Existential Memorial Day

Defense.gov photo essay 090525 N 0696M 289 - Existential Memorial Day

My Memorial Day weekend began with watching Neil de Grasse Tyson gush as he interviewed Richard Dawkins (2015) on Star Talk TV over whether God and Science are compatible or illogical. De Grasse Tyson also had a Jesuit Catholic priest, Father James Martin, who was a scientist by training, and comedian Eugene Mirman on his show, probably to add comic relief if the conversation got too intense. As the four battled over whether there was or was not a Supreme Being, (or Intelligent Design, or God, or god,) I could not help but giggle at the subconscious dynamics at play. Since this aired this on Memorial Day weekend, I suspect even Freud would declare this to be a Freudian example of the subconscious battling to enter the conscious.

Father Martin was outnumbered, yet he held his position that faith is not an illogical response to life any more than falling in love makes sense, yet even “logical” men do this. To him, there are simply things that cannot be fully understood by our finite minds, and that is okay. Dawkins arrogantly believed that it was a lack of logic causing all these people to be duped into a belief in God. De Grasse Tyson seemed to be a little uncomfortable with the whole conversation. It was as though he wanted to believe, but couldn’t because that is not culturally acceptable for his social circle. It seemed the real issue was bubbling just below the surface for de Grasse Tyson.

De Grasse Tyson conceded that being intuitive, even if illogical, may have allowed humans to survive longer than the “logical” sort, simply because the intuitive, feeling type of human would hear a rustle in the bushes, sense danger, and act to protect himself and his family without needing proof or confirmation. A “logical” human might hear the rustle and conclude that, statistically, the odds were in his favor that it was just the wind. Sure, he might have been right, but there would be the one time in one hundred where he was wrong, and that one time would mean the end for the “logical” man and his family. Death would ensue.

As the great minds debated the issue, the thought crossed my mind that de Grasse Tyson may be fighting an internal, existential battle and was using his television show to play it out. What if logic is less desirable than intuition and feelings? Specifically, what if logic proves to be the very thing that causes him to be wrong and lose his life? What if (gasp) illogic and emotion was right? It was a delicious metaphor and far too tempting to ignore. In the arrogant belief that logic is superior to emotions, a man may miss the most important truth of all, and lose his life.

Emotions have a purpose. Maybe the logic in emotions is just much harder to understand. Human beings have been born and have died for thousands of years, yet we still haven’t managed to reconcile the epic question, “Is this all there is to life?” If there is nothing after this life, if God does not exist and we are simply carbon atoms doomed to one day extinguish, what is the point? Where is the meaning? Some live a life of heroism, giving their very life for our freedom, yet they die and are simply gone. Kaput! They are no more. They cease to be. (Now the Monty Python Parrot Shop episode makes more sense.) Are we, or aren’t we? If we cease to be, what difference does it make to consider whether we die a noble death or die the death of a coward?

To understand this better, I read the blog of an atheist who writes for Patheos website, Peter Mosley (2015). He was contemplating the loss of a friend to the Afghan war and was desperately trying to make sense of his experience. He came to the same conclusion. What is the point, if we just die? He would never see his friend again (he believed), and this was a deep, agonizing pain for him. Is he better to believe in nothing, than to believe what may turn out to be wrong? Sure his friend died saving his buddies, noble for anyone. However, for the “logical” man, it does not make sense for survival if this life is the only one we have.

And yet, Mosley concluded that this is precisely the reason why atheists should honor those who died for our freedom. The sacrifice they gave was more than the ultimate one: It was an epic one. Even if they cannot benefit from the memorial, the dead deserved to be honored for their bravery and sacrifice.

To the “logical” man, this might seem ridiculous. Why would you give everything for the sake of a principle, especially if the act does not benefit the “logical” man. Is it even an appropriate thing to do? To honor people who give their life for our freedom is illogical, because it elevates the action as admirable. What is admirable in sacrificing one’s life for another, if one has nothing to look forward to after this life?

I began to understand de Grasse Tyson’s internal struggle. Humanity, no matter what religion or culture, honors and esteems bravery. It honors and promotes altruism. Both virtues defy logic. From a survival standpoint, they do not make sense, so for the “logical” man, Memorial Day might be a little confusing. This is not to say they cannot appreciate the noble act of sacrificing oneself for another, but dying for a principle does not make sense. Dying for another on principle is an emotional act, an act of passion for freedom, which does not make sense to the “logical” man. And yet, that passion for freedom guaranteed the atheist his right to declare a lack of belief in a deity, or the “logical” man to decry emotions as illogical, even when it was emotion which made that right possible.

I stood in awe of Father Martin’s response. Love does not follow logic. Falling in love does not make sense. It can only make sense in context of hope for the future. The sacrifice of love and passion for freedom soldiers have made through the centuries for freedom. Even Memorial Day may have its beginning with the newly freed slaves, now known as Americans, in the South in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. According to David Blight (2002), this event occurred when African Americans freed from slavery in Charleston came together to rebury the fallen Union soldiers and provide them with a full funeral procession, carefully decorating all 257 graves with so many flowers they could not see the ground which covered the graves. Thousands commemorated the sacrifice of the Union soldiers and prayed for their souls. The parade was described as a ritual and consecration of the dead soldiers, in gratitude by the people who benefited from their epic sacrifice.

This also seems illogical, but does it really matter? It was an emotional act, prompted by an emotional belief of freedom for all, which resulted in thousands having hope for their future, and the future of their children. Logic had nothing to do with it, but it was precisely that lack of logic that made the hope possible. Love for their fellow man made hope possible. To embody this Love into an entity with a Name is what some might people call God; others might call the Universe, Allah, The Great Spirit, Yahweh, or I Am. The name doesn’t matter. The Substance does.

Perhaps this is de Grasse’s struggle: To understand how one might have hope in Love and still have logic. But as the priest argued, sometimes the things that seem illogical aren’t illogical at all. It is simply our perception at this point in time, with the knowledge we currently have, that makes it seem illogical. Love does not act in logic. It acts in love, just as a soldier fights for love of freedom when he laid down his life for our freedom.

For this, I am thankful. Thank you to all the soldiers who listened to their hearts and responded with love, rather than just logic. We are all in your debt, whether you can appreciate our gratitude or not.

Happy Memorial Day!

Blight, D. (2002). Race and reunion: The Civil War in American memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dawkins, R. (2015, May 18). Can science and religion coexist? (N. de Grasse Tyson, Interviewer) National Geographic Channel. [Television show].

Mosley, P. (2015, May 23). I’m not going to see him in heaven: An atheist’s thoughts on Memorial Day. Patheos. Retrieved from: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/barrierbreaker/im-not-going-to-see-him-in-h…

— Maria Taheny

Read more stories by Maria Taheny

Keep up with our community – follow us on Facebook and Twitter