For the Narcissist Lover in You…

The Fake God

One of my best friends just posted a link to something I can’t read.  I just can’t.  It’s a short piece written by one of his friends– a man whose seven-year-old son came home from school this week complaining of stomach pain, and died a short time later.

Twelve hours after his son’s death, this man wrote about it for his friends, family, and anyone else who might be affected, either by this tragedy or something similar.

I can’t read it.  I have a six-year-old and a nine-year-old.  My number one greatest fear ever is that something might happen to them.  Being a parent means forever living with your heart outside of your body.  Tragedies happen all the time.  When Jael was in Haiti, she saw a grief-overwhelmed mother putting her dead son in their car for burial.  Death and tragedy are a constant and no one is immune.  I know this too well to be able to read about the tragic death of another’s son without the gut-punch of knowing it could have been my son or daughter.

I did read a few of the comments, though, and was able to glean this much:  the father is a Christian.  According to his beliefs, his son is not gone forever, but has just crossed a boundary that he himself will one day cross over.  There, they will be joined again, along with everyone else they’ve ever loved.  There, according to his Christian beliefs, they will live together forever, with no more disease, sickness, tragedy, or death.  From that wonderful dream, they will never waken.  By comparison, this whole life here on earth will be the dream– a rather insipid, empty dream that will eventually be completely forgotten.

I know a lot of people these days find the Christian faith silly.  The people I work with jokingly give thanks to the Great Spaghetti Monster, which (as you may know) is a mockery of any belief in God.  Many of my friends– many of the people who will be reading this, in fact– consider it unenlightened to believe in the afterlife, in the concept of heaven, in an eternity of happiness with lost loved ones.  They think it’s simple-minded and Pollyanna.

A lot of very high profile thinkers agree with them.  Some of the smartest minds of our time have written very vocal books on the topic.  Richard Dawkins wrote “The God Delusion”.  Christopher Hitchens proclaimed “God is Not Great”.  Douglas Adams, one of my favorite authors, felt that religious belief was so beneath him that he didn’t deign to know anyone who had any.  Modern atheism is, in short, extremely vocal, almost preachy, if you’ll pardon the pun.

I am not going to say that any of them are wrong.  In this context, I think that completely misses the point.  In fact, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are spot on.  Let’s assume that the disbelievers are perfectly correct– that there is no God, no heaven, and that the belief in them is simply a quaint illusion of hope in the minds of those who prefer not to face the pointless bleakness of existence.

How is it a good thing to take that illusion away from them?

For those like Dawkins and Hitchens, who openly scoff at the faith of believers, who delight in the idea of smashing that faith to bits, how is that not simply an abominable thing to do?  If it is true that this life is a one-way ride to oblivion, wouldn’t it be nice to treasure a happy lie that the final destination is actually an amusement park?  How much of a totally heinous ass do you need to be to run around smashing that happy lie to pieces, delighting in people’s resulting despair?

Douglas Adams had a better idea.  He thought that there was value in a “fake God”.  After all, he reasoned, belief in God, under the best conditions, inspires mankind to rise above their base natures.  It fosters hope.  If, in the end, that hope turns out to be false, who cares?  Everyone will be too dead to notice.  Adams may have been rather arrogantly atheist, but at least he didn’t want to go around figuratively smashing the toys of people who embrace faith.

But my question here really isn’t about who would be beastly enough to tell this father, the one who twelve hours ago saw his young son die, that his belief that they will one day be reunited is stupid.  I suspect none of us would do that (Dawkins might.)  And even more important, I suspect his faith is of such caliber that it wouldn’t matter.

My real question– the one that I thought of almost immediately when I saw that post– is this:  for the people who don’t believe in God and heaven, who think it’s all just a quaintly ridiculous superstition… what do you do in the face of such a tragedy?

Really.  If any of you are reading this (and I know some of you are), when you think of the inevitable death of someone you love more than your own life… how do you deal with it? 

None of you will be surprised to know that I do believe in God and the afterlife.  My faith is a very difficult thing sometimes– as I suppose it should be.  It’s factored into several of my best stories– the hope that this world is not all there is; that death truly doesn’t have the final say, and what amazing, beguiling hope that offers us!  I am still terrified by the idea of something awful happening to the people that I love, but that greatest-of-all-fears is tempered by the belief that the worst this world can do is separate us for a time.  And that, while bad, is… manageable.

As a disbeliever, how do you do it?  What does it feel like to live without that hope?  How do you face the uncertain fortune’s wheel of daily life?  How, in short, do you stay sane?  How do you dare to truly love?

How, more than anything, would you face a world where one of your children was suddenly, senselessly, no more?

This father has a way to face it.  He has a hope.  Maybe you think that hope is stupid and baseless.  Maybe you are even right.

Does being right really matter?

Isn’t hope better than despair?

As a character in one of my own stories said:  trust may be hard, but it is always better than the alternative.

I really am curious.  All answers welcome.  No arguments or debates allowed.


19 responses

  1. Gvaerg

    Existence of God doesn’t provide me with any hope – my personal belief is that if God exists, then humans are useless. Therefore, my lack of belief in a supernatural being doesn’t come from rational thought or something similar, but from what triggers another’s need for belief, namely hope, but hope for humans and their potential as a species, which in my opinion cannot exist unless we are “alone” in this Universe.

    I don’t want to make an argument here, just to point out that not all atheists think that a lack of a God means despair, in fact for me it’s quite the opposite.

    And I have lost loved ones, I cherish my memories with them and I often think about what they meant for me and I for them, but I never truly believed that I would be reunited after death. And given that I never put my faith in that, I never “lost” anything.

    April 25, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    • Thanks for the answer, Gvaerg. Can I bother you with a clarifying question? Why is humanity useless if God exists?

      I won’t offer debate. I just want to understand where you’re coming from. Thanks!

      April 27, 2012 at 12:26 am

      • Gvaerg

        Because, for example (there are other parts of Christian doctrine which make me think this way, this is not the only one), the church teaches us that at the end of times, Earth will be remade and all righteous souls will live in harmony with God. And I like to think that everything man has achieved on this Earth, though flawed and imperfect, but in a continuous effort for improvement, and I’m talking here about systems of government, about culture, about standards of living, wasn’t all in vain, all just a test to be one day replaced by some absolute morality system. I really want to believe that we are struggling for shaping a society that we can one day be proud of, not for gaining acceptance in the Kingdom of Heaven, either after death or at the end of times.

        Thanks for taking notice of my comment, I hope that my answer satisfies your curiosity.

        April 27, 2012 at 6:48 pm

  2. Deborah

    George, I often find myself scared to love precisely because I am scared to lose those that I love. I’ve had a vision of a painting/animation that I’ve wanted to share with you about what crossing into eternity looks like…I’ve been mulling this very problem. Even as one who has seen God’s own hand in my life, I still worry. There is enough of a cynic in me to worry, “What if I’m wrong?” And then, I remember to surrender, to know that God is right next to me in a dimension where I can’t see out, but He can see in and he can touch me from there and alter my world. Thank you for sharing.

    April 25, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    • Deb, I love your heart and your honesty. That’s why you are such a great writer!

      April 27, 2012 at 12:28 am

  3. I vacillate back and forth between belief and fear that faith is the coping mechanism humans came up with to make our plight in life less bleak. I always pray and always thank God – some days just in case, and other days because I am convinced it makes all the difference. Depending on what day you catch me, I may be deeply spiritual or rather cynical.
    I want to believe. The institution of religion does make me feel contrarian and rebellious almost as a knee-jerk reaction – but so does any dogma of any stripe. I have to separate faith and spirituality in my mind from religion to keep from throwing out a proverbial baby with the bath water each time I see things that irritate me. I do think religion is about controlling the masses. Some aspects are positive – like morals and the support system. Other aspects are about upholding the establishment and the powers that be. I won’t go much into it, but I am a firm believer in separation of church and state. Besides, being Russian Orthodox, there are plenty of things I dislike about church, starting with the place women hold in it. I have a hard time knowing my place…
    I grew up in the atheist Soviet Union, and my first exposure to religion was through the Bahai faith after the old regime crumbled. I then got myself baptized in the traditional church after the Bahais disappointed me, but never truly embraced the orthodoxy as I am just not wired for it. I figured out partly why. I am not a traditionalist. I am more of a futurist. I embrace change, and I don’t miss the good old times. I only have a remote fascination with history, and I adore sci-fi. Every time I watch a movie that took place a couple of hundred years ago, I thank God (yes, I do) for the cell phones – because I couldn’t fathom not knowing where my loved ones were at any given time.
    One of my orthodox Jewish friends put it succinctly – the difference between a traditionalist and a futurist is this: a futurist believes that their father is one generation closer to an ape, and a traditionalist believes that their father is one step closer to Moses and to the source of truth when God had spoken to a man. Only then did I finally get it why people cling to tradition – it is a worldview.
    I tried a few non-denominational churches, but got turned off when I ended up having more faith than the pastors that I was seeking support from during trying times. To me faith is about resilience, about keeping in good spirits despite the adversity, about helping others, about being kind, about cherishing life, about caring and showing your love to people, and not about how much you attend church or study the holy books. It is about putting things in perspective – what matters and what doesn’t.
    During the scariest and the most uncertain times in my life, and when dealing with death, I found my faith was the strongest. During the times when I am tired and beaten down, dealing with daily routine, I often find my faith the weakest, and me truly wondering if this is all there is. But I try not to destroy faith for others no matter how jaded I may feel on a given day. It is just unkind.
    I am tempted at times to argue with my mom (who is in my book a religious fanatic and tries to get me sucked into religious debates when her blood sugar level drops), but then I consider the alternative. Her, depressed like she was without the church? If she needs the church as her crutch, let her have it. I may even go some of the times with her, for my own reasons – and even with my own silent prayer. I may even put a scarf over my head, out of respect (though again, I will have strong feminist rumblings in my head while doing it).
    I may have my struggles with religion, I may even find it difficult to have faith many days – but I think that it is cruel to shake the beliefs of those who need them most during tragedy and heartache. Ultimately, I think we just don’t know whether this is all there is, and if there is something more. I’d like to think there is something more. So there.

    April 25, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    • I always appreciate your long-form comments, Olessia. The sincerity of your ongoing love/hate relationship with faith is refreshing. The one thing that kills not only faith but conversation is certainty. As you say, none of us knows for sure. And as even the Bible says, faith is the substance of things unseen. The extremism of certainty– whether it be certainty of belief or certainty of doubt– is both silly and counterproductive. The ongoing discussion is where the life is.

      April 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm

  4. zixi1

    I am an unapologetic Christian, and put my faith wholly in Jesus, which means, of course, I do believe in an afterlife. I have lost my whole family, and don’t believe I could have survived the grief without my faith. I always wondered how atheists coped, and am glad to read Gvaerg’s blog on the subject. If I am wrong and there is no afterlife, I won’t have lost anything since I won’t know the difference when I’m dead. I will still have had a comforting belief to sustain me through the rough spots of life. It’s a win/win situation.

    April 27, 2012 at 12:05 am

    • Thanks for that, Zixi.

      I grew up in the Christian church. I’ve struggled with my faith– read loads of books from the perspective of both the skeptics and the devout. I’ve absorbed debates on the topic of religion from G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, read the apologetics of C.S. Lewis, and considered faith from many, many angles– sociological, moral, humanist, scientific, cosmological, political, and on and on.

      There are great conversations to be had on the topic of God, the Bible and the myriad faiths of the world. It is a complex, intriguing journey that we all can– and should– take as we work out our own beliefs (or lack thereof).

      And yet, to me, it does indeed simmer down to that one, basic premise: if a believer dies and he or she is wrong, nothing is lost. After all, faith, when lived properly, does not hinder human existence– it amplifies it. It provides hope. It is the salt that makes everything more meaningful, from a sunset to the love of one’s family. Even if death proves it was all a sham, life was still better for it.

      If an unbeliever dies and is wrong…

      I mean… it sort of leaves me speechless. It just seems like such a silly wager to make, with the stakes so potentially enormous.

      As always, I appreciate your feedback, Zixi.

      April 27, 2012 at 12:18 am

  5. Jonathon

    “If an unbeliever dies and is wrong…” How does that sentence end?

    May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    • There was a man named Franz Reichert who was certain that his invention, the coat parachute, would save his life in a jump from the Eiffel Tower: He was incorrect.

      The point is, being incorrect in the wrong things can have devastating results. For Reichert, not believing that gravity was more certain than his coat parachute proved deadly. Similarly, one who chooses not to believe in God or the afterlife, should they find they are mistaken, may find the result of that error extremely– and irreversibly– costly. In short, the believer, if wrong, is out nothing. The unbeliever, if wrong, is out everything. Thus, it behooves the unbeliever to be extremely, utterly, positively certain that he/she is correct. I, personally, doubt that such utter surety, on a topic so above our human pay-grade, is possible.

      May 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      • Roland

        And if the believer picks the wrong god he/she is still out everything. Perhaps the real god is not one that we now know, the nonbelievers may win for not believing in a false god. I believe that we must respect each others choice because none of us can truly prove we are right. Does god even care if we believe in him, this is just the mantra of some religions? Are we judged on what we believe or on how we live our life?

        There are too many questions to say if one choice is better/worst than another. I don’t judge, if there is a god then god will be the judge.

        You asked how a nonbeliever deals with death. I can’t answer that directly but when I’ve had to deal with death it was not religion that I relied on. Death is part of the cycle of life of which I have no control over, that is something I have accepted.

        June 11, 2012 at 1:36 am

  6. Jonathon

    I really wish my first post hadn’t been on this topic so first off I’d just like to say how much my girlfriend enjoyed the James Potter series and the Ruins of Camelot. I don’t know how the UK sales of the latter have been but she’s certainly done her bit to spread the word.

    Okay so I don’t believe in unicorns. If someone threatened to shoot a different member of my family on the hour until I start believing I would certainly lie, I would try my darndest to make a convincing argument why they must exist but I couldn’t start believing in them anymore more than I could start flying if that was asked of me. It’s really not a choice, you can choose to follow a religion, you can’t choose whether to believe it or not.

    “If a believer dies and he or she is wrong, nothing is lost.” I would hope there’s too much evidence for someone to really believe that.

    We have suicide bombers killing innocent people because it’s what their god would have wanted. We have gay teens committing suicide because their god doesn’t approve of homosexuality. We have people dying on the operating table because their god doesn’t like blood transfusions.

    You asked how people cope without the concept of an afterlife. Well you make the most of the time you have. It’s not a waiting room or a dress rehearsal for me, it’s life.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    • I appreciate the comments totally– the whole point of this blog is my curiosity about those who think/believe different things.

      As promised, I won’t debate the topic (much). Thanks for taking the time to reply!

      It is woefully true that loads of terrible things are done in the name of religious belief. Some of my current reading has brought this home in a very personal way, in fact. And yet, even if absolutely everything ever done in the name of religion was heinous (it is not), it is important to acknowledge that that would not amount to proof that any religion is untrue. It simply proves, once again, that mankind is capable of abusing anything in the name of power.

      May 3, 2012 at 8:30 pm

  7. Jonathon

    Okay just one final comment then I’m out. Religions weren’t written to be disproven, there’s no advantage to that. Hypothetically if you were to create a fake religion having a higher power that’s kind of responsible for everything good in your life, isn’t really responsible for anything bad that happens to you but can’t wait to meet you once you die is unquestionably a good way to go.

    When a child claims that it wasn’t them who eat the last cookie it was their invisible friend Jessica it can be dismissed off hand without any expectation of proof or evidence. Some parents would nip it in the bud while others would let it slide because it’s not a big issue. When their baby brother is hit and again it wasn’t them it was Jessica who did it the parent understandably admonishes the child. The parent isn’t expected to have to prove the non-existence of the invisible friend to justify it.

    With religion there doesn’t seem to be that same cut off point in which we stop playing along. We had a President who claimed a voice in his head told him to start a war and he was allowed to remain in office – that is scary.

    I was introduced to the story of Noah’s Ark as a child, it wasn’t presented as fact anymore than Jack and the Beanstalk was. It wasn’t a story I believed then, maybe because I’d been to a zoo, and obviously have even less reasons to now. Yet we have some people in this world who can’t come to the most obvious of conclusions about this story because it’s wrapped up in their religion.

    People who otherwise must still function in everyday life can’t, or simply won’t, join those dots together and will happily hand wave it away as being a magic boat. Ignoring the logistics even the morality of drowning the entire population, included the inherently evil foetuses he created, and all other life of the planet instead of say trying to put it right or clicking his fingers and starting again is accepted without question.

    Elected official John Shimkus quoted that story during a US Energy and Environment hearing as a reason to ignore Climate Change. Regardless of your stance on that issue I wouldn’t want anyone using Jack and the Beanstalk as justification for an increase in the defence budget to protect us from giants in the sky.

    I admit that without any evidence that I think there’s life on other planets. The universe is so vast that I don’t believe every single form of life in the entire universe exists on only one planet. The idea that someone looks at the human eye and thinks that there to be a creator is sort of on the same lines – I don’t agree with it but I can see where they’re coming from. Taking that belief and then saying and thus it must be the character in this book and so this has to be his opinion on an issue and thus this must be my opinion on the subject are massive leaps that I can’t begin to comprehend making.

    Hmmm that was more than I aiming to write. I’ll finish with a question then to prevent it being a debate. Heaven – how does that work?

    Hypothetical situation – two childhood sweethearts let’s call them Jack and Chrissy get married and have ten wonderful years together until tragedy strikes and Chrissy dies of cancer. Over time Jack accepts it was part of God’s plan and he remarries to a woman named ….Janet and they spend the rest of their lives together. Now Jack gets to heaven and there’s Chrissy waiting for the only man she’s ever loved. Jack’s rather attached to his second wife though; he’s watched his children and then his grandchildren grow up with her. To make things more awkward Jack’s mother has spend the last sixty years with her first daughter-in-law and really doesn’t approve of the second. What’s the protocol in these situations?

    May 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm

  8. Josh D

    Hey George,

    So I’m sad that I missed an opportunity to contribute to this subject when it was hot. And I haven’t had a chance to read through all the comments. But I so enjoy your musings – I would be remiss if I did not comment at all as I know you are considering many of the comments here for future discussion.

    First I should say, I’ve become very reluctant to open up on this subject – primarily because the very expression of my own feelings on the matter, in what I thought was going to be a meaningful exchange of genuine emotions and ideas, has instantaneously brought an end to many conversations on the subject with people I sincerely wanted to have that moment with.

    I think maybe it might be best to go directly to what seems to be your primary question: “For the people who don’t believe in God and heaven, who think it’s all just a quaintly ridiculous superstition… what do you do in the face of such a tragedy.”

    I, thankfully, have never known a tragedy quite as great as losing a young child. But as someone who has not believed in an afterlife or a God for much of my adult life, I was I was forced to come face to face with this question at my Grandmothers passing. She had become an increasingly important figure in my life. She was, in many ways, my earliest window to culture and all of the things in life that are most valuable to me now. She – the daughter of German immigrants, an active member of her church and her community – had no qualms with other religions or other ways of life. She loved other cultures and their rituals, particularly Asian cultures, and music, and art, and anything colorful and unique. I don’t think I fully appreciated her until I was in my early twenties. But her love of these things provided a much needed alternative perspective to the very narrow view I grew up with, and the view shared by the majority of people I was surrounded by – that there was only one God, that people who believed in other Gods or multiple Gods or no Gods were lost, and destined to an uncertain – and likely unfavourable – eternity.

    At any rate, after a few years of health complications she died – somewhat abruptly and unexpectedly (for me at least) overnight in a hospital. I tried to get there, but arrived just moments after she died. I didn’t get to say goodbye. Even though she was gone when I got there, I still talked to her and told her I loved her. I keep her favourite picture of us together in my living room. I’m a little choked up thinking about it.

    When someone dear to you dies, I found – there is a kind of grief that could, perhaps, be soothed by the notion that I would see her again. For me, though, I was long passed the point of being capable of believing that. But what I found, in the face of my loss, was a way to deal with the grief. It was in the things she had – advertently or inadvertently – taught me about the value of life, humanity and culture.

    During the week I was home for this, each day I drove – alone – to a different place that was meaningful to her. I meandered through them and tried to see the world from her eyes, to appreciate the simple beauties that inhabited each place, to remember anything she told me. She always had a slow way of walking a knack for picking out small things and would exclaim “oh, look at how beautiful that is!”. This exercise – of remembering everything I could that she loved, and everything I loved about her, and being still in those physical places – reminded me that while I personally feel it is unlikely that we enjoy or endure any kind of afterlife: when we partake of the world around us and fully appreciate its beauties, natural or man-made – we can build a kind of sanctuary for ourselves, and place for those we leave behind to be with us even after we’re gone. We can live on – perhaps not eternally – but in the memories we create. In spending time in those places, in remembering all of these things, my sadness and grief turned to a sort of tranquil, but joyous, celebration of all of the ways she helped me to see beauty in the world around us.

    Too many people (not all, but many), I feel, take life for granted because of the “hope” that there is something “better”. Life is but a preparation for eternity. My Grandma wasn’t like that. And in some ways – this all reinforced my personal convictions. It reminded me that this is why I think it’s more important to be focused on appreciating the beauties that exist around us – because this is what we leave behind, this is how we live on. It’s about the people we love, not about ourselves or our eternal souls. Believing in a God or an afterlife – I feel – is fine, so long as it does not prohibit you from fully partaking in life and sharing that with those you love. I’m still, and always, learning from her in that sense.

    Here I thought I was going to give my treatise on religious belief and the power of humanity, but that ended up being much more personal than I expected… sorry about that.

    May 22, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    • Josh, your personal story says more than ten pages of intellectual/philosophical discussion. It leaves much to think about, and think I shall, so thanks!

      May 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm

  9. Josh D

    Thanks George. That means a lot. Maybe on the next post I’ll have a chance to comment a little more.

    I would add one less sentimental note… I’ve thought a lot about the preachiness thing you mentioned. For a time, as I was growing in my own understanding of my belief or lack thereof, I certainly found myself falling into this habit. It’s something, though, I kind of dislike and really try hard to avoid doing.

    It’s been my experience that many folks who’d identify themselves as “atheist” were probably pretty good practitioners of a religion at some point.

    While I’m in no way intending to pass the buck to religion – I remember always feeling the need, growing up, to “spread the gospel”. To be a missionary. To proselytize. But my biggest problem was that I was always thinking ahead to the questions, and I could never answer them in a way that was satisfactory to my own standards. This made attempting to win converts a somewhat embarrassing exercise. And then you felt guilty about being to embarassed to spread the gospel.

    For myself, and I assume many other people who come to their current lack of theism from a theistic background, there were some definite “a-ha” moments. It’s like you suddenly have clear, meaningful answers to all those things you were struggling to describe. You are suddenly at peace. I think this generates a certain level of excitement that is – understandably – met with resistance and hostility when shared with the people you know. But you want to tell people – not because you’re spiteful, but because you’re suddenly at peace. Eventually, though, you’re told enough times that you’re “in sin” by people who were – like you – taught to defend their faith at all costs, and that excitement and peace turns to frustration, hurt feelings, and lost friendships. That is what I think fuels a more bitter and perhaps vindictive type of preachiness often observed in some (particularly newer/younger) atheists.

    At any rate, as I think a lot of us are raised and told to share our religious convictions with others, to try to win converts, and that this is the most important thing you can do – I don’t think this impulse dies the instant you lose your faith. If anything it is at first strengthened.

    In my experience, though, sharing my ideas about religion with people who disagree has done more harm than good to my relationships with those people, even when I’m trying to be as diplomatic and respectful as possible. At least in the short term.

    So while I might feel compelled to take a few logical stabs at someone’s beliefs when they use them to justify things that, to me, seem hurtful to others, or positions that appear to be selfish and hateful – I try to avoid doing this with people simply because they share a different world-view.

    Anyway – I just wanted to humanize that a little because I feel it’s easy to just think about the words coming out of someone’s mouth (or fingers) and not the place they might come from.

    May 22, 2012 at 6:53 pm

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