I am a research mathematician and a Jewish American in the twentieth century United States. My own Jewish background comes more from the universalist Socialist Yiddishkeit tradition than from rabbinic Judaism. I mention all these facts upfront since it is relevant to the remainder of this essay which centers on the personal question – why am I not an atheist and what does this decision have to do with mathematics.
Religion and belief are ideas that confront all of us, mathematicians and non- mathematicians alike. For some, these ideas become the overriding concern of their lives; others relegate them to the sidelines. In the modern world though, despite the overwhelming presence of science and technology, few completely ignore religion and belief. My professional life and my intellectual life have been centered for the most part on the arcane world of theorems, computations and applications. Yet as a scientist in America, I have been confronted with the question posed to many scientists, that of religion and belief in a God. In the western world and especially in the twentieth century United States there seems to be a basic antagonism between belief in God and fundamentalist religion on one side and atheism on the other. This is not to say that there are not fundamental religious believers who do not deny science or that there are scientists who are devout in one religion or another. However basically this antagonistic conversation is between scientists who say there is no need for God in an explanation of our world and fundamentalist believers who claim that all truth is found in faith, specifically their own faith. On the no need for God side, the philosopher Christopher Hitchens and the biologist Richard Dawkins fiercely espouse this view. In oppostion are pure religionists who say all explanations come from their particular religious explanation. These include the literalists who claim either the Bible or the Koran is the word of God. Some take an in-between approach. An interesting slant is given by the physicist Michael Dennin in his book “Divine Essence” who argues for a view between purely physical and observable and points to Schrodinger’s equation as a proof. Proof here is relevant as we will see. I would guess that most modern American scientists take a sort of Deist view. That is, God exists, and maybe has something to do with humans but cannot change, alter or control the laws of nature.
Mathematicians are in a strange position in this discussion. As scientists, they believe in experiment and theory. They understand, as the Nobel Prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner put it “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ in explaining the universe. Mathematicians understand the logical inconsistencies in traditional religion. On the other hand there is an aspect of theoretical mathematics that is beyond and outside the scope of human experience and it is this transcendence that seems to argue for the existence of a higher intelligence.
In my mathematical lectures, whenever I get to a result that pinpoints the transcendence of Mathematics and the independence of Mathematics from our human form, I point out to my students that theorems and mathematical facts and mathematical relationships tend to lead to a belief in a higher power. This is not necessarily the God of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or the Gods of Hinduism but rather a higher intelligence or a higher entity that somehow set all of this in motion. It was because of comments like this that I was pulled peripherally into a debate on atheism.
Christopher Hitchens was an invited speaker on my campus, a Jesuit university. Although his reputation was as a genial person and a strong speaker, his views were a bit too strident for many of the students, most of them Catholic. I find that many atheists, like Hitchens, are so devout, if such a word can be used for an atheist, in their atheistic positions, that they give no respect for the poor fools on the other side. The same is true of Richard Dawkins, another noted atheist, in his writings, as well as comedian Bill Maher in his anti-religious movie Religulous. In this respect, the atheists become as bad as the fundamentalists on the complete opposite side of the atheism-theism spectrum. As an offshoot of the Hitchens lecture, an on-campus debate on atheism was organized..
On one side of the debate was a member of the psychology department, a noted neuroscientist and, like Hitchens and Dawkins, a committed atheist. On the other side, in opposition, was our academic vice president Father Paul, a Jesuit priest. Father Paul is a strong and well-known scholar and an accomplished debater. I thought and told many of my students that it was wrong debate. In my opinion whenever one side of a debate on atheism is represented by a clergyman, whether a priest, rabbi, minister or imam, the debate, almost by necessity, becomes one of atheism versus that particular religion. Even for as strong and thoughtful a scholar as Father Paul, his views on belief must be colored by his beliefs. This often plays into the hands of the atheist whose arguments are usually not so much against theism per se, but against organized religion. That is my major criticism of Hitchens, since his arguments eventually fall back onto the stupidity and harmfulness of organized faiths. Dawkins does this also, although he, more than Hitchens, does stress that the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being is unnecessary to understand our universe.
I expressed my views on the debate and then the question was posed to me “Well, Are you an atheist?” My answer is one that is probably quite common among scientists, an answer that sits squarely on the fence. I agree with almost all of Hitchen’s arguments on organized religion and I agree with Dawkins that the existence of a deity is unnecessary to understand our world as it is, however I am not an atheist. The question then is “why not?” and I have two reasons; the first is that I don’t want to be, and the second is Mathematics.
I am not an atheist primarily because I don’t want to be an atheist. I don’t want to believe that we humans are just an evolved collection of atoms that somehow understands that we are just an evolved collection of atoms. I don’t want to believe that there is nothing watching over us and what we do has no real everlasting consequences to us. The fact that we as human beings can understand the good of ethical principles seems to me to indicate that there is something guiding us in an ethical direction. What is ethical though is a subjective position that is often colored by religious faith. Because of this, it is not at all clear exactly what is ethical and what is not. For example homosexuality is fiercely condemned by right-wing Christianity while other religions and cultures treat it as an ethical neutral. Fundamentalist Christians would argue that homosexual behavior is unethical while a large part of the thinking world would argue that it is just a variant of human behavior, with nothing inherently ethical or unethical about it. At the most basic level, the golden rule in its lowest form – do minimal harm to other humans – seems to be accepted as ethical by most cultures. Even here though, what is minimal harm and what constitutes other humans, is often in question. The Iroquois were quite ethical among other humans, provided other humans were defined as other Iroquois. Hurons or Crees were not humans and one could do what one wanted with them. This type of tribal thinking was prevalent in our own Western beginnings. The Old Testament in its earliest descriptions certainly treats other cultures with disdain. It isn’t until the Prophets like Ezekiel and Isaiah that a tinge of universality among humans is expressed. However, I, as a human, want to believe that there is some extra-human reason for ethical behavior. If not, then ethical behavior becomes solely biological, what is ethical is that which leads to the preservation of the species; nothing more and nothing less. This has been argued extensively and in my gut I reject it. Inflicting emotional pain then has no ethical value, positive or negative, and I would like to believe that it does.
However, despite my deep conviction and desire that there is some higher power watching over us, I agree with Hitchens and Dawkins that there is no proof and further that the accepted religions are in most cases illogical and in many cases harmful. Dawkins, on top of being an atheist is an evolutionary biologist. He makes the point over and over again that God is unnecessary to understand our world. Dawkins appeared on the cable television show of Bill O’Reilly the right-wing TV commentator. In both this televised debate and the debate at my university, other than the fact that in both cases the atheist made the more cogent arguments, was that as I explained above, they debated the wrong question. Inevitably in one of these debates, the non-atheist position is presented by some religious scholar or a person from one particular religious point of view. The debate then becomes one of atheism versus religion. Hence the atheist, such as Dawkins, points out the inconsistencies in Christianity while the other side argues how important religion is. This was exactly the case with Dawkins versus O’Reilly. Dawkins argued correctly that with modern science there is no need for any deity to explain natural phenomena. O’Reilly, who prior to this I thought was one of the more intelligent right-wingers, completely misunderstood Dawkins’ arguments and foolishly argued how necessary religion, i.e. Christianity, was. Dawkins for his part played right into O’Reilly’s hands, and the views of O’Reilly, by being condescending to all religious people. I think the appropriate question is not whether organized religion is correct but rather is there evidence, or not, for some higher power. As far as I can determine every organized religion is inconsistent and contradictory and has very little probability of being correct, even within its own logic. On the other hand none of this mitigates against the existence of a higher power or even a higher power that has some plan for Earthly creatures.
The problem with Hitchens and Dawkins and most atheists is that they go way beyond pure atheism and argue that religion is not only wrong but dangerous. Hitchens in God is Not Great goes so far as to argue that it is a form of child abuse. In that book he concentrates for the most part on the western monotheistic religions; Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but gives no quarter in also condemning Hinduism and Buddhism. He writes well and makes sound arguments against the western and eastern religious myths and practices. However he makes the mistake that all atheists make in completing ignoring the essential human need for religion and relegates this need to superstition. His book and Dawkin’s arguments becomes more of a screed than a balanced look at the issues.
I agree with Hitchens, in principle, that the major organized religions, especially in the fact that they are exclusive, poison much of human life. However this is not in the religion itself but in the way that the followers have corrupted it. I had a close friend, a priest, who has since passed away, with whom I played golf once a week. On the golf course he and I had long rambling philosophical discussions. He was a good athlete but relative to golf his credo was “don’t spoil a good walk by keeping score”. His view, and remember he was a priest, was that there was nothing inherently wrong with Christianity other than it had never been practiced. I know this idea is not original but I first heard it from him. The basic ethical tenets of Christianity as espoused say in the Sermon on the Mount are sound, but Jesus wouldn’t recognize the way most of his followers behave. As an aside, Judaism has one advantage over Christianity and Islam in regard to exclusiveness. The basic commandments of Judaism, except for killing, immorality, and idol worship are reserved just for Jews whereas non-Christians are doomed by Christianity. As a non-Christian, I am destined to an eternity in either hell or limbo, but a non-Jew such as my priest friend is not punished for having a strip of bacon.
So despite agreeing with Hitchens on the basic inconsistencies and even cruelty of organized religion I want to believe that there is a higher power and there is a reason for living and living well. I want to believe that the golden rule has some divine inspiration rather than just an evolutionary result that best leads to the perpetuation of our species. Here however there is some mathematical evidence that the golden rule is evolutionary. If one starts with the prisoner’s dilemma, that is, how should two prisoners separated and interrogated behave, it can be proved mathematically and rigorously, that the best strategy is always cooperation – a sort of primitive golden rule. Hitchens and Dawkins completely ignore the basic human need for religion or at least for meaning. Hitchens argues that this is just superstition fueled by a fear of death. I don’t believe this. Of course I want to live but I don’t fear death. I look at dying as a Game Theory problem. Either there is an afterlife and I’ll be feasting in Odin’s Hall in Valhalla (assuming that I’m not bad enough to go to hell and I don’t believe that I’ve been bad enough to be hell-bound ) or there is nothing and I’m back to just component atoms. Either way there is nothing to fear. While I live in the here and now, I do want meaning and I don’t want to believe that it is just passing time and passing on my genetic material. I want to believe that the very fact that we can understand the need for meaning means that there is a meaning.
My need for meaning and hence my rejection of atheism is an emotional thing. I admit this. However I have a second reason for believing in a higher power and this is intellectual. The reason is Mathematics. Surprisingly it is not so much the relevance of Mathematics to the understanding of our universe, the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, as coined by Wigner, and of which I will say more, but the internal consistency and beauty of Mathematics itself that leads me to this belief.
There have been many attempts to “prove” the existence of God mathematically. Supposedly the origin of Bayes’ Theorem was an attempt to quantify the so-called ontological argument or clockmaker proof of the existence of God. Bayes’ Theorem is a result in conditional probability theory that attempts to argue backwards – given an effect find the probability of a given cause. It is a simple argument but has become a cornerstone of modern Probability Theory. It was discovered by Thomas Bayes, a British clergyman and amateur mathematician. The clockmaker argument, which Bayes supposedly was trying to quantify, is the following; a traveler is shipwrecked on a desert island. He finds a clock. There are two possibilities, either there was a clockmaker or a random collection of atoms came together to form a clock. The clockmaker solution is of course the highly probable one. Bayes was attempting to apply this to the complexity of the universe, much more complex that a clock, with the clockmaker as God. However here the answer is probabilistic, that is this argument still has some doubt. Further given the vast amount of time involved, the fact that even as complex a situation as our universe occurs is very probable. Individual items which have tiny probabilities of occurring when observed a multitude of times have a high probability of being observed. To see this, suppose that the probability that a particular person winning a lottery twice is extremely small – say one in a billion. However given the billions and billions of lottery tickets sold, the probability of seeing someone somewhere winning twice is quite high. Most people laugh at the oft told example of a monkey randomly typing Shakespeare. However given a huge collection of monkeys over a huge amount of time the probability of this occurring is not nil. Our universe has a huge number of objects and has been evolving over a long period of time hence for it to evolve into the complex system that it is, is not improbable.
Recently there have been attempts to prove the existence of God using the first and second laws of thermodynamics from Physics. These proofs can be found on the internet. However they have been debunked also (see the book Irreligious by J.A. Paulos). The fact is, there are no rigorous proofs of any higher entity. However Mathematics does give the indication of such a deity in two different ways. One lies in the observable fact that the world and the universe seem to be governed by mathematical laws. The second is from the beautiful intricacies of Mathematics, even though Mathematics seems to be independent of our human form.
The general belief is that human beings came upon Mathematics first through arithmetic and counting and then through the observations of geometry. However Keith Devlin in his book The Math Gene makes the interesting point that we seem to be hard-wired for Mathematics through our ability to ask and try to answer “what if” questions and through our penchant for classification, that is placing in an abstract way, physical objects, into categories. This latter idea is mathematical in nature and part of set theory, partitioning a set into equivalent objects. Set Theory is the cornerstone of all of modern Mathematics. Every human language that we can decipher seems to have this type of classification, indicating that it is a basic tendency in all humans. In whatever manner human beings first encountered and used Mathematics, it has become evident with deeper observation that Mathematics is the language of science. Our physical laws are best expressed in terms of mathematical relationships. I often point out to my students that the 1600’s changed the world and not because of any political facts that they may have encountered in their history courses. In about 1650, Descartes and Fermat developed (or discovered) Analytic Geometry and this proved to be one of the most influential discoveries to date in human thought. A non-mathematical reader may be asking why this idea is so influential. The answer is that the discovery of Analytic Geometry led relatively quickly to the discovery by Newton and Leibniz of the Calculus at the end of that century. Without Analytic Geometry it is doubtful whether Calculus would have been developed. It was the discovery of Calculus that ushered in the technological revolution and set the stage for our modern world. For reasons we don’t fully understand, humans do not do hard engineering without first discovering the hard science that backs it up. The Romans and the medieval castle builders were excellent construction people but it wasn’t until physical stresses and the uses of metals were understood scientifically that we could build steel framed skyscrapers. The idea of an electric light bulb is very simple – heat a metal filament with electricity until it glows, yet Edison didn’t develop one until Maxwell had already developed the mathematical laws of electricity. Further humans do not seem to do the hard science until the hard mathematics to explain it has been developed. Hence it was not until Calculus was understood and in place that the technological revolution took off. It was not an accident that the modern world really evolved after 1700.
When I point out the importance of Analytic Geometry, students often ask why it took so long to discover it. Now it is considered such a simple subject that it is introduced in grade school. My explanation is that human beings may take a long time to learn something but the time to the next important discovery is shortened. Archaeologists estimate that man learned to control fire about eighty thousand years ago. If we as a species (apes that walk upright), have been around for about a million years, this implies that it took us nine hundred and twenty thousand years to learn that skill. However in the ensuing eighty thousand years, a relatively short period compared to the nine hundred thousand previous years, we have learned to control not only fire but other forms of energy that allow us to cook, travel, farm and build.
Despite being the language of science and very precisely, albeit with a margin of error, explaining much of natural laws, Mathematics goes much deeper than its applications. It is this deepness that hints at a higher power.
There are many philosophies of Mathematics trying to explain what the subject is. However all mathematical philosophies are variants of essentially two views, the realist view and the constructivist view. The separation between these two views can be best explained by how one answers the question;”Is Mathematics discovered or invented”. The group that answers this question as “Mathematics is discovered” are the realists. They believe that abstract mathematical objects are real and have an existence independent of the human beings that use them or study them. Since objects supposedly must lie in some universe, the universe that mathematical objects lie in is the world of Platonic forms. Hence mathematical realism is often equated with Platonism. Most mathematicians, especially abstract mathematicians, tend to fall in the discovered camp. Paul Erdos, a famous mathematician often called the “Math Monk” would talk of a book in heaven of perfect proofs. If he liked a proof that someone presented he would remark “Ahh, that’s in the book.” The invented group says that Mathematics is invented to be used by humans and has no life independent of us. The mathematician Leopold Kronecker , one of the major algebraists of the nineteenth century once wrote “God made the integers, all else is the work of man”, placing him in the invented group.
I can’t accept Kronecker’s view, although in my own work I have written several expositions of a famous theorem of Kronecker. I am solidly in the discovered group. There is too much of Mathematics that is completely independent of human beings and independent of our human forms to believe that Mathematics comes from just our uses of it.
Suppose that we were on a distant planet in a distant galaxy and we were jelly fish. At Jelly Fish University every subject might be different except Mathematics. The jelly fish may have no concept of history or religion akin to ours but the theorems they prove in their Mathematics classes would also be theorems here. Of course they may stress different things. For example, the majority of our world believes that Euclidean Geometry is the geometry of the universe (although there are some theories in Physics pointing to a non-Euclidean universe). Perhaps on Jelly Fish Planet they believe the universe is Hyperbolic non-Euclidean. However the theorems they prove about Hyperbolic Geometry are the same as the theorems we would prove about Hyperbolic Geometry. Further the theorems we prove about Euclidean Geometry, they would also prove about Euclidean Geometry. Some physical scientists, chemists and physicists might disagree with me. They would argue that the physical laws are true everywhere in the universe. However we believe these physical laws to be true because we observed them here. We don’t know with absolute certainty that these laws are true elsewhere. We know by experiment that mixing two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen under certain conditions of temperature and pressure we obtain water. The probability is extremely high that this is true everywhere in our universe. However we can’t say with certainty that on Jelly Fish Planet two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen leads to water; perhaps these conditions on that planet yield orange juice. On the other hand, given the basic axioms of Euclidean Geometry and the standard laws of logic the Pythagorean theorem is true, and given the basic axioms of Hyperbolic Geometry and the standard laws of logic the Pythagorean theorem is false, independent of who or what is looking at it.
Given the independence of Mathematics from our human form, the fact that there are amazing results and relationships within Mathematics itself cries out for the existence of this higher power. There is a, perhaps apocryphal, story about the great twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell was one the strongest expounders of the need to logically formalize all of Mathematics. He was also a noted atheist. Late in his career he was interviewed and asked if he now believed in God. He answered”Yes,” to the reporter’s surprise. The reporter then asked, perhaps tweaking him a bit, “But Lord Russell you stress that everything must be proved. What is your proof of God”. Russell responded “eip + 1 = 0” and said nothing more, leaving the reporter dumbfounded. The equation he presented to the reporter is called Euler’s Magic Formula and has subsequently been referred to as Betrand Russel’s proof of the existence of God. There is nothing magical about the formula. It arises naturally from the theory of infinite series and I usually present it to a first year course in Calculus. What is amazing though is that this formula exists at all and that we don’t push it to exist. It bears repeating that it arises naturally and that this simple formula has in it the five most important numbers in Mathematics, 0,1,e, i,p. If one ponders how these five numbers arise, it is magical that they satisfy one simple equation. The number 0 is an additive identity, 1 is a multiplicative identity, p is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, e is the base of the natural logarithm system and i is the square root of -1 and helps to form the complex numbers. None of these are created artificially and any species that studied Mathematics, such as our friends on Jelly Fish Planet, would eventually discover them.
Amazing and unexpected results such as this abound in Mathematics. Mario Livio in his book Is God a Mathematician presents a vast collection of examples. One of the main concepts in Calculus is that of the derivative. For a function, the derivative measures the instantaneous rate of change and geometrically the slope of its tangent. It is a complicated idea. However developing formulas for the derivatives of common functions becomes very easy. If y = xn then its derivative is nxn-1 a fact learned by every Calculus student. This fact is astounding in its simplicity. Students take this fact for granted and learn it but imagine how it must have seemed to Newton, Barrow and Fermat who first discovered it. Such a simple formula for such a complicated idea must come from God. If there was only one such astounding theorem it might be attributed to a lucky accident. Mathematics as a whole contains so many that I as a mathematician look for a higher explanation.
A very common component of arguments or debates over atheisim versus belief of some sort concerns people’s individual spiritual experiences. It is surprising how common these experiences are, even among nonbelievers. For people tied to a particular religion, having a spiritual experience often makes them feel and believe that that have confronted their God directly. Biologists, medical people and psychologists often scoff at these experiences; however they are very real for the people who experience them. As above, for already religious people a spiritual experience, or something that they perceive as a miracle, reinforces their beliefs. No rational argument can shake them from this. However such experiences are not limited to religious people and are surprisingly common among nonbelievers. Many nonbelievers then have a religious conversion. Historically, the story of Paul on the road to Damascus is the classic example. This was very real to Paul and his belief in this experience has had a huge effect on world history. The book Fingerprints of God by Barbara Hagerty examines many of these spiritual happenings. She points out that studies show that there are physical changes in individuals reporting these occurrences and some of these changes can be induced by drugs such as peyote but also induced just by religious ceremonies such as Native American sweat lodges.
Usually these experiences occur under extreme stress, so that biologists and psychologists easily explain them as the body’s reactions to stressful situations. However for the person who experiences them they are real and unexplainable. Even those people who scoff at them still have trouble reconciling their individual reactions.
Up to this point my discussions on atheism and belief have been very cerebral and abstract. My main argument has been that Mathematics and especially the fact that it is independent of our corporeal beings, tends to lead to belief in a higher power. However, after all is said and done, belief or non-belief comes down to faith. Either one has religious faith and believes in whatever religion they consider themselves a member of, or, one says that a higher power is unnecessary to explain our universe and either doesn’t believe or thinks that belief is not needed. Yet this cerebral approach has to somehow confront the deep belief or deep unease that arises in these spiritual experiences. At the very least for a nonbeliever these experiences are unexplainable given our general knowledge of the universe up to this point.
I’ve made my case that I am not an atheist but I cannot believe in any of the present world religions. There is just too much that it is inconsistent and contradictory in their views of a higher power and the interaction of this higher power with earthly creatures. What I would like describe now is two very spiritual happenings that occurred to me. As with the rest of this essay, I am on the fence as to how to interpret them. Were they evidence of an afterlife or were they simply a reaction to an extremely painful experience in my life? Psychologists would clearly opt for the latter but I’ll put these two stories out there for a reader to contemplate.
Many of the reported spiritual happenings concern near death experiences and the indication of a possible after life. Spiritualists and religious people point to the commonality of people’s descriptions in these cases to point to the validity of the experiences and by extension the validity of the Christian view of heaven and the afterlife. Many people having near death experiences claim that they were guided to the other side by a brilliant bright white light. Once on the other side they met long dead friends and relatives. The other side is described as peaceful and beautiful. Biologists and psychologists have very straightforward explanations for these descriptions, many taken from physical observations of dying patients. For example consider the guiding light. As patients unconsciously face death there is straining of the brain and temporal lobe. This puts strain on the eyes, which when shut, will then exhibit a white tunnel like effect. For the reader, shut your eyes tightly and concentrate looking forward. You will see the white light. Similarly, the brain as it shuts down, often returns to good experiences. Every memory we have is available. Hence we see friends and relatives. To rational people these scientific explanations all sound wonderful. People, who have had after life experiences, swear that theirs are different. The white light was really there, radiating an aura of peace. It was not some figment of pressure on the eye sockets. My two spiritual experiences are along these lines.
In 1991 my mother was dying of liver disease. There was a certain irony in her disease since she never drank. The smell of even the bar rag makes me sick was her common comment on alcohol. Yet she was a heavy chain smoker on the order of one to two packs a day. Though a smoker she never developed smoker’s cough or any other smoking related health problems. As her liver disease worsened, her doctor confided in me, not knowing how much she smoked, that if her heart and lungs were her not as strong and healthy as they were, she would have been dead already. Fifteen years earlier she had gall bladder surgery and developed hepatitis C from a bad transfusion. One of the few positive aspects of the AIDS epidemic has been the careful screening of blood supplies. She recovered from the bout of hepatitis, but hepatitis C never leaves the body. Slowly her liver was eaten away, so that by 1991 the state of her renal system was beyond repair. She was jaundiced and filled with fluid that her liver could no longer handle. She was in her late seventies and deemed too old for a liver transplant. Although I denied it at the time, it was clear that she was dying.
In June of that year she went into Cabrini Hospital for minor surgery to drain the fluid caused by the liver failure. She never came out and died in that hospital. The process was not quick or painless. It dragged on and eventually took five months. There is something to be said for tragic sudden death. The initial surgery went badly and after two weeks in the hospital she went into a coma. On a Saturday evening, as I looked on helplessly, they wheeled her out of her room and into the intensive care unit. She was unresponsive. I was sent home several hours later and told to wait for a call. It was certain that this was the end. However late Sunday I received a call that she had stabilized and I could come in to see her. On Monday morning she was back in her private room sitting up and chatting. “Benjie” she told me “I was on an island with beautiful flowers and blue sky. Papa George and Grandma were there. It was so peaceful I wanted to stay. Grandma put her hand on me and told me “Sonny you have to go back. It’s not your time.”
To my mother this experience was as real as anything she had ever encountered. She was by no stretch of the imagination a religious person. Although nominally Jewish, she only went into a synagogue for weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. She laughed at fundamentalists. She had a ton of clichés that explained her view of religion. “God is the good in all of us” was her standard view of any deity and “All that’s required of us is the golden rule.” She lived by this credo and was a tireless Good Samaritan. Her view of the golden rule was the Christian version. Most people don’t know that there is a fine distinction between the Old Testament Golden Rule and the New Testament Golden Rule.. In most translations of the New Testament the golden rule due to Jesus is rendered as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This is a positive precept and a call for good deeds. Hillel’s version, the Old Testament version, is written as, “That which is hateful to you do not do unto others’” This is a restrictive precept and much less a call for action. Hillel’s version is often related in the following way. A pagan king tells Hillel that he will convert to Judaism if the Rabbi can explain all of Judaism to him while standing on one foot. Hillel then recites the golden rule as above and adds “That is the Law, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
Yet despite her long standing disdain for formal religion, my mother fervently believed in that island with its beautiful flowers, and that she had seen and been touched by her mother.
Three months later she had improved but her liver was no longer functioning. She had to be constantly drained of the toxic fluid. A strong believer in living wills and not being dependent, she and her doctor decided that she would no longer be drained artificially. Remove the tubes she said and whatever happens would happen. Rather quickly she went into a rigid coma and there was no real hope. Yet each day I went into the hospital and sat and talked to her, went over her mail or told her about my children. There was a certain irony in this. My mother lived on Third Avenue and Nineteenth Street in Manhattan and for many years I taught an evening course in Statistics in the city. After my class I went to her apartment where she cooked a big steak for me and then talked to me until midnight or so. The wording here is correct – she talked to me. She was one of the all time great talkers. Her listeners just had to absorb. People say that I talk way too much, but I am only a piker in the shadow of my mother. So here was this irony; that as my mother lay there in her rigid coma I talked to her for hours.
In early October it was parent’s weekend at my daughter’s university. She was a freshman at James Madison in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We were to leave for Virginia on a Friday and that Thursday afternoon I explained to my mother, still in her rigid coma, that I would not be there for the next three days and I would see her again on Monday. By this time the whole situation had solidified and I rarely thought of the ultimate phone call.
Friday we were in Harrisonburg and took my daughter to dinner. My wife and I then went back to our motel, a Days Inn type place, with two double beds. In the middle of the night I woke up and my mother was sitting on the other bed. I sat up and asked her “Mom what are you doing here?”
She answered “I’m here to say goodbye. You’ve done everything right, its okay.”
“But Mom I’ll be back on Monday”
“No it’s okay Benjie it’s time to let go.”
At this point my wife woke up to see me sitting at the edge of the bed. “Who are you talking to? Are you dreaming?”
“No I’m talking to my Mom – look.” I pointed to the other bed but my mother was gone. I was crying and my wife hugged me. “Go back to sleep” she told me.
To me, over twenty years later, even trying to convince myself that it was dream, even realizing the tremendous stress I was under, I feel that my mother was definitely there in that room telling me goodbye.
We returned home to Connecticut Sunday evening and on Monday afternoon after classes I drove into the hospital, as had become my custom. When I got to her room her rigid coma had ended. She lay there peacefully, still unresponsive, but with a smooth sleeplike breathing pattern. I spent two hours telling her about the parent’s weekend and then told her about the “strange dream” that I had in the motel in Harrisonburg. I left the hospital at five in the early evening. At seven, slightly after I came home, the call came from the hospital that my mother had passed away.
Was it real or was it stress. Even in my memory it seems as real as every other thing I’ve done. The beauty of Mathematics steers my psyche to a type of belief, yet that motel room even more strongly pushes my gut in the same direction.
I’ve now admitted that I’m not an atheist so I fall into the category of scientists who say they believe. The final question then is, if I have belief, how do I picture this deity? I can’t rationally believe in any sort of anthropomorphic God. It seems to me to be logically inconsistent that a being that could create this magnificent universe would create creatures in its image that are so small and inconsequential. Given the scope of the universe, we humans, on this single planet are much less than dust particles. In college I had to write an essay on the philosophy of Lord Berkeley. This can be summarized by saying that he believed that all that exists is what we perceive. My critique of Berkeley was that if we created our world in our perception, why would we make ourselves so unimportant? A simple ratio shows that if one was large enough to hold the Earth in their hands it would appear smoother than the skin of an orange. The little dots on the orange peel are relatively deeper than the deepest gorges on our planet. We in turn are so much tinier than the Earth itself. Hence most scientists can never accept God as an old (usually white) bearded man sitting on a golden throne. Most fall back into the Deist position, the same position that many of the founding fathers, Washington and Jefferson among them, espoused. In this belief, God created the universe and then stepped back, disappeared, and let the natural physical processes run things. This is consistent with the view that Mathematics pushes us to, however it does not fill the need for meaning and the need for a helpful God. Probably most Deists, myself included, fall back onto an anthropomorphic image when needed. I know that it may be a myth but it becomes a helpful personal myth.
Besides Deists, probably mostly atheists possess, or revert to, some bit of theism in times of stress. Hitchens apparently went to his death happily, with no belief, but stories abound of atheists finding God as they approached the end of their lives. A cute story is told of W.C. Fields, the comedian and movie star of the thirties and forties. A boozer his whole life, he was dying of liver disease in an old folks home. A friend came to visit, only to find Fields reading the Bible. The friend was shocked and bemused. He asked half joking “Bill what are doing, you’ve always been an atheist.” Fields in his familiar nasal voice answered “Looking for loopholes.”
On the other hand my mother’s maternal grandfather, Barnett Witkow, was a dedicated atheist and socialist. Barnett had been a violinist and in Russia of the 1870’s he traveled from village to village in the Jewish Pale of Settlement repairing violins and giving small concerts. On his concert/repair trips he would preach about the new socialist world where all was good and there would be no pogroms. Like in a good Shalom Aleichem story he met Sarah, the rabbi’s daughter, in a small village near Odessa. Of course they fell in love. To marry her he made an agreement with her father; he didn’t stop his wife from believing or stop her from attending synagogue and secondly, though he didn’t believe, he didn’t work on Shabbos, the Sabbath. On her part, Sarah, who had long beautiful black hair, never cut her hair and wore a wig like the other religious women.
Barnett and Sarah spent fifty-five years together honoring those provisos. Once in America, each Saturday, Sarah would go off to synagogue and Barnett didn’t work. But to show that Shabbos meant nothing to him, forever the atheist, he would go to an Italian barber and pay for a shave. As he neared death from cancer he firmly remained a nonbeliever. Before he died he instructed that his body was to be left to science and further asked his son Nathan not to say Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, for him.
Although I never met Barnett I was proud that he was consistent in his belief. If by chance God was the Christian old man God on the throne I would hope that he also would have an appreciation for consistency and look more favorably on those atheists that never changed position. I would also hope that he would have perspective and look unfavorably on those believers and nonbelievers who themselves look unfavorably at those who believe differently.
I’ll close by relating what I feel is the best line I have heard uttered by an atheist. It was said spontaneously by my son-in-law. Scott’s mother is a Catholic and his father is an atheist while Scott is married to my daughter, a Jewish woman. Outwardly he does all the things that a suburban Jewish husband does; his children go to Hebrew school, he lights candles on Chanukah, participates in a Seder and even goes to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yet intellectually he remains a committed nonbeliever. On a cold December day he and my daughter moved from their first house to their second. The big furniture was moved by a moving company yet Scott rented a truck for all of the smaller items. Several of his friends along with my son and I helped in the move. During the move it began to snow and the snow eventually became one of the worst snowstorms to ever hit our town. Over twenty-three inches of snow fell. In the midst of this blizzard we were trying to carry boxes on a slippery street to the truck. Scott fell and landed on his back. As I helped him to his feet he looked up at me laughing and said “Why does the God I don’t believe in, hate me so much.”
Dr. Ben Fine is a mathematician and professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut in the United States. He recived his Ph.D. in mathematics from Courant Institute, New York University. He is also a graduate of the MFA program at Fairfield University and is the author of fifteen books (twelve in mathematics, one on chess, one a political thriller and one a swahbuckler about pirates) as well over 130 research articles, fifteen short stories and a novella about Pirates. His story August 18,1969 published in the Green Silk Journal was nominated for a Pushcart prize. His story From the Dambovitsa to Coney Island was an honorable mention winner in the Glimmer Train Literary Contest. His story “The Schuyler Diamonds” won First Place in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards in the Mystery/Crime Category. His story “My Mother, God and the Big Blue Ford”, published in Green Silk Journal won Honorable Mention in the 45th New Millennium Writing Awards. He has completed a memoir told in interwoven stories called Tales from Brighton Beach: A Boy Grows in Brooklyn. The stories detail his growing up in Brighton Beach, a seaside neighborhood on the southern tip of Brooklyn, during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Brighton Beach was unique and set apart from the rest of New York City both in character and in time. His latest novel Out of Granada was released in 2017. His author website is https://benfineauthor.com