Monday, October 31, 2005

Is God in the pudding?

God doesn't exist.

As I've written here before, he once existed for me in a weak way. I've never believed intellectually, but there was a time when, under stress, I'd blurt out a vague prayer to someone or something, usually in the form of "Please, please don't let this happen to me!" It was less a belief in God than a belief in some sort of ordering force in the universe -- some force that was choosing to be unfair but which might be talked out of it.

Was this a shadow from my childhood? As a child, I did have "gods." They were "all powerful" beings who could dole out punishment or justice, according to their whims and my behavior. They were my parents. It is so much easier to have parents or gods than to live in a random universe. In a random universe stuff just happens; you don't matter. You're not UNimportant. That implies that there's a being that's choosing to ignore you. You're neither unimportant or important; you're not deserving of rewards or punishments; you're just are. There's no one there to care or not care about you; no one to punish or reward. Things will happen to you, good things and bad things. These things aren't messages or signs. "Shit happens."

Eventually, my intellect took over my emotions, and I lost the feeling of even a vague God. Now, when something goes wrong, I no longer say, "Please, please..." I know in my bones that no one is there. So why talk?

But very occasionally, I do still feel like I'm living in a universe that understands justice. I realized this about a year ago, as I was waiting for a train late at night. I was in a subway with four platforms, and it seemed like trains were coming to every platform except mine. This seemed so UNFAIR. As if some imp were taunting me. "Oh come ON," I kept saying.

But then I thought about probability. When a train comes, there's a one-in-four chance that it will come to my platform (a three-in-four chance that it won't). So it's much more likely that it WON'T come to my platform than it will. So lets say that a train comes to one of the other platforms. When the next train arrives, it once again has a three-out-of-four chance of arriving at another platform. With each train, the "dice" are re-rolled. There's no one tallying the previous rolls, saying "Shucks, six trains have gone by and none of them have been on that poor guy's platform. Let's give him a break." (There's also no jokester causing all trains to go to other platforms -- each train has a three-in-four chance of going to another platform. That is all.) If the dice are rolled a hundred times -- if a hundred trains come by -- about a fourth of them should be at my platform. But that doesn't mean that any will be there soon. It's perfectly possible to roll a die twenty times and not once see the number six show up. That's the sort of thing that happens with randomness.

It's so hard to give up the idea of a "parent." If there's no one in control, there's no one to complain to. It doesn't matter what I do. It doesn't matter if I'm a good person or a bad person. The train will come or it won't. I just have to wait and see. Having realized this, my subway religion is starting to fade. I only feel it when I'm really tired. Maybe one day it will be gone altogether. (I'm not suggesting that this is a good thing. It may be healthy to have certain illusions. But my history points to intellectual truths gradually becoming emotional truths. This seems to be the way I'm made.)

But I'm still deeply religious about food and dieting. I assume this is because food seems like such a reward. Anything that seems like a reward (or a punishment) triggers that religious feeling. As a kid, I got ice cream as a reward for eating my vegetables. So naturally it feels like a treat from the gods: something I get when I'm good. Something withheld when I'm bad.

For the past couple of years, I've been dieting and working out. Sometimes I lapse into bad habits. I recently gained five pounds. I'm trying to lose it, and I continually find myself thinking these sorts of thoughts:

-- It's only FAIR that I get to eat a cookie after working out so hard.
-- Damn! I rode the exercise bike for an hour really fast. Now I'm stepping on a scale and I still weigh the same amount as yesterday? That's not FAIR!
-- I had a really hard day at work today. I DESERVE some ice cream. (And this treat should NOT count towards my weight! I should get an exemption for being good!)
-- I didn't exercise today (or I overate). That makes me a bad person.
-- I worked out and ate only healthy, low-calorie food. That makes me a good person.

These are all fantasies. It's a pure numbers game. If I consume more calories than I burn, I gain weight; if I burn more calories than I consume, I lose weight. That's it. It's about as mechanical as a process can get. If I gain weight, I'm not a bad person -- I'm a heavier person. If I lose weight, I'm not a good person (but I may be a more attractive person or a more healthy person). If I have a hard day and I decide to eat a cookie, those calories from the cookie will affect me just as much as calories from any other day. Assuming these thoughts sink into my feelings, will this help or hurt my chances of losing weight? Do I need to be religious in order to diet? Or will I do better if I know my body for the contraption that it is?

I can also become religious about money (another reward/punishment trigger). "I deserve to buy myself something." Maybe so, but my bank account will still be drained after I do.

As a teenager, I read a story called "The Cold Equations" by Jerome Bixby. It was a science fiction story about a man traveling towards a planet in a small space ship. He discovered that a young girl had hid herself on board so that she could also get to the planet. The stowaway wanted to be with her boyfriend, who was stationed there. But her added weight meant that the ship would crash. If the pilot threw her out into space, he would be able to land safely; if he kept her onboard, they would both surely die. There was no one to appeal to. It was a just numbers game. Cold equations.


Carl Caputo said...

Bounced by via J. D. Roth’s website—I’m not sure what I was doing there; probably something MetaFilter–induced—and noticed your “Cold Equations” memory. It’s a good post, and I’m enoying your site, but I’m nitpicky about sf attribution and can’t let it pass. The story is actually by Tom Godwin.

Traveling Thru. said...

I traveled to this site via a link from something else I was researching.

After reading "Is God in the pudding?" I feel sorrow and compassion for you. I too was once an atheist.

I have since fallen in love with Jesus, and I cannot imagine my life without him. I have found peace. May you find peace as well one day, my brother. From the bottom of my heart, shalom.