How I Found God: Lawrence S. Lerner

Thus Spake Billy

By Lawrence S. Lerner

When I was a tad in the late 1930s, my family lived in Apartment 2G at 1454 University Avenue in the Bronx. This unremarkable street number identified a five-story brick pile sandwiched between University and Ogden Avenues where they diverge just south of the Washington Bridge.

In the next apartment, 2H, lived the Harrises. Their son Billy, about 5 years old like me, was my bosom buddy. Billy had a mischievous streak. When he was quarantined with the measles, he dug through the plaster of the wall behind his bed, knowing that my bedroom was adjacent. He had never heard of Edmond Dantes but was nearly as resourceful. Sadly, he found a structural brick wall under the two or three inches of plaster that had yielded to his table knife, and had to give up. (I saw the gaping hole, which was hidden behind his bedstead, long after the fact. His illness saved him from condign punishment.)

It was Billy, too, who conceived the hilarious idea of bombing Ching Lee. Our apartment had a balcony, accessible through the kitchen window. It was an easy climb over a low parapet to the roof of the one-story building next door, whose tar and gravel covered a Chinese restaurant. Billy thought it would be clever to drop the gravel bits through the open skylights onto the diners below. It did seem to me a stroke of genius, and we tried it a couple of times–until the manager figured out what was happening and had a brief but firm talk with my father. As you can see, Billy was a smart boy; I was always eager to learn from him.

One bright spring day in 1939, Billy and I took our pails and shovels and headed for the small park (long since obliterated by the interchange between the Cross Bronx and Major Deegan Expressways) on the brow of the hill that runs down to the Harlem River. We settled under a big, spreading tree and began digging. Our ostensible purpose was to get worms for fishing. Though we had no fishing plans in mind, the worms were an attractive goal in themselves.

We had made quite a mess of the grass and were beginning to dig deeper when Billy opined that what we were doing was probably wrong.

I had had the same thought, but said, “Well, no one is watching us.”

“God is watching us,” replied Billy.

This was a new one on me. “Who is God?” I asked.

“He’s a big man up in the sky and he punishes people who do wrong things.”

“That’s okay, then,” I said, “He can’t see us through the tree.”

“Oh, God can see right through trees,” Billy explained. “He can see everything.”

Now I was puzzled. There was this guy I had never heard of, living up in the sky with the ability to see through things. I had only recently been introduced to Superman and his X-ray vision, but I thought that was all fiction. Though we went right on digging, the matter didn’t leave my mind. That evening at dinner I asked my father, who knew everything, “Billy told me about God this afternoon. Who’s God?”

My father put his fork down and explained. “In olden times, people knew very little about how the world worked,” he said. “Many things frightened them–lightning and thunder, floods, earthquakes, volcanos, disease, famine, and so on. They thought powerful folks–sort of super-kings called gods–controlled these things and used them to show they were angry.

“Those people of olden times knew it’s important to make nice to those who can hurt you, so they did everything they could think of to please these gods. They begged–called it praying–made sacrifices, and all kinds of other things.

“Pretty soon, they decided that the gods had rulers and servants, just as they did. They had a king, so there was a king of the gods. They had servants, so there were gods who obeyed the more important gods.

“After a while, some people decided that the king of the gods was so powerful he didn’t need servant gods, and they invented God.

“Nowadays, we understand a lot of things the people in the old days didn’t. We know why there are thunderstorms and earthquakes, and we can even cure many diseases. So people who understand these things don’t believe in God any more. But there are still lots of ignorant and superstitious people who don’t understand how the world works, and they still believe in God. It makes them feel good. If they explain a thunderstorm or a sickness by saying ‘God is angry,’ they think they understand what is happening, and maybe even please God by praying and making the thunderstorm or the sickness go away.”

That made sense. “Does Billy believe in God?” I asked.

“Maybe he does,” my father said. “If you argue with him about it, you might hurt his feelings. It’s best not to talk about God to him. Remember how mad he got when you told him he can’t catch very well?

“Besides, it’s a good thing that some people believe in God. Some people would do all kinds of bad things if they didn’t think God would get mad at them.”

“But Billy didn’t stop digging when he thought God was watching him,” I replied.

My father laughed. “You’ll see a lot of that as you grow up,” he said.

Since then, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my father’s explanation. I’ve met plenty of people who are neither stupid nor ignorant, but who nevertheless believe in God–sometimes a God with a very detailed and not very nice history. Others smarter than I have devised various explanations of how it can be that a smart, informed person can believe in God. However correct they may be, I am well aware of the remarkable human ability to compartmentalize. Someone like Francis Collins can think very critically and creatively about the nature and evolution of DNA, and still accept the flimsiest of arguments to support his deep desire to believe in a very specific God.

By and large, my father had it right.

Foundation member Lawrence S. Lerner settled into a 30-year professorship at California State University, Long Beach, where he was particularly active in encouraging young women to enter careers in the sciences and engineering. For some time, he directed the University’s General Honors Program.

Since 1999, he has been Professor Emeritus in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. He has worked in condensed-matter physics, the history of science, and, for the past two decades or so, as a consultant on curricular matters in K-12 science education. In the last of these capacities he found himself perforce confronted with the various religious and political pressure groups that want to substitute their particular narrow religious views for real science in public-school education. With the rise of the Religious Right, the battle for real science has become a lot more visible; fortunately, many more members of the science community have become involved.

Lerner is the author of two university-level physics textbooks, a translation of Giordano Bruno’s Copernicus-based philosophical work The Ash Wednesday Supper, and several hundred journal articles, book chapters, and the like. He was a major author of the 1990 California Science Framework. He lives with his wife, a retired chemist, and two low-keyed Newfoundland dogs in the mountains south of San Francisco. He is very fond of good conversation, good music, good food, and good wine.

Freedom From Religion Foundation