chunks of smoking pine resin. And Chuck had better make Teshub happy if he didn’t want his next hut incinerated.
Not many of us believe in Teshub these days. We know that some smart guys have figured out how lightning works, although most of us can’t explain it any more accurately than Chuck could. We understand something called “causality.” When we drop a hammer, it will fall and land on our foot. When we eat an entire roll of cookie dough, we will gain more weight than we thought possible. When we listen to someone, they will walk away thinking that we cared what they had to say. By the way, that works better when we actually do care.
Causality was a pet project of a fellow named David Hume. He was smarter than Chuck, though a lot less fun at parties. Let me try to sum up Hume’s life’s work in one sentence. “We can say that rain causes mud when rain happens before mud, rain is in a position to affect mud, and you always see rain happen before mud happens.” Or put another way, “We can say that putting a mouse in your mother’s purse causes a you to get a spanking, because the mouse activity happens before the spanking, your mother owns the purse and also does the spanking, and you have been spanked each and every time you’ve done this.”
When I wonder why things happen, I am walking around in the land of causality. It’s a tricky place. Even Mr. Hume said that causality has more to do with what’s in our head than what may be happening in the world of mud and mice. For example, I didn’t see a limitless number of mouse/purse outcomes. For all I know, then next time I stuffed a poor mouse in that purse my mother might have given me ice cream. Or she might have thrown me off a cliff, perhaps justifiably. I can’t be sure. But despite the uncertainty, causality is what I have to work with.
As mammals with big frontal lobes, we are compelled to ask why things happen. It’s our nature, and it is one of the hallmarks of man. We ask why we hit every red light on the way to work. We ask why we suffer and die. We ask why we got the blue screen of death three times this morning. And as humans we are compelled to answer those questions and to understand—or else we won’t be able to enjoy our boiled rabbit.
When I’m asking myself why something bad happened, I sometimes hear a person say, “These things happen for a reason.” If he means that something caused these things, I agree with him. Something probably caused the bad thing to happen. The cause might be standing right there, like a dyspeptic Great Dane in an elevator. Or I may not be able to see cause, but I figure that the cause was indeed around there somewhere. I figure that because once we didn’t see what caused lightning but now we do, and that’s also true for thousands of other things we once scratched our heads about. So when that person talks about things happening for a reason, I nod my head and say, “Yep.”
However, sometimes people say that things happen for a reason, and they don’t just mean something caused those things. Instead they really mean a reason, like something made them happen on purpose. That’s when I get into trouble. Are they saying that my engine blew up not just because I didn’t check the oil, but also for some purposeful reason I can’t see? Did someone want my toe to be mashed off because that would make something else happen, or punish me, or make the doctor happy because he can afford new golf clubs? Is someone directing all this activity like Spielberg directing Indiana Jones through a trap-filled cave? Or like Teshub aiming lightning bolts at Chuck’s home? I personally have a hard time buying into this idea. I also advise not letting your toe get mashed off, because it hurts like a son of a bitch.
But just because I can’t buy the idea, that doesn’t mean it’s not a bargain. Lots of people believe that someone pulls all the strings according to a plan. If things seem to happen for no reason, that’s just because we can’t see the reason. Just like the rest of us, these folks need to understand why things happen. If their answers involve someone making things happen for sometimes-murky reasons, I can’t criticize them for it. Maybe they’re right. In any event, it doesn’t hurt me, and they can eat their boiled rabbit in peace.
My father told me once that nobody ever changed somebody else’s mind in an argument about religion. We already have plenty of people getting upset over how others answer the “why” question, and they don’t need me cluttering up their clubhouse.
In the end, for me the idea of an all-knowing, forward-planning string-puller doesn’t answer the “why” question any better than “because I said so” does. In fact, it is exactly like “because I said so,” except it’s about why a hurricane wiped out an island rather than why I can’t get an iguana tattooed on my forehead. I can’t accept it. And while I don’t criticize anyone else for accepting it, for me the answer to the “why” question ends with what causes what. Things do not happen for a reason. Things just happen.