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Monday, August 20, 2007'Not-God'
Whether or not God exists is perhaps the most perplexing of life's cosmic questions. It is a debate each of us has probably grappled with at one time or another.
For former "Saturday Night Live" star Julia Sweeney, giving up on religion was anything but easy.
"I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant, I hadn't really spent any time thinking what 'Not-God' meant," she told CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras. "There was this teeny-weeny voice whispering inside my head, I'm not sure how long it had been there but it suddenly got just one decibel louder and it whispered, 'There is no God.' I tried to ignore it but it got a little louder. 'There is no God, there is no God.' Oh God, there is no God! It was terrifying. You know, it was a terrifying moment to let go of that idea."
Sweeney's most famous "SNL" character was Pat, the gender-confused character who later starred in her own movie.
Even more confusing for Sweeney personally was religion. She comes from a large Irish-Catholic family. But in her 30s, Sweeney says she began a spiritual quest. It led her away from any notion of God — a conversion she turned into a monologue, soon to be released as a film called "Letting Go of God."
But of course, many people would disagree with Sweeney, especially her mother, Geri. She said it was a great shock that her daughter decided that there wasn't enough evidence for her to believe in God.
"I just couldn't believe that she had gotten to that place. I'm Catholic. I intend to continue to be Catholic," Geri Sweeney said. "I think the Catholic Church is a wonderful place."
As a result of her decision about God and religion, Julia Sweeney fell out of touch with her parents.
"They both said they weren't going to speak to me anymore," she said. "My dad said, 'I don't think you should even come to my funeral.' After I hung up I thought, 'Just try and stop me!'"
Julia Sweeney is clearly in the minority in this country. From the classroom with the "Pledge of Allegiance" where students declare that the United States is "one nation under God"; to the world of politics where candidates constantly reference religion; even in the movies like "Evan Almighty, God is everywhere.
In a recent CBS News poll, 82 per cent of Americans said they believe in God — 9 percent in a universal spirit. Just 8 percent say they don't believe in either. They are a small minority, but lately, it seems, an increasingly vocal one.
A new crop of books, written by atheists, is on the bestseller list. For example, "God Is Not Great" by journalist Christopher Hitchens. He believes that nothing is sacred. He aggressively attacks organized religion.
"There are unethical things that people do because of religion they wouldn't do without it," he said. "Mutilating the genitals of their children, blowing themselves up in the attempt to murder other people, banning books, burning each other's churches — things that an atheist wouldn't do."
Atheism, Hitchens says, is the view that there is simply not enough evidence to show that God exists.
"Thus those who claim to know of, by definition, are mistaken," he said. "Well, because those who are religious claim not only that there is a God, which they cannot know, but they claim to know His mind and His instructions, which is much more than any human being can claim to know."
Hitchens believes religion, no matter which faith, no matter where in the world, can bring out the worst in us. Take, he says, his birthplace Northern Ireland.
"... where the Christians kill each other happily and reduced the whole level of society to one of practically underdevelopment," he said.
Also consider the Middle East — the cradle of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Hitchens has traveled widely in the region.
"To be a foreign correspondent and to go to countries that could and should be civilized and to see them torn to shreds and their culture reduced to beggary and misery by religion is an education I wish everyone could have," Hitchens said.
But Stephen Prothero, who chairs the religious studies department at Boston University, says that atheists miss the fact that religion, while being a source of some terrible evil, is also the greatest force for good.
"And so, if you're gonna criticize — you know, religious people for the Inquisition, then you need to praise them for the civil rights movement," he said. "You need to praise them for getting rid of slavery in the United States, which they did. You can't sort of have it both ways. And similarly, if you're going to praise atheists for these things, you need to criticize the Stalinists. I mean, some of the most murderous regimes that we've had in the 20th century were atheistic regimes."
In his recent book "Religious Literacy," Prothero argues Americans, though religious, actually know little about any faith, let alone their own. And he says while religion has always been a dominant force in American society, lately, it's become much more confrontational.
"We used to have a sort of gentlemen's agreement that religion was private," he said. "And so, if you were against religion, you wouldn't trash the religion of your neighbors — that's sort of un-American and sort of intolerant. But once religion moved into the public arena, anti-abortion or things like that, then it's almost the duty of atheists who are opposed to the religious right to step in and say, 'You know, religion is idiotic. You know, God doesn't exist.' You know, 'Why are we talking about the Bible? It's a pack of lies.'"
It's possible no atheist was more outspoken than the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair. In the 1960s, O'Hair argued all the way to the Supreme Court that forcing her children to pray and read the bible in their public school was unconstitutional. She won.
O'Hair was vilified by many. Ellen Johnson, head of the organization that O'Hair founded, American Atheists, says the stigma persists.
"Atheists are everywhere," Johnson said. "Atheists are your police officers. They are your physicians. They are your teachers. They are your children. We know who the atheists are; unfortunately they're in the closet. But to the people who don't know that, atheists are just your unpatriotic, un-American immoral person."
A Gallup poll not long ago found 44 percent of Americans view atheists harshly and 53 percent said they would never elect an atheist president. The number of people who say they belong to no organized religion, while still small, has been growing. And about 3/4 of us confess to not going to church every week — and that's the easy stuff. We haven't even gotten to following the Ten Commandments. To some, that suggests religion is little more than a habit — a comfortable place to be.
Julia Sweeney says she simply cannot believe in God because of a lack of evidence, but Prothero says that is where faith comes in.
"I have no trouble saying that, you know, we can't prove the existence of God," he said. "I think most Americans feel the same way."
Julia's mother Geri says she was taught in second grade that there was no proof that God exists.
"It doesn't matter a bit to me," she said. "I have a very personal relationship with my God and I don't need any proof. I'm not searching for proof — and she is."
On the plus side, Julia and her family are talking again. They've simply agreed to disagree about religion. But Geri confesses that she still holds out hope.
"I think she will come back," she said.
"I can't say what the future will hold," Julia said, "But I'd be very surprised!"
Hachikō (born November 10, 1923, died March 8, 1935), sometimes known in Japanese as 忠犬 ハチ公 (chūken hachikō, lit. 'faithful dog Hachikō'), was an Akita dog born in the city of Odate, Akita Prefecture remembered for his loyalty to his master.
In 1924, Hachikō was brought to Tokyo by his owner, Hidesamurō Ueno (上野英三郎), a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo. During his owner's life, Hachikō saw him off from the front door and greeted him at the end of the day at the nearby Shibuya Station. Even after Ueno's death in May 1925, Hachikō returned every day to the station to wait for him, and did so for the next 11 years.
Hachikō's devotion moved those around him, who nicknamed him "faithful dog". Some kindly vendors who saw the dog waiting every day would give him small bits of food and water. This has caused some people to say that he only returned to the station in order to receive these treats, but this does not answer why he would return only at the time his master's train was due, and not remain begging after.
In April 1934, a bronze statue in his likeness was erected at Shibuya Station, and Hachikō himself was present at its unveiling. The statue was recycled for the war effort during World War II. After the war, Hachikō was not forgotten. In 1948 The Society for Recreating the Hachikō Statue commissioned Ando Takeshi, son of the original artist who had since died, to make a second statue. The new statue, which was erected in August 1948, still stands and is an extremely popular meeting spot. The station entrance near this statue is named "Hachikō-guchi", meaning "The Hachikō Exit", and is one of Shibuya Station's five exits.
A similar statue stands in Hachikō's hometown, in front of Odate Station. In 2004, a new statue of Hachikō was erected on the original stone pedestal from Shibuya in front of the Akita Dog Museum in Odate.
The Japan Times played a practical joke on readers by reporting that the bronze statue was stolen a little before 2AM on April 1, 2007, by "suspected metal thieves." The false story told a very detailed account of an elaborate theft by men wearing khaki workers' uniforms who secured the area with orange safety cones and obscured the theft with blue vinyl tarps. The "crime" was allegedly recorded on security cameras.
The abundant doomsday plotlines in 'The World Without Us' make it a useful conversation piece, if a grim one. Traveling down many different avenues of scientific research, Alan Weisman postulates the complete disappearance of mankind from planet Earth. Then he extrapolates about what would happen without us. By his estimate most of our leavings would rot and crumble; much of our damage would take eons to undo. There’s one tiny bit of good news. Depleted sea species might recover if we would do them a favor and go away.
Manhattan Without the People
If people disappeared, what would Manhattan look like in two days, two years or 15,000 years?
View Picture Gallery
Overall, this book paints a punishingly bleak picture. Entries in its index indicate the scope of its pessimism. For instance: "Birds, plate glass picture windows and"; "Central Park, coyotes in"; "Earth, final days"; "Embalming, arsenic and"; "Human race, robots and computers as replacements"; "Great Britain’s shoreline, rubbish along"; "PCBs, and hermaphroditic polar bears." "Dessication," "Meltdowns" and "Slash-and-burn" also play their roles here.
Mr. Weisman speaks to the darkest parts of our collective imagination as well as some of the strangest. Consider the lowly exfoliant. These lotions contain tiny plastic particles that are meant to scrub. But they wind up fulfilling other purposes, like clogging the innards of the tiny sea creatures that ingest them. This book cites research on bottom-feeding lugworms, barnacles and sand fleas as evidence of the damage the particles do. All three species became terminally constipated from ingesting this man-made microlitter.
Very early in the book Mr. Weisman makes his argument personal by describing how a house would fall apart. Your house. "Back when they told you what your house would cost, nobody mentioned what you'd also be paying so that nature wouldn't repossess it long before the bank," he writes. As with many of the book's other conclusions, this one is accompanied by a hint of unseemly glee. The more elaborately Mr. Weisman paints a worst possible outcome, the better he has made his case. And the more triumphant he sounds.
It is one thing to imagine one house with a leaking roof, burgeoning mold, rusting nails, broken windows and small animals gnawing on the drywall. But this book hypothesizes more avidly about decay on a grander scale.
When Mr. Weisman wonders what would happen to New York City, he foresees rewilding (the return of wolves and bears), plants forcing their way through the sidewalk and water damage to the underground infrastructure. "Before long, streets start to crater," he writes, with scarily apt foresight. "As Lexington Avenue caves in, it becomes a river." Lexington Avenue has lately shown us what he means.
This book's global-scale dismay about humanity's environmental impact is its most important theme. But it's Mr. Weisman's more marginal facts that give 'The World Without Us' so much curiosity value. Which would last longer in storage: a) money in a vault, or b) paintings in a museum? Bear in mind that museums might have skylights that could leak, basements that could flood and larvae of the black carpet beetle. And choose a third option: c) ceramics, since they are chemically similar to fossils. Ancient ceramics have a built-in advantage because they have already withstood the test of time.
When it comes to antiquity Mr. Weisman can draw on tangible evidence to back up his speculation. He marvels at the scope and durability of the large underground city of Derinkuyu in Cappadocia, Turkey, especially in comparison to showier monuments with less staying power. There is also hope for the endurance of Mount Rushmore and for Egypt's Khufu pyramid, although the latter "should not look very pyramidal at all" a million years from now.
"The Panama Canal," on the other hand, "is like a wound that humans inflicted on the Earth -- one that nature is trying to heal," according to a superintendent of its locks on the Atlantic side. And a disintegrating coral reef in the Pacific is on "the slippery slope to slime."
From the gyre that is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the flower-growers of Kenya to the Rothamsted Research Archive in Britain, a repository for more than 300,000 soil samples, Mr. Weisman covers a huge amount of terrain. His research is prodigious and impressive. So is his persistence, even though he knows full well about the carnage our cell phone transmission towers inflict on unsuspecting birds and the ill effects that embalmed human corpses have on soil. Compared with the founder of Vhemt -- the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group with the motto "May we live long and die out" -- Mr. Weisman is a veritable beam of sunshine.
Caution Over Shuttle Shows Changes at NASA Officials Investigate Standpipe in Manhattan Fire Border Crossings: Rising Breed of Migrant Worker:... Move Over Mickey, Disney™s Found a Franchise Hurricane Pounds Jamaica as It Crosses Caribbean More Stories'The World Without Us' has an arid, plain, what-if style and an air of relentless foreboding. The book is coaxed from subject to subject by ominous transition phrases. ("But that wouldn't be the biggest problem" is a typical one.)
Its delivery of bad news is strangely uniform in tone, given the vast difference in scale among the catastrophes anticipated here. The threats posed by condominium-buying British retirees to the island of Cyprus, or by the "serial killers" that are common house cats, aren't nearly as grave as what could happen to the oil fields and pipelines of Houston if they went unattended. In Houston, without man, there would be "a race to see whether their bottoms corrode first, spilling their contents into the soil," writes Mr. Weisman, "or their grounding connectors flake away." That is, poison or explosion