The Man Behind the Curtain barely ever existed in my world.
For a blink in time in middle school I was a Christian, having caught the holy spirit of Jesus at a Presbyterian church retreat in the woods in Kansas. Hands in the air, a song on my lips—hallelujah, I was saved! Like most exits from energy-filled revivals, the feeling of grace left me before I got home.
It took me a much longer time to fully divest myself of the idea of Christianity and longer yet to disentangle myself from the idea of a single, supernatural unifying presence in the universe. On my way out of Christianity, I discovered the philosophies of Deepak Chopra and the many-armed monster of New Thought. Inspiring and practical ideas such as “Words change the shape of water crystals!” and “Energies sent forth from your body change the world!” would be my new religion. What a break from Christianity! New Thought was all about the self and the power of the mind. It was guilt-free, positive, and uplifting, and there was no pesky God watching over you and making you feel guilty.
Or so I initially assumed. “Thoughts, both negative and positive, become things”: I don’t know how I didn’t recognize this as a dead ringer for the Christian “Pray about it.” “Bad things happen to you because you thought them into being”: I don’t know how I didn’t recognize this as self-flagellation on the scale of the Catholics. “Let it go, send it out into the Universe!”: I don’t know how I didn’t recognize this as the same Christian false comfort, “Don’t worry, it’s in God’s hands.”
It was magical thinking, and I felt magical. Surely, I could make anything happen just by willing it into existence. Except that it didn’t work that way. Saying you won an iPad, even telling everyone you know that you did, doesn’t win you an iPad. But maybe I just needed to keep reading to unlock the secrets of the universe. Again, I don’t know how I didn’t recognize this as an equivalent to the Christian “God is speaking, you’re just not listening.” But there I was, believing it all.
iPad-less and confused, I opened up The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and found a philosophy so simple and relieving that I knew that I had finally come home. There is no evidence for God or magic, and pseudoscience is just that: fake science. I could think thoughts and have them be my own? I could think even a negative thought, and the universe wouldn’t shoot out a lightning bolt in my direction? Science can replace religion? I was free. That statement isn’t strong enough: I had never in my life felt so liberated. My transcendental arm-waving in the woods of Kansas did not touch the feeling I’d just gained with my newly found atheism. Never had I noticed the trees around me in such detail. I delved into mathematics and physics, determined to learn the languages of the universe: the real universe of actual particles and elements and matter.
I tentatively shared my ideas with people around me, and the one question that stumped me was this: What’s so wrong with religion if it makes people feel better? It was a good question. Imagine someone who goes to church on Sundays merely because it gives hope. He or she does not believe in the hand-waving or tongues-speaking, maybe not even in what the Bible says. He or she is there merely because it gives comfort. Or say someone with a spiritual philosophy has found great benefit from thinking in a more positive way—why should anyone stop doing that?
A conversation between an astrophysicist and a cartoonist gave me my answer. I listened intently as Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, talked about the events of September 11, 2001, with Neil deGrasse Tyson. MacFarlane, an affirmed atheist, narrowly missed boarding the plane that ended up crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Tyson pointed out that most people would have taken missing the flight as proof of God’s existence, of his benevolent, saving grace. MacFarlane explained that he’d missed flights before, and he’d miss them again; this was just one of those rare times where one got a chance to see the alternative path life could have taken. I brought this story up to my family, complete with MacFarlane’s explanation of why he did not take it as a sign that he had been purposely spared. This was the response I received: “Or he survived because he must not have accomplished yet everything he was meant to accomplish.”
I took a moment to run the words through my head. Then I felt like I had been slapped. This was exactly the kind of thing that I used to think, something that used to bring me great comfort. Don’t worry, there is a reason. I took a breath, and then stated the corollary to the statement. “Surely you don’t mean that the people who did die had completed what they were ‘meant’ to accomplish?”
Then came the stunning reply: “Maybe they had.”
Two weeks after this conversation, I found myself reading the story of Cantor Fitzgerald, the firm that lost 658 employees on September 11, 2001. Anyone who was in the office by 8:50 am that day died. These people accounted for 75 percent of the firm’s employees. That means three out of every four workers never came home. Most Cantor employees were under forty years old, young men and women with new families. Thirty-eight of the women were pregnant, fourteen for the first time. An estimated quarter of a million people attended the memorials of those 658 victims in a procession of funerals that started the Sunday after the attacks and had to go ten per day through Thanksgiving to cover all of them. Nine hundred and fifty children were left with one parent. And these numbers are just from a single firm. They do not account for the 2,338 other immediate deaths on that day.
These people, these men and women, these wives and husbands and sons and daughters and parents were not by any measure done with what they were “meant to accomplish.” Though I cannot begin to lay claim to the emotions and feelings of the victims’ families, I think that such an idea would cut deeply. “It’s okay that your relatives are dead; they had already completed what they were meant to accomplish. Go on raising your motherless and fatherless children in the knowledge that the Universe and God have it under control.” With that realization, I finally understood what Primo Levi meant. If God existed, he would spit at such an idea.
Thoughts become things? Indeed. The thought that some grand meaning could be divined from the murders of nearly three thousand people does become a thing: it becomes absolution for the devoutly religious men who carried out the murders. If we comfort ourselves with the idea that those three thousand people had completed all that they were meant to contribute to this world, then the devastating crime itself becomes less cutting. We settle for injustice, fall prey to relativism, and lay down our swords in the fight against evil.
Magical thinking poisons everything. Magical thinking protects and insulates. It absolves and exculpates. It wounds and destroys. That is why I am not a magical thinker.