I lately ran across an Arthur C. Clarke short story titled “The Star”. I suppose if you can accept space travel to the far reaches of the universe as plausible, you can also accept that a Jesuit priest would participate in the mission—though the latter seems the more challenging proposition. Clarke had to put the narration in the priest’s mouth, no doubt, in order to make his indictment of religion flow from someone who once numbered among the most faithful. Our narrator has just discovered the pitiful remnants of a once thriving culture, parallel to Earth’s highest human civilizations in its art, social order, and sophistication. Its leaders had apparently deposited the essential works and creations of a long history—or some commemorative record of them—on a Pluto-like planet shortly before their solar system’s central star vaporized all traces of life. Now the Jesuit, no longer a believer, cannot imagine how any god worthy of the name would allow an entire higher life form to vanish into nothingness, and to no end whatever.
I’ve heard objections to faith like this all my life. What disturbs me most is that a person might harbor them who really is a priest or minister—for I can’t in good conscience accuse Clarke of manufacturing this character just to deliver his atheistic message more powerfully. There are truly “believers” of this caliber who refuse to accept that God would ever allow the U.S. to be irradiated by a hail of nuclear missiles—or even (let’s keep it all natural) that God would ever allow the Yellowstone caldera to revive and become a super-volcano, its next eruption exterminating much of central North America’s population. The same people are deeply challenged when someone they love happens to die of natural causes, leaving them no one to blame but God himself… whom, in “punishment”, they may declare not to exist.
We might as well have no faith at all if we believe that having it is somehow an assurance against material tragedy or disaster. An entire planet’s being wiped out in a supernova is really no different from an individual’s being suddenly snuffed out in his sleep by a stroke. Even though his life’s “great work”—a novel written, a bridge built, a new water-filtration system invented—is not wiped out along with him in the latter case, everything we do will eventually vanish from these present dimensions. The purpose is all in the trying: somehow or other, in my opinion, that’s the measure of our souls. We’re all on a desert island, if you will, where we will never be found. We can turn wild and rape and kill… or we can build houses and carve instruments and domesticate birds, though no trace of our activity will remain within a century.
Not on the island, at any rate: but if you have faith, then you view the island merely as a small portal to an infinitely vaster reality. It is through that entry, and not on this side of it, that things will make ultimate sense. And if you do not have faith… then see if you can swing the heaviest club and get everyone to kneel to you. Your bones will be bleached just as white as theirs in a few short years.
The really pitiful ones, I repeat, are those who think they have faith, yet make it completely dependent upon a ship’s arriving at the island tomorrow… or the next day.