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The Last Man to Believe in God

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For a hundred years, religions have been dying out all over the planet. But John Doakes of New Hampshire still believes. Is he deluded? Infantile? Or is something stranger going on?...

Jeff Lilly
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Untitled Chapter


John Doakes, the last man to believe in God, lived alone in a large house in Gypsum, New Hampshire. The house was 450 years old, twice as old as John Doakes himself, whitewashed and rambling, nestled between tumbled stone fences and sprawling blackberry bushes. There was no teleport booth in Gypsum, so Kate Wright had to flick into Keene and catch the bus to come up and interview him.

"So," she began. "Um, thank you for allowing me to come."

"No problem," said John. The kitchen was faded yellow, showing its age. John's face, which showed no age because of the usual immortality drugs, was craggy with a strong jaw. His hands, however, were weathered and knotted with long labor.

"Um," she said. Next to this strong old man, she felt very young and frail. She was very conscious of her frizzy yellow hair already escaping from its ponytail. "So. How long have you believed in, uh, God?" And then quickly: "Please, if I'm being rude, or -- "

"Nope, no problem. Don't worry about it. You said in your letter that you were a researcher and you'd be asking me about God, so that's what I'm expecting. I've believed in God all my life."

"Thank you. And so, maybe you could talk a little bit about how your belief is important in your life."

"Well," said John slowly, "it is important. Very important. Especially now that the family has moved away."

"Do you go to a church?"

"Not really. There’s no one left around who goes to church anymore. Out back behind the house is an old one-room chapel, actually the first one built in Gypsum. It's close to six hundred years old. Sundays I generally go inside and clean it up and say my prayers and such."

"Does it bother you that there isn't anyone around to share your, uh, worship?" She stumbled over the unfamiliar word.

"Well, sure," he said. "But I keep on believing anyway. I don't ask other people what I ought to believe."

"That's amazing," she whispered. "I'm sorry. It's just -- and you say your family has moved away?"

"Yes. They were all believers as well, before they left. But it seems like they gave up on it, or something."

"Why do you think they did that?"

"Well, I suppose it was just easier for them. No one else believes, anymore, and I guess they didn't want to seem strange. I don't hold it against them."

"And how do they feel about your holding on to, uh, believing?"

"It doesn't bother them. They put up with it. The kids and grandkids and so forth come to visit once a year, we all have Thanksgiving here, and crazy old grandpa stands up and says grace." He chuckled. "They like it. It's just part of the quaintness of the old place, I think."

"Have you considered giving up your beliefs yourself?"

"Nope," he said.

"You have never had any doubts at all?"

He shook his head.

"Why not? If -- if I could ask."

He thought for a moment. "Well, God gives me comfort and guidance. I'm pretty well set here now, so I don't need much guidance, but He used to help me decide how to deal with situations where I was afraid or confused, you know. Mostly He just gives me comfort, now. My wife's been gone, now, what, over a hundred years ago now. She died before the new medicines came along, you know."

"A lot of people in your situation would have ended their lives."

"Well, suicide's a sin."

"Right, right," she said. "Amazing. I'm sorry, it's just -- just amazing to talk to you. Anyway. So God helps you with that?"

"Sure. I imagine I'd be pretty lonely without Him."

"You talk about him as if you actually hold conversations with him."

"I do."

John Doakes didn't fit, and Kate was over the moon.

Religion had been dying all over the world for more than a hundred years. For most of that time, anthropologists, sociologists and the dwindling ranks of the theologians fought and argued over the cause. It was hard to explain why religion was dying, since it was hard to explain why religion should exist in the first place. But over the last twenty years, a consensus emerged: religion was a social construct, supported by social structure and maintained by social structure. Religion provided believers with the comfort of belonging to a group, with the added attraction of believing that the group would go on after death. As governments, universities, and other social edifices abandoned religion, the society as a whole began to abandon it as well.

If all that is true, then there should be no reason for John Doakes to continue to believe in God. He had no social support for his beliefs at all. Yet here he was. Why? How could he derive comfort from something that wasn't there?

But as Kate ransacked the university library, she began to find many cases similar to him in the past. Prophets that held to their beliefs as they were burned at the stake, for example. Researchers explained these cases away by claiming that the prophets expected to rejoin their social group after death. Maybe Doakes expected to meet his wife again when he died.

But Doakes never expected to die! He was taking the standard anti-aging medicines. And his religion did not allow him to voluntarily end his life. He expected to remain on Earth forever, and never see his wife again. He had no community of believers! Nevertheless, he still believed in God.

Something else was going on here, and John Doakes had the secret.

"You talk to God? What do you mean?"

"I mean I talk to Him. I don't open my mouth. And He doesn't answer in so many words, of course. I just get feelings."

"I see," said Kate. She didn't.

"Like a few days ago," he said. He looked out the window at the fields up the hill. "I was standing over there watching my sheep. A couple of them look like they're about ready to lamb. And I was thinking about when Sue and I were buying our first sheep, oh, a long time ago. Hundred and seventy years ago. And I started thinking about Sue some more, and feeling pretty bad. So then I said to God, 'Lord, help me, because she's gone, and I'll never see her again.'"

He paused. Kate bit her lip.

"And I felt better," he said at last.

"Just like that?" said Kate. "Out of nowhere?"

"Well," he said, "I started noticing how green the grass was, after the rains we had, and how the wind was nice, and all. God helped me be thankful for what I had, you see." He said it so simply, as if it were a common fact.

"So," said Kate slowly, "you were thankful for how pretty everything was?"

"Not just that," said John. "Thankful to be here at all. I don't know if I can explain it. I'm just a man, just flesh and blood. Fragile, small. The world is big, the universe is big. Talking to God, I get a sense of how small I am, how insignificant I am, compared to everything. And that helps me put my own small problems into perspective. But I also feel how God loves me, and I'm a part of his creation. So that makes me feel, you know, good. So it's a good thing all around. Do you know what I mean?"

Kate suddenly had a memory from when she was very small. Her family had lived on a farm in Illinois, and she remembered walking to the top of a hillock and seeing golden corn spreading away from her in every direction, out to the edge of vision, and tiny cows like ants in the distance, and a sky like sapphire bowl, and herself, Kate, in the middle of it. The memory was powerful, a sort of quiet thrill, and it took her aback.

"I think maybe I do," she said. She hadn't felt that feeling since. How old had she been? Six? Right before the trip to St. Louis, it had to have been...

For a moment, she was distracted, trying to remember. Then she brought herself back: John was talking again.

"That feeling of putting things in perspective," he said. "It's important. People shouldn't take themselves too seriously. It's bad for the soul."

"For the what?" said Kate.

"The soul. You don't know what a soul is? I thought you said you studied religion."

"I do, I do. I mean -- different religions had different ideas of what a soul was. What do you mean by 'soul'?"

John frowned. "I'm not sure. It's something I feel more than I think about. I guess it's that part of a person that's closest to God."

On the bus back to Keene, making notes about the interview, she wrestled with her memory. Just once, she'd had that feeling. No other time, she was sure -- she would have remembered it. She wondered if other people had it. She couldn't duplicate it now. When she looked at the New Hampshire mountains out the bus window, they were just mountains. Maybe it was a feeling that only children had, normally, but John Doakes had somehow never grown out of it?

Ideas jelled in her mind. Her pen flashed across the pad.

"Do you ever remember feeling that way?" Kate asked her adviser.

Dr. Apkirk was a short woman, tending to flowery dresses. Her office was small, windowless, and decorated with books. She considered Kate for a long time with her sharp eyes.

"Not in a long time," she said at last. "When I was small, perhaps."

"Exactly!" said Kate. "When you were small. The world seemed larger. You could feel in your bones how small you were. You felt vulnerable. But at the same time, because you were a child, cared for by parents, you felt loved and important. See what he says here." She took out her pad and paged down her notes. "Feeling fragile, small. Feeling thankful. Problems in perspective. God loves me. These are the words," she said, "of a child!"

Apkirk took the pad and scrolled up and down the interview. "Are you saying he has some kind of infantalism?"

"Yes!" said Kate. "He hasn't really grown up. He still wants a parental figure. He wants his problems to not really matter. He wants to feel fragile and helpless, but cared for. It relieves him of responsibility."

"And this would explain why he holds on to his beliefs, despite the lack of social support."

"Yes!" said Kate.

"Nice," admitted Apkirk. "But can this theory completely replace the social theory of religion?"

"No," said Kate. "I wouldn't want to claim that. I wouldn't want to say that every religious human for the past however many thousands of years was slightly psychotic."

"Don't jump to conclusions," said Apkirk, smiling. "Human life prior to the last few centuries was extremely painful and barbaric. The fear of death, if nothing else -- psychosis could have been the only way to keep going. But you're right: you don't want to claim that in your dissertation. Wait until you are safely ensconced in a professorship."

Still smiling, she scanned the interview further.

"Does he have any other signs of infantilism?" she said "Is he completely capable of caring for himself physically? The house isn't dirty or anything, right?"

"No," said Kate. "He seems fine otherwise."

"It would be better for your theory if you could find some other evidence of that."

"His lack of deep friendships could be construed as infantile."

"Good, good. But really, Kate, the best evidence would come from brain scans. Can you convince him to come in for that?"

"I don't know," said Kate. "I don't think he's ever really traveled anywhere."

"Ask him," said Apkirk. "Gently. Don't lose your only dissertation subject."

"Brain scan?" said John. "What's that?"

"A simple procedure," said Kate. "They don't have to give you anesthetic or anything."

"What is it, radiation?"

"No, no, nothing like that. They actually use tesseract viewing -- a camera in hyperspace or something. Completely safe."

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Would you do it?"

"I've done it a few times," she said. "During my physicals, to be admitted to school, and a few times since."

He grunted, and paged through the permission forms she had given him.

"And I have to go to San Francisco?"

"That's where my department's machine is."

"Are you sure there isn't one more local, like in Keene or something?"

"Not in Keene. Maybe in Boston. I'd have to work on getting special permission from another department."

"What do you want to do a brain scan for? Do you think I'm crazy? Something's wrong with my brain?" But he was smiling.

She was careful not to answer that directly. "We just want to see if there are differences between someone who believes in God and someone who doesn't."

He nodded. "I don't know," he said. "It's probably not a good idea." He looked out the window again. Kate wondered if he was asking his God...

"Probably not a good idea," he said at last.

"May I ask why?" she said quietly.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I get a queer feeling... Kind of like God's saying, go ahead, John, if you want to do this fool thing, but He's not going to be responsible for the consequences..."

Kate didn't know what to say.

John put the forms down on the table, picked up a knife and an apple and peeled it.

"Apple?" he said.

"Sure," she said, completely bewildered.

After almost a full minute, during which John carefully cut up the apple and the two of them ate it, he said, "What's it like?"

"What? The brain scan?"

"San Francisco."

"Oh! Well, it's a big city. Lots of tall buildings, old buildings. It's right on San Francisco Bay, which is very pretty. Lots of hills. The ocean is nearby. Redwoods..."

"All right," said John. "Where do I sign these forms?"

Kate arrived a few steps ahead of John. The teleport station was up on the hill over Berkeley, and as you stepped out of the booth you could see the full sweep of the bay below, sunlight scattering over the water, the city across the bay spearing the air with skyscrapers, the great forested slopes, and the Golden Gate bridge, rebuilt, arching high over the inlet.

Kate thought it was pretty.

John was behind her. He stepped up to the glass and looked at the view. She watched him closely. This man, who seemed to draw so much strength from natural beauty and the God he associated with it, should have a powerful reaction.

He did, but not what she expected.

His craggy face lengthened, and his eyes widened. Instead of awe, she saw panic, horror. He looked around and up, thrusting his hands out to the sides, as if claustrophobic.

"No!" he cried. "No! Oh God, don't leave me!"

He fell to his knees, squeezing his eyes shut, raising his hands in prayer.

"John!" she said. She tried to take his hands and hold them, but they were shaking too much. "John, what's wrong?"

"He's gone," he gasped. "He's left me. Don't go, oh God, oh God, no, don't leave me alone..."

And he collapsed. The strong old man was limp and sobbing on the flagstones before the window.

Kate's mind whirled. God left him? What did that mean?

Something happened to him. Something changed him, hurt him somehow. Looking out the window? That wouldn't do anything to him. Coming through the teleporter?

Coming through the teleporter --

The shock of coming to a new place? Maybe. But Kate's mind was drawing other connections --

The teleporter worked via quantum entanglement. The subject was destroyed in one place and re-created in another. The re-creation was perfect, every quark duplicated instantaneously, because of the entanglement. Every quark.

Was a soul composed of quarks?

Kate felt cold, dizzy.

Suppose it were true. Suppose God really existed. Suppose a person's connection to God was through a soul, some part of the self that wasn't really physical. Then a teleporter would re-create the body, but not the soul. The soul would be gone -- gone wherever souls go...

Her first trip through a teleporter had been when she was seven years old. Everyone traveled by teleporter. Everyone. And religion was dying all over the world...

She looked out the window again, at the bay. If she was right about this... then this vision of the city should make her feel insignificant, fragile, but also protected, safe, and loved. It should touch her soul.

But she didn't feel any of that. She felt... almost nothing.

She sat next to John, and futilely tried to comfort him.

A young-looking woman answered Kate's knock. "Uncle John is expecting you," she said, smiling. "Come right up."

The old home in Gypsum was rather more bare than it had been. Still, no house 450 years old could have its character erased by a couple of years as a nursing home. The woman led her up the uneven stairs and she ducked her head under 18th-century ceilings. Doakes was in a room decorated in faded floral yellow. Though it was a brilliant summer day outside, the curtains were closed, and the room was dim. Doakes sat by a lamp, reading.

"So," he said. "The famous Dr. Wright! Your name is in all the papers now." Two years without the anti-aging medicines had wasted his body. He was now more frail than she was, an empty frame of a man.

"Thank you for having me," she said.

"A pleasure," he said.

"You seem to have stopped taking your medicines."

He shrugged. "The part of me that God cares about is gone. My wife and I are already together again. Letting this body to die is no sin."

She nodded. "Are you angry at me for what I did?"

He blinked. "Angry? I don't think so. I don't feel much of anything, anymore. And anyway, I was the one that decided to go. I hope you haven't been worrying about that for five years."

"Maybe a little," she said. "But mostly I came for my children."

He thought a moment. "I see," he said at last. "You haven't brought them with you."

"I only have one so far," she said. "She is home with my grandmother today. But I plan to have more. And I do not intend to ever teleport them anywhere."

"Yes, I see," he whispered. A slow smile spread over his face. "Then I can help you. I have a book I reckon you'll be interested in... I hardly look at it now, of course, but..."

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