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An Atheist’s Dilemma

Religion and genius



My grandfather was a genius. I mean that in the most traditional, unequivocal meaning of the tesmartrm. Just by way of example, he had a bunch of Ph.Ds, all suma cum laude,before he was 25;  even in his 90s, he had never met a brain teaser that teased him for more than a second or two. He was Swiss by birth and he was also Catholic, by which I mean when he was born in the 1800s, he had been baptised and had gone to mass regularly for his entire life. His wife, my grandmother, was of English/Irish/Scots extraction and came from a very religious family; my relatives from her side of the family include, in just one generation, a few nuns, an archbishop (Alex Carter) and a Cardinal (His Eminence, Gerald Emmett Carter). My grandfather’s church attendance was mostly a pro forma affair to maintain tranquility on the domestic front. So thanks to nepotistic connections, I was able to obtain, acquired by my cousin the Cardinal for me, directly from the Pope, what is known as a “plenary indulgence”.

An “indulgence” in Catholicism is sort of a get-out-of-jail-free card; it’s a guarantee that certain sins are forgiven and a piece of your penitential time in purgatory will be lopped off. A “plenary indulgence” is the Rolls Royce of indulgences; it forgives all sins, past or present, and eliminates a purgatorial sojourn entirely. So, I’m good. I never have to worry about putting my bet down on the right side of Pascal’s wager; if it turns out that I’m wrong and Catholic doctrine is cartoon prayerabsolutely correct, I don’t have to worry about hellfire and eternal torture; my sins of heresy and apostasy (along with everything else) are pre-forgiven. An enviable position for an atheist or even an anti-theist like me to be in, I’m sure you’ll agree.

After my grandmother died, my grandfather became considerably more open about his religious views. He was, much like his colleague and contemporary, Albert Einstein, an atheist. As he explained it to me once many years ago when I was in grad school, working on a Master’s in philosophy, he was content that the basic scientific theories were sufficient to allow for satisfactory accounts of things religion is often recruited to explain. He was satisfied that ontology would be covered by the specifics within physics and evolutionary biology; epistemology could be dealt with within the framework of empirical science and the rational investigations of mathematics. People would ask him if it didn’t make sense that, although things got started with the Big Bang, somebody or something had to say “Bang!” And wouldn’t the thing that said, “Bang” be God? He simply quoted Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace and said, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

Although, in the years immediately following the death of my grandmother, he was outspoken on the subject of his newly articulated atheism, after a while he seemed to lose interest in engaging the devout in rational debates; he gave up being a missionary for reason over superstition. Although he still felt, indeed he felt more strongly than ever, that the religion-heavenreligion of his childhood and that of his late wife and most of his family was utterly absurd and, frankly, an insult to any normal person’s intelligence, he also felt that it was wrong to deprive people of a source of comfort and security and give them nothing to replace it. Although Voltaire had said something to the effect that if he rescued someone from a beast that was devouring him, it would be ridiculous to ask him with what he intended to replace the beast, he just couldn’t bring himself to take without giving back.

In my view, that was years of religious indoctrination talking, and talking louder that his rigorous science training. His initial burst of outspoken atheism was more morally correct than his later diffidence; in short, he caved in his later moderation. The fact is that my grandfather was a moralist; he was a militarist, but he was also an uncompromising pacifist who sided with us, the hippies, during the 60s anti-war protest years. He cared for all living things and actually walked the talk; he bought up all the offal he could gather from his butcher and fed the neighbourhood stray cats; he even treated their skin conditions with some concoction he brewed himself. When he didn’t think he was being watched, I have seen him catch a mosquito and shoo it away rather than swat it. And it was that human decency, his profound compassion that initially fueled his vocal atheism.

As a man of intimidating intelligence, and as a human being of morality and kindness, he saw the unmitigated evil that is represented by religion, particularly theistic religions and most specifically, the three big Abrahamic cults. He saw them for what they are and he rejected their tenets as inhuman and deeply cruel. Most of all, he rejected the fundamental house on religionpurpose of religion\; to divide people into the elect and the damned. He saw that as soon as one cleaves to a particular iteration of a theistic creed, one has counted oneself as being among the special few and better than and separate from the rest. Religion is the great divider of humanity into them and us. As a devout pacifist, those divisions were repugnant to him.

In his last years, as he mellowed, he retreated from his overt condemnation of religions; not because he came to accept their pretenses of validity, but because he had come to abhor any form of conflict and confrontation. He would smile and nod when he was lectured by a Witness of Jehovah who thought she had spotted an old, vulnerable, weak-minded widower as an ideal mark. She couldn’t have been more wrong, but he permitted her to babble on in her fallacy-laden arguments for her absurd cult’s dogma. He could have argued circles around her and, by virtue of his superior knowledge of her bible and deeper understanding of her doctrine, he may even have persuaded her of the inherent wrongness of her religious views. He thought that would have been wrong, since she was genuinely trying to save his immortal soul; showing her the errors of her beliefs and thinking would have accomplished little except leaving her bereft of comfort and possibly shunned by her family and congregation.

I disagree. Had I been him, I think I would have taken the bait and opened up the discussion. I would have considered it a victory for the forces of good in the world to have rescued that woman from her imprisonment; for that is what dogmatic religion is. I believe that my grandfather abdicated his responsibility as a rational and compassionate man militantto save others from pernicious doctrine. I believe that the doctrine that he could have argued against is the most destructive and repugnant force in the entire history of the world. I believe that the toxicity of religion has poisoned humanity for thousands of years, and that if religion was treated like any other crackpot notion; given no respect in society, treated with dismissive contempt, and not permitted to influence the public sphere, the world would be an immeasurably better place. The energy and brain power that would be freed up to seek actual real solutions to social problems would have an incredible positive impact on mankind.

My grandfather, though, was too kind to continue to confront those who tried to sell him their snake oil. Out of compassion, he allowed them to enjoy the comfort of their chains; he pitied them, but he didn’t have the confrontational nature needed to fight back against the worst evil at work in the world today



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  1. John Bleau says:

    Thanks for this, Pat.

    I’m in a rush right now, but I can give you a couple of anecdotes.

    I remember Granny telling Steve and me, “I’ve been reading the Bible again, but it’s all baloney!” Steve and I were very surprised at this! For other readers, I’m Pat’s cousin and our grandmother was very much like the grannies in Bugs Bunny – you know, like the one with Tweetie Pie.

    Grampa did ask existential questions, such as “I saw a bird pulling at a worm yesterday and the worm was pulling back. Why is that!” – he was inquiring about the injustice of the suffering that pervaded nature. He talked about being ready to die, but also of his fear of death. I was with him when he took his last breath. At one point his breathing became sporadic and he said “help me!, help me!”. But then he closed his eyes, his breathing slowed down, and the final exhalation was clearly his last breath. The look on his face was peaceful, maybe even a little smug, and it looked like a good book was finally closed. I loved the guy.

    I used to be a militant atheist, but I don’t currently have any problems with certain manifestations of religion. For example, I like the message “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or the openness of Hinduism, such as when one character told me “you see that coconut there? You want it to be god, it’s god!”

    I wonder if religion is just often perverted for nefarious purposes and that those purposes, rather than religion, might be the generators of death and destruction. I suspect so and that some religions lend themselves to such perversion better than others.

  2. Thanks very much, John! I have to admit that I had no idea that Granny was shifting perspectives in her later years (and, BTW, you describe her perfectly; she could have been the model for the cartoon!). But given the thesis of this piece, I wonder whether her skepticism was good or bad for her at the end of her life. I have to believe that it was good.

    As to the speculation at the end of your comment, I can’t see it that way. For that to be true, an initial reading of the bible would have to have some clarity and something truly good about it; the perversions would be introduced later by humans with an agenda. But the bible itself is rife with genocide, brutality, murder of children, torture, and cruelty. And that’s just a record of the acts of the GOOD GUYS.

    No, I can’t accept that it was good at first but twisted by evil people. I see it as a compendium of folk tales handed down by late Neolithic nomadic goat herders that perhaps had some relevance before the Bronze Age but are utterly devoid of relevance or meaning in the 21st Century. As to the content, it is such a mish mash of contradictory babble that it acts as a sort of Rorschach test: people reveal more of themselves than they do of the book when they choose to refer to its teachings. Just note how different christians pick and choose the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that they will obey. You decide that it’s right to kill gays but let your neighbour who mows his lawn on Sunday live? That tells me something about you.

    In any case, thanks so much for writing! I hope all is well with you and your family!

  3. John Bleau says:

    The Old Testament is an evil document, but I have much less trouble with the New Testament. Christ may have been murdered for the radicality (radicalness? anyway, you get my drift) of his preachings, or possibly because of his attitude toward the moneylenders. He may even have been the first high-profile victim of the banksters! There may be a bigger common denominator in those bastards than in religion!

    Gotta go, I’m moving!

    PS, all is well with me and my family, thanks.

  4. John Bleau says:

    I might add an amusing anecdote about Grampa, in re your “He was Swiss by birth and he was also Catholic, by which I mean when he was born in the 1800s, he had been baptised and had gone to mass regularly for his entire life.”

    Saint Pat’s church, where he went to mass, handed out a leaflet explaining that the roof needed work and that the bill would be about $70,000. Maybe 200K in today’s dollars…

    Grampa, who was getting quite hard of hearing*, was prone to speaking quite loudly, with a German accent to boot. Reading it during mass, he exclaimed, for all to hear, “70 thousand dollars??? They should tear the damn place down.”

    *Another hard-of-hearing anecdote… After Granny had died, Steve tried to make small talk and asked Grampa, “How did you choose your wife?” Grampa looked at him as he was crazy, “Shoot my wife???”

    • Sorry about the delay, John; I missed the notification of your comment!

      As to your first anecdote, that’s the Grampa I knew and loved. He was sneaky enough, though, for me to wonder whether, in that instance, the volume of his voice was entirely due to his deafness. Knowing him as well as we did, I suspect that he was perfectly aware of his volume and that his age and loss of hearing were useful protective colouration. He was non-confrontational, but like some of his grandchildren (ahem) he had some pretty strong opinions.

      Hope your move went well and you are happy in your new place!

  5. John Bleau says:

    I just looked back today and saw that you replied. No notifications for me, I guess!

    2nd anecdote, correct last sentence to “[…] as IF he was crazy […]”

    The move went well and I love my new place. Direct views on the Saint Lawrence, no backup beepers driving me crazy like the Chinese Water Torture, relaxed friendly place.

    Incidentally, a little reminder: if you could get your hands on the Super-8 films of when your family visited in the sixties, Paul and I would pay to have them digitalized. Everyone here would love to see footage of their parents and uncles when we were children.



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