The treasure in heaven has bigger issues than moths and vermin

Romanian version of this story

Green plateau by the seaside.
Image by Jeff C

The seven years I spent in San Francisco were the plateau stage of my religious experience. Going to church was as routine as going to work. We don’t ask ourselves every day why we go to work. We usually answer this question when we realize that nothing in this world comes free, then for the rest of our lives we simply go to work, even if most days at work are not full of uplifting revelations. Likewise, after so many years I was going to church on Sundays because it was Sunday, without wondering if I wanted that with the same zeal as in the early years. I am not saying that I had fallen into formalism, just that the human brain can only remain in a state of adoration for so long.

But “plateau” does not mean “uneventful.” The years 2002–2009 were my most fruitful in terms of practice, of faith placed in the service of community. At the same time, the scientific understanding of how the world really works was taking shape in my mind, but without going into open conflict with the religious perspective.

Do as the priest does¹

During those seven years I was a regular of the two Romanian churches in the Bay Area (at first there was only one, but the Balkan spirit led to a split). That gave me the opportunity to observe the trials of an Orthodox priest’s life across the ocean. It is a life of sacrifice, because the churches are much emptier than in Romania, so the donations do not even come close to supporting a salary. It is common for priests to have a secular job, with luck in a related field (carpentry of church furniture), but sometimes not (truck driving). This upset me, because I regarded the Romanian model as normal, whereby priests are paid by the State so they are able to focus on the priesthood.

A man with dirty hands.
Photo by jesse orrico

Knowing people who sacrificed so much for the cause that they believed in, how could I offer any less from myself? So I continued to be a cantor and get to church early, at the beginning of matins. But unlike Boston, where I was tied to the train schedule, now the choice was mine. We were only two or three cantors and any one’s absence was noticeable.

After 2006, when I no longer had a conventional job, I even had time to go to services on weekdays. There were services during Holy Week when it was just the priest and I in church. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew, 18:20). How could I have asked myself questions of substance when it was up to me not to let the priest hold the service all by himself?

The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat

One of the first prayers I learned, to be read upon beginning work, included the verse: The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The mind of this young man, head over heels in love with God, fell into ecstasy at the wisdom of this piece of advice. The phrase continues to inspire me, although today I consider it a cliché.

And Christianity was a great match for my passion for computer science, so I had plenty of opportunities to earn my spiritual bread through work. My main project in the field was to help organize the scores for the church choir. Our conductor was overwhelmed xeroxing sheet music and updating 10–15 folders for choristers, and the result was a mishmash: pages from different ages, with different formats, of different sizes. To help her, I learned Lilypond, a music engraving software, and I spent several months of my life typesetting all the choir scores, including a full liturgy. The collection, once published on the Internet, helped others. Even today, 15 years later, I receive one or two messages a year from users thanking me for the effort or asking me to add other songs.

Several pages of sheet music.
Image by Paco

That feeling of usefulness, the awareness of the time well spent for the benefit of my immediate community, is one of the greatest feelings I have ever experienced. As in previous chapters, the question haunts me: What do you say to a brain at peace to convince it that the object of its attention and the source of its serenity are non-existent?

The God Delusion Delusion Delusion

Meanwhile, the rational side of my mind was moving in a different direction, inspired in particular by the Scientific American magazine, by popular science books, and by TV shows such as CSI (“The evidence never lies”) or Bullshit!. I had a love-hate relationship with Bullshit!. It made my day when they mocked feng shui or extrasensory perception, but the ironies against the Bible or creationism did not sit well with me.

In 2007 I read Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. And boy, did I hate it! It got me so mad that I decided to dispute the book with counter-arguments in a blog post. When it was done, it would actually demolish Dawkins and his antics. I had even thought of a title: The God Delusion Delusion. Fortunately, I never brought my plan to fruition. Otherwise, today I would have had to write an equally passionate article entitled The God Delusion Delusion Delusion.

A Bible overlapping an anatomy textbook.
Photo by Tony Sebastian

I reread the book in 2022, in preparation for this story, the better to remember which of the ideas I did not agree with.

The relativity of morality. I disliked the notion that there is a moral of the times, extrinsic to the Bible, on the basis of which we decide which parts of the Bible are immoral. I was convinced that God is the absolute ideal of goodness, and I was sweeping under the rug the parts of the Bible about genocide and slavery.

The theory of evolution explains the entire tree of life. I understood the theory of evolution on its surface, but I thought that God intervenes occasionally to push things in the desired direction. As a teenager, I’d played games like SimEarth, in which one could adjust various constants and observe how life adapts. Why couldn’t God do that too?

“Possible” does not mean “probable”. We cannot rigorously prove that something does not exist. So God either exists or he doesn’t, so… 50% chance? Somehow I didn’t see the ridiculousness of believing in a satirical cliché. But just because a scenario is possible doesn’t mean it’s likely. In an interview, Dawkins wittily said:

Some people define atheism as a positive conviction that there are no gods and agnosticism as allowing for the possibility, however slight. In this sense I am agnostic, as any scientist would be. But only in the same way I am agnostic about leprechauns and fairies.

Claiming scientists. Einstein was religious, was he not? Everybody knows that! Stephen Hawking too, right? And Darwin converted on his deathbed! When The God Delusion confronted me with the opposite, I rejected it without running to Google edify myself (although by 2007 that reflex was deep-rooted). It seems that these truths came to me at an inopportune moment, just like in (and yet diametrically opposed to) the verse: Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. (Matthew 13: 7)

A chimp holding a Bible.
Image by latvian

Only fools believe in miracles. This was a misinterpretation of mine that, in reality, does not appear anywhere in the book, and which rather proves that I was taking personal offense to arguments that contradicted my beliefs. Besides, Dawkins is too smart to fall into trivial logic traps. Some years earlier, in 1997, I had read C. S. Lewis’s Miracles and had found an answer to the question: Can I be religious and educated at the same time?

[Y]ou will hear people say, “The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility”. Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point — that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now, ‘The thing is scientifically impossible’, he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature.
— C. S. Lewis, Miracles

The Selfish Gene

I later made up with Richard Dawkins (and presumably he made up with me) and went on to read several more of his books. Next up was The Selfish Gene, which I read in 2009. I learned two notions from it, though it took me a few more years to assimilate them:

The theory of evolution does not need divine intervention. Once I grasped the theory of evolution in detail, I accepted that it is not productive, either as scientists or as believers, to explain the various gaps in the species tree through divine intervention. And that was a year before the Futurama episode came out to rigorously explain the concept to me!

Altruism is not the prerogative of religion. Humans and other organisms can help each other for purely genetic reasons. There is a moral compass outside of God.

A mother dog breastfeeding two kittens.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Conclusions

In the Sermon on the Mountain, arguably the most uplifting passage in the Bible, Jesus said:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
— Matthew, 6:19–20

Without claiming to have been hard-working all those years solely due to this verse, it did influence me greatly. I always took care to dedicate time to the church through direct participation in services, lectures and religious concerts, but also through work for the benefit of religion. And I considered that every such good deed is a coin in an allegorical treasure, part of a balance sheet that was to be settled at my life’s end, in the hope that I would have done enough.

But by focusing on the practical side of religion, I have lost sight of its truth value. Many long years, caught up in the joy of playing this fun game with the stakes of eternal life, I never wondered how things really work.

The treasure in heaven has a bigger problem than moths, vermin or thieves. Its problem is that neither it nor the heavens around it exist, because the foundation on which it is postulated (the existence of God and the afterlife) simply contradicts everything we know about the reality of the world.

A fortune cookie with the message “Your future holds success”.
Image by Flazingo Photos

But after all, who cares? Why don’t I accept that religion makes some people better, even if its central premise is false? Why do I insist on telling my story? Why can’t I move on and keep to myself the conclusions I’ve reached?

First, because the promise of eternal life is demeaning to the human species: “People are so bad that only by promising them infinite rewards and punishments will we persuade them to be nice.” In the words of Ricky Gervais,

“Do unto others…” is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that’s exactly what it is — a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.” You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.

And second, because that illusory promise prolongs a bad situation. Let us imagine I like a blazer from a store. And the salesman, nicely dressed and civil, intuiting my principles, promises me that the blazer was made responsibly, with respect for people and nature. Let us imagine that I buy it and wear it on every occasion. My friends admire it and I encourage them to go to the same store. Then I find out that the blazer is actually made using dirty energy in a sweatshop in Bangladesh where dozens of workers die every year. The harm done is twofold: not only did I spend my money on something that will never again bring me any satisfaction, but with that money I perpetuated a con. Disillusion and contacting all my friends to urge them not to buy from that store would be normal reactions. That is the point. It doesn’t matter whether the blazer is pretty or not.

The promise of the treasure in heaven is just as harmful. The disappointment that follows the awakening is just as real. The only difference is that those who strive to earn this treasure pay not with money, but with something much more precious: with thousands or tens of thousands of wasted hours and with giving up on a more deserving fight.

Footnotes

[1] Romanian proverb: Do as the priest does, not as the priest says.

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