That was Isaac Asimov’s blunt dismissal of religion. And its appropriateness is never more evident than in this pitifully sad article currently on CNN.com, in which the point is made that “when it comes to saving lives, God trumps doctors for many Americans.”
More than half of randomly surveyed adults — 57 percent — said God’s intervention could save a family member even if physicians declared treatment would be futile. And nearly three-quarters said patients have a right to demand that treatment continue.
When asked to imagine their own relatives being gravely ill or injured, nearly 20 percent of doctors and other medical workers said God could reverse a hopeless outcome.
Here’s the utility of religion spelled out: it continues to persist, more than anything, as an anodyne against the fear of death. Say what you will about its role in building a sense of community for its followers, or the repeated testimonials from believers about God giving them a sense of direction and purpose in life. What it boils down to is that religion is mostly used by people to manage their most profound insecurities and fears. And nothing is more devastating than the loss of a loved one, except perhaps, for some people, the prospect of their own eventual death.
In a sense I can understand the desperation here. There are harsh truths few people have the courage to face. But where I think believers would tell you that their faith gives them the courage to face those truths, I see the opposite in play: they’re clinging to their faith like a drowning man clutching at a reed, to justify their ongoing denial of truth, simply because facing it involves taking an emotional body blow that the thin shield their faith provides really would buckle under the force of it. And they know it, deep down.
What, apart from people’s innate fears, keeps this practice of clinging to hope of miraculous divine intervention in the face of very real tragedy alive? Well, the fact that, on occasion, people do bounce back for any number of reasons from death’s door. And these rare occasions are justification enough for the religious mind. All it takes is one cancer patient branded terminal to go into remission instead, and the instant that person’s family starts braying about God’s miraculous cure, a million other people going through the same pain are cruelly given false hopes, only to see them dashed more often than not. It’s exactly the mentality of people who habitually play the lottery: “Sure, the odds are pretty long, but you never know.”
I remember a caller to the show back when I was host, a nice young woman who asked what we felt about such a hypothetical cancer patient, and if such events were or were not a good reason to consider the likelihood of God. I replied that I would have even more moral qualms about a God like that existing, as I would be troubled by the thought of why God would choose to save one dying mother, but not all the other dying mothers and fathers and children who were doubtless languishing in that hospital’s very same oncology wing, with family members keeping vigil by their sides with just as much pain in their hearts. Why not grant miracle cures to everyone all at once? It would hurt no one, relieve many of their emotional suffering, and give believers much stronger evidence of miracles to point to when talking to the unconverted. The caller admitted she hadn’t thought of it that way.
I think it’s good to see doctors (and frankly, if I’m ever hospitalized, I sincerely hope not to get any of the ones in that 20 percentile) dealing realistically with patients’ families in their stubbornness about godly intervention that isn’t coming. While it’s important to be respectful — no, not of the irrational beliefs, but of the very real pain and confusion that’s feeding them — it’s doubly important to guide these people towards an acceptance of the reality we will all have to face in our lives, that our loved ones die, that we too will die. As one woman interviewed in the story, who tragically lost her children in an accident, begrudgingly admits, “I have become more of a realist. I know that none of us are immune from anything.” It’s terrible she had to go through such an awful experience to learn such a lesson. I guess that’s why they’re called lessons.
Take each day as it comes and appreciate it to the fullest. If it’s a particularly shitty day, make an effort to do something to make it slightly less shitty. Take a walk in the park, jam out to your favorite album, hug a dog, excuse yourself from the presence of people who are being assholes to you. You don’t get to do this one again, and no miracle will be coming to let you hit the reset button. If nothing else, at the very end, you can say to yourself and to those who don’t want to see you go, “Don’t be unhappy. I lived.”