We recently hosted my mother-in-law at our home as she recovered from an illness. Coming from good Italian stock, she’s a staunch Catholic. Me being a staunch agnostic (one who chooses not to believe in a god due to a lack of supporting evidence), our favorite pastime was a stirring game of theological tennis, involving standing at each end of the a/theist court, slamming that teleological orb back and forth.
We each played to our strengths, hoping the other would buckle under the blistering gravitas of our respective beliefs. Her opening serve deep to my forehand: “How can a world of such beauty exist unless it was created by a supreme being?”
My backhand, down-the-line return: “The world is amazingly beautiful. Does this necessarily point to the existence of a divine creator? Our human minds are designed to think of things in cyclical terms; we cannot conceive of events without beginning and end and an agent of cause behind those events. People believe in varied theories of creation, but nobody really knows. Of that, we can be certain.”
At this point, my mother-in-law would plumb her repertoire and deliver a deftly executed, emotionally weighted baseline lob: “So when you die, that’s it – you’ll never see your loved ones again? Game over?!” No doubt she expected that I would capitulate at the thought of not spending eternity playing canasta with my nearest and dearest in some celestial hotel lobby watching St. Peter turn the sinners away and give the righteous a welcome lei and a banana daiquiri.
My scurried return from the back fence: “What happens when we die is another great unknown – I’ve never met anyone who came back from the ‘other side.’ I derive no comfort from any religious theories of an afterlife (heaven, hell, reincarnation, etc.). I have no problem with my time on earth being the sum total of my existence. I’ve had and lost parents and friends. I enjoyed our time together, but time moves on and we should just roll with it. I don’t waste time hoping my selfish wants will be fulfilled in another dimension.”
She’d then deliver a delicate, sliced drop shot, hoping to strand me at the baseline: “God and religion give us a moral code, a way to live a good life – if there were no God, people would not know how to act.”
My equally delicate drop to the other side of the court: “Really? If we discovered tomorrow that there were no God, would the world grind to a halt? Would you start acting differently? Would society break down into some amoral anarchy? If you were in San Francisco, could you even tell the difference?”
We have the capacity and the responsibility to act morally (i.e., in a way that maximizes the joy and dignity of all beings) without abrogating that responsibility to a supreme being who may or may not exist for the person standing next to you. All we have in common is our humanity – that shared humanity provides the basis for my actions, for the way I choose to treat those with whom I come into contact. Not the promise of some sublime imaginary future existence. Not what was written in a book hundreds of years ago, translated, changed and interpreted hundreds of times since then.
I am no less spiritual for the lack of a god than my divinely connected brethren. I, too, find nature awe-inspiring. I see many things that defy human logic. I am moved by the ability of humans to love, to sacrifice, to endure. I know that there are connections between us that science may never explain. I just don’t find the religious explanations for them remotely credible.
My own desire for an afterlife is that the good I do during my lifetime will live on in the thoughts and actions of others. It is empowering to know that the only judgment I need to worry about is my own, my only goal that I leave the world a better place than I found it. And maybe that I sharpen up my backhand before I go.
Los Altos resident Mike Bushell was raised a Catholic but has been an agnostic since his teenage years.