This I Believe: Jogn Fortier (1986)

Well, it’s interesting that Bob Meyenburg chose for his first song the theme of loneliness because it occurred to me while he was doing it that it will feel very lonely up here. I’ve only been to one of these types of services before. I think it is traditional on these occasions to start with “What did I used to be”. Ted has told us about how he used to be a Presbyterian. Or somebody tried to make him a Presbyterian. Some people tried to make me a Roman Catholic. My father was Roman Catholic; my mother was a former Episcopalian who converted, because you have to bring the children up in the faith and you have to convert when you get married like that. I had either the good fortune or the bad fortune to, just because of where we lived and the church they took me to and therefore the people I took Sunday School class from, memorize the Baltimore Catechism from an extremely conservative priest and group of nuns.

I don’t completely ignore the Roman Catholic Church and I certainly don’t hold disdain for it. I’m no longer a member. I look at things they do, such as what the church did in the Philippines, for example – a marvelous, marvelous example for moral action. But the priest and the nuns that I was under control of were the Neanderthal branch. If you weren’t Catholic, you were going to hell. I think they were teaching a branch of Roman Catholicism they made up but I know the Church doesn’t teach the things I was told, “Don’t play with Protestant boys because they’re going to hell, they’re a bad influence”. I was a natural-born Protestant. A very little more about the Roman Catholic Church – all of the cliché things about the gold candlesticks, jewels, and the graven images – they offended me, partly because of the artistic style of them, partly because of their obsession with physical objects as opposed to meaning. I believed what they were teaching me. I regretted it, this is a terrible way for things to be, but I thought they were right. I felt guilt – gee, if that’s the way God does things, that’s too bad but what could I do about it.

I went to college, I grew up, I learned to think for myself and I was able finally to say one of the most joyous days of my life, I was walking down a sidewalk at Oxford, Ohio College and saying “I’m not Catholic”. It felt so wonderful. That’s what I don’t believe.

There were three subjects I decided to mention – two briefly and one that I can actually defend and so I’ll say a little more about God, immortality, and free will. The God of the Baltimore Catechism I was taught out of, the God of any organized religion, I cannot believe in that God – gods if it’s a polytheistic faith. All these deities are very suspiciously anthropomorphic. There’s an old saying that God is the noblest work of man. God has no use, no reason for possessing human emotions such as jealousy, anger, hatred. Again, if there is such a being, it isn’t like that. It isn’t the male sky god, thunderbolt throwing, judgmental, god creator. If there is a supreme being, I believe that deity is as far beyond our comprehension as we are beyond the comprehension of one of the red corpuscles circulating in our veins. The scale, the scope – the human brain cannot encompass infinity. I do not reject the concept of a deity. If there is such, my mental powers cannot encompass it so I don’t try. So, as the punch line of that old story goes, the one word is “maybe” that encompasses all knowledge.

Immortality – no. I believe that we are flesh and blood animals, the products of biological evolution, and our consciousness does not survive our physical being. I can’t prove it; it is simply intuitive.

Free will. Would you all turn in your Bibles please? I don’t mean turn in your Bibles – and this is for real, folks. Ecclesiastes – part of this is familiar, the last line maybe is not so familiar since it isn’t as often quoted – Chapter 9, Verse 11. “I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Time and chance happeneth to us all.

The idea of free will is easy for people who lived in a pre-scientific age because everything appeared chaotic. The concept of natural law did not exist. It’s hard for us to conceive of such a thing but everything was supposed to be capricious. Things happened by chance or by the will of the gods. People were pawns but people lived. At least in this life, people lived. I believe such deterministic philosophies as Calvinism arose because of the scientific revolution. Newton, Galileo have us the concept of natural law. If you knew everything about the starting point of a system, including the whole universe, then, like billiard balls, everything that happened after that was a consequence of working out the equations. This permeated the thought of people for centuries. One of its inevitable consequences is that there is no free will because we’re made of atoms and molecules and therefore we’re just trajectories of billiard balls on the cosmic billiard table and the break stroke at the beginning of time set us all in motion.

Modern science doesn’t say that. Modern science, and I’m talking now about quantum mechanics, is just beginning to see that just below the statistical average of what we call natural law is – call it chaos, call it chance – but events on that level are not deterministic. By chance, they are literally unpredictable on an individual level. You can take averages. You can say if you throw something this hard, it will end up over there. That’s why machines work. That’s why computers work, most of the time. On the quantum level, below atoms, below electrons, it’s time and chance and, because I want to believe that I have free will and because, to me, it is intuitive that I do – I can either pick up this bell and ring it or not, I think. And I can either stop talking or keep on going until something else stops me. The Newtonian science that just in this century scientists are beginning to understand, provides a basis for the possibility of believing both in science and free will because our actions may be determined by something that is not being controlled by something that wasn’t set in motion before our time. One consequence of this is that free will is not limited to human beings. It is entirely possible, I think, that dogs and cats, goldfish and possibly even, on some level of reality, rocks, atoms, individual electrons, amoebas may in some real way possess a degree, a type of free will. They are part of the indeterminate universe and, if I try to follow that up any further, I’m going to get in several kinds of troubles. I better stop.