I think I've paraphrased the title of an old post by either Dr. Don or maybe My Boring Best, so I apologize if that's the case. But I'm hoping that they'll forgive me when they read that finally, finally, I picked up Sam Harris' End of Faith in earnest and finally am getting at Harris' side of the case against religion.
Fresh off the popular Eckart Tolle title, "A New Earth," I wanted something to continue my questing mood. I've had The End of Faith for a while and even started it once or twice but for whatever reason yesterday was the day that picking it up would stick.
The night before, Sunday, I caught -- well, couldn't turn my eyes away from -- the tail end of some terrible, possibly Australian (not that the two are related) movie which I interpreted to be about some act of nuclear warfare resulting essentially in the bitter and painful slow end of the cast of characters I encountered, which included a young couple and their toddler, a Navy captain and his crew, and, as the sister of the young father, that chick who played in the Thornbirds. There was lots of vomiting shown dramatically as the dreaded onset of the radiation sickness that ultimately would kill everybody. (There was also a dramatic high-speed racing-car suicide by another actor that I believe had been in every Australian and most English-made films I've ever seen.) Despite this drama, I was, I'm embarrassed to admit, riveted. The reason is that in the back of my mind, I knew that this was plausible -- except that those lucky folks all had these little blue pills that would put them to sleep permanently so that they didn't have to suffer the inevitable microwaved-from-the-inside-out process of dying from just enough radiation not to kill them instantly. (The couple, cradling their now also has-been vomiting daughter, gave her an injection before they took their pills with a good Cabernet.) I'm not sure how I managed to get to sleep that night, but I did, and the next evening when it was time to go pay homage to my still-working, non-irradiated musculature I grabbed Harris and
What I learned was so simple, in just the first few pages.
Nuclear annihilation is possible, even inevitable, because most people believe in God and Heaven and all those nice things that make it appear that the afterlife is even better than this one. By devaluing the present and putting all our eggs in St. Peter's basket, we disengage ourselves from moral responsibility and genuine respect for "life", and proceed to treat each other like crap, from every day bullying right down to strapping ourselves with bombs and getting on crowded buses just to get to heaven.
Ok, I haven't personally done that -- I mean, blown anyone up; I have regrettably treated many people like crap over my lifetime -- but, people, some people with really strong religious convictions, do it every day in other parts of the world. No telling what's stopping them from doing it here more often. It sure isn't the great access to behavioral health services.
I've written a lot about how much I do like a lot of Gospel music even though I have a hard time anymore identifying with most of it. The thing is, I do think a lot of the old time and bluegrass gospel tunes really are lovely, and to a lot of folks they're really meaningful. And at the beginning of my bluegrass journey which overlapped with the end of another era of my life, they were meaningful to me, very comforting. But I never once decided that it was all about getting to Heaven. It was about understanding that everything is temporal and that, one way or another, there would be an end to my pain. I never confused my grinding daily uphill journey with some time in the future when I'd see my mother and father again along with all the relatives I never met and a bunch of dead presidents -- though the idea is tempting. While, unlike Doc and Boring, I have zero interest in spending eternity under the spell of a bunch of virgins, I wouldn't mind a few hours with some notable Virginians.
I finished Tolle right on top of finishing The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman's last in the series about a contemporary young Eve named Lyra who led the effort to kabosh doctrine and restore intuition. It was a frank and intoxicating illustration of the battle against religious authority in an effort to protect our rich, delicious human nature, complete with its beautiful, complex, powerful hidden side, Psyche. Even Sam Harris writes, "There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life." But we're not going to come to terms with anything by delegating our capacity for reason to large, organized institutions, dogma, folklore, the Monroe Doctrine, tarot cards, Emily Post, sudoku, Rachel Ray, the iPhone, Barack Obama, John McCain, seven more highly effective habits of allegedly effective people, or anything or anyone else that has attracted a "following." The only path forward, the only way out of this downward spiral, is to retire some of these illusions and resort to thoughtful action -- or as may be required, inaction.
I'm trying to think of a good bluegrass or Gospel tune that speaks to this. I've just posted this one recently, but I do think that Wondrous Love comes close. (So beautifully performed in this vid by Blue Highway.) It's so basic, bare, but still uplifting, and comes from a very basic time and very bare place in American hymnody. I frankly can't help but sing along (as I had posted earlier, this shape-note tune is a part of my childhood). If people got their act together and started treating each other with humanity, there might come a time where there was sort of a universal "wondrous love" rather than this insufferable divisiveness that abounds in personal, professional, political, and global relationships.
There is something to be said for turning the other cheek, in a way. When we stop defending our beliefs with such ferocity, maybe their importance will diminish to a level more conducive to peace, within families, between foes, among nations.