In polite conversation, it's generally wise to avoid politics and religion, especially when you don't know the crowd very well. And while there are topics I avoid here on this weblog, politics and religion aren't among them. Still, this particular post could be dicey, so proceed with caution. I originally wrote it almost two years ago, during the last papal transition, which was fascinating on many levels, but was not transcendent or profound for me, because—like all spiritual events—it did not reflect my reality.
Now that I'm dealing with cancer, forget my previous caution in not posting this entry. I may as well get it out there. As I've noted before on several occasions, I'm not religious. Not only do I not follow any traditional religion, I also don't believe in gods or demons or spirits or souls of any kind.
We human beings, quite reasonably, are afraid to die. But we still do. Our fear cannot prevent it. It's no surprise that we wish it weren't so: that we could somehow live after death, or that there could be a part of us that is separate from our bodies, a spirit or soul, that persists after we die, and maybe preceded our birth.
For me, wishing doesn't make it true. For me, it's perfectly reasonable (and not at all disturbing) that my sense of myself, my thoughts and feelings, my personality and motivations, are all the result of electrochemical reactions between billions of neurons in my brain. Indeed, I find that pretty cool.
Over the past century or two, we've come to understand—although, perhaps, not genuinely comprehend—the vastness of time and space. We've learned how infinitesimal our one little brief-lived species is, on this lovely but tiny blue planet, orbiting a very average star mid-way along one of several spiral arms of a typical galaxy in an unassuming part of the universe. And we have found out how very long our planet has been here, and what a tiny portion of that history we, as humans, have occupied.
We've also learned that, despite our sometimes-parasitic accomplishments on this planet as we humans have spread across it, we share genes (and, more critically, basic physiological processes) with everything from chimpanzees to sponges, fir trees, ocean-vent bacteria, ants, and algae. We're related, and it's quite clear that humans are a mere late-sprouting twig on a still-growing evolutionary tree of life forms on earth.
If we somehow wipe ourselves out by changing the climate or starting a nuclear war or simply not being able to avoid extinction in another few million years for whatever reason, life on earth will soldier on without us—it has survived worse calamities (like asteroid impacts, or the ancient poisoning of the atmosphere with oxygen) before.
All this is to say that, when a geranium dies in our back yard in the winter, it's just dead, and we compost it because there's nothing left of it to live. When I die, I think the same thing will happen, though with any luck not in the back yard. When my body shuts down, I won't be there (or anywhere) anymore—no soul or spirit to go to heaven or hell, or to be reincarnated, or to roam the halls of creepy old houses, clanking chains.
This is not a new philosophy for me. I've thought of it this way since about the time I figured out there was no land at the North Pole for Santa Claus to live on, and that bunnies are mammals, and so couldn't possibly lay chocolate eggs at Easter time. It doesn't make me feel sad, or that life is meaningless, because I don't think happiness and meaning require eternal life.
It does, however, mean that religious and spiritual teachings are largely meaningless to me (whether they are silly or not) in the spiritual context they're meant to be. I don't think there's an afterlife, so that makes it senseless to treat my actual life as if it were a big exam to get into heaven, or to reach nirvana, or to bank the karmic wheel so I don't come back as a slug (though I expect, to a slug, a slug's life is pretty sweet). It means that, to me, the huge swaths of theological analysis say something about human thought and institutions, but very little about the reality of the world or the universe.
It means that, even if I did think that there were a god or gods that created the universe—and I don't—it wouldn't matter, because once we're dead, we're dead, and there is no one and nothing left of us to be judged or evaluated. (Plus, given the scope of this universe, and any others that might exist, why would any god or gods be so insecure as to require regulated tributes from us in order to be satisifed with their accomplishments?)
We fear death. We invent ways—beliefs, stories, rituals—to pretend it's not the end for each of us. Huge, worldwide institutions arise from those inventions. They provide meaning, comfort, and a sense of wonder to billions of people. But not to me.
My meaning, comfort, and wonder come from another place, from trying to understand people, creatures, life, the planet, the galaxy, the universe, and their amazing diversity from my miniscule perspective as a man living in the 20th and 21st centuries here on earth. From trying to be a good person, a good husband and father.
What will outlive me is not my soul, because I don't think I have one. But my children will outlast me. Their children, if they have them, will too. As will, perhaps, some of my words and ideas, like the ones written here. Anything that persists of me—besides the molecules that used to make up my body—will be in the memories of others, or in their genes (another type of memory). That might not be much, and it won't be up to me to decide what that includes.
I don't begrudge my friends and relatives who do believe in gods and souls and spirits. And what I've written here may hurt them, or spur them to pity me and fear for my nonexistent soul. I'm sorry if that's so. I have no way of knowing with absolute certainty if one of the many philosophies or religions that advocate an afterlife is right. If they're wrong, as I am all but certain they are, but if those beliefs help people to live happily, and to die contentedly when the time comes, that's good, because they'll never know. If I'm wrong, I come by my error honestly.
So is being able to feel love and to share it. Is love biochemical? So what if it is? It's not "just" biochecmical. The atoms and molecules and infinitely complex interactions of that biochemistry are a natural miracle too, one I cherish. Even more because I have only a short time—eighty years of life, give or take—to experience it. And after that, it's over.
I hope to make the most of it.