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Steve Mendelsohn: The God of Death and the Death of God

My friend and former patent lawyer colleague Steve Mendelsohn sent me the essay below (Steve doesn’t have his own blog, so this is posted here with his permission). One of his other pieces is the funny “Confessions of a Law School Asshole,” published when he was a law student at U. Penn in The Penn Law Forum (Sept. 26, 1990). Feel free to send Steve comments at steve@mendelip.com.

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The God of Death and the Death of God

by Steve Mendelsohn

steve@mendelip.com

From almost my earliest childhood memories, I remember being terrified of death.  I remember crying out to my dad from the dark of my bedroom as a 7 or 8 year old, unable to sleep from my fear of death.  “Dad,” I’d wail, “what happens when you die.”  “Your soul goes into a new baby,” he’d reassure me.

            But that wasn’t reassuring.  That wasn’t reassuring at all.  What good is that to me if my soul goes into a new baby?  I don’t remember who I was before that person’s soul came into me when I was born.  So, in the same way, my consciousness would not continue after I die and my soul goes into some other new baby.

            What good was my dad’s version of reincarnation if your consciousness doesn’t continue to your next incarnation?  And where the hell did my dad come up with reincarnation anyway?  Jews don’t believe in reincarnation.  Judaism isn’t sure what Jews should believe in, but it sure isn’t reincarnation.

            Jews talk vaguely about olam ha’bah, the “World To Come,” where we all go when we die, but nobody knows any details.  There are vague references to a judgment day and reward or punishment for things done in this life, but it’s not so clear like it is for Christians with a heaven and a hell and a purgatory and, until recently anyway, a limbo.

            Jews also talk about everyone getting resurrected and returning to the Garden of Eden when the Messiah finally comes.  By the way, we’re still waiting for him to come for the first time.

            But, I guess even when I was 7 or 8 years old, I wasn’t buying it.  I’m pretty sure that I believed in God back then, but I must not have believed in the World To Come, because I was terrified of death back then, and I stayed terrified of death for another 35 or 40 years.

            I mean really terrified of death.  I mean shooting-up-in-bed-in-the-middle?of-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat-screaming-“No!”-turning-on-the-light-hoping-upon-all-hope-that-the-reality-of-my-inevitable-and-ultimate-oblivion-was-just-not-true terrified of death.  This was true in my teens, in my twenties, in my thirties, and well into my forties. 

            And then something happened.  I realized one day that I wasn’t afraid of death anymore.  I don’t know exactly when or how or why it happened, but it did.  My sister noted that it seemed to happen right about the time that our dad died in 2001.  My wife pointed out that it also happened right about the time that our children were born, including our son, who will carry on the Mendelsohn name.  I don’t know if either had anything to do with it or not, but it’s certainly a possibility, although I don’t for the life of me know why it would.

            I say that I used to believe in God, because I’m pretty sure that I remember believing in God.  And if I really did truly believe in God back then, I’m sure that one of the main reasons for me believing in God was because, without God, there would definitely be no World To Come and therefore no continuation of my consciousness.  And that was too much to accept.

            But, at some point in time, probably when I was in my twenties, I stopped believing in God.  I desperately wanted there to be a God, I hoped that there was a God, I thought that it would be better if there was a God, that I would be happier if I did believe in God, but, in my heart of hearts, I just didn’t believe that there was a God.  Even so, I thought it would be prudent to behave as if there was a God, hedging my bets just in case.  Pascal’s Wager, right?

            So I continued to do the things that I thought my (Jewish) God wanted me to do and not do the things that I thought my (Jewish) God didn’t want me to do.  I went to synagogue.  I kept kosher.  I observed the Sabbath.  I rarely if ever bore false witness against my neighbor.  And I made damn sure that my ox never gored my neighbor’s bull.

            Not only did I used to think that it would be better if I believed in God, but I thought that it was a good thing that most of the world did believe in God.  When Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” I replied, “Thank God.  Who wants a bunch of unopiated masses running around loose.”  Since Oklahoma City and September 11, 2001, I don’t say that any more.

            When I went to Egypt in 1984 for a tour up and down the Nile, I was told that, unlike the U.S., in Egypt, the safer neighborhoods were the poorer neighborhoods, because poor Egyptians tended to be more religious than rich Egyptians, and more religious Egyptians would be less likely to rob you.  Today, I’m not going to any neighborhoods in Egypt, rich or poor.

            I used to envy people who did believe in God.  I thought that it was good for them to believe in God.  I did not want to disabuse them of that belief.  Except, of course, for those bible thumpers who always came around campus to preach the Word to us.  They really annoyed me with their circular reasoning (“proving” the divinity of Christ by citing the Bible) and absolute certainty (denying that belief is the acceptance of the truth of something without proof and failing to accept even the remotest possibility of God’s non-existence).

            As recently as the late 1990s, when my wife and I started our family, I thought that it would be better if our children believed in God even if I didn’t.  So I tried to lie to them.  I tried to tell them that there was a God, and I tried to tell them that I believed in God.  Evidently, I’m not a very convincing liar, probably from all those years of not bearing false witness against my neighbor, because our kids don’t seem to believe in God.

            Our son Jack declared at the very early age of 6 or 7 that he was an atheist.  He didn’t use that word exactly, but that’s what he meant.  “At Hebrew School today,” he told us one day, “they told us that there was a God, but I didn’t believe them.”

            Just before she had her Bat Mitzvah (actually, I should say “before she became a bat mitzvah, but whatever), our then 12-year-old daughter Lauren announced that she was no longer Jewish, she was a Buddhist, and she didn’t see why she had to have a Bat Mitzvah.  I told her that she could be a Buddhist if she wanted to, but she was still Jewish, and moreover she would always be Jewish.

            (That’s something about Judaism that a lot of Christians, especially Catholics, don’t appreciate.  From what I understand, if you don’t believe in Jesus, then you can’t be a Catholic.  I’ve learned this from listening to a lot of comedians who start their routines with “I used to be a Catholic.”  This is foreign to Judaism.  Once you are a Jew, you are always a Jew.  It doesn’t matter if you eat pork, it doesn’t matter if you work on Saturday, it doesn’t even matter if don’t believe in God, you are still a Jew.  Benjamin Disraeli may have converted to Christianity at an early age, but, to us Jews, he was the first Jewish Prime Minister of England.  Felix Mendelssohn (no relation) may have been converted by his parents to Christianity to study music, but to us Jews, and especially to us Mendelsohns, he was a Jew.  And let’s not forget the most famous Jew of all:  Jesus of Nazareth.  Born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew.  It’s not his fault that so many non-Jews have forgotten that he was a Jew.  I remember listing as a teenage the four people who had the most impact on our world as being Jesus, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein and proudly noting that three of them were Jews.  There are however a few exceptions to this once-a-Jew, always-a-Jew thing.  If a Jew does something really bad, then a Jew might not be a Jew after all.  At first, we thought that David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam murderer, was a Jew.  But then we were relieved to learn that he was adopted by his Jewish parents, so that he wasn’t really a Jew after all.  Even though he looked Jewish, we didn’t bother to ask whether his biological parents were also Jewish.  We just didn’t want to go there.)

 

Luckily, for some reason, our children Lauren and Jack do not seem to have inherited my terror of death.  There was a brief time, when Lauren was about six that she was afraid of dying.  Like my dad, I lied to her, but apparently my lie was better than his.  I was slowly getting better at this bearing false witness stuff.  I told her that, when both she and I died, whenever that was, I would make sure that our heads were frozen, so that, at some appropriate time in the future, scientists could rejuvenate our frozen heads, and we could continue to live.  At first, I just offered the deal to her, but she insisted on it applying to me as well.  I even wrote up a hand-written “contract” that I showed to her to prove that I was going to freeze both our heads.  I have not heard a peep from her about death since that day.

 

            Recently, I’ve started to believe that believing in God is not such a good thing.  Thanks to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others, I know that I no longer believe that we need God to be good.  And now I am slowly being convinced that, in the overall scheme of things, it would be better if none of us believed in God.  It’s not the belief in God itself that is the problem; the problem is all the bad things done by people who believe in God because they believe in God.

            Oh, sure, there are plenty of good people who believe in God, and they may even be good (or at least better than they would otherwise be) because they believe in God.  But, when you look at the history of our world, and if you look around the world today, it’s hard to conclude that the world was and is better off because of all the people who believe in God.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  Go ask Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others.  They’ve done a better job than I ever could to make the case against God.

            So, I used to believe in God, then I didn’t believe in God, but I wished that I did and was glad that others did, then I stopped wishing that I did believe in God, and now I’m getting to the point where I wish no one did.

            And here I am today, an avowed atheist, with no belief in a World To Come, with no expectation of a continued consciousness after this life ends, who nevertheless, for some unknown reason that completely baffles and amazes me, is not afraid of death.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m still not happy about it, but at least it’s not keeping me up at night.

 

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Terry Hulsey December 15, 2011, 9:06 am

    I’ve covered this subject definitively for all posterity:
    http://www.chineseimperium.com/essaysPending/Heaven_CarefulWhatYouWishFor.htm

    • Steve Mendelsohn December 15, 2011, 12:03 pm

      Terry,
      Thank you for sharing your essay. I was with you right up until the end. This emphasis on immortality, whether in heaven or in the memories/effects that an individual leaves to the world he/she leaves behind, is misplaced. For most of us, we will be lucky to be remembered for two or three generations at the most. (Exactly what do you know about your sixteen great-great-great grandmothers?) Based on what we know of the ultimate fate of our physical world (e.g., solar engulfment of the Earth, accelerated expansion of the universe, proton decay), even the fame of the most famous humans who ever lived, even the effects of the most influential humans who ever lived, including Jesus himself, are ultimately fleeting, when time is put into its proper perspective. Do you really care whether your great-great-great granddaughter remembers who you were, when the Earth is going to boil away in about 5 billion years (which will probably be about 4.99999 billion years after some microbe already wiped out the human species)? At least heaven would be outside of the physical world and therefore presumably immune to microbes and proton decay. Too bad, as you and I know, there ain’t no such thing as heaven. Pity.

  • ImadK December 17, 2011, 7:15 am

    Mr. mendelsohn,

    You wrote: ” It’s not the belief in God itself that is the problem; the problem is all the bad things done by people who believe in God because they believe in God.”

    I would agree that certainly many ills, from murder to even stealing another person’s property, was done by people who believed that they did god’s work, but let’s not forget that you don’t need a belief in god to commit the same crimes. A lot of people point out about colonialists and crusaders to point out how religioon can make people commit genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc. yet discussing Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge doesn’t fit into that narrative.

    I think that Sam Harris is an idiot – his “knowledge” on religion is based on soundbites and even just fabricated crap – but on the other hand, Christopher Hitchens is well informed (but i don’t agree with his conclusions). In case you haven’t, I would suggest that you read Chris Hedges’ book “I don’t believe in Athiests”. Okay, it’s not a great title, but i think that there is some good insight about morality and theism/atheism.

    Also, on the point about remaining Jewish despite no longer believing, I couldn’t help but think about David Cross and his bit about still remaining Jewish even though he is an atheist.

  • Xerographica December 20, 2011, 5:45 am

    Lately I’ve found myself saying that just because I don’t believe in god doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist. Guess I’ve been saying that because lately I’ve been going around saying that we’re all just blind men touching different parts of an elephant.

    Do we really need religion? Do we really need a state? I have my theories but if I believe that my theories are anything more than theories then I fall victim to the same “Fatal Conceit” malaise that dogmatists suffer from.

    Humility regarding the scope of our knowledge is essential for tolerance and open-mindedness. Can’t remember who conveyed the idea that the people in the middle ages were so stupid that they didn’t even realize that they were in the middle ages. We’re always in some future society’s middle ages.

    As a huge fan of suspenseful fiction…I feel completely gypped that I won’t get to find out what happens in the chapters long after I’m leaves of grass. My guess is that humans and machines will completely converge and we’ll colonize the planets just like our ancestors colonized the different continents. But when we disperse throughout space the great distances will cause some divergence between the disparate populations.

    What surprises will be in store for people as they colonize the different planets? Who knows? Maybe next year some aliens will visit our planet and share everything they’ve learned during their exploration of space.

    If anybody’s interested…here’s my blog entry where I outline my own transition from belief to doubt…
    http://pragmatarianism.blogspot.com/2011/10/is-tax-allocation-disparity-divine-or.html

    …and here’s another one where I consider the implications of independent thinking…
    http://pragmatarianism.blogspot.com/2011/12/devils-advocate-for-public-goods.html

  • fabristol December 22, 2011, 4:11 pm

    Hi Steve,

    your post is very well written. Although I’m not jewish it happened the same to me. I was scared to death about death (sorry about the joke here) but then something happened to me: I stopped being catholic. I found out that it was religion that was putting that idea about death in my mind, continuously, every day. I think atheism (although I don’t like to call it like this; maybe rationalism is better?) was the cure. And this strikes me everytime, that atheists are less afraid of death than religious people, the ones that are supposed to “know” what’s after.
    sincerely

    Fabry

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