The Poisoned Pen Letter
Several years ago, I received a mysterious, anonymous letter, requesting me to send copies of the same letter to at least two other people. If I did so, I might enjoy the same good fortune that had been known to befall several people who were willing to comply. Were I to disregard the letter, however, I might incur the same bad luck reported by at least three others.
The letter had an immediate, jarring effect. It was a chain letter operating on the carrot and stick principle. Do what I say and you get something wonderful. Don’t do what I say, and just want and see what happens. The choices offered me could not be simpler. Either pass the chain letter along or throw it in the waste basket and take your chances. Since I knew at once I was not going to send such a letter to another person — that would be unethical — it meant throwing the letter away.
Yet, much to my chagrin and embarrassment, I found that surprisingly hard to do. What if there was something to the letter? Could I be absolutely certain that nothing sinister would befall me if I decided to break the chain? Why had the sender refused to sign their name, unless they had something to hide? Was it possible the sender was someone who knew me?
My instinct, the healthy part of my mind, said don’t be silly, throw the letter away, but something stopped me. Instead, putting the letter to the side, I tried not to think about it. A day passed, another day. The more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it. There was only one way to end y conflict. Screwing up my courage, I broke the chain and threw the letter away.
The Theology Of The Unconscious
Like Atran’s African relic, the letter put me in touch with the irrational part of my mind. There was nothing about the letter that made sense, nothing that could make me respect it, yet its power to cast some kind of temporary superstitious spell over me was undeniable. It did that by reaching down, by appealing solely to an early primitive part of my personality.
This book has been an attempt to answer the question with which it began: Why in over thirty years of private practice, after listening to hundreds and hundreds of patients’ dreams, had I not once encountered the presence of God, the appearance of an angel, or heard heaven mentioned? It was remarkable to me, and continues to be remarkable, how otherwise sensitive, thoughtful, inquisitive, sometimes brilliant patients could suddenly turn mute when the subject of the afterlife came up. As though they had given no real thought, unless it smacked them in the face, to the fact of their own death. Was it possible they could be interested in everything under the sun but had no curiosity about one of the greatest questions of all time — what happens to their consciousness after they die? Or, as I began to suspect — because of the unconscious denial of death and the existential dread of thinking about one’s own nonexistence — had their natural curiosity switched off at a very early age?
In the book, I rely on the psychodynamic psychotherapeutic approach which in turn advocates the introduction — between the contemporary biologist’s neurotransmitters, the social scientist’s statistics and the cognitivist’s cognitive mechanisms — of the impact of the dynamic unconscious. Once we do that, a lot of the mystery evaporates. Although we like to talk about God as something incomprehensible, something inexpressible, we forget that our very first experience is with the unknowable. We begin our lives as pre-verbal, existential beings who immediately enter into a symbiotic relationship with a seemingly magical, omnipotent caretaker who knows our every need. Is it any wonder, imprinted in our unconscious, is a deep, lifelong yearning for a cosmic parent to be called upon primarily when we are most in need? As I have tried to show, this cosmic, parental figure is both masculine and feminine. Masculine when protection or vengeance is called for. Feminine when we want a God-like being to take pity on us and intervene because she loves us. It is neither all-powerful, all-knowing, nor all-good. It is not a cohesive, but a transient being, that comes and goes, to be used selectively on a crisis-intervention basis.
Not surprisingly, since the psychodynamic approach is a bottom-up perspective, the picture it reveals is characterized by inconsistency, self-contradiction and instability. It barely resembles the parables and narratives of organized religion. There is, however, as I have said, a genuine yearning for a transcendental “something,” a residue of childish hunger for a cosmic and personal connection that we never entirely surmount.
What I Believe
I’ll close with a final thought experiment. Imagine what has always seemed impossible, actually occurs: science proves that God exists! With, of course, a big assist from God who, as even Richard Dawkins noted in The God Delusion, “could easily reveal himself’ if he chose. And how might he reveal Himself? Well, the philosopher Betrand Russell once said that — were he one day to see all the events of tomorrow clearly and accurately written across the sky, he would then believe in the existence of God. But there could be other ways. God might return to earth, in any shape he wants to and just keeps performing one miracle after another, until even the most diehard atheist would have to cry uncle. Once we make the assumption that God has chosen to reveal Himself, we see how easy it would be. There would, of course, always be the chance that the God who was revealing Himself was not the God we have always believed in, the God of the Bible, but a trickster God. Or not a God at all, but a superhumanly intelligent and unimaginably scientifically advanced extraterrestrial who, for one reason or another was, was interested in duping us, but few would take such doubts seriously.
Now what would the impact be on science as a body of knowledge, in particular on professional skeptics such as Carl Sagan (supposing he were still alive) and Richard Dawkins, who have banked their careers on the opposite result? As for science, the proof of the existence of God would not only constitute by far the greatest scientific discovery in history, but it would necessitate at the very least a revolution in the structure of physics. To the four fundamental forces — electromagnetism, gravity, the strong and the weak nuclear force — the supernatural power of God would have to be added. For who could now deny that miracles — in the strict scientific sense of immaterial, invisible, supernatural forces being able to interact with wholly physical objects — really do occur?
It would, however, be a somewhat different story for someone such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. I would guess at first they would have to be more than a little embarrassed. But the core of skepticism is fearlessness in the face of even the most unpleasant of truths, so I see them rallying quickly, climbing on the bandwagon and eager to be on the cutting edge of a glorious new scientific frontier — the race to understand how God created the universe.
Now what about the reverse — science disproves the existence of God? Although traditionally religion has long counted on the impossibility of this ever coming to pass, it is far easier to imagine than the opposite. Think of science advancing to such a mind-boggling state that it can (as per Alan Guth) create universes in a laboratory, engineer life in its full complexity at will, explain in a thoroughly naturalistic way exactly how the big bang happened. Or imagine biblical scholarship, so fantastically developed that it can go back in time and piece together thousands of historical facts that unanimously and conclusively demonstrate that authorship of the Bible was wholly and only human?
In the advent of such an admittedly astounding occurrence, it would require no leap of the imagination to see that the foundation of theology would be demolished and that the belief system of the devoutly religious would be dealt at the very least a crippling blow. It is one thing to say, as the skeptic does, “I prefer to live in a world ruled by reason and humanism.” It is another to say, as the believer does, “I cannot imagine and would not want to live in a world without God. Such a world would be without meaning.” But what if life is without meaning in the cosmological sense, what if life arose accidentally, as many leading scientists believe, a random if incredible, statistical fluke?
Saying this, I am aware in this thought experiment, that the skeptic has far less to lose than the believer. The skeptic after all loses only a single important belief. The believer, however, has lost just about everything that matters in the world. My point is just that, although everyone ultimately must choose their own cosmology, hopefully that choice won’t be based on fear, magical thinking or child-life neediness.
If the practice of psychotherapy teaches anything, it shows that life is a never-ending struggle of encounters with unimaginable and unacceptable realities. No one, for example, thinks they or anyone they love are going to die, but everyone does. No one can imagine what it can be like not to exist, and yet everyone — in the sense of one day having to give up everything about their life on earth which they treasured — will meet that fate. Nor is this particularly mysterious. We are programmed by evolution to be born, to live, to suffer deeply, to celebrate when we can, to endure random tragedy and to die. And like it or not, we all find that somehow we are able, however imperfectly and resentfully, to do this.
The unfortunate clash between science and religion is not one between reason and emotion. The skeptic is not or does not have to be, as many believe, cold-hearted and mean-spirited. At his best, as in the case of Carl Sagan, he has passion and wonder, as well as reason and doubt.
As a therapist — if you look in the eyes of someone who is talking about the afterlife — you often can see a childlike self. You see a core of wonder we all start out with, but which somehow has ceased to grow. Both culture at large and religion are complicitous, both have tried to manipulate and micromanage that innate cosmic curiosity. But no one, no authority can tell you what your life means to you or should mean to you. Science or theology can tell you what they think their answer is to what exists out there, what lies in store for us, and what came before us, but they cannot tell you what that answer means to you. An individual’s truth can only be individually interpreted. You can hand that over to an authority, but you are still making an interpretation: to attain truth is to identify with someone who represents it.
Having said that, it is obvious that my own belief system does not matter, or should only matter to me. But if I were asked, I would say I personally believe:
That the Bible is a great but flawed book, best understood in the context of the times in which it was written; a repository of wondrous poetry and timeless folk wisdom, but not an infallible guide on how to live one’s life in the modern world; not a blueprint of how heaven and earth were created, not a picture of the afterlife. That the cosmologists are the true theologians of today, the ones most likely to take us closer to the mystery of how our universe was created. That the meaning of our lives is not measured by whether the cosmos is indifferent to our suffering or not, but depends far more on what we make of our relationship to the world in which we find ourselves. That the best answer to the meaningfulness of our death or the question of the afterlife will be found in the life that preceded it. That as a nation, far more than scientific illiteracy, we suffer from what could be called existential illiteracy: the failure to wonder in an intelligent, creative and mature way about the greatest question of all — the puzzle of our own existence.
As I write this, there is a report on the science channel on the latest findings of SETI, which always seems to be the same. Decades of the most diligent, ultra-high tech, astronomical scanning of the skies have yet to produce a single authenticated instance of a message being received from an extraterrestrial intelligence. Undaunted, they continue to search. Some of the best minds in the world are devoting their lives to finding in the vastness of the cosmos a possible clue to the riddle of our existence, the mystery of life. Whatever the answer may be, whether it be joyful and uplifting or dispiriting, frightening and isolating, they are more than ready to accept it, to deal with it, to discover whatever meaning there may be.
I, for one, find that comforting.
Gerald Alper, Author:
God & Therapy
What we believe when no one is watching