93. Thoughts after Notre-Dame
It was somewhere before 7:00pm when my mobile phone beeped. It was the New York Times informing me of breaking news; Notre-Dame de Paris was burning.
I immediately went to the laptop to search for images. A column of fire rose from a hole in the cathedralís roof like a flame pouring from a dragonís mouth. It was obvious that the horror had only begun, that something was fueling the fire. I sought live streaming video and became one of millions of viewers watching in horror.
It means something to me, this iconic building and symbol of France, even though I am an atheist. I agonized about the threat of losing those delicate rose windows to the conflagration.
There is much about religion that I like. There are certain aspects of religion that I envy. There are definitely features of religion that I disdain.
Take the pairs of Jehovahís Witnesses who station themselves throughout City Centre accompanied by a metal-wire stand holding religious pamphlets in different languages. To their credit, these people never call out and they do not preach uninvited. They will wait until you approach them and inquire about what they represent. I have asked them if this is a service they are required to do by their church. Those I have addressed assured me it is not required and they volunteered. When I asked why they were not as aggressive as other street preachers, they explained they were a gentle people reflecting a gentle religion.
Then there are the Hare Krishna monks who have accosted me. This isnít to say they tackled me to the ground. They will step into your path and make a remark. The last one to target me said, ďYou look like an intelligent person.Ē It was a clever appeal to oneís vanity. All too often, I am mistaken for being an intellectual. It must be in my manner of dress because otherwise I lack all qualification. It is not as if I wear a Tudorís bonnet, but I often sport a tweed jacket Ė no elbow patches, I swear. This Krishna monk then politely asked if I had a moment to talk and presented a hand for me to shake. I paused in my dayís errands to hear his rendition of recruitment because Iím retired and have the time. It was also because he had touched on a subject I have been investigating in articles of neuroscience and psychology Ė what is intelligence? I asked the first question, ďWhat made you think I was intelligent?Ē
It was a short conversation. He wanted me to have a book. I declined. He wanted to introduce me to meditation. I told him I already do meditation. He asked, what kind of meditation? I told him I believe in the Scottish meditation. He asked, what is that? I explained, ďIt is going for long walks.Ē Then I added that it required good shoes. We both looked down at his rubber sandals and we both laughed.
I reserve to myself the common-sense right to judge any god and the people who believe in that god. I believe when a street proselytizer harangues the pedestrians, there should also be someone offering counterpoint.
The hellfire street preachers are gratefully rare in Cardiff. There was one who caught my attention the other day. This fellow was using a megaphone to threaten people with damnation if they didnít believe as he did. I didnít want him to see me, to aim his megaphone in my direction, but I needed to hear what he had to say. I stood at a distance behind him and to one side. I believe I understand the motivation of such people and I was contemplating what words or actions might confound them from doing their evil. Orbiting around this public disturbance were associates handing out pamphlets. One of them approached me. He was, it turned out, the minister. The guy blowing into the megaphone was a member of his congregation. It was my own fault I attracted his attention since I was standing there listening.
The minister was an imbecilic zealot. He would let me speak, but he didnít understand a word I said. His non sequitur responses were anecdotes of stories of magic from either the Bible or his personal experience. It was absurd that he could not hear his own silliness. It was as if I were talking to a doll with a pull string that generated pre-recorded messages. What a waste of time.
It is not a question of changing the ministerís mind, this minister anyway, adamant in his delusions. My objective is to change just enough surrounding minds to deny the obscurantists too large and powerful a ministry. I came away dissatisfied with my approach. Still I donít entirely regret the exercise. As happens, after I walked away, I had those shouldíve-said ideas.
As is my right as a descendant of rabbis going back to Mainz in the fourteenth century, and in the Jewish mythos going back to Aaron, brother of Moses, and whatever imagined authority that entitles me, I herewith crafted new commandments by which all gods should be judged.
Earlier, I mentioned that I can envy religions. I can recognize that religions are a means for dealing with the existential crisis of death. They allay our fear of death. Religions are also an effective way of bonding individuals into a community. Religions also support an individualís belief in their superiority, which is comforting to the ego and gives people the necessary confidence to pursue survival. This is why I have sympathy for the religious. The make-believe brings comfort to the needs of our brains, needs that have probably evolved biologically to serve some other purpose. The make-believe fulfills us and prevents us from wilting and perishing because we lack a sense of belonging. Religions keep people from feeling lonely. Even if we are not cuddled in a community, we convince ourselves we have the attention and companionship of spirits, be they gods, saints, or angels.
It has been fifteen months since Ms Keogh died, my cherished companion. If my views of reality are correct, then I should have moved on because she has ceased to exist. But I donít. I am surrounded by my favourite photographs of her. I have not washed her pillowcases because I imagine I can still detect her scent. A conscious hour does not go by without a thought of her. This is what I now understand, I adhere to an imaginary relationship because I no longer enjoy a real one of similar intensity. I do so because it brings me comfort and I will do so continually because I am addicted to that comfort.
What comfort is there in believing we cease to exist, worst still that the approach to death could become physically and mentally discomfiting and painful. I am a secular humanist, but I donít try to compete with the religious because I lack the happy ending they sell.
The problem lies with the word "real" and what that means. Quantum particles are beyond my grasp. Also, I can sense a vast mystery behind "consciousness", a word I cannot define, yet I think I am aware of its manifestation. Something essential is escaping my grasp of reality. I think I understand more about it than most, yet something remains beyond my ability to observe or imagine. This is where I think of the god of the gaps. I have friends who insert their belief of a god or something magical in the ever present gaps in our knowledge. I doubt it, but I cannot resist wondering if Ms Keogh exists in one of those gaps, the infinities of largeness and smallness and time and repetition. I cannot resist wanting Ms Keogh to exist in those gaps.