Cosmology — fragments

say the world is filled
mainly with emptiness

gaps
between trees

space
between stars and planets
atoms and particles

tiny fragments
of presence
surrounded by absence

sounds break up silence
into song, measured and measurable
ordered on mathematical principles
numbered and arranged
in defiance of zero
of nothing
of space

vain desire that there be
something rather than nothing

lonely beauty of a dying star
on the remote edge
of a galaxy
a billion light years away
spinning and whirling
on the edge of annihilation
dancing and singing
its brief being
into the void

is it just a habit of mind
this conflict between something and nothing?
Manichaean tendency to believe
that everything requires an opposite?
polarizing instinct to divide
rather than blend?

say
we are atoms thrown defiantly together
we are particles cast out from stars
we are energy
time and motion

and when our time is done
cast off again
thrown together again
reused and recycled

old notes for new songs
new arrangements of old harmonies

in the end there is silence

that music had a dying fall
but does nothing follow?

the musicians put away their instruments
the audience departs, the hall is empty

say there will be other songs, other performances
other musicians and audiences

say each performance will be something new
or a remembrance of something that never was
and never will be again

maybe it’s a failure of imagination
that I don’t believe

in angels or gods, or
feel a connection to something beyond

that I don’t fill emptiness with purpose
suppose that planets have plans for me
or that they rest on spheres moved by celestial harmonies

that the inert remembers
the briefly living, that there is justice
more satisfying than dissolution

although I sometimes hope for a thread of memory
stitched into a corner of the fabric of time

I do not know how things begin
or end, or even if

or say
beginning and end are one and the same
seen from different angles

a lone whale sings her grief
to an almost empty ocean

in the middle of Ireland
stones still hold the shape
of an old church
carved and carefully stacked
into walls defying entropy
which has already claimed the roof
ruined the choir
where now even birds are not singing

other stones remember
lives no one recalls
history does not remark

only a fugitive cow grazes in the long grass
honeybees stir the pestles of wildflowers in the shade of a stone wall

and I have stopped to capture a moment in a photograph

how much longer will these stones cling to each other?
to the idea of order that placed them here?
how long can names and dates resist the wind and rain?

one year and eight hours away
I sat on the bench near my father’s stone
having cleared away the encroaching grass
and dirt that filled in the letters
of his name

and I spoke to him as if he were alive
spoke in a way I never did
while he was alive

I spoke as if he could hear me
as if it were a prayer

the wind stirred the leaves in the trees
and brought the rainclouds closer

somewhere a bird sang
a melody I couldn’t follow
and a hare stopped briefly
to consider my presence
then carried on with his day

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, BC, July 2019

Ungodly

Many people find it hard to accept that anyone is really an atheist. When the going gets tough, they think, the tough get praying. There are no atheists in foxholes. I suppose that last part may be true. Most of the atheists I know would rather find an alternative to fighting, if at all possible, while many religions have made a fetish of dying for your beliefs. And, statistically, atheism is fairly unusual, so it’s likely that not many atheists find themselves in a foxhole, especially outside the context of a World War, like the two that consumed the first half of the 20th Century.

Still, people look at you funny if you say you don’t believe in a god. Not that I say it all that often, and not generally unprompted. Atheism isn’t something I advertise. I don’t feel any need to proselytize in the name of… well, of no one, of nothing. I don’t really want to convert anyone to doubt.

But believers often want to convert me to faith, or to convince me that I really do believe in something, and that that something is really juts another name for a god. And not just any god, but their God. After all, as Ricky Gervais likes to point out, there are thousands of gods, and most religious people only believe in one of them, and disbelieve in the rest; I just happen to disbelieve in one more than they do. Or don’t. Whatever.

Frequently the something they try to convince me I believe in is science. This seems funny to me, and shows they don’t really understand what science is. What science isn’t is a system of beliefs. What science is is a method of proving (or, more often, of disproving) hypotheses about the world. It is a useful method for developing our understanding of natural or physical phenomena, and has led to a great many technological advances (although technology, contrary to popular belief, is not the same thing as science).

There are, of course, things I believe for which I have insufficient or no proof at all, although I tend to view these beliefs as hypotheses. I don’t, however, believe these things religiously. If someone were to provide proof that I’m wrong about them, I don’t think I would have much trouble changing my mind. I’m not speaking, here, only about scientific proofs/disproofs. This could be (and often is) more a matter of philosophical persuasion. That was the case when I stopped believing in gods.

I was brought up in a religious family, as an Anglican (the Canadian version of Church of England, Episcopalian, etc). All my early life, I was trying to find ways to think about god that made sense to my young mind. When I was very young, for example, before I started school, I imagined that the bright light at the centre of a light bulb was god. Even then, I wanted some evidence that the being in the Sunday school stories was more than just an idea. Much later, it was the problem of evil that ended my faith for good. The question if god is all powerful, all knowing, all good, and the creator of everything, how is there evil in the world? didn’t seem to have a reasonable answer. It still doesn’t. I don’t buy the ‘free will’ argument, that god is just letting us choose. My will would be no less free if all the options I had to choose from were good. Also, it still doesn’t explain the origin of evil.

That problem, of course, is specific to Semitic or western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a polytheistic world view, or one in which the creator god is not all good. Those have other issues, that western religions share, such as how gods interact with the physical world and its laws, such as conservation of matter and energy.

It may be that I am wrong. That there is a god, or many gods. Perhaps even the one worshiped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I doubt it, but that possibility exists. If I am proven wrong in my atheistic hypothesis, I will acknowledge it and change my mind. (Continuing to believe something that’s proven wrong is just idiotic.) But in the meantime, rest assured I will not try to convert any religious folk (including my family) to my point of view, and I hope I can expect the same treatment in return.

The aesthetics of ceremony

Yesterday I went to my niece’s christening. As an atheist, I have little to do with churches, and generally only for some time of ceremony: weddings, funerals, and now a baptism. While the ‘spiritual’ aspects of these events are lost on me, I find the aesthetics of them interesting.

I should point out that I wasn’t raised as an atheist. My brother and I were both raised as Christians, in the Anglican church (for American readers, that’s the same as Episcopalian). I have attended services in Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Mormon and other churches over the years. I moved from being a believer, through agnosticism to my current atheism gradually, over the span of a few years, in my 20s. My reasons were mostly philosophical, and I’m not going to deal with them here.

The best way to describe Anglicanism is more protestant than Catholicism, more Catholic than Protestantism. Similar to other most protestant churches, there is no requirement for personal confession, for example. On the other hand, as with Catholicism there are a number of  ritual sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage and funerary rites. Some of these, even to non-believers, can be quite beautiful. (The same can be said for many Catholic and Orthodox rituals, and for some very protestant ones, too. Think of High Mass, or a revivalist baptism in a river. The rituals and ceremonies of other religions, from what little I know of them, can be equally moving.)

In general, what I find impressive about any religion is its aesthetic. I remember attending a friend’s wedding, many years ago, in a Ukrainian Orthodox church. The beauty of the architecture, of the liturgy, the singing of the cantor, the dramatic symbolism used in the ceremony, were fascinating. They didn’t make me feel the presence of a supernatural being, but I can understand how they might reinforce someone’s belief.

To me, this is where Protestantism often takes a wrong turn. In their rush to democratize religion, protestants often remove much of the beauty that makes ritual work. You can see it in the utilitarian design of many of their churches, which can just as easily be a big box retail outlet in some cases, or a shotgun shack in others. Their ideological suspicion of the aesthetic has stripped their liturgy and many of their hymns of metaphor. Even those metaphors they retain, they prefer to understand as literal. Where Catholicism is rife with symbolism and metaphor, Protestantism does its best to strip them out.

I have to admit that in this respect, if not in all others, I find Catholicism preferable. It is, perhaps, a remnant of my Anglican upbringing. Although I despised the dour Victorian hymns, and often thought that aspects of the liturgy sound like their promoting cannibalism, the poetic rhythms of the mass, the creed, and some of the scripted prayers, especially when sung, have a quality that is rarely equaled in more plain-Jane services.

I am by no means an expert on religion, or religions. While the beauty of rituals doesn’t, for me, create a longing to be part of a church, or instill in me any suspicion that I’m wrong about the (non)existence of gods, your experience, and your interpretations, may be entirely different, and I respect that. Moreover, while the poetry, drama, music and architecture aren’t what create ex nihilo the belief that is the raison d’etre of any church, temple, cathedral, synagogue or mosque, it likely can, for many people, reinforce their belief, in part by instilling a sense of awe. Others may feel this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, necessary. To me, though, with my outsider’s view, religion without ritual and beauty, is a diminished thing.

…shall inherit the earth

I am a relatively lucky man. I don’t have a lot of material wealth, but I do have more than a lot of people. I have more people in my life who I love than I can count on both hands, to borrow a line from Pearl Jam. I’ve even managed to keep a number of those relationships alive for more than two decades. My health isn’t perfect, but my end date is an open question, not something I can see rushing toward me at a defined pace.

Not everyone can say these things, and despite the conventional wisdom that everything is about choices and attitudes, it’s often not their fault. For some people, none of the options available to them are good, and no amount of positive thinking will change that.

We don’t like to think about ‘the poor’ in our society, and when we do, we prefer to assume their fate was a result of their own character flaws or poor choices than the inevitable outcome of our social structures. We like to dismiss the homeless and the poor as lazy and/or stupid, because it absolves us of any responsibility.

This is a strange position to take for a society that likes to think of itself as Christian. When you consider how wealth and poverty are discussed in the Gospels – that the poor get to inherit the earth, that the rich have less chance of entering heaven than a camel does of passing the eye of a needle, and so on – it’s difficult to fathom how we can be so blasé about the misery of others. Of course, someone will point out that ‘the poor shall always be with you,’ but I don’t think that statement was meant to excuse the rest of us from trying to make their lot better.

Now, as I’ve stated before, I’m not a Christian (or an anything, for that matter), and further, I’d prefer our society – or at least our institutions – to be secular. But whatever your religious persuasion (or, if you’re like me, unpersuasion), it seems socially important that we try to do a better job of looking after each other.

Currently, our western societies seem to be moving in the opposite direction. (No eastern societies are doing any better in that regard, as far as I’m aware.) We retreat into looking after ourselves, and maybe the small cluster of people we surround ourselves with. The Ayn Rand Virtue of Selfishness crowd seems to have largely won the day, at least for now.

There are some, of course – of many religious and non-religious stripes – who do try to help those whose boats have been swamped by the ebb and flow of economic tides. They volunteer at food banks and soup kitchens. They collect and hand out blankets and socks. They do so much, but it is never enough. Can never be enough.

Poverty is the cancer caused not just by our economic systems, but the way we have structured our societies. It grows and spreads. Charity is like chemotherapy trying to keep some of the tumors at bay, at best, like an opioid to dull the pain at worst. Charity cannot prevent poverty, or make the pain of it slightly less intolerable.

Is there a way to change this? To prevent poverty, rather than ‘treating’ it? I don’t know. I like to think there is, even if I can’t describe it myself. I’m pretty certain, though, that it won’t come from more Randian selfishness, or from any amount of charity. Marx thought he’d found a solution, and I think he was right in assuming it required democratization of economics, but his method – at least as it’s been executed historically – hasn’t worked out any better than Christianity.

If anyone’s got some serious ideas how to go about this, please speak up.