There are moments when its near impossible for me to be an agnostic. The severe illness of a friend gets me praying. I cant satisfactorily imagine anyone or thing to pray to, but I cant rule out the possibility that my yearning to the cosmos for my friends recovery along with all the others praying in their own way might not be helpful.
How feeble that double negative sounds, and is.
But when the heart drives, it cant just leave the head behind.
So I pray, but incoherently. I may say I am sending my thoughts instead. Who knows if or how energy or belief or prayer works? Im not good at it, which probably makes it useless for my friend anyway. Lacking a clear idea of what Im doing, I cant concentrate for more than a few moments. I dont feel too guilty maybe theres nothing in it. But I feel some regret that I am so feeble at this task, because deep down in myself I do believe the world is more complex than atheists think. Perhaps belief in almost anything that can liberate energies to work even though science may one day conclude that the energies are nothing to do with the something believed in.
Praying for myself seems too absurd. I just had a new cancer scare. High-tech instruments peering into my body first indicated I had gone from stage one to stage three cancer, then eleven days later the results contradicted themselves. Meanwhile I had lung and kidney tests to make sure I could withstand chemotherapy. I didnt pray during this bizarre episode. Had the first diagnosis been correct, I would probably have tried visualisation, the secular persons prayer.
During those eleven days it was other things that made me viscerally religious. I read that a former Christian minister who had murdered an abortion doctor was to be executed. I totally reject the idea of executions: I dont want the state to have that kind of power. But when I heard that he was looking forward to his own execution, I lost my secular cool. On 3 September 2003 the New York Times quoted him saying, The sooner I am executed ... the sooner I am going to heaven. I expect a great reward in heaven. I am looking forward to glory. I dont feel remorse. More people should act as I have acted.
I just thought: you go, guy, and let your God set you right. On times like this, Id like to believe in life after death and divine judgment. Because if there is a God, she is going to let rip at that man.
As my wife says: there is a special place in hell for people like that: believers who murder others in the name of their faith.
Where else can be the destination of the murderers of the good people at the UN building in Iraq, including openDemocracy columnist, Arthur Helton, or at the Najaf mosque? I dont even believe in hell, or a God who would send someone there.
Alice Walker, a writer I admire, said of Osama bin Laden, what would happen to his cool armour if he could be reminded of all the good, non-violent things he has done? Further, what would happen to him if he could be brought to understand the preciousness of the lives he has destroyed? This is not as simple a question as it might appear. I firmly believe the only punishment that works is love.
In a recent article on the failures of the left, Geoffrey Wheatcroft holds this statement up to ridicule.
I agree its not a practical programme for dealing with bin Laden. But I think that this may be what hell is: when any of us is brought to understand what we have done to others. The greater the miseries we have inflicted, the worse our hell will be. I couldnt wish anything worse for the killers of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the UN in Iraq, or of the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. It would be best if they are caught and live long enough to enter that hell. But if that should not happen, Id like to believe in a hell after death that would take care of their punishment.
I can however more easily imagine the hell they will be in when a loving God explains things to them sorry, bud, no heaven for you until you have understood a few painful things than I can imagine how to pray for a sick friend. Revenge is easier to visualise than healing.
I just got a free ride out of cancer (for how long, who knows). God at work? Not a chance. It was science at work, diagnostic tools at work, a good surgeon, an affluent society, and luck. To think that God spared me, but not the UN guy, or my fellow openDemocracy columnist, or the ayatollah, would be pure egotism. But Ill keep sort of praying for future sick friends, just in case. Maybe Ill get better at it.
For me, the great promise of openDemocracy is the chance of a more immediate kind of writing one that weaves head and heart together, and expresses their interrelations plainly.
If anyone else responds to what is published and posted on openDemocracy in this more immediate way, I would really like to hear from them. Please respond in the discussion forum. Or, if you are feeling more private email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.