What Really Matters to Us?

Published: Sunday | May 20, 2007

We want to be happy, and we are going to die. That is all we really know about the human condition. Everything else is speculation.

Some talk as if they have life all figured out. "I wish I were as sure of anything as (Thomas) Macaulay is of everything," someone quipped of the English author. But when contemplating existence, even the most outwardly confident must be filled with the uncertainty Blaise Pascal evoked.

"I see the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse without knowing why I have been put in this place rather than that, or why the brief span of life allotted to me should be assigned to one moment rather than another of all the eternity which went before me and all that which will come after me. I see only infinity on every side, hemming me in like an atom or like the shadow of a fleeting instant. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least about is this very death which I cannot evade. Just as I do not know whence I come, so I do not know whither I am going."

Who can even be sure what his deathbed thoughts will be, much less what will come thereafter?

But there is not been much doubt on display in the current running international debate between Christian fundamentalists and rational atheists. The former claim to be sure the biblical God exists. The latter adamantly declare he does not.

I was raised to revere the Bible. But it is just one of many religious books and not even the oldest. Why should it be any more or less true than the Upanishads or Tripitaka or Tao Te Ching or Koran? Why should I reject all other spiritual writings and accept the Bible as literal truth just because it is the dominant religious book of my country?


Indeed, atheists argue that all sacred texts are human created fiction. To them, modern science renders the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent non-material force obsolete. But what does science say? That an infinitesimally small point of singularity spontaneously came into being. Which spontaneously exploded into an infinitely large universe. Whose elements spontaneously combined into self-perpetuating life. Which spontaneously evolved into a conscious mind capable of contemplating all this. That is a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions without much proof. And not self-evidently less absurd than postulating an eternal universal mind.

Perhaps all world views require some leap of faith. Certainly none are completely convincing. I am personally inclined to think there is a higher than human power, which I guess counts as a belief in God. As to what form this higher power takes, well, how would my puny human brain have any idea?

Maybe I only believe in a non-materialist world because it's more comforting to do so. That this vale of tears is all there is, and all suffering pointless, and all love an illusion - well, it is a notion my fragile psyche cannot bear. Maybe I am a random collection of accidental atoms in an indifferent universe. But my daughter? Never. Surely, her life must have some ultimate significance. Or so my deepest heart strings assert. And since I have no evidence either way, why try to convince my mind of something it finds horrifying to contemplate?

Which is actually the most unconvincing thing about atheism. To an uncompromising scientific materialist the entire universe is a meaningless cosmic accident which will eventually dissipate back into the nothingness from whence it came. If God does notexist, then everything is a random walk, quantum fluctuation. Nothing we do, nothing that has ever been done, nothing that will ever be done matters. Health, wealth, beauty, wit, learning and sense must all come to nothing a trillion years hence.

But, somehow atheists always lose their nerve at this juncture. Instead of fearlessly proclaiming "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die pointlessly without a trace!" they start babbling about 'unyielding despair' or 'wonder and awe' or 'nobly choosing our own destiny'. As if specious words alone can make nothing mean something. "Humankind cannot bear very much reality," said T.S. Eliot. In the end we are all emotionally weak cowards who delude ourselves in our own way.

Now, my idea of hell is an eternity of fanatic fundamentalists shouting, "My God is the only God!" in my left ear, and militant atheists shouting "There is no God!" in the right. Why can't human beings be content with our own beliefs? Why must we try to get everyone else to agree with us? Why this deep-seated need to prove ourselves right and others wrong? Not that I don't suffer from this disease myself, as this column shows.

It is understandable that those who think they have discovered the true purpose of existence would wish to share their new- found joy with others. So, while I don't fancy their company, one can see where the insistent Bible pamphleteers are coming from.


But why would those who have proven to themselves that life has no real meaning get all worked up about convincing others that this is so? Prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, says about those who believe in God: "Well, I think they're missing something. The scientific world-view is so exciting, so breathtakingly enthralling." But if nothing matters, why care what anyone else thinks? Is there anything more irrational than passionate atheism?

Still, in a way atheists on the whole practice what they preach. If you truly believe life has no point, why bother to pass it on? And the birth rate among those who reject religion is everywhere lower than that of the spiritually convinced. Whoever is winning the intellectual wars, atheists are losing the demographic one, as they always have. The most secular region on earth, 'Post-Christian' Europe, also has the lowest birth rate. While Moslem faithful countries have the highest. Even within countries the religious consistently outbreed non-believers. Harmful delusion or not, religion is a potent life force.

Yet, when it comes to the essence of religion, intellectual analysis is useless. Last month I visited the Mustard Seed Community headquarters in Seivwright Gardens for the first time. To observe true faith in action shows the folly of everything else. When I watched caretakers lovingly and patiently deal with disabled and abandoned children —- are not the best of mankind those who devote their time and effort to helping the less fortunate?

Mustard Seed is the largest charitable organisation in the Caribbean, catering to severely disabled children and children with HIV. Starting from Mona Commons in 1978 it now has branches in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Zimbabwe and Nicaragua. It also gives the Jamaican inner-city a voice in Roots FM.

I am in awe of people like Father Gregory Ramkissoon who have dedicated their entire being to active love. Yes, I have my moments of empathy and wanting to help with deeds and not money or words. But sadly it only comes in brief bursts before the detached normal thoughts of the 'real' world return. Truly blessed are those whose hearts can stay constantly open to living pity for others. Surely it is places like Mustard Seed that show the real meaning of life.

How barren is rational logic beside the precepts of Jesus Christ.

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it tome."

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