Life & Death


Yesterday, we lost our dear friend, Susan Smith, as she and her husband George vacationed in New Orleans. It was a sudden occurrence, which is always preferable to lingering in pain and illness. And, as might be expected when you are an octagenarian as Susan was and I will soon be, the death of anyone in your age group is cause for reflection.

We have been close friends with them and their families for nearly thirty-five years. I tend to joke with my wife, Gale, that we are at ground zero or in the crosshairs of the Grim Reaper. Death can come to anyone at any time, but obviously, the odds increase as you age. And, not having bought the whole business of heaven and a supreme being cooking me my favorite pasta every day after I'm gone, assuming I'm entitled if I've led the life of a monk, I don't worry about that sort of thing. I'm in no hurry to close my eyes for the last time, but I don't fear the event.

I have no expectations of death, either positive or negative. I am convinced that this is all there is, and as Peggy Lee sang in Is That's All There Is?

"If that's all there is, my friends
Then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is"

I believe that we have to keep dancing, metaphorically, to the very end. I know some of my religious friends worry that without the moral shackles of organized religion, we will devolve into this debased society behaving like animals. Let's think about that for a moment.

To our knowledge, crows, elephants, whales, porpoises, and a long list of animals seem to have formed very effective and peaceful societal structures, many with monogamous relationships, all without the benefit of religion as near as we can tell. The animals I just named are considered higher on the evolutionary and intellectual ladder than many species. Still, even honey bees and ants and a host of other species seem to have made it through millions of years of evolution without the benefit of religion and without destroying themselves.

Our hominin species has existed for perhaps six million years. We were unaware of organized religion for most of that time; that only came about 50,000 years ago. That means religion has dominated our species for only about .0083% of our time on the planet, and we seem to have continued to evolve and thrive for the other 99.9917% of the time before religion. It seems clear that it is possible to organize an orderly society around common sense civil laws for the benefit of all without the belief in a supernatural being pulling the strings or threatening to wipe us out of existence.

Imagine a world without the various religions at each other's throats. Imagine people living without the fear of damnation and burning in the fires of hell hanging over their heads, according to religious leaders. Imagine a world where we can calmly and intelligently discuss topics like same-sex relationships and a woman's right to choose or reject motherhood without the overwrought righteousness of religious fanatics trying to force their beliefs on everyone else. We can stop banning books because a minority of religious parents object to the factual teaching of history they believe conflicts with the words in books written 2,000 and 3,000 years ago by a culture that still believed the world was flat.

That's not to say that, as a civil society, we might not pass laws against certain behaviors, publications, or organizations that society objects to, just as we do today. Since neither religious texts nor our Constitution could foresee what the world is like today or might be in another three hundred years, we will constantly be revising or devising our laws to adapt to our evolution, socially and technologically.

In a civil society that embraces democracy, the decision will be a majority decision, not of one person whose questionable historical claim is that someone spoke to God and chiseled His words on a stone tablet. Yes, the Ten Commandments make good sense, but all those guiding statements likely existed long before Moses came down from the mountain; all he did was "codify" them by claiming they came from God. But there are many other teachings of religion regarding slavery and the subjugation of women that are as ancient and outdated as the men who wrote those words.

Moses is also quoted as saying, "Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man ... , keep alive for yourselves." Other words of wisdom; "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property." And, "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire."

You probably get my point. It was a very different world three thousand years ago. Just as it took almost six million years for us to reach the point of religious fanaticism that led to events like the Inquisition and, more recently, the radicalization of Islam and the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, it will take a long time for us to evolve away from beliefs that are little more than the offspring of the multiple, mythological gods of old.

We will continue to evolve socially, technologically, scientifically, and religiously. One hundred or two hundred years from now, many religious practices and beliefs held today may well be the stuff of museums. Society in the year 2400 will look back on this time the way we look back at ancient religious beliefs and practices like killing children and animal sacrifices to the gods and, later, The God.

So, I believe my friend, Susan, enjoyed her life to the maximum; I know that she did. And we were fortunate to have shared part of her life with us. She held religious beliefs, but she was not "devout," as near as I could tell. And, I believe that she, or rather the elements and energies that made her who she was, will be reabsorbed back into the cosmos and provide sustenance for the next generation of living things. She will live on having made the lives of many of us a happier place and will contribute to the happiness of the future. And she will live on in the loving memories of her family and friends.

With that, I bid our friend, Susan, au revoir (we met her and George in Paris in 1988), and on the day before Easter, a Happy Easter to all my friends, whether at church tomorrow or simply enjoying the pleasures of life on this marvelous planet.