I turned 66 on 5 April 2015. The following are some "postcards" -- only a tiny sample: their name is "Legion", for they are many -- in aphoristic form of a few of the lessons I believe I have learned from that six-plus-decades-and-counting of experience.
o For those of you who still believe in a personal God, some lessons from those dim and dusty times when I did, also ... Don’t waste time trying to discern and follow “God’s will”. God’s will is either obvious – so obvious that you don’t need God to show it to you – or, if it is not obvious, it is unknowable. I spent the better part of my 66 years believing in and trying to discover and do "God’s will", and never experienced any assurance whatsoever that I succeeded. Hay-yull's bay-yulls and Oyster Shay-yulls! What do you think made me a skeptic? (Myself when young did eagerly frequent doctor and saint and heard great argument about it and about, and evermore came out the same door wherein I went. With them the seed of wisdom did I sow; with my own hand labored it to grow, and this is the only harvest that I reap'd: I came like water and like wind I go. Into this Universe the "Why" not knowing, nor "Whence" like water, willy-nilly flowing, and out of it, like wind along the Waste, I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing. -- Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyyat) For any god worth even respecting, never mind worshipping, the only part of “God’s will” that I am sure of is that people are to be treated with respect, justice, compassion, mercy, and love. But that is obvious, so obvious that I don’t need any god to tell me. (If you really and truly and sincerely do need a god or some holy book to tell you it is wrong to deliberately and intentionally screw people over, and if you cannot figure out that that kind of behavior is wrong from the get-go, indeed, if that principle is not immediately obvious to the point of lapidary clarity, then your problems are far more serious than mere theological mistakes. You suffer, in fact, from a raging socipathy.) On second thought, I guess there is a third alternative beyond “obvious” or “unknowable”: if it is not the Divine plan to treat people that way, then "God’s will" is not worth following – in which case, again, why bother?
o Don’t think too much about whether or not God loves you and accepts you. If God does love / accept you, there is nothing you have to do. If God does not love / accept you, there is nothing you can do. Either way, anything you do is irrelevant. So why bother? God’s attitude toward you, God’s disposition toward you, God’s comportment toward you – these are not things you get to control. Worrying about whether you will be mugged by a terrorist while drinking a frap' at a Starbucks is more productive.
o Don’t allow your life to be co-opted and dominated by a “vision”. That, too, is a distraction, because it diverts you from the reality of the here-and-now, the only reality there is, the only reality there can be. There is a synonym for the word “vision”. That word is “hallucination”. How many people have died of thirst in the desert because they followed a “vision” / “hallucination” of water that was never there, when they might have survived if they had kept simply walking forward? So it is with us and “visions”.
o Regardless of whatever god you believe in, running the universe is that god's business, not yours. Running your life is your business, not the god’s. If God screws up the former task, that is God’s fault, not yours. If you screw up the latter task, that is your fault, not God’s. Don’t get the two confused.
o You cannot save the world. The most you can hope to do is to make life a little more pleasant, a little more secure, a little better for perhaps two or three especially beloved and cherished people. Try to do more than that – especially try to do more than that in response to some “vision” / “hallucination” – and you will succeed, not in making others happier, but in making others more miserable, yourself included. Respect your limitations and the wisdom of MacBeth: “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none”.
o Feel free to question anything and everything. Whenever someone tells you that something is not to be questioned or must never be questioned, that is conclusive prima facie proof that they have something to hide. No one has a right to know everything – governments and individuals have a legitimate right to protect sensitive information – but everyone has a right to question everything – including the proposition that everything is open to question.
o Jean-Paul Sartre said “Life begins on the far side of despair”. But what Sartre seemed not to realize, the inference he seemed to fail to draw is this: despair is necessary in order for there to be a “far side”.
o One of the multitude of points that became evident in retrospect only after I "converted" to being a skeptic (and which bothers me now only because it did not bother me before) ... Am I the only one who is bothered, and bothered more the older I get, by figures of speech the Bible uses to describe people of faith in relation to God? People of faith are likened to “sheep” who need a shepherd. They are compared to “fish” who are to be caught. (Question: did you ever meet a fisherman who acted benevolently toward, and in the best interest of, the fish? And I am not just asking that question for the ... halibut ... ) They are called “little children” (e.g., I John’s admonition “Little children, avoid idols”). Becoming as a “little child” is said to be a prerequisite for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. (Incidentally, this is an anomalously romanticized conception of childhood. One is reminded of the vision of childhood "trailing clouds of glory" in William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality". Had the Gospel writers -- or, for that matter, Wordsworth -- never encountered child abuse?) Why is there almost no emphasis, at least within Christianity and least of all in the Gospels, of growing into a mature adult and exercising independence and moral autonomy? (Of course, more enlightened religious people do indeed talk about the values of independence and maturity, but such talk rings hollow when uttered against a rhetorical “background” dominated by tropes that emphasize and idealize perpetual childhood, perpetual dependency, and therefore -- let's speak plainly here, shall we? -- perpetual incompetence.) The prevailing metaphors of fish, sheep, and children certainly make the job easier for those in positions of religious leadership – sheep are easier to lead than cats – but I have reservations about how healthy it is for the rest of us. On the contrary, I would urgently suggest that, instead of getting in touch with their "inner child", more people get in touch with their "inner adult".
o Yes, there are exceptions to the following question. Nevertheless, I will insist that the following is substantially true … Why is it that, by and large and for the most part, religious people -- especially conservative religious people, and to the degree that they are conservative -- are among the most obdurately unmoved by the sheer wonder and beauty of the Universe? Why are they among the least curious? Why do atheists and religious skeptics and “infidels” like Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Andrea Ghez, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Ann Druyan feel no restraint about displaying a kind of childlike rapture about the elegance and mystery of the Universe – which Einstein saw as the wellspring of all science – whereas it is the “good Christian” creationists and intelligent-design people who resort to all manner of bizarrely comical stratagems like a “young earth” and “pre-aged” fossils precisely in order to defend themselves against such experiences of awe? “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed!? Instead they say No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” – Carl Sagan
o The most valuable lesson I ever learned in my life is how not to be afraid to say “I love you”. But the hardest lesson I have ever had to learn is that I cannot afford to care more than God cares. If God is apathetic, I do not possess sufficient emotional capital to be otherwise. I cannot care enough to compensate for God’s indifference.
o There is such a thing as healthy religion. But religion is healthy only as long as, and to the extent that, it “backgrounds” its god and “foregrounds” human beings and human relationships. Get these priorities reversed, and religion, to the extent that it emphasizes its god, becomes just one more power trip. This becomes doubly true when that god is conceived of as a personal Being possessed of moral passions who wants human beings to conform to those passions, and who is not averse to intervening in human life, individually or collectively, in order to actualize those passions. One does not need much imagination to perceive the danger of this attitude in a world divided into separate camps, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons. Someone with a finger on “The Button” who believes she / he is God’s chosen instrument is someone who, for that precise reason, is desperately dangerous. If God wants to do us a favor, God will rescue us from the depredations of our own prophets.
o If you want an example of what I referred to above as “healthy religion”, run, don’t walk, get the DVD of Steel Magnolias, and watch it. Pay particular attention to the relationships among the 6 women who are the main characters of the movie: Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Darryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Dolly Parton. God is seldom mentioned, and is always very much in the background. Darryl Hannah’s character, Annelle DeSoto, has a conspicuous streak of fundamentalist religiosity, but it is never predatory or opportunistic, and is always treated with tolerance and good humor by the other five. (Mostly, Annelle just drops to her knees and spontaneously prays at unexpected times.) Otherwise, the movie is about the 6 women’s love for, commitment to, and unfailing presence with each other, even literally through life and death. In other words, Steel Magnolias is about “healthy religion”: people first, and God a distant, distant, distant, barely visible second.
o Am I the only one who is bothered by the fact that, in all the Bible -- actually, in all the "holy books", but I will stick with the Bible for reasons of familiarity -- in all the Bible, no one ever laughs at anything or any situation for reasons of sheer hilarity and ... well ... fun?
James R. Cowles