I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, no matter how comical." -- Herman Melville
So do I, Herman, so do I. I just find it harder and harder these days not to burst out laughing when people talk about God.
I should put "God" in quotes, because I don't think a lot of these people are really talking about God at all. They're talking about religion, and specifically their own. They're talking about what New York Observer columnist Nicholas von Hoffman calls "God locked up, guarded by ministers, priests, rabbis, popes and mullahs," and in many cases -- though unfortunately not enough -- they're a regular laugh riot.
Surely the funniest "religion" story of recent days involves the Rev. Pat Robertson -- televangelist, former presidential candidate, right-wing nutcase, would-be assassin of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and host of the immensely popular Christian TV show, "The 700 Club." On November 11, Robertson warned the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, that they shouldn't count on "God" if and when calamity strikes them.
Why? Because the residents of Dover had the temerity to toss out of office eight public school board members who favored the teaching of "intelligent design" next to evolution in science classes.
Maybe you heard this story already -- maybe not. It's worth repeating, not just for its comic value but because it's so expressive of the way these "Christians" think. In that uniquely hilarious way he has, Robertson intoned from his studio-lit pulpit:
"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover -- if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God; you just rejected Him from your city. And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because He might not be there."
Uh, Pat . . . He might not be there anyway. I believe the jury has been out on this since at least 1882, when Nietzsche declared that "God is dead" in his unfortunately titled The Gay Science. I also believe that, even if there's such a thing as "intelligent design," it can't be "taught," because it can't be demonstrated. It belongs to the realm of religion and philosophy -- let's say, the "social sciences."
Oh, hell, let's come right out with it: It belongs in a church, not in a publicly funded school system.
"God is tolerant and loving," Robertson continued, again on no demonstrable evidence, "but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever. If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them."
Well, maybe he could. Certainly it would help if people actually read Darwin and got to know him, fossils and all, as a man who never (quite) rejected the existence of "God." Granted, Darwin was raised a Unitarian, and he did indeed abandon the notion of what we now call "intelligent design" (the story of Adam and Eve being a little too much for any thinking person to contemplate). But Darwin was never an atheist. Ultimately, he preferred to call himself an agnostic, and even in his theory of "natural selection" and the random development of species, he adhered firmly to a faith in what he called the "fixed laws" of the universe.
Now, who or what "fixed" these laws? It's a legitimate question, and one that scientists, believe it or not, have been working for a long time to figure out. I don't think they ever will, frankly, but not for want of trying. According to London's Guardian, there's even a multi-billion-dollar project underway among international physicists to uncover the secrets -- for that matter, the very existence -- of what is colloquially called "the God particle . . . a mysterious sub-atomic fragment that permeates the entire universe and explains how everything is the way it is."
A big task, you might say, and you'd be right, inasmuch as this experiment involves the construction of "a gigantic atom-smashing machine" that would "accelerate particles from opposite ends of a 20-mile tunnel at near-light speeds and smash them into each other head-on."
Won't that be fun? "The scientists hope the resulting cataclysmic explosion of heat, light and radiation will recreate the conditions found in the first few billionths of a second after the big bang. And when that happens, they hope the God particle, otherwise known as the Higgs boson, will show itself."
You'll forgive me for saying that, when I first read this sentence, I thought it said "Higgs bosom." I'm sure Pat Robertson would make the same mistake, the very devout being more sex-obsessed than any other randomly developed species I can think of.
Meantime, I don't really get the argument. So far as I'm concerned, it was all settled by Rodgers and Hammerstein in The King and I, when the British governess tells the king of Siam, "But, Your Majesty! The miracle of creation is the same miracle whether it took thousands of years or six days!"
But I wouldn't teach that in science class, either. I just wish the Christers would keep their personal beliefs out of government and out of the schools. As my hero von Hoffman further declaims, "This is not a struggle to be carried on in the law courts and the legislatures . . . We don't need lawyers here; we need fumigators. We need people in HAZMAT suits to go in and smoke 'em out."