Friday, December 26, 2014


Paolo Schiavo: Nativity, 15th century


Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

   “Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

   By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

   They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

   To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

   In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

   “Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

   Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

   Hoping it might be so.

~ Thomas Hardy, 1915


barton = barn
coomb = valley

“Coomb” may have been chosen to serve as a rhyme for “gloom,” which is an extremely important word in this poem: it cancels the hope of the last line.


One of the Polish Christmas carols also mentions the cattle kneeling down (possibly the entire livestock is included in the plural of “cattle,” but not everyone had sheep). Furthermore, at midnight on Christmas Eve the cattle can speak and are proclaiming “miracles.” The point was that all of nature recognizes and celebrates the birth of the Holy Child.

Though all of us knew this Christmas carol, I didn’t know anyone who took literally the tradition of the cattle kneeling down. Hardy mentions that this was a belief when he was a child. Later, at the beginning of the 20th century (“The Oxen” was published in 1915), the folk belief was dying out:

So fair a fancy few would weave
  In these years!

Of course not: in the 20th century, the age of science, no one would weave a tale of that sort. Also, Hardy wrote this poem after the outbreak of WWI, another example of Christian ideals appearing to be a never-achieved fairy tale while bishops blessed the cannons.

But speaking of weaving, I just learned that allegedly Poles used to believe that a spider wove a blanket for Baby Jesus, so it was good luck to see a spider on Christmas. My grandmother knew this kind of lore — she still referred to date according to the feast-days of the saints, e.g. “I last saw Zula just before St. Michael’s.” But not a word about a divinely inspired spider weaving a blanket for Baby J.

Maybe it was a regional Christmas legend — if such a legend really exists, that is. (In an era when more and more scholars incline to the view that Jesus never existed, but was a fictional character like Odysseus [see ], we don’t just question history; even the authenticity of certain legends is subject to doubt.

The common belief was that Mary used straw to keep the baby warm in the manger (except that birth usually took place in a crowded family room: A spiderweb blanket — who knows, it might be the next kevlar!

But never mind cattle, sheep, and spiders — though the tradition certainly shows an endearing involvement of animals in the birth of Christ. Pope Benedict’s misguided directive to remove the animals from Nativity scenes because of the absence of scriptural evidence shows a scholastic mind that follows the letter and not the spirit. The directive was politely disregarded. Of course the animals were there! Animals are allowed to gaze at the holy child. They too worship. That’s the best part.

Hardy’s poem expresses a nostalgia for the days of simple, literal faith. He doesn’t want anyone to tell him that the cattle are kneeling “in the spiritual sense”; what he’d really love to see is the literal cows and sheep literally kneeling down at midnight. Not spirit, not metaphor, but actual animals on their knees! A sign so obvious would make everyone devout.

In one of his old-age poems, Milosz (who in some ways reminds me of Hardy) confesses that every time he’s in church, he fervently hopes for a sign — all the while knowing that no statue will nod to him or lift its hand.

Milosz tries to resolve his frustration by saying that human kindness is a sign of the divine — an argument that any logician would dismiss by saying that human kindness proves only the existence of human kindness. Hardy is more subtle, indicating his knowledge with just one word:

I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

“Gloom” undercuts the hope.

Bernardo Daddi (1280-1348), Nativity


No adult would be so naive as to try to test the legend. Whoever made it up was careful never to remain in the barn at midnight on Christmas Eve. In spite of the last line, the word “gloom” signals the end of that hope for a miraculous sign. But at the emotional level, the yearning remains. “The Oxen” is a poem of longing for belief in the face of the impossibility of belief.

Religious doubt tends to strike around the time of puberty, when the developing brain begins to question adult authority. I doubted immediately already as a child, during my first religion lesson, but then managed to suppress doubt simply because it was unthinkable that the nuns and the priests would lie to us.

And yet, after my first religion lessons, I (along with all the other children, I strongly suspect) was filled with the question, If god exists, why doesn't he just show himself? Maybe he could open a window in the sky and show his face? Or at least say something? He did talk to Adam and Eve, and later to Abraham and Moses . . .  Why not to us, now?

One little boy was actually brave enough to [shudder] ask the nun just that: If god spoke to those people in the bible stories, how come he never speaks to us?

The nun smiled in a sad way. Nuns didn't normally smile, so that sorrowful smile, her whole face and body language charged with melancholy, was striking and unforgettable. “Those were different times,” she said. “People were different back then.” End of explanation.

In retrospect, I see that it was a perfectly good explanation. The times were different, as were people’s mentalities. The ancient world was filled with gods and demons, witches, dragons, unicorns, and other imaginary animals. Literacy was confined to the few, so stories were transmitted orally, evolving from generation to generation. Fantasy and reality were not clearly separated. Cynics might argue that that’s still true, but seriously — centuries ago, it was much worse. 

 Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 1490


Hardy was raised as an Anglican. For a while in his youth he had a Baptist friend and was drawn to evangelical Christianity. But Hardy’s intellect was too powerful not to see that all religions were invented by humans. Later he became what could be called a “cultural Christian” — someone who admires Christian ethics, loves the church music and the more poetic passages in the bible, but who doesn’t believe in a personal god, much less in the divinity of Jesus.

Still, most scholars would be uneasy with calling Hardy an atheist — sooner a deist. Hardy tried to imagine some “unconscious will” or “universal consciousness” that created the universe without concern for the fate of sentient beings, but is hopefully becoming more aware and “sympathetic”:

“The Christian god — the external personality — has been replaced by the intelligence of the First Cause . . . the replacement of the old concept of God as all-powerful by a new concept of universal consciousness. The 'tribal god, man-shaped, fiery-faced and tyrannous' is replaced by the 'unconscious will of the Universe' which progressively grows aware of itself and 'ultimately, it is to be hoped, sympathetic’.”

Universal consciousness may be a welcome replacement for a tyrannical man-made god, but it doesn’t offer any emotional warmth. Hardy missed that from his Anglican childhood, and didn’t close the possibility that the  “unconscious will” might be growing more conscious and benevolent. He was aware that the ancient Greeks had altars not only to the gods they knew by name, but also one bearing the inscription “agnostoi theoi” — “to the unknown god.” This unknown god might perhaps be capable of growing “more percipient” and thus more kind toward both humans and “the meek mild creatures in their strawy pen.”

But this was a feeble hope at best. Hardy was closer to naturalism than to process theology. He often presented the world seemingly ruled by forces that might be compared to the capricious and sometimes cruel gods of antiquity (note the “President of the Immortals” in the last sentence of “Tess of the d’Ubervilles”).

Though now and then he showed how much he missed the naive rural faith of his childhood, Thomas Hardy was, above all, a realist.

Blake: God Answering Job

Flying figures with long flowing beards are hard to resist. Since I already had Blake’s image, and also the one with St. Peter and St. James, I checked on the part of Dante’s Paradiso in which St. Peter and St. James appear, wondering if I’d find some beautiful lines to quote for my readers. Alas, I found those cantos dreadfully boring, the language flat and didactic rather than subtle and imagistic (“To be direct is to be inartistic” ~ Henry James). Paradiso seems to validate the theory that poetry too requires dramatic tension — what Blake called the “contraries” — and what may also be called “surprises” (“No surprise for the author, no surprise for the reader”).

(The canto that follows is more interesting: the original Adam appears and supplies information on the age of the earth — not much over 6,000 years — and on the language that he spoke: not Hebrew, as Dante earlier claimed, but a language that became extinct even before the building of the Tower of Babel.)

St. Peter examines Dante’s faith, asking about evidence. Dante gives the official scholastic proofs: first cause, the unmoved mover, etc. — and miracles. The scholastic arguments have all been invalidated. As for miracles, I’ve never read or heard of any that could be categorically ruled out as coincidence or natural healing. In fact Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor condemns Christ for not having established undeniable miracle (a mere trifle like turning stones to bread would do) as the basis of religion, having instead condemned humanity to believe or not believe in the absence of convincing evidence for the supernatural.

Actually I never understood why it would be so bad if god — assuming such an all-powerful and all-good being exists somewhere in the cosmos and cares about human beings — gave us some clear proof of its own existence. The usual answer seems to be: then faith would lose its merit because we’d have knowledge, and god prefers us to believe without proof rather than to have knowledge. If he provided evidence of his existence, then faith would not have the great merit that it has in the absence of evidence. Dostoyevsky’s argument (and we cannot doubt that he is on the side of Christ and against the Grand Inquisitor, even though he feels great sympathy for the old man’s attempt to provide emotional succor to the ignorant flock) is that an indisputable miracle would compel us to believe; we’d no longer have the freedom not to believe.

Why is the freedom not to believe considered so precious? If millions of people all over the world would see the cattle kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve — or pick something else, given we don’t live around cattle as we used to — wouldn’t we kneel as well, filled with joy? I suspect many of us would gladly give up the freedom not to believe in exchange for the certainty of immortality. Would not such knowledge inspire dancing in the streets since we are headed for paradise? Or at least because someone up there cares? And wouldn’t religious wars cease since the whole world would have the proof as to which god is true? Is there indeed a single bad effect that such knowledge would have?

Or, to drop the Christian slant, what if we indubitably witnessed the goddess Kali in her garland of skulls? Not as special effects, formed by laser beams projected on the sky, but dancing in the middle of Main Street? Terrifying as that would be, at least it would be proof of the spirit world.

Actually, I can think of a bad effect of knowledge as opposed to faith, but it’s not one that the “flock” would see as bad. Namely, the earthly life would seem pretty insignificant next to the promised eternity of bliss, and earth itself only a pale shadow of the beauty in paradise. That was the official view during the Middle Ages, when the faith of many did approach the certainty of knowledge. Consequently, those who hoped to hasten death through long fasts and self-flagellation, or spent most of their time in prayer, on their knees on hard stone, were regarded as role models — and not those who improved earthly life by designing a more efficient plow, for instance, or by devising laws that constrained a monarch’s tyranny.

That any progress was made during the so-called Ages of Faith seems almost —“almost” — miraculous. Scientific inquiry was blocked. Once the totalitarian power of the church was broken, along with the practice of burning at the stake those who would question, or dare to translate the bible into a living language, the human mind could flourish again. 

That mind is neither omnipotent nor all-good, but the heights achieved by human genius fill me with awe. And the heroic deeds of human altruism — someone risking his life to save a stranger —  also impress me no end. My allegiance is to that which is highest in humanity. Like Thomas Hardy, I could call myself a “meliorist” — one who believes that together we can build a better world. But I prefer to use a more familiar term: a humanist.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Silent friend of many distances,
feel how your breath still enlarges space.
Let your presence in the belfry of the night
ring out like a a bell. What feeds on your face

grows strong from the nourishment.
Move back and forth into transformation.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking’s bitter, turn into wine.

In this uncontainable darkness, be the mystery
and the power at the crossroads of your senses.
Be the meaning of their strange encounter.

If the world no longer knows your name,
to the motionless earth say: I flow.
To the rushing water speak: I am.

~ Rilke, Sonnet 29, Sonnets to Orpheus, Part II


In her free translation, Joanna Macy simplifies certain lines in a way I like — especially these:

Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.

~ but this inverts Rilke’s meaning: what feeds on you grows strong. The dead feed the world; they even enlarge space.


The speaker is instructing Vera, the dead young girl who was going to be a dancer until leukemia cut short the thread of her fate (foreshadowing Rilke’s own illness, still unknown to him). Knowing this makes “what feeds upon your face” more literal than we can bear, but we must think more broadly — perhaps in terms of Heidegger’s “Being.” All of existence feeds on what the dead offer, in all possible ways. They are the “friend of many distances.” They touch every shore. “They have connections everywhere,” as my mother learned in a dream about her dead mother.

I confess I was tempted to commit infidelity to Rilke’s text. The first line is literally, “Silent friend of many distances.” It’s easy to see that by uniting with nature the dead become part of “many distances.” But one translator made it “Silent friend who has come so far.” It’s more human and endearing. The word “distances” keeps the vanished girl literally at a distance. And yet, and yet . . .

I also confess that “Silent friend of many distances” is how I continue to name this poem to myself. In part it’s habit. But also, since it’s the last of the Sonnets of Orpheus, I’ve come to see Rilke as my own “friend of many distances.” The encounter with his work changed my life, showing me what poetry was. Above all, it taught me seriousness.

This is a strange and astonishing comfort poem. Our having been here on earth doesn’t go to waste, Rilke seems to be saying. We become the nourishment for what exists after us. Our breath “still enlarges space.” 

At the same time, we must remember that Vera is only a pretext for composing this poem. She can't hear or feel anything. Like all poems, this is a poem for the living. We are the ones who should feel at ease with transformation. We are the ones who need the rise to the challenge of the question: “What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?” And once we have the answer, how do we transform the loss from bitterness into wine?

For me the answer has always been ambiguous. Arguably no loss is as great as the loss of one’s homeland, language, and culture. However I imagine what my life might have been, the only certainty that seems to shine through the cloud of unknowing is the knowledge (perhaps false) that I would have been happier if I had stayed in Poland. Here should follow a long list of explanations, which would be of little interest to the reader. Let me just say that no one can know the pleasure of speaking in one’s native tongue unless that daily ease and perfection are lost.

I can turn this loss into wine if I think of my poems in English as having sufficient value to outweigh my suffering. I might still have become a poet had I stayed, but I’d write as a different person. I was very drawn to Polish language poetry, and had a gift for transforming words in a playful way. At its very best, language poetry can have a mysterious depth; for the most part, though, it evades seriousness.

Would I have ever encountered Rilke? Most likely I’d have chosen French rather than German, and not likely strayed into a class on modern German poetry. Of course it’s impossible to know. Maybe an encounter with Baudelaire would have been sufficient to teach me seriousness. How much in our lives is sheer chance . . .

Mostly likely I’d have had at least one child, and that brings up the question of losses and gains. Here the cloud of unknowing thickens. It is possible that preoccupied with professional work and family life, I would have not had the time for developing as poet.

So ultimately my “turning into wine” turns back to what it always was: the enlargement and friction caused by dealing with another culture formed me into the kind of poet and a writer that I’ve become. And now that the worst suffering is over, now that I mostly feel happy — yes, perhaps it’s been worth it. Perhaps.

I can never know with any certainty. But to live a life of regret is to lose the miraculous gift of existing at all. While the poem is about loss, what I have gained is remembering the beauty of the streets and the lilacs. The lilacs now bloom in my mind.


sweet sticky purple mouths
kissing me back after rain –
not barren peach blooms
fevering Los Angeles.

refinery-polluted nights.
I could count what I had
on my fingers: one table,
three chairs, twice-a-year love life,

ten cents above the minimum wage.
I should have never left Warsaw –
that pavement ticking with anger,
those clouds like billowing archangels.

I should have married the green-eyed
motorcycle rider I met in Mazurian woods –
we were married by the wild swans
that whooshed over our heads –

I should have had my Janusz and Danuta,
taught them the leafy legends of their names.
Each morning I’d open the balcony,
gauze curtain like a shining wind.

I tried to check myself, imagining
my husband would have an affair
with a woman dentist, a neighbor
watch soccer full-blast on TV –

and I, like a character in Chekhov,
above a river of lilacs,
would wander through atlases and whisper
the ecstasy of foreign vowels.

But the long street called Childhood
is not on any city map. And yet
every spring I remember lilacs,
chill droplets of rain I’d kiss

from the brief, boundless blossoms –
my heart calm before sorrow,
my face pressed into flowers,
mouth grazing clusters of moist stars.

~ Oriana © 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014


14h century French triptych, ivory. Its depiction of Nativity is unusual, possibly unique. In the upper right, Joseph is holding the baby; Mary seems to have just said, “You hold him now, I need a nap.”


The first time some teens, buzzed on beer
or coke, caved in her mailbox with a bat,
a new one appeared the very next day,

but with two small hand-painted geese
on the routine black metal where the flag
is raised. When that one was crushed,

her next gave both sides to a scene
of woods and field and a small brook
that jointed each other at the door.

After yet a third time the mailbox
and even the post was taken out, she built
a little red barn out of wood

with a door that opened to receive
the mail. Below the mailbox, she placed
a flower pot, of deep blue porcelain,

filled with salmon-colored lilies . . .
Often I see her pulling weeds, watering
the ocean-throated lilies, tending to

the spot of ground around the mailbox
as if Martin Buber were right, and God allots
to each of us our own little area to redeem.

Of course her actions may only prove again
how thin the line between divinity and madness.
Or that she may be merely holding on

to some principles learned in Sunday school,
those kids no more to her than a test
of neighborly love. But maybe

she sees those boys, whoever they are,
with girlfriends and high school classes,
all of them rushing into what lies ahead

without a sense yet of who they might be;
and maybe she can imagine them
arriving one night only to pull back their bat

and just laugh, the barn door open,
a letter lying like a beast in its stall, the night air
disarming, charged with the scent of lilies.

~ Robert Cording

Cording lives in rural Connecticut (in Woodstock, but not the one of the rock music festival in 1969), and often writes about the area: the changing seasons, the walks he takes, the sparrows, the swallows. He’s no Mary Oliver, however, removing humanity from the scene so he can feel ecstatic about the deer or the birds (though he does write about deer and birds also). What I especially value is his poems about the people he knows, trying to make sense of their suffering. I chose the mailbox poem because, with constant images of rubble and destruction on the news, I think we can use a poem praising those who restore the world.

The neighbor may be naive, but there is a strange beauty to her naiveté and persistence. She reminds me of people in Europe rebuilding their cities over and over again after each war — as if in the hope that the beautiful town hall would ultimately be allowed to stand un-shelled and un-bombed. And it seems that hope and peace have prevailed — but some think there is always a chance that a new vicious ideology will march in in SS-like black boots, reminding us that those deprived of a positive outlet for the enormous energies of youth will find a destructive venue. “You can’t imagine how much fun we are having here,” a US-born ISIS recruiter speaks on TV. “This is the real Disneyland.”

(Do I have the right to read all this into a “small” poem? Yes, because a poem belongs to the reader, and the meaning of something small can be huge.)

Is the neighbor who keeps restoring her mailbox a saint, showing neighborly love, or perhaps someone who’s losing her grip on reality? Yet her ability to tend to the lilies testifies to a will to create and preserve order and beauty at least in her small plot. This is a miniature vignette of the race between civilization and destruction. A young man who can’t build a house may find it “fun” to blow up someone else’s house instead.

And the poem could easily end on:

Often I see her pulling weeds, watering
the ocean-throated lilies, tending to

the spot of ground around the mailbox
as if Martin Buber were right, and God allots
to each of us our own little area to redeem.

That would leave me entirely satisfied. Yes, we each have a special small area to redeem, our own garden to cultivate, just one child to turn on to reading and learning — and that is enough. The poem reminded me of a young woman whom I managed to motivate to become an A student — her first name happened to be Hope, because life doesn’t care to be subtle.

Dali: Madonna and Child

But the poem goes on past what me is the main message. There is a religious subtext here, to put it mildly. I was surprised at the word “beast”; because of the barn and the lilies I fully expected Baby Jesus. And yet even a “beast” — a word we might associate with the nasty boys — is, as an animal, any animal, a symbol of innocence.

Again it’s hard to escape from the imagery of Nativity, even though Pope Benedict had the bad taste to insist that there were no animals at the birth of Jesus since the Gospels do not mention animals. Fortunately Pope Francis, following his patron saint, has just announced that all animals go to heaven. Pope Francis understands that the human heart needs animals to inspire us with kindness and patience. And blessed are those who clear the rubble, install a new mailbox, and yes, grow lilies in a flower pot — for it is they who day by ordinary day keep saving the world. 

First known presentation of Nativity, 4th century, Sant’Ambroggio, Milano

To my readers: Rather than continue with infrequent lengthy blogs, I’ve decided to shift to more frequent short posts. Here’s wishing you all a joyful winter solstice, and, afterwards, happy lengthening days.


John Guzlowski sends this “rebuilding” poem by Szymborska:


After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens and nods
with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way
for those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.

~ Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak


John, thanks for this gift. I love the last stanza.

And how oddly relevant to recent events:

Someone else listens and nods
with unsevered head.

~ as if to show that “the poem is news that stays news.”


If Cording’s poem is “micro-news,” then Szymborska’s is macro. Both of them have the same message: this is what the human spirit is. No matter how huge the devastation, we get up and start clearing the rubble. And eventually someone will again lie down and watch the clouds, chewing on a blade of grass.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

GOODBYE TO PASCAL’S WAGER recreated after accidental erasure

 limestone cave in Jeita, Lebanon

Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium

Dark cypresses —
The world is uneasily happy;
It will all be forgotten.

~ Theodore Storm

Mother of roots, you have not seeded
The tall ashes of loneliness
For me. Therefore,
Now I go.
If I knew the name,
Your name, all trellises of vineyards and old fire
Would quicken to shake terribly my
Earth, mother of spiraling searches, terrible
Fable of calcium, girl. I crept this afternoon
In weeds once more,
Casual, daydreaming you might not strike
Me down. Mother of window sills and journeys,
Hallower of searching hands,
The sight of my blind man makes me want to weep.
Tiller of waves or whatever, woman or man,
Mother of roots or father of diamonds,
Look: I am nothing.
I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.

~ James Wright

I can’t pretend to understand every line of this poem. It is, loosely speaking, an invocation to the Earth as the Divine Mother who is also Mother Time (“Kali” is the feminine form of Kaal, time) and Mother Space (Tara). She is the mother of roots, but suddenly we descend into the “poetry of calcium”: a limestone cave is the “mother of spiraling searches, terrible (because all dissolves) / Fable of calcium, girl” (“girl” may mean “beloved”; however, I suspect that a single syllable was needed for the music). The divine feminine is also the “mother of window sills and journeys” — this is my favorite line, reminding me of that dreamy windowsill time of adolescence when I was waiting for my great journey.

“Father of diamonds” — this is the poet’s little joke, like the whole preceding line: “tiller of waves or whatever, woman or man.” Diamonds are made of carbon crystallized under huge pressure, so perhaps the masculine steps in here, deep within the earth. But I think Wright is having fun; waves or whatever, woman or man, mother or father, it doesn’t matter. Nature is everything, so let’s be inclusive. A more “spiritual” explication would see this as the Sacred Androgyne.

“My blind man” could be an anatomical reference. We don’t have to see Tiresias or Homer here, just the consequence of having the Y chromosome.

As for being nothing, “look who comes here to say he’s nothing.”

And the tragic-sounding last line?  As a poet, I can assure you that James Wright felt euphoric to have hit on that ending, which only vaguely connects with the epigraph that states the world is only “uneasily happy.” Why? Presumably because everything passes, so “everything will be forgotten.” We know that, but don’t lose any sleep over it or any other “ultimate concerns”; we are too absorbed with daily living. “Fall in love!” an ad from E-Harmony invites. “Click here!”

“But, Oriana,” I hear you say, Logical Reader, "what does that have to do with Pascal’s Wager?"

Only this: after I said goodbye to Pascal’s god of punishment, I realized that my religion was beauty. I worship beauty. I dream of la grande bellezza, great beauty. But it was hardly instant bliss. First I had to refute Pascal’s Wager.


Wonderful clouds as I'm typing this: puffs of silver “lambkins,” baranki (as they are called in Polish) grazing on the wide blue meadow of the sky. At one time their beauty would have been regarded as evidence for god’s existence. It’s even called “the argument from beauty.” But the existence of beauty proves only that beauty exists, at least in human perception. As for those who say that Beethoven or Mozart must have been channeling god because mere human beings can’t compose such masterpieces, they give proof only of their low esteem of human capacity and ignorance of the workings of genius.

(Were the NASA engineers divinely inspired, and that’s why they succeeded in putting man on the moon? It’s tempting to think so, given there were no computers then, and the engineers had to use the slide rule — apologies to the younger readers who will have to google “slide rule.”)

Goethe said that artists don’t need religion; their art is their religion. But even before discovering poetry as my creative vocation, I didn’t feel any “god hunger.” The memory of the god of punishment was vivid and was to prove lifelong. God as a “person without a body” was too much like an “oblong blur,” as one women mentioned by William James put it. Tillich’s god as the “ground of being” was even more abstract. But since the age of eight and my first experience of delight in a mountain panorama, I’ve had beauty.

Beauty, Simone Weil says, is god’s ambush for the soul. I did fall in love with beauty, but it led only to more beauty. And that was enough.


I first typed “sculpture” — again, thinking of clouds, their daily beauty contest. It’s not too difficult to image the kind of god who is an artist. Just shaping clouds would be a full-time occupation. But god-as-a-visual-artist is much too preoccupied with creating to pay attention to human suffering. Alas, this is the god of Auschwitz and the god of Ebola. Never mind the two world wars — he was enjoying himself creating another galaxy. Don’t bother him about the thousands who are dying of Ebola. He’s trying to find the right shade of indigo as the background for the evening star.

Literature, however, is concerned with suffering. Suffering is supposed to be the other ambush for the soul, in fact the main one. Simone Weil said so explicitly, and Jung at least hinted at it when he “defined” god as everything that overwhelms, wounds, blocks one’s path, thwarts one purpose. Greg Mogenson even wrote a whole book about it, “God Is a Trauma.” By the way, this is the modern Jewish understanding of Satan; “he” [it’s not a being] makes us grow. 

Compassion can be portrayed in the visual arts, but the esthetic aspect predominates. Literature, however, clearly combined beauty and compassion. Again, I didn’t need god because I had books.

Between nature and culture, there was no need for god. The world was my oyster.

Then in the last year of high school, our literature and philosophy teacher told us about Pascal’s Wager.


It feels embarrassing to acknowledge that all my adult life I experienced moments of terror because of Pascal’s Wager: if you don’t believe in the Christian god, and you happen to be wrong, you will spend eternity burning in hell. If you do believe, and are wrong, then you will simply cease to exist and lose nothing. But if you don’t believe, and are wrong, you will lose everything — an eternity of bliss you will contemplate while suffering in hell forever (here some theologians waver and say that “forever” actually means “for a long time”).

I admit that in terms of probability theory, Pascal’s reasoning made sense, and it was terrifying (I didn’t yet know that “forever” could be interpreted as NOT forever; I'm sure that Pascal meant “forever forever”).

At the same time, the wager was also pathetic because it made faith look like “fire insurance.” It’s difficult to love a god of probability. But if he’s also the god of punishment, as he was for Pascal, then the mere possibility of eternal punishment — even if it was just a probability, not a certainty — was a much stronger argument than the argument from beauty or from alleged solace while suffering.


Pascal is a pragmatist in the sense that he logically compares the outcomes of belief and non-belief. It’s all about the consequences — unprovable but, who knows, better to be on the safe side. He does not try to present god as an appealing being, emotionally or intellectually (“the god of philosophers”). No, his is the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a being with whom one may strike a bargain and from whom one may wrest a blessing — at a price. It’s not the god of philosophers, but rather the god of lawyers and business people. You have a business relationship with him, a contract, aka “covenant.” Above all, Pascal’s god is not a people pleaser, and no, he doesn’t love you.

(A lawyer might argue that this contract is invalid because god’s signature is missing.)

At least Pascal doesn’t tell his readers to love this invisible tyrant, only to believe that he exists. We simply go through the calculus of probable outcomes and see which is the best bet. We are betting on eternity. Choosing the correct doctrine is like buying an insurance policy, a special kind of “fire insurance”: protection from an eternal hellfire.

Pascal’s central psychological assumption is that religious belief is VOLUNTARY; you choose to believe something, and then behave as if you believed it, and, after some time, you will genuinely believe it. The assumption that our beliefs are voluntary rather than involuntary is called DOXATIC VOLUNTARISM (“doxa” = belief). While psychologists would say that our beliefs are involuntary, they also know there is a way to influence a belief by acting as if you believed something else. This reverses the popular assumption that we do something because of what we believe. Doxatic voluntarism proclaims that we believe something because of what we do. Evidence? Once we start acting as if we believed, we’ll manage to find evidence supporting that belief.

Since the middle of the seventeenth century onward, I wonder how many of those who knew about Pascal’s Wager valiantly tried to persuade themselves to believe in virgin birth, vicarious atonement through blood sacrifice, rising from the dead, the second coming and collective resurrection in the flesh, the wafer and the wine turning into the flesh and blood of Jesus, walking on water and other miracles (all religions are insane, but sometimes I wonder if Catholicism leads the pack). All those absurdities had to be accepted without question because the risk of hell, even if it’s only one in one in a thousand, was still too great to warrant thinking on one’s own.

“Yet some cannot believe,” Pascal conceded. What, then, is his advice to those who can’t believe but would like to believe just in case? “Follow the way by which they [the believers] began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”

Here Pascal shows surprising psychological knowledge long before the birth of the theory of cognitive dissonance. It’s “fake it till you make it.” Start not with the belief, but with behavior. Your brain will struggle for coherence between your behavior and your beliefs, and you will end up believing.

This sounds at least plausible: if you choose to act as though you believed, belief may indeed happen; the mask becomes the face. This works for a lot of beliefs, e.g. you can become more outgoing by socializing — never mind that you don’t like small talk, you introvert you! You can practice acting brave, and after a while you will be less fearful. Fake it until you make it.

But when it comes to religion, the equation between practice and belief doesn’t quite hold. We know that even after years of going to mass and saying prayers, a person may nevertheless lose belief. This happens quite often in adolescence as the brain develops more ability to reason. But it can also happen in the middle of adulthood. Not even priests and nuns are immune to the loss of religious belief. I can never forget the tragic faces of the deeply depressed priests and nuns I met long ago. Their unseeing eyes and their slow, zombified movements. My immediate guess, even then, was that they lost their faith, but there was nowhere for them to go, so they stayed in the church, but couldn’t hide their despair.

The other side of the coin is religious conversion during adulthood, often based on what the new believer regards as a compelling experience. Without the conversion experience, simply beginning to pray and attending church may not do the trick. The idea that you “choose to believe” and therefore begin to believe doesn’t quite hold. That’s also why churches warn against  selective belief, also known as “cherry picking” — believing only that which makes sense to you. You have to eat the whole thing.


This reminds me of those New Age celebrities who proclaim that it’s enough to believe something for that thing to “manifest itself in reality.” When someone brings up a personal experience that falsifies this proposition, the best-selling author replies, “That means you didn’t believe it ON THE UNCONSCIOUS LEVEL. Your unconscious did not believe that you could be rich — that you DESERVED to be rich, so . . . that’s why you’re not rich.”

While this is obscenely convenient for the New Age movement, ultimately it is the unconscious that decides what we believe or not believe. And while your mouth is going through the motions of reciting the creed, an impolite inner voice may be saying, “What a bunch of crap.”

This impolite inner voice is sometimes called “the voice of reason.” I include the unconscious cognitive processes in the term “reason.” (In fact it turns out that Freud was right, and all our cognitive processing is unconscious; then a message may or may not be delivered to consciousness.) Once your unconscious decides there is no god, it’s not really possible to go against that decision. Conversely, in cases of adult conversion, the unconscious decides that god (usually of a particular religion) does exist, and it’s probably equally impossible to go against that decision.

Ideally, these days it doesn’t have to be a personal god developed by a “particular religion.” It definitely doesn’t have to be a parent in the sky, especially the one with a long white beard, sitting on a golden throne in the clouds. Not that Pascal would find it valid, but in our more broad-minded era it can be a less mind-violating “Something Out There.” It can be “cosmic consciousness.” Or how about Being with a capital B, or “the ground of being”? (I’ve never been able to grasp Being with a capital B, but Woody Allen claims that Being as opposed to being can be achieved, even if only on weekends.)

Whether anyone can really devoutly believe in a non-personal god, in a god that’s not even a being but a certain state of mind, or cosmic consciousness, or “the ground of being,” is another question.

To make matters worse, someone who believes that god is Being, or the ground of being, probably doesn’t believe in hell as eternal torment, so the whole wager is off.


Some Christian apologists claim that if you believe in god “just in case,” you lose nothing and potentially gain everything, i.e. eternal bliss. But this is a finite life, and if that is the only life we have, then just the time and energy spend attending services and praying adds up to that much less time doing things you might prefer to be doing (not going to church is regarded as a mortal sin, at least in Catholicism). Also, if you are to be a sincere believer, then you can’t have sex except with a person to whom you are married. In case of a divorce, again in Catholicism, sex with a second spouse is the mortal sin of adultery.

Forget the idea that we learn a great deal from relationships. Forget “personality enlargement.”  Don’t listen to those who say that love is the best thing that life can give. This eternity business is not about psychological growth or well-being. Organized religion is not about getting the best out of THIS life. Everything is looked at from the point of view of sin and what happens in the afterlife. This is opposite of the E-Harmony ads that say: “Fall in love! Click here.”

Religions demand time, and they tend to constrict life. If life is less fulfilling because of practicing a religion, and if it turns out that there is no afterlife, then you do lose something — potentially a lot. When I worked in public schools, I heard an older teacher admit to a group of younger women teachers that she was a a virgin when she got married, and she’d never known a man other than her husband. After a shocked silence and the chorus of “Really?!” the women began to shake their heads and look at the older teacher with deep pity. But that used to be a common case with “good” women. That’s why there were so many “fallen women.”

All monotheistic religions restrict sexual behavior. Worse, they restrict the use of the mind. When it comes to thinking, you are not allowed to press after truth no matter where it may take you. You better no read certain books and not think certain thoughts. You are in a self-enforced mental prison. For thinkers, that is worse than restrictions on erotic relationships.

Finally, let’s not forget anxiety. In some denominations, it’s enough to believe, but others prefer to keep you in doubt as to your final destination. Even if you believe, humans are so weak and flawed that you might still end up in the bad places because of your sins. You simply can’t be sure. You may have sinned even if you don’t recall it. There is the Catholic guilt, Protestant guilt, and Jewish guilt, but — guilt is guilt. You should be ashamed of yourself.

(A shameless digression: “The attractive ones are always guilty.” ~ Kafka, The Trial)


In my childhood, I experienced faith as a consequence of indoctrination. I didn’t manage to persuade myself that god was good — I saw no evidence of that — but I did believe that god existed. In adolescence, I experienced the loss of that faith. The loss was temporary at first; I believed and disbelieved by fits and starts. For a while, I tried to cling to belief, saying my prayers (much as I always hated the rosary, which led me to a stupefied daze with its overdose of mechanical repetitions) and going to mass and to confession (much as I always hated confession). If Pascal was right, going through the motions should have confirmed me in faith.

But the deliberate clinging did not work. After a decisive insight, the No was sudden and final. The monster in the clouds was a myth! A fictitious character just like Zeus and Wotan and countless other deities invented by humanity. If Zeus didn’t exist, then neither did Yahweh. And if Yahweh didn’t exist, then Jesus could not be his son. Nor was he ever coming back, riding on the clouds of glory. Though millions eagerly awaited his return, he was never coming back. Never, never, never, never.

Even before that moment of insight, when I was already being torn by doubt, going to mass, which once used to give me some pleasure, became a hollow and boring experience. The medieval air of the church rituals, the holy water, the choking incense (only later I learned that in the original rite of temple sacrifice, it was meant to mask the smell of the blood of the sacrificed animals), the crucifix, the skull and bones, now seemed both backward and a deliberate mass manipulation: unnerving and unwholesome, the cult of death and suffering. There was still some esthetic pleasure — the candles, the chanting, the beams of light from the high windows — but once I found a compelling intellectual argument, the esthetic part was not enough. I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. The torment was over; I was a lot happier as an atheist.

There was, nevertheless, that thorn in the flesh: Pascal’s Wager. I don’t mean to suggest that I spent any significant time brooding over Pascal’s probabilities. No. Not just my conscious deliberations and reading books on the origins of religion and mythology, but even more so my experience and my intuition convinced me there was no god and no afterlife. But once in a while there was a flash of hellfire in my mind — like a frightened child screaming and running, her clothes on fire. I tended to dismiss it by reminding myself of what I first thought at 14, when belief became impossible: that a deity who torments people forever based on non-belief or wrong belief is a cruel tyrant not worth worshiping. If such a narcissistic deity existed (I never believed that god was good, had feelings, or cared one bit about human suffering), then I was ready for the consequences, in the spirit of “it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

Pascal was a deep thinker rather than a shallow pragmatist. He saw how difficult it was for a thinking person to believe: “If I saw no signs of a divinity, I would fix myself in denial. If I saw everywhere the marks of a Creator, I would repose peacefully in faith. But seeing too much to deny Him, and too little to assure me, I am in a pitiful state, and I would wish a hundred times that if a god sustains nature it would reveal Him without ambiguity.” I can imagine the torments this man of genius must have gone through trying to convince himself to believe.

He was also a strict logician: “We understand nothing of the works of God unless we take it as a principle that He wishes to blind some and to enlighten others.” Pascal was a Jansenist; Jansenism is similar to Calvinism. Only a small minority are predestined to enter heaven. Pascal never questioned the unfairness of it, and, if the majority are doomed to hellfire for eternity, the immense cruelty of this assumption.

That so great a mind as Pascal’s never doubted the existence of hell shows how morally deadening a vicious concept can be. As Nietzsche wrote, “The most pitiful example: the corruption of Pascal, who believed in the corruption of his reason through original sin when it had in fact been corrupted only by his Christianity.”

It turns out that Pascal wasn’t the only one to formulate the wager. “Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was narrated as having said: "The astrologers and the physicians both said the dead will never be resurrected. I said, 'Keep your council. If your idea is correct, I will come to no harm by my belief in the Day of Judgement, but if my belief is correct then you will be a sure loser by not believing in that day.'" (Narrated in Ihya of Al-Ghazali)”

The mention of Islam of course brings up the “many religions” objection to Pascal’s Wager. I’ve discovered only now that Pascal was aware of this counterargument. He dismissed pagan religions as manifestly wrong as can be seen by their extinction and/or by the inferiority of the cultures that practice them, Judaism has been superseded by Christianity. And as for Islam — Pascal is at his weakest here — well, if we examine it carefully, Islam just can’t be true.

Of course if we examine it carefully, Christianity can’t be true either — hence the pitiful state of uncertainty that Pascal mentions. Pascal was a brilliant thinker, but in this realm he was too intimidated by the threat of hell to keep pressing on. As for the very recent argument that says, “The extent of god’s mercy toward the dead is not known to us,” it was too early for such advanced thinking in the spirit of kindness. The child of the brutal severity of his times, Pascal settled for the wager.

When I discovered it, I was delighted by the “many religions” refutation of Pascal’s Wager. Let me present Pathos blogger Neil Carter’s anecdote:

“It was through participation in one of these [discussion] groups that I learned just how futile and egocentric Pascal’s Wager really is. I learned this when a Muslim scolded me for not honoring Muhammed, warning me that I would be punished for eternity if I did not capitulate. He cited Pascal’s Wager and told me that the downside to not believing in Allah and Muhammed was so great that if there is even a slight possibility that I am wrong, it behooves me to go ahead and believe in him just in case. I found this deeply amusing, since I had been told exactly the same thing about believing in Jesus. Evidently I’m screwed either way. If I reject Muhammed then I go to Muslim Hell, but if I reject Jesus then I go to Christian Hell. It is, quite literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”



Then I’ve done more reading and regained my balance, so to speak. Yes, Pascal was ethnocentric — a more accurate term here than egocentric — whatever the religion of “our tribe” happens to be, it must be the best, and the only true one. Poor Pascal, to have lived at a time when few dared think that all religions are human inventions, evolving as the culture evolves, but still tied to an earlier era of human development. They are archaic  philosophy and “theory of everything.”

In the remote past, religion must have been adaptive and mostly beneficial to the group, if not always to the individual. Now the amount of harm that religion has done and is still doing cannot be denied. But whether or not “religion poisons everything” and serves as inspiration for mass murder — or, on the contrary, provides solace and inspires acts of charity — not one religion has sufficient evidence to support supernatural claims.

No matter how much you may WISH to believe, the voice of reason will always bring up the inconvenient absence of evidence. No matter how desperately you ask, “God, where are you?” ~ if the answer is silence, again and again, faith will begin to crack and crumble. That’s why it’s forbidden to “test” god. You are not allowed to test the god hypothesis. 

Oddly enough, it was that way even during the so-called “ages of faith.” I agree with those theologians, including Luther, who said that human reason will always reject god. Luther claimed that’s because human reason wants freedom (which he saw as a bad thing). It can even create the illusion that we have free will, rather than being subject to predestination. We are born totally depraved, and only a minority are selected for salvation — though even they are obligated to see themselves as miserable sinners. “To love god is to hate oneself,” Luther said.

But freedom is not the only thing that reason wants. Reason also wants evidence. That’s why it’s so difficult to come to really believe by saying prayers. The little voice of reason will not go silent. It will keep whispering that we are talking to empty air.

(A shameless digression: what if we had a feminine deity, the Divine Mother? Then the idea of motherly love steals in, and we have Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. She doesn’t throw anyone into the fire. There is no judgment and no hell. There is only acceptance. The Divine Mother understands that we are victims of victims. She is a mother; she protects all her children. “Mother of window sills and journeys,” as James Wright invokes her — yes, it would be easier to take risks and not worry because She guides us. I would not fret over what to say, because She who has sent me here would put the right words in my mind. I would go about my tasks in total trust. What a lovely fantasy!)

(PS for those who might think that Jesus fulfills of role a compassionate deity: not so.  Jesus makes apocalyptic statements like, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”; he curses the innocent fig tree that had no fruit “because its time was not yet”; he calls non-Jews “dogs.” Worst of all, he is the judge at Last Judgment when, like a Nazi officer during a selection, he will point who goes to the right, and who to the left. Thus, contaminated with judgment and punishment, he can’t be the god of compassion. You can’t have it both ways.)

(PPS: Even Judaism shows flickers of yearning for a kind of Divine Mother. The Kabbalists developed a midrash: when angry Yahweh drove Adam and Eve out of Eden, he remained behind, “but the Mother went with them.”

From a kabbalah website:

The second sephira is Chokmah (Wisdom), and is the active and evident Father to whom the Mother is united. The third is a feminine passive potency called Binah (Understanding), and is co-equal with Chokmah. Chokmah is powerless till the number three forms the triangle.

"Thus this Sephira completes and makes evident the supernal Trinity. It is also called AMA, Mother, the great productive Mother.”

“Elohim,” being the masculine ending of a feminine noun, indicates both male and female gods.



The salvationist character of Christianity may be an advantage when life is very difficult, but becomes indigestible when life is reasonably happy. Even Freud’s “normal unhappiness” is not miserable enough to warrant investing time and energy in a salvationist creed.

There is something more inspiring than “normal unhappiness.” For Keats, the task of life is “soul-making.” It’s finding meaning in events and images, transmuting them into a rich personality. Rilke, perhaps due to not having encountered the notion of “soul-making,” thought more in terms of “building god” — an enlightened god, not an archaic warlord. That “enlightened god” might be conceived of as collective consciousness. We used to speak of “collective wisdom.” That’s arguably the best element of the collective psyche, but there are other elements as well, different in different historical epochs. We are still getting used to the Internet as a collective mind we can certainly shape by what we decide to post. And we are still beginners in the ecological moment, and are only beginning to develop a sense of stewardship toward the earth.

But first, we need to dispose of the idea of salvation, at least in the old sense: we are sinners by nature, and only correct belief can save us from the eternal torment we deserve. Greg Mogenson is worth quoting at length:

Deliver Us from Salvation
It was once believed by many that the rewards of the spirit come from good works. But the idea that heaven could be purchased by good behavior contained an even more fundamental idea — the idea that god could be paid off with protection money. Religion degenerated into a kind of insurance policy. Priests, like indemnity underwriters of a mafia godfather, sold sow’s ear indulgences to their parishioners who wanted to sin without compromising their places in heaven.

Luther, appalled by this salvation-mongering, argued that we are justified not by good works or sow’s ears, but by fait. God, for Luther, could not be bought or sold, nor could salvation. Fear of god, alone, he held to be the prerequisite for salvation, and faith was entirely god’s gift.

The notion of salvation is eternally corruptible. The priest can wholesale it, and Calvin can go to the opposite extreme and argue that it is doled out by the whim of a stingy god to an elect few. Indeed, each denomination has fostered allegiance in itself through its teachings about salvation.

But how many theological hairs will have to be split before we realize that what we need salvation from is the very notion of salvation itself?


Soul-making burns the salvific bridge that theology would erect between the sacred and the profane, this world and the next. In soul-making we are justified neither by good works nor by spiritual election, but rather, by fiction. “The images that yet / fresh images beget” is the only salvation soul-making offers. How we dramatize ourselves to ourselves, how the soul imagines our lives, how we dream events into experiences — that is what justifies the anti-salvation that is soul-making. Grounding in fiction, in life as fiction, saves us from the fantasy of truth and from the fantasy (which forgets it is a fantasy) of a saving truth. We make soul by releasing it from the pretensions of a salvation that would save it.


There remain two strong arguments against Pascal’s Wager. First, a deity worthy of worship would probably judge on the basis of ethics rather than correct doctrine, which is chiefly an accident of birth: those born in Saudi Arabia are Muslim, those born in Ireland are Catholic, those born in Greece are Greek Orthodox, and so on. But a more enlightened view is that a deity worthy of worship would not judge at all, and certainly would not torment anyone. I wonder who first came up with the moral obscenity of god as torturer (it doesn’t matter if the actual torturing is done by the devils — those are just the unpaid immigrants).

The second strong argument is simply the non-existence of hell.

Here is how John Shore, a writer for Patheos, imagines Christianity without hell:

A Christianity without hell would be literally fearless.

A Christianity without hell would have nothing to recommend it but the constant and unending love of God. It would allow Christians to point upward to God’s love—but never downward to His/Her wrath.

A Christianity without hell would be largely unevangelical, since there would be nothing to save anyone from.

A Christianity without hell would trust that God’s loving benevolence towards all people (emphasis on all) extends beyond this life and into the next.

Bringing peace about the afterlife, a Christianity without hell would free Christians to fully embrace this life, to heed Christ’s commandment to in this life love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In short, a Christianity without hell would be a fearless, trusting, loving, divinely inspired source of good in the world.

And this Christianity would be more biblical—would be truer to not just the words but the very spirit of Christianity—than any Christianity that posits the reality of hell.

I want that Christianity. I insist upon that Christianity.

(A shameless digression: the word “Christ” has emotional power that “Jesus” doesn’t. “Yours in Christ” is instantly elevating; “Yours in Jesus” might as well be “Yours in George.”

“Yours in the Buddha” does not carry much, unless changed to “Yours in the light of the Buddha.”)


Let me reprise this refutation of Pascal’s Wager. First, there is no judgment. Second, there is no hell. The barbarous idea has been dismissed even by Pope JP2, who has redefined heaven and hell as not places, but states of mind that can be experienced right here on earth. Heaven is a loving state of mind, while hell is a state of mind filled with hatred and negativity.

While the Pope added that “Heaven is also the person of God,” that doesn’t seem as convincing as the statement that heaven is not a place, but a loving state of mind. It might even be argued that a loving state of mind IS god — “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” A state of mind filled with loving kindness can be attained without any dogmatic beliefs about virgin birth or resurrection in the body. Thus, we don’t need Pascal’s wager: we can enjoy heaven right here on earth. Here our guide is not Pascal, but the poet Mary Oliver who asks, in “The Summer Day”

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


It may sound unbelievable, I know, but only a month after finishing the blog I finally bothered to google “refusing Pascal’s Wager.” And I found this gem:

We could substitute God for any other imaginary construct and the argument would not be the least convincing to anyone. Let’s say that the issue is about whether or not Elvis is God. One either believes Elvis is God or you don’t. If you believe that Elvis is God (and he is) you get a big reward. If you don’t believe (and he is) you get a big punishment. If Elvis isn’t God then there is no harm in believing he is God so one might as well believe. Do you believe Elvis is God? Of course you don’t. Don’t you want the big reward and want to avoid the big punishment if you are wrong? "You might as well believe... because if we are wrong we will be tortured by Elvis for all eternity.”

Right away we’d object that Elvis was not a monster and he wouldn’t torture anyone, much less for eternity. Yet we make an assumption about an abrahamic god that his cruelty and monstrosity are infinite.

And this vividly reminds me of my mother’s attempt to make me a happier child. I was ten. Out of the blue, she said, There is no hell. God would not be so cruel. I was of course terrified by the blasphemy, knowing now she was going to hell for sure. But now, when I remember that moment, I see it as the high point of my early years, and feel love for my mother because of her courage. Yes, she too had been an atheist for many years, but — as I've been repeating and repeating — the fear of hell doesn't disappear completely. Some remnant of it lingers. You’ve been indoctrinated/inoculated for life. I can also see a mean priest rubbing his hands for joy.


For many years I tethered my boat to the dock of psychologism — the notion that all psychic movement can be explained psychologically. I knew it was intellectually irresponsible and easily refuted but it worked for me, giving me a path away from the toxic fumes of my religious experience. Twentieth century psychologists gave us the language and concepts needed to pull this off — thus the self-preservation instincts of the ego explained the idea of temptation, the super-ego quelled those incessant, unwanted voices we call conscience, guilt, or the Holy Spirit, bursts of unexplained behavior were attributed to complexes and archetypes, and so on.

Now I see I was methodically, rationally wiping away the toxic residue taken on by close association to a church. But today I want to allow space for spirituality (not talking religion here). I am trying to identify the divide between psychology and spirituality — they often look alike, like twins, but I think they are different. The internal, spiritual dialog I experienced as a youth has become a monologue, and I'm tired and bored of the sound of my own voice. That monologue, I think, is psychology. Perhaps the other voice, the partner in our internal dialog, is spirituality, and I don't want to label it the super-ego. Whatever it is, I miss it.

Pascal doesn't resonate, his wager is nonsensical — perhaps the choir is interested, but you have to be on the inside of that world to care. Religion declared which field it would play on and everything that followed became truth. I would call it silly if it wasn't so serious. Can we laugh and die at the same time?


Your comment was an eye-opener, making me realize I’d been damaged by Catholicism even more than I thought. The post doesn’t exaggerate — over the years, Pascal’s Wager would come back to bite me again and again, even as my atheism was deepening. Better hell than worshipping the god of Auschwitz and Ebola (substitute “tsunami” and the like before Ebola hit), I thought, trying to be heroic, but actually it was an echo of the despair I felt even when I was downright “devout” — the near certainty of being doomed to go to hell anyway. That kind of despair was defined by the Catholic church as the “sin against the Holy Ghost, the one sin that will not be forgiven.”

Now it all seems ridiculous, this torment over complete fiction. It wasn’t even good fiction — the Holy Ghost was a totally undeveloped character — but it used to be terribly real. If you’ve never totally believed that your final destination is the everlasting tortures of hell, you may not have the visceral feel for what I'm saying. Pascal’s Wager is founded on absolute terror. Without hell, the wager is dead — “nonsensical,” as you say.

Imagine a child completely terrified of Batman, and having flashbacks of that terror long into adulthood. LOL! but a very bitter LOL.

The saving grace of Protestantism, it seems to me, even the Baptist variety, is that church members seem to have no doubt they are headed for paradise, and no doubt that all who preceded them are now “in the better place.” For all the toxicity of fundamentalism of imagining OTHERS in hell, my guess is that the faithful sleep soundly at night, never doubting that bliss awaits (as long as you’re not gay, but that’s not a problem for the overwhelming majority). Ever since a Protestant acquaintance told me that no one in her church believes they’ll go to hell, I’ve been consumed with retroactive envy — how different my childhood might have been! Awaiting celestial bliss instead of the torture basement of hell, imagine!

So there is nothing I miss except some poetics that nevertheless grew around the horrific Catholic cult of suffering and death, the Stations of the Cross, the martyrs, the saints flagellating themselves. I speak of European Catholicism — in America, with the heavy competition of Protestant churches, the stench of hell had to be deodorized. And then came Pope JP2, redefining heaven and hell — infallibly, don’t forget. A major miracle. If only it had happened earlier, precisely to break the teeth of Pascal’s Wager.

I can’t pretend to grasp what you mean by an inner dialog with spirituality. The inner monolog is a daily experience for me, and yes, it can be annoying. Years ago I could go as far as imagine standing with Jesus (paintings helped here) on a pleasant bridge, looking down at the stream below — but even then I was doing all the talking while my handsome Jesus kept silent, on his face a hint of Mona Lisa’s smile. Once only I remember a thought breaking through that might be a kind of metaphoric reply — but the voice in my head was always, always my own. It was undeniably my own brain just going about its tasks nicely enough, thank you. At least the unconscious is always there for me; the creative process taught me that.

I’ve never received any sign of the supernatural, of the “spirit world,” and I'm afraid nothing short of supernatural would satisfy my felt sense of “spiritual.” This is probably another distortion born of Catholicism. After all, isn’t the wonderful adventure of the creative process ENOUGH? Isn’t the incredibly rich and surprising inner life ENOUGH? Likewise, isn’t nature, inexhaustibly beautiful and mysterious, ENOUGH?

I have a very bright ex-Catholic friend who is also a good poet and a high achiever, and she too has that yearning for some unknown god. She hasn’t had the slightest sign either, and was hoping that perhaps I was able to report something unexplainable. Milosz has a poem in which he laments knowing that no sing would ever be given to him — I guess until the age of 80 or so, he still had some lingering hope and kept a close eye on the statues in church for any nodding of the head or movement of the hand . . .  we are talking about a brilliant mind here, but that’s just what Catholicism can do.

Not that a Catholic theocracy is any danger now. Catholicism is careful to conceal its claim to world dominion — it’s entirely possible that the church has realized the impossibility of it, especially as secularism and evangelical competition (“They are stealing our sheep!”) keep thinning the ranks of practicing Catholics. It’s the turn of Islam to remind us that world dominion has always been its mission, and nothing short of conquering the world in the name of Islam will satisfy. We will certainly laugh less and less as ISIS and similar groups keep making progress. If the 20th century had two horrific totalitarian movements, the 21st has begun with something even more vicious and demented (communism at least tried to proclaim social justice; that’s how it fooled some of the best minds). After the catastrophe, the stupidest president in American history pronounced Islam “a religion of peace” and told us to show our faith by going shopping. As for Orwell’s dystopia, Orwell’s imagination was too Western and much too civilized.



I know you’ve read a lot of Milosz, so you probably know that quotation: “nothing in the afterlife is the opium of the people.”


Thanks for reminding me of that interesting statement. I forget the source — maybe the essay on Dostoyevski, who said that without god and immortality, everything is permitted. That is of course not true. Both Dostoyevski and Milosz are wrong.

I know the spirit in which Milosz meant it, or at least the emotional place he was coming from: dictators such as Stalin possibly rejoicing in the idea that after they die, there will be no judgment and no punishment, just nothing. But the likes of Stalin are extremely rare, and not to be confused with “the people.”

What I like about Milosz’s statement is the idea that judgment is based on actions, not on belief. At least that’s an improvement over the Protestant doctrine that faith alone is the key to heaven. The correct faith — never mind that you had the misfortune of being born in Bangladesh. And I need to stress that in his old age, Milosz changed his mind about the afterlife and decided that it had nothing to do with punishment and reward.

I think punishment and reward are experienced in this life. We call this “consequences.” True, now and then the wicked flourish while the good suffer. “Life is not fair” has been an eternal lament. But much of the time, misbehavior gets punished and goodness is rewarded. Not in the sense that a good person never gets cancer, no. But on the whole, the good people seem happier  than those who are aggressive and malicious. And we learn to be more kind as we grow older. So in practical terms the afterlife is irrelevant; hell or paradise are right here, and everything in between. Milosz need not worry that a murderer rubs his hands with joy thinking there’s no hell; there will be hell in this life, even if the murderer is not caught. Dostoyevki’s “Crime and Punishment” showed that very well. Even movies like The Godfather show it: ultimately it’s a miserable life.

How you feel afterwards is a pretty reliable guide. Not going to church on Sunday is supposed to be a mortal sin, but do you regret afterwards as you might regret a malicious remark? No, so it’s not really a “sin.” Making love with someone you love, even though you are not married to the person, is a beautiful experience, and only heavy indoctrination makes anyone regard it as a sin.

The longer I live, the more ridiculous religion appears to me, and the more crude: do you really need the threat of eternal hellfire to keep people from stealing and killing? What a pathetic culture that would be.


Wait! I just found the full quotation:

Religion used to be the opium of the people. To those suffering humiliation, pain, illness, and serfdom, religion promised the reward of an after life. But now, we are witnessing a transformation, a true opium of the people is the belief in nothingness after death, the huge solace, the huge comfort of thinking that for our betrayals, our greed, our cowardice, our murders, we are not going to be judged.


Yes, religion as the pie in the sky . . .  The Christian paradise is not very appealing, as I must have said twenty times by now. As life becomes more comfortable, we begin to appreciate the paradise we have right here. Even those who believe in the “better place” are beginning to grasp the meaninglessness of an afterlife with nothing to do for eternity.

As for the second part, my comment is exactly as before: we get rewarded and punished in this life. Not with perfect justice, but close enough to make the manipulation of afterlife unnecessary. We grow, we develop. We touch the lives of others. And that’s it. The nothing afterwards makes it more urgent that we make something of this life.


Love how you examine every imaginable aspect of belief and non-belief.

Also love the way you show how Jesus can be non-compassionate.

Personally I don’t care if a person believes in god or is an atheist, a Christian, Jew, Satanist, Pagan or a Moslem. The only thing I care about is that they know the difference of good and evil, have good values and  can renounce human rights violations such as honor killings, beheadings and stoning women to death.


To me the best thing about Judaism is that what matters is the right action, not the right dogma. Alas, Christianity got derailed when it decreed that correct belief is all-important. That’s what Pascal assumed: that our eternity depends on correct belief. If god judges by conduct, then Pascal’s argument is irrelevant. Or if god doesn’t judge at all — why have judgment to begin with?

I had to spell this out to myself step by step before I no longer felt intimidated by the Wager — which constantly comes up on Facebook, by the way. It’s possibly the most common reason people give for belief, and I was asked that personally as well: what if, after you die, you discover that god exists? It’s all based on the assumption that only correct belief counts.

What a wonderful world it might be if people decided that being a good person is what counts.


It feels embarrassing to acknowledge that all my adult life I experienced moments of terror because of Pascal’s Wager: if you don’t believe in the Christian god — the One True God, according to Pascal — and if you happen to be wrong, you will spend eternity burning in hell. If you do believe, and are wrong, then you will simply cease to exist and lose nothing, or little. But if you don’t believe, and are wrong, you will lose everything — an eternity of bliss you will contemplate while suffering in hell forever (here some theologians waver and say that “forever” actually means “for a long time”).

I admit that in terms of game theory, Pascal’s reasoning made sense, and it was terrifying (I didn’t yet know that “forever” could be interpreted as NOT forever; we know that Pascal meant “forever forever”). And in the bitter debates between atheists and Christian apologists on social media, I see Pascal’s Wager brought up again and again.

You may ask, “But what do you have to lose?” The first thing that comes to mind is the modern psychological worldview, with people (and especially children) viewed not as evil and objects of punishment, but as basically good (though they may be emotionally damaged) and objects of affection.

If you move in the world of sin and punishment, you lose the right to love. You get married and stay married, and that’s it. If love doesn’t last, that’s tough luck.

Forget the idea that we learn a great deal from relationships. Forget “personality enlargement.”  Don’t listen to those who say that love is the best thing that life can offer. This eternity business is not about psychological growth or well-being. Organized religion is not about getting the best out of THIS life. Everything is looked at from the point of view of sin and what happens in the afterlife. This is opposite of the E-Harmony ads that say: “Fall in love! Click here.”

Religions demand time, and they tend to constrict life. If life is less fulfilling because of practicing a religion, and if it turns out that there is no afterlife, then you do lose something — potentially a lot. When I worked in public schools, I heard an older teacher admit to a group of younger women teachers that she was a a virgin when she got married, and she’d never known a man other than her husband. After a shocked silence and the chorus of “Really?!” the women began to shake their heads and look at the older teacher with deep pity. But that used to be a common case with “good” women. That’s why there were so many “fallen women.”

All monotheistic religions restrict sexual behavior. Worse, they restrict the use of the mind. When it comes to thinking, you are not allowed to press after truth no matter where it may take you. You better no read certain books and not think certain thoughts. You are in a self-enforced mental prison. For thinkers, that is worse than restrictions on erotic relationships.

Finally, let’s not forget anxiety. In some denominations, it’s enough to believe to gain an entry ticket to paradise, no matter what your conduct may be. Jesus died on the cross, and therefore you are forgiven and can spend your life expecting a “better place.” But other denominations, notably Catholicism, prefer to keep you in doubt and anguish as to your final destination. Even if you believe, humans are so weak and flawed that you might still end up in a worse place because of your sins. You simply can’t be sure. You may have sinned even if you don’t recall it. And what about sinning in your dreams? Just because you are asleep, you think you are not responsible? There is the Catholic guilt, Protestant guilt, and Jewish guilt, but — guilt is guilt. The point is: You should be ashamed of yourself.

(A shameless digression: “The attractive ones are always guilty.” ~ Kafka, The Trial)