A dozen years ago, at the start of an eight-hour bus ride to Guadalajara, an elderly nun took the seat next to me. We chatted in Spanish, in which I was just becoming functional. She asked where I was from and what had brought me to Mexico. Then, in the same conversational tone, she asked whether I believed in God. We had the time so, rather than give her the short “nope” (which I’ve often found bums out religious people, like I scored against their team), I gave her the straight and long reply. As well as my Spanish at that time would allow, I tried to convey the following:
I don’t believe in some intelligent being or force which I can or need talk to. I have never seen, felt or heard anything to make me interested in such an idea. I believe that the universe is a single continuous system in which everything each of us does affects everyone and everything around us, (which, I guess, is what Daoism would say, as would David Suzuki for that matter), and that being respectful and considerate of our environment, and the people in it, is the best thing we can do to help ourselves have an environment and society that is the way we want it to be (which is, I suspect, roughly the Buddhist perspective). And that is why I don’t pee in swimming pools. (Okay, I didn’t say that last bit to her, but it’s both true and relevant.)
The old sister (or Mother Superior; I really wouldn’t know the difference—to me, they’re all Popettes) listened patiently, seemed to understand what I struggled to express, and said simply—in a tone which was ostensibly for my reassurance but was really for her own, “It’s the same thing [as believing in God].” Both our dignities remained intact and neither of us gave up any epistemic or moral ground. We were equally comfortable with our separate beliefs and suspect she, like me, felt unthreatened and unperturbed.
With this in mind, let us consider one of the greatest novels ever written, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables*—which, let it be said, kicks the wits out of Anna Karenina.**
But let’s get back to God. Apparently Hugo based the story of his central character, Jean Valjean, on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, an ex-convict turned businessman and philanthropist. In Les Misérables, life hands Jean Valjean lemons, and he makes—a break for it. Then the first hero of the story, Bishop Myriel (a character inspired by the historical Bishop de Miollis), creates new possibilities for the lives of numerous individuals by making the simple choice—or, more precisely, habit—of forgiveness. By taking a chance and trusting in the potential of human goodness, the bishop presents Valjean with an otherwise unattainable opportunity to “do the right thing”.
Good “King” Wenceslas was in fact a Duke (of Bohemia). He was regarded as a good man, so it is fitting that the carol depicts him as doing the right thing for “yonder peasant” because it was the right thing to do. You don’t have to be a saint to be a decent human being; even Samaritans, druids and atheists can follow their conscience. And this Jesus of Nazareth one hears so much about, may he rest in peace, is worth no more and no less than the example he is alleged to have set. Jesus son of so-and-so, Jesus Lord of whatever. Whether or not he ever was a man, whose last breath dispersed molecules some of which would now be in each breath you and I draw, what matters is neither his mom’s sexual history nor his genetic lineage nor his magic tricks nor his sexual proclivities, nor his suffering (as if he would have suffered more than the average crucified person. Pain is, after all, such a subjective thing. Did he have inflammatory bowel disease? That might get me reading a gospel or two). What could be useful to humanity is the idea, which that particular superstar is rumoured to have espoused, of cutting each other a bit of slack.
My apologies to god-fearing Vic, but what moves me about his novel is not God’s grace but the Bishop’s human choice to say, “C’mon, Jean, you can do better than that”, and Valjean’s choice to make good, and really commit to it from one chapter of his life to the next. That is the %^@#ing message that can change the world, and there is no need for supplication to some deity to achieve that. People can be good, and I am in favour of giving people—just about every person***—a chance, and if necessary a second chance, to show their potential, turning the other cheek at least once per offender—not so many times that your head spins, mind you; once you run out of cheeks, start swinging and biting.
I have never regretted giving someone a second chance. There are a couple of cases, which I will remember, of individuals who got three strikes and a couple of fouls in between, but even those were no cause for regret because, on average, betting on human decency has continuously proven to be a good investment. Maybe I’m lucky—that’s certainly true—and I suppose it helps that I don’t hang around with a lot of conniving guttersnipes. Perhaps you should turn your cheek but not your back.
Examples of “Good without God” are abundant. I wonder whether there are as many examples of “Good despite God”.
*Hugo’s 1,500-page saga is not easy to cram into a 150-page screenplay or into a single sitting. The original French concept album and consequent English musical do a surprisingly good job of covering a lot of ground. The new movie (the first cinematic presentation of the musical, although there have been ten previous big- and small-screen versions of Hugo’s story) goes through the story way too fast, but it is worth seeing and hearing. Appropriate to the medium, the story is sung by actors rather than acted by singers. It makes considerably more effective use of CGI than Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, enhancing rather than distracting from the story. Russell Crow made the least of a great role; he really put the “avert” in Javert. Whereas Anne Hathaway, whose performances I have often found so miserable as to bring tears to my eyes, did such justice to the role of Fantine that I did in fact cry in my popcorn. (It helped that she had no dialogue.)What was funnier than les Thénardiers was when the soldier asks those on the barricade to identify themselves and the response is, “French revolution!” to which might have been added, “I’m French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?” [Je m'excuse. My apologies. In the 2000 French television mini-series adaptation (with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovitch as Javert, yes in French), the same question is answered "Revolution Française!" Still sounds funny to me.]
**To be fair, maybe Anna Karenina looses something in translation, but even so, Les Misérables has more to offer in a bunch of ways, and far fewer skip-able bits. It was more of a chore to get through 350,000 words of modern-English translation of Tolstoy than 513,000 words of Hugo’s nineteenth-century French. The same is true watching film adaptations of both works (although I have hope Tom Stoppard got Anna Karenina (2012) right). Incidentally, just about equal in greatness to Les Misérables, in my estimation, is Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which is 345,000 words in English translation, and I don’t remember wanting to skip any of it. Size may matter, but more important is how you use it.
***Witnessing someone abuse animals or children would tend to cloud my judgmentality.