I have a good friend who I’ve known for about 25 years who died the other day after losing a long bout with cancer. He won the early rounds, but ultimately his opponent wore him down and bested him. I’ll be attending his service later today, and I know it will be a mixed-emotion day, with lots of tears and lots of laughter – tears of grief and the laughter of remembrance. He was not much older than me, which at my age means that he died far too young. But he has a large and loving coterie of family and friends, incredibly supportive of each other, all who will ensure that his wife and children come away with far more positive than negative emotions. They are not having a religious service, but if they did, and they had asked me to give the sermon, here is what I would have said:
Clearly, god does make “mistakes”. It is evident in everything we see around us. From the tsunamis that killed hundreds of thousands of Thais and Japanese, to the earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes that wreak death and destruction on the world; from the rain prayed for by Christians to end the drought in Texas, but instead dumped on the East Coast, to the Republicans he put in Congress and the White House; from the human appendix to male nipples; from Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin and George W. Bush; from Down Syndrome to HIV; from my daughter’s congenital heart defects to the cancer that killed my friend Jim. Clearly in a universe created by a perfect god, or even an imperfect one, none of these things would exist. But they do.
It may be comforting to some to believe that “god has a plan” that we are not privy to, or that “god works in mysterious ways”. There was a time in human existence when that was all we had to allow us to understand the horrible things nature inflicted on us, like droughts, hunger, starvation, pestilence and war. But we are smarter than that now. We have evolved and we have brains. Some might say “God given”. We have intellect, and reason, and the shoulders of giants like Newton and Darwin and Einstein that we can stand upon to see reality, the way life works, and the reasons why life ends.
For me and many others, it’s more comforting to understand the processes that nature follows to move from day to day, week through week, year to year, epoch through epoch. It may sound too clinical to those that need comfort, rather than truth, to understand that with cancer, the body’s cells simply start reproducing in a way they were not “designed” for, in a wild and uncontrollable manner that wreaks havoc on the orderly processes of the body, feeding on itself until it consumes its host. But that’s the truth. I find the truth far more comforting than a lie like “he’s now in a better place”. He’s not! A better place would be with his family. A better place would be here, working and living and laughing and crying like the rest of us.
It’s insulting to the human intellect to relegate death to a mystery. It’s insulting to the people who lose their family and friends to cancer, and AIDS, and heart attacks and strokes and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to stop trying to understand why. If we had continued thinking that way through history, we would not have modern medicine; cancer research, and Xrays and anesthesia and laser surgery and polio vaccines. We wouldn’t know about the role of germs and sanitation in disease, we wouldn’t understand the genetic basis for life, nor the ability to prevent disease through vaccination, or that rats transmitted the Bubonic Plague. We would have no organ transplants, or blood transfusions, or penicillin. We would have cholera outbreaks (we still do, by the way) and life expectancies of 35, and influenza pandemics (still a problem, but not so much), and children in iron lungs, and far more mentally ill wandering the streets, homeless. We wouldn’t have so many cancer survivors either. Those things are what happens when you stop believing god has a plan and you roll up your sleeves and change the plan. That’s what science and medicine do. That emphatically is NOT what religion does.
Miracles are not supernatural. They are either natural or man made. Praying for them won’t create them. They either occur naturally as statistical anomolies because we are evolving, or they are created by the intervention of human knowledge. Those are the only miracles that we can rely on – and the latter far more than the former. It’s too late for my friend for us to discover the cure for cancer, but incrementally the knowledge we glean not just from his experiences but the millions of others who came before him, and who will come after, will eventually coalesce to give us that cure. And many others. Prayer will not.
And I find that comforting.
Goodbye, Jim. I’m glad I knew you.
Clearly believing in a god and beseeching it with prayer, and not believing in one and merely hoping for this or that delivers the same results, only the latter comes with far less baggage, and baggage fees.
What a beautiful eulogy. Maybe you’ll even get a chance to voice some of those thoughts in an informal way. Today will be an emotional roller coaster for you and your friends; you’ll have many bittersweet moments. That’s part of the baggage we call “life.” Life’s baggage is plenty for me, and the fees are far more reasonable than those required to carry the extra baggage of religious bullshit.
“Miracles are not supernatural. They are either natural or man made.”
I’d add one. “Anomalies”. It’s been shown over and over that there will be some statistical variation which is out of the norm with every disease. A cancer that is deadly, 999 times out of a thousand, won’t be on that thousandth time. It happens everywhere, and to all types of people. Our lack of absolute certainty of a result does not indicate a godly intervention, though every time it is experienced by religious people, it’s designated “a miracle”!
And when it’s not, well, the outcome was part of a divine plan. Win-win always when you need to continue rationalizing a faith indulgence.
Anomolies. That’s what I wanted to say. I’ve changed it accordingly. Thanks, Evo.
Nicely said, spanqi, nicely said. I’ll just second Chappie’s comment since I can’t say that emotional stuff so good.
(As for the mentally ill wandering the streets, apparently that’s not so much of a problem since they all seem to be miraculously running for the Republican nomination now.)
And they said ObamaCare wouldn’t work.
Who knew: it was a Republican stealth program to provide their most intelligent people politcal jobs.
Thanks for this thoughtful blog post. John, I extend my sympathy for the loss of your friend. A terribly hard thing. As you know from our discussion Ali’s page on Facebook, I do believe in God. This Christian also agrees with you that humans should maximize our scientific understanding, work to cure diseases, and so forth. But that doesn’t have to preclude also seeking to understand and relate to God at the same time, and in a more sophisticated way than to expect God to change the nature of nature just because we ask for that. God has placed us in nature, and this existence is finite, and therefore nature includes lots of ways to die. It is our nature not to wish to die, and therefore, we don’t tend to like it what that happens to someone close to us, nor should we. But it doesn’t mean “God fucked up” when what we consider less than ideal happens.
Thanks Bryan. I appreciate that. But, as you probably surmised, when I say “God Fucked Up”, it’s an offhand way of saying “god doesn’t exist”.
Hey, John — this is sad and beautiful and way more words than I can commit to memory to use on the next person who invokes their image of what their god may have wanted for someone I care about deeply and have lost.
Thanks. And sorry for your loss. They happen far too often, as we get on.
Thank you Rita. You have my permission to print it out and hand it to that next person. 😉