July 2006

 

My Path to Atheism: An Essay Disguised as a Memoir 1

by Ronald Bleier

 

One solitary game I used to play as a youngster with a "spaldeen" -- a pink rubber ball popular with kids in the 50s -- was to bounce it against the wall of an apartment house on my block, and try to make it strike a particular line on the concrete sidewalk. According to the rules of my little game, if I managed to hit the line a certain number of times, that meant that God would answer my prayers, and would help me out in my latest crisis. Typically, these difficulties had to do with my schoolwork at Crown Heights Yeshiva elementary school in Brooklyn.

For all the devotion I managed with my spaldeen, I donít recall ever feeling that God took a personal interest in my academic or my personal life. I suspect that by the time I was old enough to throw the ball with a certain coordination, I understood on a sufficiently deep level that neither my adherence to the Jewish laws and customs I was learning about in my school, nor my efforts with a spaldeen would generate extraordinary responses from a superior agency. Decades later, itís somewhat comforting to speculate that my boyish schemes may have been early steps on the road to taking responsibility for my actions.

***

I recall boasting to an old high school friend, Lenny, when we were around 19 or 20 that I became an atheist as early as 15. I was taken aback by his reply: "What took you so long?" Both of us had received full time yeshiva training in Orthodox Judaism in elementary and high schools in Brooklyn, thus I couldnít use our common background as an excuse. Later I came to understand that the reason it took me longer than he to shake off my early religious training was because of the impact an extraordinary Hasidic couple had on my religious life. Were it not for their warm and wonderful presentation of Jewish orthodoxy at our Brooklyn apartment, I might have become an atheist even earlier.

Lennyís family apparently had little influence on his religious beliefs. In my case, my father, an immigrant, had grown up as something of a rebel in his small town community in Hungary, preferring to play soccer rather than attend to religious obligations. In addition, when it came to creating an orthodox Jewish home consistent with the traditions that I was learning in school, my father was handicapped because my mother died when my younger brother and I were infants.

Equally important, for several years when we were growing up, my father owned a shoemakerís shop and his business required that he stay open on Saturdays. He told us of an incident where a delegation from the local synagogue asked him to close his shop on the Sabbath. Reluctantly he couldnít accede. Yet he made a point of sending his two sons to yeshiva elementary and high school. After he gave up his shoemaking business when we were still in elementary school he was able to attend regular Sabbath services. Nevertheless, his lifestyle and his idiosyncratic religious practices differed in important ways from what we were taught in school.

 

Our place in the universe

My earliest understandings of my place in the universe go back to my preschool years. From my first floor bedroom window, I could see middle aged women, mostly black and Puerto Rican, file into work at a costume jewelry factory, a one story windowless brick building across the street. At this period in my life, I believed that I was at the center of the universe, which God had created for my benefit. According to this theory, the women that I saw going to their workplace were people created by Him in order to populate my world.

Such a view was comforting and I suspect I held onto it as long as I could. Yet this pleasant fantasy could not last forever, and mine no doubt evaporated by the time I entered grade school. Indeed, I wonder if the fit I pitched on the first day of my first grade classes Ė I wouldnít stop crying and had to be sent to the principalís office for about an hour -- might serve as a marker of my reluctant acceptance of an objective reality apart from me.

My indoctrination into the Jewish religion came through books at home and then, in a more organized fashion, through my religious studies at school. I was very impressed with the story of the Garden of Eden and the fall of Adam and Eve, which resonated with me long after I realized that it was fiction. I was struck by the notion that through a tragic mistake, humans had lost their opportunity for everlasting happiness, peace and justice.

 

My fatherís workplace

After shoemaking, my father became a salesman in Manhattanís garment center. My brother and I were taken to his workplace on a few occasions. The first time we emerged from the subway at 34th Street and Broadway, I gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the immensity of the skyscrapers that surrounded us.

Contending for attention with the huge buildings were the bustling, energy-filled streets crammed with people moving purposefully to their destinations. I found myself amidst an army of strangers whose faces I could see close up. I was past the age where I could pretend that these people were all somehow manufactured for my benefit. It was driven home to me, as never before that I was a tiny anonymous member of a huge mass of humanity.

My thoughts soon reverted to the skyscrapers. I realized that this was a secular world and these huge creations of steel and glass had nothing to do with the religious world I was immersed in at school. I wanted to learn more about the powers responsible for their creation. How did such structures manage to get built? What were the economic and political forces that sustained them? I realized that I couldnít expect answers from my religious training.

My new impressions of the crowded Manhattan streets extended to the 40th floor offices of my fatherís workplace, where I could look out the window and see vehicles that looked like toys and busy, ant-sized people hundreds of feet below. At first, I experienced a sense of superiority that derived from my relative height. Soon enough I realized that I myself was the same size as all these people and just as insignificant as any of them.

I was also distressed to see the way my father was treated by his bosses, his fellow salesmen, and some of his customers. My father had immigrated to the United States when he was 32. His first language was Hungarian and like most Europeans, he was used to learning new languages. Although he picked up English very quickly, he never lost his distinctive foreign accent.

It turned out that in the workplace my father was the butt of unpleasant if not cruel jokes because of his heavily accented English. Later I could attribute the raillery he suffered to the tremendous pressure his colleagues were under as they worked in the cutthroat garment industry. I could imagine that they were jealous and felt threatened by his effectiveness as a salesman even when they profited from it. Thus Geza, or George, as they called him at work, turned out to be an easy target, and they ribbed him continually.

My father was extremely smart, thin skinned and quick to take offense in most of the contexts that I knew him. However, at work, I never saw him react to their joking. Clearly, he understood that keeping his job meant turning the other cheek. The incident opened a window to a new and unwelcome view of how power operated in the real word. I saw his deportment at work as an unhappy reinforcement of our relative poverty, and my familyís tenuous position in life.

The Greens and Community

I suspect that Isadore and Ida Green, a Hungarian Hasidic couple who came to live with us for about a year while I was in the fourth and fifth grade played a decisive role in delaying my atheism. These extraordinary people were both Holocaust survivors. Isadore even joked about the numbers tattooed on his arm when we asked him about them. The two of them transformed our lives in many ways. In a few months, my grades at school improved with Idaís help and guidance. My mother had died when I was an infant and my father, who never finished high school, didnít have the background or temperament to help me with my schoolwork.

During their time with us they created a wonderful Jewish Orthodox home environment that was the perfect complement to the lessons on Jewish religion and tradition taught at school. Ida and Isadore were infinitely patient, good humored, and wonderful role models in every way. All the outward forms of their religious life were conducted with extraordinary care and love, and in such a way that they connected our home to a vital Jewish community. While they were living with us, I felt that I was safely wrapped in a secure cocoon, sheltered from many of the tribulations of the real world. All I had to do to secure my place was to subscribe to a set of beliefs and rituals, including Sabbath observance, daily prayer, keeping my head covered with a kipa, and regular synagogue attendance. It was all so easy and safe.

Ida Ďs relaxed, down to earth manner as she helped me with my schoolwork put me at ease. On one occasion, I repaid her efforts by cheating. My homework that day was to study the definitions of about 25 words for a Hebrew test. I can laugh today at the transparency of the shortcut I devised. As Ida sat in the kitchen and quizzed me on the words, I walked back and forth in the adjoining hallway, blocking her view at strategic moments as I consulted the crib sheet I had especially prepared. Ida quickly spotted what was going on.

"What are you doing out there in the hallway," she asked, as I paced back and forth.

"Oh nothing, I just feel like staying out here. It helps me remember."

"Oh, I see," she said. "Well, why donít you come inside so I can see you"?

"Why do you want to see me?" I answered, realizing the game was up.

"I think it would be better if you came inside," she insisted.

As I walked into the kitchen she gave me a look and a smile.

"What did you just put into your pocket?"

"Oh, nothing," I answered.

"Let me ask you," she said, ignoring my lie. "Do you want to continue practicing the words with me right now or would you like some more time to study?"

"I think I better go and study some more," I answered. I headed back to my room grateful for the easy way out she provided.

All too soon, the Greens left us to take an apartment on their own. I deeply regretted their parting, because I knew that I would have a more difficult time on my own. On the other hand, their departure freed me to break away from the religion I was taught and gravitate to one that more closely matched my developing understanding of reality. I think that the main reason I drifted away from Orthodox Judaism was that after they left, they also took with them that sense of community that was so strong when they lived with us. Afterwards, all that remained was my belief in God, which began to seem dryer, more empty and disconnected from the secular world that increasingly took over my life.

Science and the Holocaust

Judging from my experience, itís no wonder that science education has become one of the high profile battlegrounds in todayís culture wars. The science I was taught in school helped provide many answers to fundamental questions of how the earth came into being. In my science class, I learned that the earth was not at the center of the universe as was believed at the time of the birth of Judaism and other major religions. I learned that our sun was only a minor star, far from the center of our galaxy and that our galaxy was one of billions of galaxies in a vast universe. I also learned that our solar system was about 4 billion years old, a modern concept, far removed from the creation stories of the Old and New Testaments. I slowly came to believe that from the point of view of the universe, there was nothing special or important about earth or about human beings.

The idea and reality of the Holocaust was ever present for me since my family was directly affected and I came to be an American as a result. My father narrowly escaped from the Nazis with his family from Croatia. One of his sisters survived Auschwitz, and another escaped with her husband to Italy. His parents, brother, and his brotherís family were not so fortunate.

How was I to reconcile the notion of Jews as a chosen people with what happened to millions of European and Russian Jews, not to mention millions of other victims of the Third Reich? I concluded that the religion I was taught had no convincing answers. I suspected that the role of religion was to create a space sheltered from such questions.

 

High and low

Perhaps the apogee of my belief in Judaism occurred at my Bar Mitzvah, when I was thirteen. Although the Greens were gone, their influence lasted for years, and for a time my prayers to the Jewish God they helped to teach me about were fervent and consistent. As it turned out, my religious period lasted only for some two years after my Bar Mitzvah celebrations.

It was during those teenage years that the disconnect between what I was learning in school and what I was experiencing in the world outside grew ever larger. I thought of the busy streets of Manhattan that impressed me so much when my father took us to his workplace. I juxtaposed those images with my understanding about God, the One to whom I communicated my intimate thoughts. Was He also communicating with these nameless people that I passed on 34th street, and the millions and billions of other people on earth in the same way?

I understood that many of the people I saw on the streets of Manhattan were not Jewish Ė-not to mention 99% of the worldís population -- yet many believed they shared exactly the same intimate connection to God that I did. Were all the gentiles in the world mistaken? Were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Shintos, and the members of hundreds of other religions wrong and only Jews right? What made us special? Was the accident of my Jewish birth and upbringing sufficient to give me a singular conduit to the greatest power of the universe?

In the end I decided that my claim was no better than theirs and similarly theirs was no better than mine. We were simply members of different tribes. How was one to decide which was the One True God and which others were false? I finally came around to the belief that if the Judaism I knew so well was wrong, so were they all.

I suppose that this understanding about the nonexistence of God was my way of finding words to describe the parallel discovery that children make as they come to understand that Santa Claus doesnít exist. As they grow up, children recognize the Santa Claus story as mythology that serves human purposes and has no extra human origin.

On a rare morning, perhaps a year or so before I decided on atheism, I decided to pay close attention during our Talmud lesson. Our teacher that year, Rabbi Feldstein, was a short, dapper, middle-aged man with a trimmed mustache. He tended to be nervous and short tempered. The lesson that day was proceeding nicely from my vantage point when all of sudden, the rabbi interrupted himself, jumped up from his desk and raced towards the back of the room. With a cry of triumph, he caught a student using the Talmud as a shield to hide a book he was reading.

Reading extracurricular books during our morning religious classes was an activity I not infrequently pursued myself. But on this particular morning I was one of the "good" students, and I found myself annoyed by the interruption. I blamed my frustration on the rabbi who to my mind, had his priorities awry. He should have been focusing on the attentive students, and dealt with others in a less disruptive manner.

This incident seemed to represent for me the lack of a sacred aura that as often as not characterized my yeshiva training. I felt this instance as another indication that the religious life was merely a minor subset of the larger secular world. Finally, I concluded that there was too much of a discrepancy between the two worlds I was inhabiting, and with the Greens gone, I slowly but surely moved out of the religious orbit.

The Great Moment of choice

At a certain moment, at the age of 15, I found myself at a momentous crossroads. Do I carry on believing in the Jewish religion or do I dare become an atheist? There was a precise moment of choice when I said to myself: "OK, now Iím alone."

It was a little scary. I felt like I was jumping into the void because I was leaving the community that had nurtured me.

I also realized that it was likely to be a one-way trip. Absent an unlikely manifestation of God Himself, I suspected that I could never return to the religious fold. To do so would mean to renounce the understanding that I had achieved of how the world actually works.

On balance, even at that moment, despite my uncertainty about the future, I felt a sense of relief since I was finally connecting my understanding with my ideology. I could now examine objectively the big questions of life and death and I could try to discover on my own the meaning and purpose in life. Since I could expect no assistance from an outside power, I was free and at the same time challenged to take personal responsibility for my actions and my life.

I donít recall ever considering agnosticism as an option. I may not even have known much about it until my college years. Atheism was a clear choice for me, in part I think because I knew one religion well, from the inside as it were. If Judaism didnít come from God, but was a human invention designed to provide comfort, community, meaning and direction, then so were all other religions constructed by humans in the same fashion and for the same purposes. If so solid and long lasting a religion as Judaism was not an expression of a higher power, I was sure in my own mind that there was no other religion out there waiting to be found.

 

Roy Campanella hits a homer

Once when I was about 10 years old, my brother and I accompanied my father on an errand on a summer afternoon. On the way home, we were heading to the train station when we heard the sounds of a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game coming from the radio in a corner candy store. We stopped to listen and found that the Dodgers were a run behind in the last inning with their star catcher, Roy Campanella at bat, representing the winning run. We didnít have to wait long to hear that sure enough, Campy hit a homer, winning the game. We were delighted as we proceeded on our way. How fortunate we Brooklyn Dodger fans were, I thought, to have such outstanding athletes as Campy, and Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snyder and other great players on our team.

In due course, I began thinking about other boys my age in other baseball cities across the nation who werenít so fortunate as to have on their teams the rich talent that stocked my beloved Brooklyn Bums. I started wondering by what providence I was more favored than youngsters like me in those other towns. Eventually I realized that there was no outside power pulling strings on my behalf, purposefully satisfying my need to identify with a winning major league baseball team. Nor did I take into my power calculations the all too obvious presence of the New York Yankees, a team with even more talent right there in my own city. More baseball reality came crashing into my world soon enough when I was still a teenager living in Brooklyn in 1958 when the Brooklyn Dodgers left for California, and I no longer had a baseball team to root for. As providence had it, by then I was an atheist.

 

Arrogance and Humility

When I first became an atheist, I used to look down on religionists as benighted, ignorant, hopelessly lost on the path to the truth. As a teenager attending Yeshiva high school and as a regular attendant of Sabbath and holiday services at my local synagogue, I had many opportunities to watch observant Jews at prayer and I would often note the fervency with which they prayed to God, often ardently rocking their bodies during prayer or Talmud study.

In due course, I came to realize that the strength of my atheistical belief was no stronger than their belief in God. Indeed from the intensity of their swaying during prayer, I suspected that their beliefs might even be stronger than mine. Sure, I said to myself, I know that Iím right, but they feel with equal certainty that they are right. So whoís to say which one of us is correct?

I eventually came around to the formulation that there is no grand TRUTH: there are merely individual truths by which we live our lives. I decided that as an atheist I had no moral or spiritual advantage over religionists. I thought of the Orthodox Jews, whom I might pass from time to time on the street. Just like me they lived their lives with the meaning and purpose that their culture offered them. Like me they would finally come to the end of their lives, and that would be the end of it. Thereíd be no possibility for them to learn somehow that, according to my lights, theyíd lived a lie. Thus I realized that on the most important level, the level of each personís consciousness, that it made no difference in the end, who was right. Orthodox Jews could be just as happy if not happier than I was as they lived their lives dedicated to their God and their religious community.

Attempts at proselytizing

But in the beginning of my new-found religion of atheism, like many new converts, Iím sure that I must have spent time trying to proselytize my faith. I soon found that such efforts, more often than not tended to be frustrating. I finally learned that I couldnít expect others with differing backgrounds and experiences to drop their views in favor of mine. I realized that my own journey from religion to atheism was a result of the particular circumstances of my life and background and that others who walked a completely different path would have different needs and different views.

I realized that the major tools with which I used to argue my case, reason and logic, the findings of science, were not going to be effective in such discourse because they didnít answer the personal needs that traditional religion generally addressed.

I never saw any evidence that I made any converts, and my conversations about religion typically ended once I sensed resistance to my line of argument. I came to the conclusion that adopting a religion is like choosing a suit of clothes. One size doesnít fit all and the particular suit of clothes that suited me wouldnít necessarily fit others.

I came to understand that neither atheists nor religionists could correctly say that we knew we were right. The correct formulation was that we believed we were right. In that case, I began to feel that atheism shared certain core beliefs in common with religion. I wondered if atheism could also be said to be a type of religion?

 

Proselytizing Atheism

A few years ago, I joined the New York City Atheists group and I began to raise the question of atheism as a religion and whether seeing it in this light could be used as a proselytizing tool, a means of reaching out to those who are looking for a way of life apart from dogma about God.

I didnít find that my views resonated much among my colleagues in the atheism movement. I gathered that they felt that atheism should not be called a religion because atheism means belief that thereís no god and religion implies a God.

Well, as Clinton might say, it all depends on how you define religion. What if we defined religion simply as a belief system about how the universe is organized, a system that defines the relative place of humanity in that universe, leaving the God issue open.

One of the mottos of the NYC atheist group that I belong to is: "Atheism is a Conclusion, Not a Belief." I suppose theyíre saying that they have come to their views through the scientific method and through critical thinking, But I wonder if the superiority that their distinction implies is warranted. I believe atheists need to be humble in the face of the subjective interface that we must necessarily employ in order to gain knowledge of our world. To the extent that atheists claim that their WAY is the only TRUE WAY, they are merely making the same claim that other religions do.

Perhaps we atheists can usefully distinguish ourselves by offering potential members the freedom to look at the world with new eyes as science and knowledge continues to advance. Unlike many religions we donít restrict adherents to dogma that often originated millennia ago. Instead we offer freedom and critical thinking in all fields of society, science and morality.

Another advantage of recognizing that atheists are on the same level as religionists is that it may help us recognize the critical advantage that many religions offer, namely community and tradition. Viewing religionists as equals who have an enormous advantage in these areas, may help to spur atheist organizations in directions that will gain us more adherents and more scope for our social and political views.

There are signs that in some local American communities, atheists are taking action and are beginning to organize and are moving towards creating a community of like-minded people. They are forming organizations and producing events that bring atheists together, and they are beginning the process of mobilizing them for social and political action. The Ethical Culture Movement and the Humanist movement provide useful models.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

As it happened, perhaps twenty years ago, I heard a program on my local Pacifica radio station, WBAI-FM, featuring Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists. She was on for a half hour of talk radio with listener phone calls. It was the only time I heard her speak and in the first part of the show I felt she did a creditable job of making her case.

It was in the listener call in section that she sorely disappointed me. I was hoping to hear the kind of compassion and understanding that I understood was necessary to bring people into our circle. There were two callers in particular who said plainly that they came from religious Christian backgrounds and explained that they were struggling with these issues. They seemed open to guidance from an atheistís perspective. Instead of offering them the comfort and sympathy they were clearly seeking, OíHair derided them for their doubts and uncertainty. According to her, they were not worth talking to if they hadnít seen the light of atheism. It was a terrible disappointment to witness our best-known ambassador fail so miserably to help our cause2.

 

Religion and War

Time and again Iíve heard atheists accuse Religion of responsibility for war and for so much of the misery that humans have suffered. I suppose that for a time I too subscribed to such views. But in the end, I reasoned that it didnít make sense to blame religion for war and human misery. I decided that people were the cause of wars and they simply used religion when it was effective as a rallying cry to motivate their followers 3.

I became further grounded in my views in the early 90s when I finally read the late 18th century political economist, Thomas Robert Malthus. I was much surprised to find his famous Essay on Population (1798) economically and brilliantly written. I found his book so persuasive that I promptly became a Malthusian, i.e., someone who believed that scarcity, the pressure of human population on available resources, was the fundamental cause of distress and conflict. Malthus believed that misery could be explained by what he termed the principle of population, i.e., that population always grows faster than the ability of the earth to provide resources. Malthus taught that the struggles and pressures that emanate from scarcity were the underlying cause of war and, at the same time, the force motivating the advances of civilization.

Andrei Rublyov

A scene in the classic 1969 film Andrey Rublyov by Andrei Tarkovsky, helped me develop some of my ideas about responsibility and justice. In the middle of the film, the main character, after surviving a horrific episode of pillage and rape, asks an elderly priest: How could God let this happen? The patriarch replies: "Son, the evil you see lies in your own heart."

At first I found the priestís response difficult to understand and disquieting, if not shocking. The priest was saying that there was no such thing as objective evil. We had just seen portrayed on film wanton rape and the killing of hundreds of innocent people. The audience is meant to identify with the victims and at the same time understand that the destruction of this particular Russian community represented the precariousness of life and the march of war in the world. Moreover, as someone who was seared by the Holocaust, there was no doubt in my mind that the evil of Hitler existed as an objective reality.

Over time I found that I was able to understand and perhaps accept the priestís message in my own way. I interpreted him to mean that we might not always find justice in the course of our lives. From the despoilersí point of view, they were simply doing what was necessary. Only from the victimís standpoint were the perpetrators committing criminal acts.

Itís not an easy thing even for an atheist to assume the detachment necessary to "absolve" in this way, evildoers of their crimes. But the sad or insignificant truth is that True Justice can only be found in Hollywood and in religious sermons. The rest of us must willy-nilly be content with the hand that is dealt us, or the world we can create.

Cattonís extrametabolites

Unexpectedly I also found intellectual support for my developing views about evil from an environmental approach. In William J. Cattonís seminal Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (1982), the author explains that antagonism in human and other life forms may arise from impersonal ecological sources, without villainy. He observes that when "the chemical by-products of the life processes of one species are harmful to another species, their relationship to each other is antagonistic." As examples he points to the penicillium moldís antagonism to various disease causing bacteria, or the antagonism arising from the auto exhaust and industrial fumes in Los Angeles to the ponderosa pines in the San Bernardino National Forest. These chemical by products of life, he termed "extrametabolites," apparently in order to avoid the pejorative connotations of "pollutants." "Antagonism in ecology," Catton writes, "merely means that the fulfillment of one organism's needs is antithetical to the maintenance of environmental conditions in which another organism's needs can be fulfilled."

Catton points to the manner in which overpopulation can lead to tension and violent conflict. He theorizes, "Human animosity canÖbe aroused by mutual interference between human groups, even when the interference is indirect and unintended. If so, that is one way an age of overpopulation could become an age of war." 4

Catton is suggesting that the fundamentals of human conflict go back to the life process requirements of groups of humans impinging on the needs of other groups. Thus conflict may be viewed as ultimately environmentally based, and may be an inevitable result of ever growing human populations outpacing the available resources, just as Malthus had outlined.

With Cattonís guidance I began to see that my previous identification of Hitler with evil was an oversimplification, although a popular one. On the one hand, I recognized that on the basic level of personal security, it is vital to identify political leaders like Hitler as dangers to the community and to take appropriate action. Yet, from a more global perspective I could see that while security considerations lead to tribal loyalty, the power engendered by such loyalty can itself become a monster and spiral out of control. Indeed, the Hitler example may be viewed as an extreme case of tribal loyalty, originating arguably from the blameless byproducts of various population groups coalescing into nations, and step by step rising to the level of violent conflict.

Cattonís insights provided me with new language and a coherent environmentally based way to look at the problem of evil, one that accorded with an indifferent godless universe. From my relatively safe middle class perch, I could accept that what we called evil was the end product of natural and inevitable life processes. Evil and good were not elements of a divine plan that would finally result in justice according to human notions. When I considered current events and world history I saw no evidence of divine justice, simply a reflection of the world I knew where the strong devour the weak.

Understanding our world as neutral ungoverned by a higher power but fenced in by environmental limits might be the first step in the struggle for a more humane and sustainable system of human justice. Our challenge is to seek out the fundamental causes of misery and to find ways to bring society to a point where justice is the norm and not the exception.

The wonder and coldness of the stars

I was always interested in the stars. Growing up in New York City I suffered from the restricted views that were available. Thus I treasured opportunities to travel to the country when I could take in the wonders of the night sky.

On these occasions, I would sometimes look to the stars for answers, as if they held important information or could somehow direct me to earthly solace or meaning. But after a few minutes, with no clear sign from the heavens, seeing only the steady twinkling from an amazing array of countless millions of stars. I had to give up and bow to the banal realization that once more I was left to my own devices. I realized I could expect no help or guidance, or comfort from points of light unimaginably far away. The lesson that I took from the unresponsive heavens was that we were living simultaneously in two concurrent frameworks of time. The first was the everyday world, where a fraction of a second in a race, or the score on an exam, or a missed rendezvous can make an enormous difference in our lives.

The second, simultaneous time scale goes to the essence of an unconcerned universe, where humanity is such a tiny, insignificant blip and where it can make no difference whether Hitler was defeated, or who killed Kennedy, or whether or when our civilization collapses like Romeís did, or lasts a thousand more years.

Meaning in the universe

I finally decided that if we cannot discern concern for our destiny from an indifferent universe all that is left to us and it is everything, is to create meaning and joy, if we have the luxury, in the days of our lives.

The End

1 All the names, except my deceased fatherís have been changed.

2 Years later I learned that the hostility and anger I heard that day was characteristic of OíHairís personality and her troubled life and death.

3 I understand that as various religions grew into institutional powers, they acted in ways that national and corporate powers do. But the power and activities of large institutions should not be confused with the fundamental causes driving human action.

4 William J. Catton, Jr. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (University of Illinois Press, 1982), pp. 102-103.