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What follows is a one-act play that I wrote last year. It touches on end-of-life issues and other matters. The characters are not based on any real people although Rev. Brown is a composite of many preachers I have known over the years. The arguments will be all too familiar to most of you. I hope you find the discussions entertaining and, perhaps, informative.

I’m thinking about writing a second act—one that develops the relationships between Darwin, his daughter and his two grandchildren more thoroughly. Your feedback would be appreciated.

Anyone who would like to produce this play should contact me via email. -GR

A last rite and some wrongs — with apologetics

A play in one act © 2005 by George A. Ricker

The Players:

Darwin Culhane: An elderly man dying of cancer, Culhane is a retired journalist and the author of several books. He is cantankerous and crusty. He has no belief in gods or religions and has little use for those who proselytize on their behalf. Darwin sometimes pretends to be a little deaf, but it’s just for effect. Now that his health has declined Darwin lives with his daughter, Martha Taylor and her family: Martha; her husband, Gerard; and their two teenagers, Josh and Becky - Darwin’s grandchildren.

Martha Taylor: Darwin’s married daughter. She is his only child and a Baptist. Martha was raised by her mother, who became extremely religious after she and Darwin had divorced. She actively discouraged any contact between Martha and her father. However, after his ex-wife died in an automobile accident, Darwin and Martha were reconciled. Martha has genuine affection for her father. However, she also finds him exasperating at times and is especially perturbed by his refusal to conform to the conventions of “polite” society.

Reverend Winton Skylor Brown. A middle-aged Baptist preacher who has come to call on Darwin—at Martha’s request—to attempt to “save” him and to discuss funeral arrangements. The pastor knows the writer by reputation only. He has agreed to see Darwin reluctantly. But the Taylors are prominent members of the community and, more importantly, of his congregation. The preacher finds himself challenged by Culhane but is reluctant to go storming out of the house because he wants to make a good impression on the Taylors and because he, like many ministers, has an irresistible urge to try and get the last word.

The Place:

The Taylor’s living room. A large sofa dominates the room. There is a coffee table in front of the sofa and end tables with lamps on either side of it. There is a hallway at each end of the room. The one on the audience’s right (stage left) leads to the kitchen, den, various bedrooms, bathrooms and so on. The hallway on the audience’s left (stage right) is a short one that leads to the front door of the house.

The Play:

From stage left, a woman’s voice is heard. Followed by a man’s.

MARTHA: Well Dad, you’ve had a good breakfast. Would you like to read your newspaper in the living room?

DARWIN (with a touch of sarcasm): Yes, dear Martha. That would be lovely.

Martha brings Darwin into the room in a wheelchair. He is breathing with the aid of an oxygen cannula that is hooked to a long tube that snakes out of the room into the hallway from which they just entered. Darwin is wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. He is holding a newspaper on his lap. Martha parks the wheelchair at the end of the sofa, fussing a bit with the placement. She then produces a lap-robe which she pats into place around her father’s legs. She is humming to herself while she does this. Finally, she stands up.

MARTHA (brightly): Now, why don’t I bring you a nice cup of hot tea.

She begins exiting the room through the hallway from which they just came, but is brought up short by her father’s voice.

DARWIN (affecting a slight brogue): STOP! Martha, darlin’, don’t you love your ailin’ father?

MARTHA (slightly wounded): Of course I do. How can you ask such a thing?

DARWIN (in a normal voice): Well, I thought you did. Since you’ve allowed me to come and live with you in your lovely home, and you’ve taken such good care of me.


DARWIN: But, my darling daughter, if that’s the case why are you determined to deprive me of one of the few pleasures left to me? (Now overly dramatic) Why ... Oh Why ... are you dedicated to sucking the last bit of joy out of the time I have remaining?

MARTHA (defensively): I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about.

DARWIN: It’s that “nice cup of hot tea” ... Martha, darlin’. You know I don’t like tea. You know I want coffee. Forget the tea, my dear. Bring me a nice hot cup of black coffee and I’ll be most appreciative.

MARTHA (waves dismissively): Oh, you ... I wondered what you were carrying on about. Of course, I’ll bring you coffee if that’s what you want. I just worry that you may be drinking too much of it.

DARWIN (chuckling): Well, it’s not as if it’s going to do me any serious damage. The cancer’s already doing a fine job of that. I promise you, sweet Martha, that when I go, it won’t be from drinking too much coffee.

MARTHA (tenderly): I know, Dad.

As she says this, she leans over and hugs her father lightly, then turns as if to leave the room again. This time she is brought up short by the sound of a doorbell. Martha turns and walks across the room disappearing into the hallway on stage right.

There is the sound of a door opening, followed by the murmur of voices, Martha’s and a man’s. Martha reappears, followed by a middle-aged man in a dark suit, carrying a Bible.

MARTHA: Look, Dad. Reverend Brown has come to call on you.

Darwin mumbles something under his breath (maybe “Oh goody), then looks up and smiles, adjusting the oxygen cannula as he does so. The minister strides over to Darwin with an outstretched hand

REV. BROWN: Mr. Culhane, so pleased to meet you. I’m Reverend Winton Skylor Brown of the Prince of Peace First Baptist Church. Don’t get up. How are you sir?

DARWIN (extends his own hand and shakes the preacher’s): I wasn’t planning on getting up. How am I? (pause) Why, I’m dying. (another pause) Of course, I guess you could say the same.

REV. BROWN (taken aback by the remark): I’m sorry? What did you say?

DARWIN (speaking slowly): I … said … I’m …dying, … and … I … guess … you … could … say … the … same. After all, there aren’t a lot of choices are there? The only people I know of who aren’t dying are the people who are already dead.

REV. BROWN (shakes a finger at Darwin): Your daughter warned me you had a wicked sense of humor (he stresses the word “wicked”). Of course, you know I don’t believe death needs to be the end of anything. Those of us who have found salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ have no fear of death. We view it as a gate we must pass through to be with the Lord.

DARWIN (nearly rising out of the wheelchair): Well, I …

MARTHA (interrupting): Reverend Brown, I was just going to get father a cup of coffee. Would you like some too?

: Yes, thank you. Just a little cream, no sugar.

Martha leaves the room, exiting through the hallway stage left.

(shouts after her): Might as well bring the whole pot!

DARWIN (turns back to the preacher): What makes you think I fear death? I’m not especially afraid of dying. I hope the process won’t be painful, but death itself doesn’t frighten me. Human beings are much more affected by the death of people they care about than by their own demise. At least, that’s my experience. As for the rest of it, I worship no gods and follow no religions. I will confess though there are times when I do feel the need to be saved from some situations and some people. (Darwin delivers the last line bitingly and looks in the preacher’s direction as he says it.)

REV. BROWN (missing the point of Darwin’s last statement): Well, the salvation I speak of is of a different kind. How is your soul, Mr. Culhane? What’s the condition of your soul?

(goes into his hard-of-hearing act): What’s that? My soles? Why they’re in fine shape, thank you very much. They are right where they belong, in my bedroom closet on the bottoms of my shoes. In fact, I would say they may be in the best shape they’ve ever been in, since I don’t do much walking these days.

(He smiles at the preacher and adjusts his cannula.)

REV. BROWN (more loudly): NO! Not your soles, your immortal soul.

DARWIN: Hmmm. I’m not sure I have one of those. How can you tell?

REV. BROWN: Oh, come now. Surely, you’ve heard of that spark of the divine that’s in all of us. How can you deny the existence of something so pervasive?

DARWIN: Didn’t say I hadn’t heard of it. Just said I don’t have it. But tell me something. If “souls” are so pervasive, why isn’t there some real evidence for their existence? Have you ever seen a soul? Ever felt one? Do you have a reason for thinking there is such a thing or is it just part of what your religion requires you to believe?

REV. BROWN (defensively): I’ve certainly experienced my own soul, my own spirituality. So have lots of other people much wiser than you, Mr. Culhane (now it’s the preacher’s turn to be sarcastic). What makes you think you’re so much smarter than all the sages and prophets and poets down through the ages? What makes you think you know better than them?

DARWIN: Now ... now ... don’t be so defensive. First of all, you’re clouding the issue. We were talking about evidence for the existence of an immortal soul, not something called “spirituality.” Second, all the sages, prophets and poets down through the ages have been wrong about quite a few things and seldom agreed on much of anything. You’re right that lots of them made reference to souls and spirits, but you’re wrong if you mean to suggest they all meant to refer to the same thing when they did. After all, sages, prophets and poets have to work with the language at their disposal.

Pauses to catch his breath

For example, you know, I’m sure, that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin word “spiritus” which means “breath” — something I’m much more conscious of these days. Breath is the most essential element in keeping us alive. You can go for days without water and weeks without food. But you can’t last more than a few minutes without being able to breathe.

Pauses again

So it’s not hard to understand where the idea of a soul came from. When a person died, primitive humans probably wondered where their breath went - especially if they heard the death rattle. Mix that up with speculation about dreams and dreaming and the existence of a shadow that seemed to wax and wane, and it’s not hard to understand how we came up with the idea of souls and spirits and shadow lands.

REV. BROWN (with an edge of sarcasm in his voice): I see you’re one of those people with an answer for everything.

DARWIN (obviously beginning to enjoy himself): Oh not at all. For example, I don’t understand why so many modern humans insist on believing in such things as “immortal souls” and gods and all the rest. Why do you suppose that is, preacher?

REV. BROWN: Well, I think most of us believe there must be more than this! And we think it presumptuous to think poor pathetic human beings with our tiny minds can begin to comprehend the mind of GOD.

DARWIN: What do you mean “more than this?” More than what? More than an average human life span? More than the universe? More than energy and matter and all of their potential configurations? And why do you think something you call “God” has anything to do with any of it?

REV. BROWN: See. That’s the trouble with you people. You atheists always think you know everything. You just can’t conceive of anything greater than your own little lives. Your own little brains. (As he says this the preacher’s voice keeps getting louder) You think you have all the answers, but you really don’t know anything. All your wisdom is foolishness to the mind of GOD. Why can’t you just accept there is something greater than yourself and acknowledge your CREATOR and your SAVIOR? (By the end the preacher is nearly shouting.)

DARWIN (A look of genuine concern on his face.): Are you all right? (He shouts toward the other room.) Martha, I think you had better bring Rev. Brown a glass of water.

REV. BROWN (Somewhat embarrassed, he waves his hand dismissively.): No. No. I’m fine. I just get upset when I see a soul being lost.

DARWIN (Smiling): Oh ... that. Well, I must confess you gave me a turn there. I thought you were having a stroke or something. Now that I think about it, I seem to get that reaction a lot when I talk to clergymen. But it has been a while, and I had forgotten.

DARWIN: So let’s get back to what you were saying. You keep insisting I’m the one who claims to have all the answers. But that’s not true. I make no such claim. It seems to me it’s you who insists he has the only right answers, and that anyone who disagrees with them must be wrong ... and bound for perdition as well.

REV. BROWN (Somewhat defensively): Well I just preach what the GOOD BOOK says. I preach the GOD of the BIBLE. As far as I’m concerned that’s the only TRUTH that matters.

DARWIN: Then it really is you who claims to have all the answers. Or maybe I should say The Answer. Let me put the same question to you that you put to me. Have you ever considered you might be wrong? Have you ever really examined your beliefs and the basis for them?

REV. BROWN (With more confidence): I have the testimony of thousands of believers down through the ages, the history of the church itself. Surely you don’t think an itinerant rabbi from a small, occupied country 2,000 years ago could have become such a force in the world unless he spoke the truth?

DARWIN: Hmmm. That’s interesting. I thought you were a Baptist?


(Interrupting): Because most of the history of Christianity involves the history of the Catholic Church. You Baptists are relative latecomers. The Protestant Reformation began around the start of the 16th Century, and the Baptists fired up about a century after that. So which part of church history do you lay claim to? Or do you just lay claim to all of it?

REV. BROWN: Well, I …

DARWIN (Interrupting again): Besides, what basis do you have for thinking you know anything Jesus said, or even whether he existed. There’s no independent, contemporaneous corroboration for any of it. The gospels weren’t written until decades after he supposedly died, and none of them were written by eye witnesses.

REV. BROWN: Now, just a …

DARWIN (Still interrupting): One thing I’ve always wondered. Why do you suppose Jesus didn’t write anything down himself? I mean, according to you Christians, here was “God” walking on earth with humans. Seems like the least he could have done was left a sample of his writing. Maybe a short note. Why didn’t he do that, preacher? Was he illiterate? Just another ghost? Or maybe a figment of someone’s imagination?

At this point Reverend Brown becomes very agitated and looks as though he is about to explode. He takes a deep breath and prepares to respond, but is interrupted as Martha walks back into the room carrying a tray with a carafe and three cups, along with cream and sugar.

MARTHA (Cheerfully): Here’s the coffee.

She begins pouring the coffee and serving it. Reverend Brown is obviously still fuming. Darwin seems pleased with himself.

MARTHA: Have you two been having a nice chat?

DARWIN: Oh, I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I’m not so sure about the preacher, though.

REV. BROWN (clears his throat): Your father seems to take great delight in insulting other people’s beliefs. (The preacher continues … sanctimoniously) I come here hoping to save a lost soul, and this is the thanks I get.

DARWIN: Balderdash!

MARTHA: (shocked): Daddy???

: Well, it’s true. If the preacher had been all that concerned about the state of my soul, he would have looked me up long ago. I’ve been living in this city for the past five years, and my presence has been well documented. I’ve given lectures here. I’ve been interviewed in the local newspapers. I’ve even been on a couple of local talk radio shows. So the preacher has had ample opportunity to inquire about the state of my nonexistent soul.

Reverend Brown shrugs expressively, looking at Martha as if to say “See what I mean.” Darwin continues talking.

DARWIN: No, the good reverend didn’t come here out of any concern for me. He came here, unless I very much miss my guess, because you asked him to. Now, isn’t that right? (By the end of this statement, Darwin seems agitated himself.)

MARTHA (Somewhat defensive, but also not wanting to upset her father any more): Well, Dad, you know I worry about this. I want to be able to think of you in heaven, not that other place. (She smiles and goes on) Besides, we need to talk about the funeral.

Darwin starts to say something but Martha waves him off and continues.

MARTHA: I know you have said you don’t want a funeral, but I can’t believe you mean that. Isn’t it selfish of you not to give everyone a chance to say goodbye? Besides, what in the world will people think?

The preacher pats Martha’s shoulder and gravely studies the carpet in front of him as if contemplating eternity.

DARWIN (Shaking his head and with a rueful expression on his face): Martha, Martha, Martha. I’ve spent most of my adult life not worrying what other people think. Why in the world do you think that should matter to me now? Most of the people who care about me know of my condition. Many of them have communicated with me by phone, by email and by regular mail. Some — as you well know — have come by to see me. I think all the goodbyes that need to be said have already been said.

He pauses to catch his breath, adjusts his cannula, then continues.

Besides, I’m not about to give the Reverend Browns of the world any opportunity at all to say or even imply, “See, he didn’t really mean it.” I’ve lived my life without reference to gods and religions. I’m not going to have its ending tainted by the hocus pocus of rites and rituals that have absolutely no meaning to me, or claims by religious hucksters that I “found Jeezus” at the end.

Rev. Brown jumps out of his seat. Unfortunately, this dramatic gesture is marred by the fact he is holding a half-full cup of coffee in his hand. There follows a brief interlude while the preacher tries to gain control of the sloshing coffee without spilling any. Finally, he speaks.

REV. BROWN (forcefully): How dare you, sir! How dare you insult me and my faith in such a manner! (Calming down, he returns to his seat on the couch.) You really are full of yourself aren’t you? Why would you think I would capitalize on your daughter’s grief and your death in such a manner? I take no joy in seeing a sinner go on to his rewards, JUST though they may be.

DARWIN (chuckling slightly): Well, you’re right about one thing, preacher. One of us is definitely full of something. But if I’ve offended you, I do apologize. It’s just that I seem to have become the “village atheist” around these parts. It wouldn’t be the first time the claim of a deathbed conversion was made about someone like me after that person had died and could no longer speak for himself.

MARTHA (interrupting): Dad, how DO you want things handled? You’ve said there’s to be no funeral. So what should we do?

DARWIN: As a matter of fact, I’ve been working something out. If you will go into my room and look in the top, right-hand drawer of my desk, you’ll find a large manilla envelope with your name on it. Would you go and get it, please?

Martha exits through the hallway, stage left

REV. BROWN: Maybe I should leave you folks alone to talk about this.

He stands up as if preparing to leave

DARWIN (motions for him to sit back down): Actually, I would appreciate it if you would stay. There are a couple of forms that need to be signed and witnessed, and at least one of the witnesses must not be a family member. I don’t see why a man of the cloth wouldn’t be acceptable. Unless that would be against your religion.

Darwin smiles and adjusts his cannula.

REV. BROWN: No, of course not. I’ll be happy to witness your signatures.

An uncomfortable silence falls as the two men wait for Martha to return. Darwin alternately sips his coffee and fidgets with his cannula. The preacher looks around the room and studies the floor, gripping his Bible tightly in both hands. After a while, Darwin breaks the silence.

So tell me, preacher — and I’m asking this out of genuine curiosity, not to try to get a rise out of you — do you really think that book (he motions toward the Bible Rev. Brown is holding) is the word of your “God?” Or do you think it is the work of men writing about the god-idea and maybe inspired by it? And if you really do think it is the word of your “God,” do you also think it is without flaws?

REV. BROWN (somewhat peevishly): Well, let me correct you at the start, Mr. Culhane. It’s not “my God.” It’s just God. There’s only one God.

Darwin starts to say something but thinks better of it. Rev. Brown continues.

REV. BROWN (speaking in measured tones): As to the Bible. Yes, I do think it is the inerrant word of God. It is without flaw as He is without flaw. I know men point to supposed contradictions and errors, but my faith tells me that those flaws do not, in fact, exist. There can be no flaw in the word of the Lord. The flaw must be in the hearts of men who try to read it with contentious spirits.

Again Darwin starts to speak, but the preacher waves him off and goes on.

REV. BROWN (with a little edge in his voice): Oh, I know you will sneer at such things, but the Good Book must be approached in a spirit of faith and prayerful reflection. Only then, can it be understood correctly.

DARWIN: I want to come back to what you said about “God” in a moment. (He pauses then goes on) Preacher, I have nothing but the greatest respect for your right to believe what you believe. But I have to tell you that I think what you just said is the biggest load of poppycock I’ve ever heard.

REV. BROWN (now hopping mad): Now just a …

DARWIN (cutting him off with a wave of his hand): Don’t you see the problem with what you are saying? C’mon, you seem to be a reasonably bright man. Think about it for a minute. You say that’s the “Word of God.”

REV. BROWN (belligerently): Right!

DARWIN: So what’s it for?

REV. BROWN (seems a bit thrown by the question): What do you mean?

DARWIN (impatiently): What’s it for? Why did “God” bother to cause “His Word” to be written down? Isn’t it supposed to be a divine revelation to the creatures he created? Isn’t that its purpose?

REV. BROWN (cautiously): Yeeasss …

DARWIN: Well what good does it do to make such a revelation if it can only be understood correctly by people who don’t really need it because they already believe in what is supposedly being revealed? Doesn’t that sound a tad ridiculous to you, preacher? Or am I misunderstanding what you just said? If that book is supposed to be “God’s” revelation to human beings, why in the world would it be written so that most of the human beings who read it won’t be able to understand its true meaning?

REV. BROWN (somewhat uncomfortably): Um … I think you may have … ah … that is to say …

At that point Martha returns to the room holding a brown manilla envelope, which she hands to her father.

MARTHA: I think that’s it. Isn’t it? (she looks at the two men) Am I interrupting something?

DARWIN (smiling broadly): Oh, not really, the preacher and I were just having a fascinating discussion about the Good Book.

Martha (looking worried): Oh dear.

DARWIN (more seriously): Now, let’s talk about final arrangements for a moment.

He opens the envelope and pulls out a small brochure and some forms.

DARWIN: Martha, I know you love me and would not do anything you didn’t honestly believe was in my best interest. But I also know you have a serious conflict about all of this. You want to be true to your father and true to your religion and those two things seem incompatible. Am I right?

Martha nods.

DARWIN: So I’ve tried to come up with an answer that will remove the decision from your hands and won’t force you to choose at all. This brochure is from an organization that provides cadavers for medical research at various university medical schools and labs around the country.

Martha suddenly looks at her father very intently. The preacher looks as though he is about to faint.

DARWIN (produces a small card and hands it to his daughter): After I die, all you have to do is call the 800 number on that card. They will arrange to have my body picked up and transported to a suitable facility, where it will be used for medical research. You know I’ve always been an advocate for science and the scientific method, even though I’m not a scientist myself. I can’t think of a better end than continuing to be useful to such a cause.

He pauses for a moment. Martha says nothing. The preacher sits with his head bowed. He is either praying or studying the carpet. It’s hard to tell which.

DARWIN: There is absolutely no charge for any of this. When they have finished with the body, they will cremate the remains and, if you desire, return the ashes to you. Personally, I can’t imagine why you would want them. But if you elect that option, I want you to call my friend, Charley Strong, over at the marina. He has agreed he will take them out to sea and dispose of them. Otherwise just leave them with this outfit and they’ll take care of the remains. OK?

MARTHA (obviously troubled): Dad, are you sure this is what you want? It seems so cold. Can’t we at least have some sort of memorial service?

DARWIN: NO! Sorry … didn’t mean to shout. Here’s what you can do though. I’ve set aside $2,500. It’s in this savings account. (He holds up a savings passbook) Your name is also on the account. You may have forgotten, but I had you sign the signature card a while back. That money is to be used for one of two things. Either for you and your husband and my grandchildren to take a trip somewhere. Or for a big blowout, a party, to celebrate my life.

Everyone who attends, and who wants them, should be given copies of my books and that DVD we made of my last lecture. I’ve arranged with my publisher to take care of supplying the copies. Also in this envelope is a packet marked “party.” It contains a proposed guest list, the music I would like to have played and so on. The only promise I want from you is that it absolutely cannot be at all religious. I want no sermons, no prayers, none of that. If people want to stand up and tell lies about me, that’s fine. If they want to tell jokes about me, that’s even better. But I want none of the sanctimonious claptrap that I’ve seen at most of the funerals I’ve attended. By all means, celebrate my life if you like. Mourn my passing if you must. Just don’t insult my memory.

MARTHA: No, Dad, of course not. All right, if you are sure this is what you want, I’ll do my best to honor your wishes. (She looks at her father and smiles, but it’s a halfhearted effort.) So what now?

DARWIN: Well, this is a declaration for me to sign indicating my preferences. I’ll need for you and Reverend Brown to witness it. The other is a statement for you to sign, as my next of kin, indicating you will raise no objection to the process. Reverend Brown and I will witness that document. Once that’s done these go in the mail, and that’s the end of it. Or, at least, it will be until … you know.

There is a brief interlude while the two pieces of paper are signed by all three of them. Before he signs the first one, Reverend Brown appears ready to object but reconsiders and goes ahead. Once the documents are signed, Darwin puts them back in the manilla envelope.

MARTHA: Dad, would you do me one favor?

DARWIN: Of course.

MARTHA: Would you explain this to Josh and Becky? Why you are having things handled this way? They’re both very fond of you. I want them to understand we are following your wishes in this. OK?

DARWIN (smiling): I’ll be happy to. I always enjoy talking to my grandchildren. Did you know Josh wants to interview me for the school paper next month?

MARTHA (looking happier): Yes, he told me. I guess he has to get an OK from the faculty adviser or something.

REV. BROWN (interjecting): Well, I should certainly hope so.

DARWIN: Ah … another country heard from. I thought you were being unusually quiet, preacher. Now why do you say that?

REV. BROWN: Well, we do have separation of church and state, don’t we? At least, people like you seem to think it’s very important that we do. I would hope the school wouldn’t allow an atheist to be holding forth on such a perverse philosophy in the school newspaper. I’m sure I wouldn’t want my children to be exposed to that sort of thing.

DARWIN: Oh, make no mistake about it. I think the need for separation between government and religion is one of the most important issues our society faces. And the more separation the better, as far as I’m concerned. However, the interview my grandson is doing is going to be about my life as a journalist and author. I doubt my atheism will come up at all, except in that context. I’m certainly not going to be trying to spread what you call my “perverse philosophy” in an interview in a high school newspaper.

REV. BROWN (snidely): Well, thank heaven.

DARWIN (very deliberately): No preacher. Thank me.

But seriously, one of the things I’ve noticed about some religious people is that you seem to think all nonbelievers do is sit around and think about why they don’t believe in a god. I would like to assure you that whole days, sometimes weeks, go by when the subject of gods and religions scarcely gets mentioned at all in my little corner of the world. The only time I find myself involved in such discussions these days is when other people ask me about it. Apart from that, it really is no big deal. I have lots of other things to think about. Always have.

REV. BROWN (shaking his head): Well, I must confess, I don’t know how you do it, Mr. Culhane. I don’t know how you can live without God. That kind of existence would require far too much faith for me.

DARWIN (chuckling): Can I ask you something, preacher? Is there a manual out there somewhere of trite expressions to use when confronted by a nonbeliever? I’ve never seen the book, but I think it must exist somewhere, because for the better part of fifty years now, since I first went public with my own atheism, I’ve been hearing the same bilge over and over again.

REV. BROWN (sputtering): Well … I

DARWIN: That baloney about an atheist needing so much faith, for example. Actually, no faith is required. None. Nada. Zilch. I find that reason serves me much better than faith, anyway.

(blustering): You have faith in science don’t you? You can’t prove that science is absolutely right all the time, can you? In fact, you know science doesn’t have all the answers. But you continue to believe in it anyway. Sounds like faith to me.

DARWIN: Then you’ve got a tin ear. There’s no faith at work there. In the first place, I don’t have faith in science at all. I have rational confidence in the scientific process because it seems to work. But science isn’t about absolutes.

Science is a work in progress. It’s always changing as we learn more about the universe we occupy. I don’t expect it to have all the answers. I’m quite confident we haven’t yet found all the questions.

But there’s no faith involved in any of it. I don’t “believe” in science. I just think it appears to offer the best explanation for the world I live in. I’m perfectly willing to change that opinion if and when someone offers me a better alternative. So far, no one has.

REV. BROWN (pontificating): But how can you live knowing it’s all meaningless? That, if you are right, you are just an insignificant bit of matter on an insignificant planet in the midst of an immense cosmos that neither knows nor cares of your existence? How can you find happiness in a universe that is oblivious to your presence in it?

DARWIN: Ah … more questions from the Compendium of Really Dumb Things to Ask An Atheist. Preacher, you don’t know me at all, so I won’t expect you to take my word for this, but I am probably one of the happiest people you will ever meet. Ask my daughter. I think she’ll agree with that statement.

Martha nods in agreement

DARWIN: Now that doesn’t mean I go through life giggling. What it means is that I learned long ago that existence only has meaning as we give it meaning. My life has been full of wonderful friends, wonderful experiences. I have had failures to learn from and enough successes to sweeten the experience. I don’t care whether my life has any ultimate meaning in the life of the universe. All I know is that it has meaning to me. Now. This moment. And, frankly, that’s quite enough. Besides, after I die my components will be recycled back through the process and probably used again and again in some fashion or another. I guess that’s a kind of immortality. I know it’s the only kind I see any evidence for.

REV. BROWN: I’m sorry, but I find that hard to believe. It sounds to me like you are whistling past the graveyard, if you know what I mean. That sort of cavalier attitude seems typical of people who want to deny God. I wonder how much you really mean it. Aren’t you just kidding yourself?

DARWIN: Preacher, have you ever been on a snipe hunt?

REV. BROWN: I’m sorry … I don’t know what you are talking about. What’s that?

DARWIN: Ah, well customs change and you are a good bit younger than me, so maybe they’ve gone out of fashion.

When I was a youngster, I wanted to join the Boy Scouts. One of the things I was interested in was going on a snipe hunt. That was something all new scouts had to do. What happened was that, on the first camp-out he took part in, each new scout was given a gunny snack and a flashlight and was sent out to catch a snipe. The snipe, we were told, was a very elusive, nocturnal bird that ran along the ground. It couldn’t fly very well, if at all. The boy who caught one would immediately go to the head of the class when it came to various honors and the like.

So my interest in the Boy Scouts was, at least, partly triggered by my curiosity about the snipe hunt. I even thought about taking a gunny sack and flashlight and going out to catch one on my own, but then I learned the truth.

Do you know what that was, Preacher?

Reverend Brown shakes his head, obviously puzzled over the turn the conversation has taken.

DARWIN (smiling impishly): The snipe didn’t exist. There was no such bird. Now, there is a bird called a “snipe” — it’s a member of the sandpiper family. But it has no relationship to the legendary “snipe” of snipe hunt fame.

REV. BROWN (still looking puzzled): But I don’t see what …

DARWIN: You just referred to me as a person who denies your “God” exists. But I do no such thing. As far as I’m concerned, the search for a god is a philosophical or spiritual — call it whichever suits you — snipe hunt. The object of the hunt doesn’t exist and the hunt itself is an exercise in futility, except perhaps in the mind of the person engaged in it.

I don’t “deny” a god at all. There’s nothing to deny.

MARTHA (interjecting): But Dad, you can’t be certain of that. Can you?

DARWIN: Certain? No. But I gave up certainty some time ago. Let me put it this way. I view the likelihood that a god exists to be about as probable as the likelihood that there really was a snipe to be found in those boyhood excursions. I suppose there’s a possibility there really is a snipe somewhere, like the one they sent those young Scouts to hunt. But it’s a possibility I regard as vanishingly small. In fact, now that I think about it, I find the idea of a god even more improbable. After all, I know such things as birds exist. I can’t say the same for gods.

REV. BROWN (somewhat pompously): And there’s the difference between us, Mr. Culhane. I know that my Redeemer Liveth. I have no doubt of it. I am as certain of God’s existence as I am that I am sitting in this living room talking to you right now.

DARWIN (looks amused): Really? And do you believe the god you worship is the one true god, the only god?

REV: BROWN (with great conviction): Absolutely!!!

DARWIN: Wonderful. Now, since you are obviously a learned man, I assume you realize there are many other people in this world who believe in a god, many of them with every bit as much assurance as you seem to have.


DARWIN: And I assume you also know that many of those people believe in gods that are very different than the one you believe in? For example, many of them do not believe in the triune god — the father, son and holy ghost — of your religion. In fact, there are many more people who don’t believe in that god, than there are who do. Now isn’t that right?

REV. BROWN: Well, yes, but …

DARWIN: And isn’t it also true that even within the Christian religion, among those who believe in the same sort of god you believe in, there is considerable variation? For example, most Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God and after his life, death and resurrection, and the writings of some of his earliest followers, the divine revelation was essentially closed. But the Mormons have a different view, a later revelation. Isn’t that true?

But the Mormons aren’t …

DARWIN: Aren’t what? Aren’t true Christians? Is that what you were about to say? I could introduce you to some Mormons I know who would disagree. And what about the Catholic Church? And the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Aren’t there an awful lot of people who call themselves Christians who have much different conceptions of “God” and what “God” requires of humans than you?

REV. BROWN (somewhat irritated): All I know is that I worship the God of the Bible. The one true God. That’s the God I worship and that’s the God I preach … God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I’m not responsible for what other people believe. Only what I believe and what I preach to my congregation.

DARWIN (exasperated): So it doesn’t bother you that you have your version of the “one true God,” and lots of other people have other versions they believe in just as fervently and there is absolutely no way for you or them to determine who is correct? Mind you … it doesn’t particularly bother me what you or anyone else believes. However, I would think that state of affairs would trouble you. What does it say about your “one true God” that it allows such confusion to exist among its worshippers?

REV. BROWN (gravely): Certainly, it bothers me that not all will be saved. But that’s not God’s fault. God has made his message clear. If men and women choose not to hear that message, then the fault lies in them, not Him.

DARWIN: And you are confident you know what that message is?

REV. BROWN: Absolutely!

DARWIN: And you are confident the god you worship is the “one, true god” and all other ideas about “God” are false?

REV. BROWN (feeling very sure of himself now): Without any question!!!

DARWIN: Then, can you describe it to me? What are the chief attributes and characteristics of this god you worship? What evidence supports those views? On what basis can you declare your version of the god hypothesis to be the standard against which all such ideas must be measured?

REV. BROWN: Hypothesis? Oh, it’s no hypothesis, Mr. Culhane. God is as real to me as you are.

DARWIN: Wonderful. Then you should have no trouble describing it to me. For example, is it animal, vegetable or mineral?

REV. BROWN (with a sarcastic edge): None of those. God is pure spirit. And why do you keep referring to God as “it?”

DARWIN (somewhat bemused): Wait a minute. You’ve just said your “God” is pure spirit. Why wouldn’t I refer to it as “it?” If it is pure spirit, it can’t very well have a gender, can it?

REV. BROWN (shaking his Bible at Darwin): Well, the Good Book clearly describes God as male..

DARWIN: Oh, I know what your “good book” says. But I’m beginning to suspect you’ve never read it.

REV. BROWN (sputtering): What an outrageous statement! How dare you!

DARWIN: OK. Then explain it to me? You’re right. The Bible clearly identifies the deity as male. It uses the masculine pronoun, and the imagery of a heavenly father and so on is clearly male. However, you’ve just told me that the “God” you worship is neither animal, vegetable or mineral but is pure spirit. I contend if it is pure spirit it cannot have a gender. If you really believe your “God” is a pure spirit then you are contradicting the imagery of the Bible, a book that you previously told me was without flaw. If the biblical language is accurate, then the deity described therein is definitely a male. If your characterization of your “God” as a pure spirit is accurate, then the biblical language is inaccurate. So which is it? Are you wrong or is it the Bible?

REV. BROWN: Oh no you don’t. I’m not going to play these word games with you, Mr. Culhane. God is a pure spirit. He is portrayed as male in the Bible because, as you noted earlier, poets, prophets and sages have to work with the language they have.

DARWIN: Now who is playing word games? You told me earlier that you believe the Bible is the “word of God.” Isn’t that right?


DARWIN: And now you are telling me that it had to describe the “God” whose word it is inaccurately because that was the language in use at the time. Is that what you are saying?

REV. BROWN (squirming a bit): Well ... not exactly.

DARWIN: Then … excuse me for belaboring the obvious, but don’t you also think your “God” created the language in the first place?

REV. BROWN (seems a bit flustered): Of course! Look ... you keep insisting a pure spirit can’t have gender. But a pure spirit can have a personality. God’s personality is male, so naturally that’s the way the Bible describes him.

The preacher sits back, a triumphant look on his face.

Martha has been listening intently as Rev. Brown and her father banter back and forth. When the preacher stops talking, she opens her mouth as though she is about to say something, but then stops, a perplexed look on her face. She continues to watch the two men. Her eyes follow the conversation from one to the other, as if she were a spectator at a tennis match.

DARWIN (with a bemused expression): So you are saying that your “God” is a pure spirit who has no gender but has a personality that is masculine. I’m not exactly sure how that’s possible. Masculinity is rooted in one’s biology and shaped by one’s culture. How could a sexless being have a male or female personality?

REV. BROWN (knowingly): With God, all things are possible, Mr. Culhane.

DARWIN (groans): I had a feeling that was coming. OK, this isn’t going anywhere. So what other attributes does your “God” have? Is it all powerful? All knowing? Perfect? Good?


DARWIN: All of those?


DARWIN (pursing his lips): Hmmm. Now I want to be sure I understand you. When you say your “God” is all knowing, what exactly do you mean by that?

REV. BROWN: I mean that God knows everything. Everything that has happened. Everything that is happening. Everything that will happen. God’s knowledge of past, present and future is perfect. He knows all.

DARWIN: Again, I want to be sure I understand exactly what you mean here. Is this an attribute your “God” has always had? Or is it one it just acquired in the last few millennia?

REV. BROWN (very sure of himself): Scoff all you want, Mr. Culhane. God’s knowledge of past, present and future is perfect and always has been perfect.

DARWIN: So long before the creation of the universe, long before the creation of anything at all, your “God” already knew how it was all going to turn out. It knew everything that would happen before it set any of this in motion. Is that right?

REV. BROWN: Precisely!

DARWIN: And you know this because …?

REV. BROWN: The Bible …

DARWIN: Of course, the Bible tells you so. So you are telling me that your “God” always has known everything? Right?

The preacher nods in agreement.

DARWIN (suddenly looks perplexed): Ah … I guess that means your “God” would never have to change its mind then. I mean, if it has perfect knowledge, it wouldn’t be possible for it to make a mistake, would it?

REV. BROWN: Of course not?

DARWIN: In fact, not only would it never have to change its mind, but it would actually be incapable of changing it. In order for a being to have “perfect” knowledge, as you have described it, that being could never change anything. Only if nothing can be changed is it possible for a being to know everything that will happen.

REV. BROWN (missing the point): Yes, but man has free will. God’s foreknowledge doesn’t negate human free will.

DARWIN: Actually, I think it would have to, but that’s not what I’m talking about. We aren’t talking about the nature of humans, but the nature of your “God.” What I’m suggesting to you is that a god who has perfect knowledge of everything that has happened and everything that will happen and has always possessed that knowledge is utterly incapable of changing any of it. Thus, your “God” is actually powerless. It certainly can’t be all powerful.

REV. BROWN (looks perplexed): I’m not sure I understand.

DARWIN: It’s really very simple, preacher. A universe in which everything is preordained, which is the only kind of universe about which it would be possible to know everything, is a static universe. Nothing in that universe can be changed because that would mean your “God” had knowledge that was less than perfect. So either your “God” has perfect knowledge and is powerless to change anything or it is all powerful and does not have perfect knowledge. It simply cannot be both.

In short, the god you are describing is logically impossible.

REV. BROWN (obviously perturbed): See, that’s the trouble with you people and your puny little minds. To the wisdom of the world the things of the spirit always appear to be foolish. You say “logically impossible.” I say “with GOD all things are possible.” You say, “it’s a matter of reason.” I say, “It’s a matter of faith.”

DARWIN (a bit scornfully): Nice try, preacher. What you’re really saying is that you concede your religion is totally irrational and has no basis in fact. You are invoking “faith” to justify nonsense. It won’t fly. Matters of faith and belief may be unassailable in the mind of a believer, like yourself, but if you are going to offer them as justification for actions or claims about the nature of reality, then you are going to have to be willing to have them scrutinized. All ideas deserve a fair hearing, but all ideas won’t survive one.

Nonsense doesn’t become less nonsensical because someone invokes “faith” as the basis for believing it.

REV. BROWN (goes on the attack): So what’s your answer, Mr. Culhane? You claim there’s no God. Where do you think all this comes from? And don’t even think of saying “I don’t know.” I say it’s the work of God. What do you say?

DARWIN: Let me correct you, preacher. I don’t “claim” there is no god. I do think no gods exist. I take that position because I have seen no credible evidence for the existence of a deity and can find no compelling reason why one should. But I’m perfectly willing to revise that position if and when someone presents me with a description of a deity that is comprehensive, comprehensible and non-contradictory and supports the claim for the existence of said deity with evidence that is credible.

The preacher starts to interrupt, but Darwin waves him off.

DARWIN: Now, as to your question. I think everything that exists is the result of undirected natural processes acting on matter/energy, which is the eternal “stuff” of which our cosmos is composed. I think we understand those processes and that “stuff” imperfectly at present. I’m not at all sure we ever will be able to say we understand it completely. But I think it is intellectually irresponsible, even dishonest, to point to the gaps in our knowledge and plug a nonsense syllable like “God” into those gaps as if it explained anything.

When you say “God did it,” you actually are saying you don’t know. Oh, I know you claim to know your “God” is real. But that’s pretty easy to do when you are talking about an entity that can’t be described or defined, except in the most general terms, and meets no evidentiary standards.

“God” has been defined so many ways by so many people, it’s a meaningless word, except to the person who claims to believe in it. You can’t invoke the unexplainable to explain the unexplained and then call it an explanation. Not if you are being honest about it.

(impatiently): But you haven’t answered my question. How did all of this get here if it wasn’t put here by “God?”

DARWIN: I was coming to that. When we start discussing ultimate beginnings, it’s very difficult to make any sort of definite statements. There are some theories that appear to explain the current state of our universe and how it got to be this way. But it’s much more difficult to known how it all started. I’m not even certain it’s accurate to think about it that way.

My personal view is that matter/energy always have existed and the universe we occupy now is but the latest configuration of that matter/energy. It may be there are many such universes and all of them are constantly being recycled, reshuffled. It may be that ours is the only one that ever has been, and it is being constantly recycled and reformed. Or ... it may be this is just a one-time thing, a hiccup in an eternal, endless void. I don’t pretend to be able to answer such questions with any confidence. But I certainly don’t think the problem is solved by invoking some sort of cosmic super critter.

REV. BROWN (sounds somewhat defeated): Well, Mr. Culhane. I’m sure you’ll learn the reality of God’s existence soon enough. Unfortunately, I fear the knowledge will come too late to be of any benefit to you.

DARWIN (chuckling): Yes, it always comes down to that doesn’t it. When all else fails, threaten eternal damnation. Preacher, if its any consolation to you at all, I’ve enjoyed our talk. I’m sure you meant well. And I’m not at all offended that you probably think I am an unregenerate sinner who will burn in Hell for all time. Obviously I don’t agree. But in the off chance you are right, I’ll try to send up some smoke signals to let you know where I am so we can continue our conversation.

Have you read either of my books?

REV. BROWN: No. I’m afraid not.

DARWIN: Martha, bring me a couple of copies.

Martha takes two volumes out of a bookcase in the corner of the living room and brings them to her father. Darwin takes out a pen and signs both with a flourish.

DARWIN: Here you go, preacher. The first is a collection of essays I’ve written over the years called Stories in a Life. The other is an extended essay about my thoughts on the god idea. It’s called The God Hypothesis.

REV. BROWN: Well, thank you, Mr. Culhane. I would offer to say a prayer for you, but I suppose that wouldn’t be welcome.

DARWIN (affably): Oh, I don’t mind. Do whatever you need to do to make yourself feel better. Just don’t do it around me.

The two men shake hands, and the minister leaves, escorted by Martha to the front door. She returns to the room and walks over to her father.

MARTHA: Dad, you look worn out. Would you like to go to your room for a while.

DARWIN (laughing softly): Yes, I think I would. Generating all that hot air seems to have tired me.

She wheels her father from the room. From the hallway her voice is heard.

MARTHA: You know, Dad. Maybe it’s time I read your books too.

The end.

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