It’s been an intense week.
Last Wednesday I was told of a tumour in my spine after experiencing some pain and immobility in my neck and right arm. I was operated on the following day (coincidentally the 66th anniversary of the 1949 Chinese Revolution) and have since been bed-bound and unable to do a great deal, this being the reason why I didn’t post last Friday. The bonus is the fact that the food in Leeds General Infirmary is actually quite good, and the downside is, well… cancer, but it can’t be helped; it’s the problem with having naturaly revolutionary cells.
Between now and last Wednesday I’ve worried about various things, but one thought that stands out is religion. Before I go into more depth, I’ll stress that I’m an atheist. Religion, the way I see it, is a reactionary and backward tendency that has stood alongside man throughout history, yet has always blinded communities and corrupted rational thought. As society has advanced, so has our depth of knowledge and understanding of the world and, as a result, religious influence has decreased in many ways, but that’s not to say it isn’t an issue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the persisting cultural backwardness in the southern USA, and the political situation in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Iran are all different manifestations of the same illness. Religion does to society what cancer is doing to my spine.
And then, of course, there is another side to this kind of faith, this being comfort, the reason it exists in the first place. I think it’s obvious that if it wasn’t for how deeply these spiritual teachings have already impacted upon our histories and cultures, we (in a much wiser era) would be far less easily convinced by the arguments they have to offer today, and the most important reason why mankind still clings to these outdated ideas is the sense of safety and security they continue to provide. Religion is an effective distraction and an inviting alternative to the harsh realities of day-to-day life, and this is why we swallow it today just like we’ve done for centuries. It is, in the language of Marx, opium for the masses, just like the oral morphine I’ve been taking to deal with post-operative pain (although unlike Islam, Christianity or Judaism, I’m still baffled as to why people develop addictions to this substance – I can’t say I’ve noticed it make more difference than paracetamol!)
Yet this is where God comes in to my story, because, just as I’ve swallowed the morphine, I’ve also been praying: my prayers tending to follow the lines of ‘Dear God, if you exist, I’d be so grateful if you would show mercy’. This isn’t to say I’m any more convinced of God’s existence than I was last month; I just took the view that it was worth it, in case I’m wrong. I know religious people who have prayed for me, too, and I welcome their thoughts and prayers as well, despite feeling slightly hypocritical given my own vehement atheism. If God does exist, I’d rather be spared than damned, and I see no wrong in telling him, even though rationality tells me there’s nobody on the other side of the void. And, after all, while mainstream Marxism rejects religious influence in societal matters, it doesn’t necessarily reject private beliefs. In the end, I suppose I’m only harming my pride.
As it happens, I have little reason to believe there’s a lot going on in heaven for me. On Wednesday I was told my that my cancer, on a I – IV grading system, fell into the most aggressive, Grade IV category. No one could commit to giving me a death date, but I’m left with the impressesion that, after chemotherapy, radiotherapy and physiotherapy (to regain movement), all of which should begin next week, I’ll have months to live. This was obviously terrible news, though it perhaps takes some of the pressure off as it makes me more assured in my godlessness, and I also can’t help but feel slightly proud that it’s my spinal cells which have done this. In revolutionary terms, they definitely quality as extremists. They’d dwarf the various coups in Argentina, which overthrew and replaced different governments in the region, or the revolutionary movements in the little communist countries like Vietnam or Afghanistan. My cells certainly take after the Bolsheviks here; if the February Revolution was my initial diagnosis, the October Revolution was my conversation two days ago. The shooting of the Romanov family is yet to come, but we sure these cells will take no prisoners there either. It’s also interesting to see that, due to their rapid growth and malignancy, they follow in the internationalist line, bent on spreading the revolution worldwide. Ideologically speaking, I can’t really complain.
But meanwhile, I’ll probably keep trying these things. It seems the logical option to utilise the means you have, in the hope that something may change. I certainly don’t feel any sensible reason why anything will, but our complete lack of evidence on the subject makes it just as possible as it does ridiculous, so it would be irrational to rule out ideas of God, heaven or the metaphysical world entirely. And, whilst still a card-carrying member of the physical one, I’ll hopefully keep reading, studying, and blogging.
I suppose we’ll just have to see how it goes from there…
Your Aunt Carmel introduced me to your blog (and the technicalities of how to post a comment). I found your comments very powerful and thought provoking. It is a mighty experience to have my thinking challenged and I thank-you and send you lots of good wishes
HI Max your blog is great I was so impressed. When I was a teenager I liked Carl Sagan, I wondered if you would like his point of views on the world. Here’s one of his quotes
‘For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.’
Here are some links if you would like to read more
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Hi Max, your auntie Carmel sent me your blog … and I’m blown away by your eloquence, writing style and thought process. Fair play to you for continuing with your blog in what has to have been a pretty devastating week – but do use it as a brilliant and information channel to vent any frustration/anger/emotion that might come your way. Keep writing, and keep fighting the good fight. Sending you positive vibes.
Patricia in Belfast
Max, my prayers go up for you in the morning and the evening.
I notice that God’s had a bit of a hard time of it in your blog and amongst your contributors, and wondered if I can put in a few lines about what he really means to people who believe? Because often it isn’t generally quite what non-Christians think. And I think that your blog is asking that question too? (I LOVE your blog. It’s SO good!). I promise not to mention mangers or serpents or rainbows once – though, of course, they do have their place! No pressure, no offence meant (please…) or taken, but an intellectual like you needs a balanced input to be able to come to the appropriate conclusion 😉 – I think!
We believe in an all-powerful, almighty creator God, the one who designed the Big Bang, as opposed to leaving it to chance (you might like to check out Prof. Tom McLeish’s blog. He’s head of research in the Physics Department at Durham University: https://tcbmcleish.wordpress.com/). We believe in a God who is at the same time terrifyingly powerful, a force of pure, unadulterated good and a being who dotes on each one of us as a parent loves his child – totally, unconditionally, whatever idiocy and hurt we commit. He gives us chance after chance to get our houses in order, whether our name is Mother Teresa or Jihadi John. Because he wants us ALL to return that love. Just like a parent. And sometimes we hurt other ‘innocent’ people in the process. It happens. He won’t force us to take his hand and walk with him. We have to make that choice (reminds me of the times my sons have decided to walk 4 metres behind me, just in case their mates saw them out in town with their mum 🙂 But it hasn’t stopped me loving them to bits!).
Does this give comfort? Certainly. But for most of us who embrace God, it brings its fair share of discomfort too. Christians are still dying for their faith (the Kenyan university massacre, the kidnapping of Yahidzi girls, the persecuted church in North Korea and Iran…) and closer to home it’s not unheard of, in this age of tolerance and non-discrimination, to hear of Christians losing their jobs or facing disciplinary action for small expressions of faith at work (more and more frequently in the news…).
I don’t think you need to ask God for mercy because I can’t conceive that he can have foisted this illness on you. But, like you, I do believe it’s worth praying, even full of doubt and with a good measure of scepticism. A little step towards God: ‘if you are real’ and he will run towards you with open arms. He might not do what you want (does your mum always do what you ask her to?), but he’ll have his arms round you the entire time. And, metaphorically, so do we (It’s getting a bit cluttered round your bed…).
You might like to have a re-read of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. CS Lewis was professor of English Literature at Cambridge, but also a theologian, and you’ll see clearly the allegory of the battle between good and evil, the suffering of the animals under the reign of the wicked witch and the majesty of Aslan. It might give a bit of relief from Lenin, and, whatever you believe, it’s a cracking good read that a man of your calibre would devour in a morning!
But I’ve rabbited on too long (we lecturers like the sound of our own voices…)…
With all good wishes, Max, and very much love. I’m off to read your next blog!
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Hi Max. I like the blog. when I was a teenager one of my heroes was Carl Sagan, I thought you might like one of his quotes ‘It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring’
You can read more here if you like it
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Dear Max, my god-daughter Lizzy Withyman has told me about you, and sent me your recent blog. You write well and movingly; and sound brave and wise and good-humoured – God bless you and be merciful to you… Michael Barrett
PS Please do get in touch via email if you wish…
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Hello there, Max
I’ve always found politics to be a very overwhelming subject, and yet your blog is clear and filled with passion and is something I could easily read, so thank you. I’m glad to have stumbled onto your page.
Reading this particular post struck a cord, and it’s wonderful to see the genuine support you’ve had so far. Whilst warm wishes may not create a miracle, it’s a reminder that you are loved and cared for and appreciated. I hope all goes well for you and that you continue to write in your blogs in order to keep your spirits strong and your mind occupied on something very interesting and clearly a passion of yours.
All the best x
What can I say that would be helpful/useful/supportive to you in your illness ? Lizzy has told me a bit about you, and I have your recent blogs. I weep inwardly and ache – especially regarding God and his part in all this …
I have wrestled with God all my life (81yrs) and still labour … I think there is no proof – ‘He’ is beyond our understanding – yet we long to know … I think of myself as being a theist, rather than a thorough-going Christian …
Yet He created, and is creating, the whole COSMOS, and holds it all in being …
I must stop writing – I am getting beyond my ability and my words – all I can do is send love – and will write again as the Spirit allows
Max, I’m sorry to read about your illness, but most encouraged by your openness to prayer. It could well be the best decision you have ever made 🙂 If I may, I’d like to suggest this very simple prayer you could try : “Dear Jesus, please reveal yourself to me. I am open to see you if you are there”. Then look earnestly for the signs. In my own experience, Jesus always answers prayers like that, although not necessarily in the way (or the timing) you would expect. Best of luck, I am also praying for you. -Mikey
A truly incredible blog Max! What an outstanding way you have with words; words, of course, are revolutionary themselves (at least that is what all English teachers believe!). You are an inspiration to all your peers and teachers on so many levels. Miss Glenn
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Thank you so much and I’m really glad you like the blog! – I’ll try to keep analysing chapters from Tess. She was quite revolutionary in some ways.
Your blog is full of truly inspiring ideas. It makes you think outside the box and realise who really is in charge of the society. I look forward to your next article!:)
So brave max , choccy in a minuete !
I’ve been busily reading your blog and I’m nothing short of blown away! The academic rigour, thoughtful insight and eloquence show that you are wise far beyond your years. Aside from the intellectual debate (so thought provoking), the bravery with which you are handling your situation is inspirational – perhaps more inspirational than a modest type like you might ever appreciate.
Up the revolution Max!
Your Auntie Helen in Winchester gave me your website details. Inspirational writing! I was completely blown away by it. I tried to buy your book on Amazon, but it is already out of stock!! When my children are old enough, I want to read it to them.
Keep fighting and writing…
Pippa, in Winchester. X
Hello, I just found your article on the Guardian (it was very good).
My name’s Olivia and I’m currently 19 but when I was 16 and in the middle of taking my GCSEs I was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, which is pretty similar to leukaemia. I was lucky in the respect that it wasn’t cancer and that my sister was a bone marrow match, so I had a transplant in September 2013. Despite it not being cancer I’ve been really involved with the Teenage Cancer Trust, I don’t know if you’re involved with them, they do have a unit in Leeds and they’re amazing. What you said about each (new) symptom making you think your cancer’s metastasised, is something I can really relate to despite being 2 1/2 years post I still have massive anxiety about any symptom I have and I definitely struggle with the thought of death. I just wanted to say it seems you’ve handled it really well, but then again more or less every person I’ve ever met with cancer (which is a lot, 100+) has handled it amazingly, because it’s something you adapt to. After taking a year out I went to college, and like you, again, I take history A level (and studied communist Russia).
This is a bit of a random comment but after reading the article I just wanted to say something.
Hope everything’s going well for you.
Hi Max, I agree with Miss Glenn’s and Mrs Norton’s comments. They sound like great teachers. As a teacher myself (of clinical psychology, in my case) I have every respect for revolutionary words and revolutionary understandings (and for literature and imagination too as a source of power for change); much needed in the search for social justice (and comfort). Good words from Olivia too, above. Like her, I enjoyed your article in yesterday’s Guardian. Comradeship gives strength, I find. I have forwarded your blog link to my trainees, and I will be including the link in my teaching on “opening cans of worms” to medical students. I look forward to reading more of your wise and challenging words.
I read this post by chance on Facebbok, one or two days ago. I followed a couple of links in newspapers.
Well, I immediately felt the need of writing and tell you that i’m grateful for the words you wrote. I have to reflect, and a lot to learn!
I wish you all the best and hope to have further chances to write you,
P.S In the meantime i’ll read the other posts.