The Gods Of War

By Max Epstein

Thomas Abrahms, Professor of Sociology, was pleased with his reputation as a radical. He had tenure at Reed College in Oregon, known as a liberal school, and even there his views stood out. His favorite class was "Religion and War," where he informed his students of the evils of religion.

On September 25, 2004, he began his first lecture of the fall term.

"Among the causes of war, religion ranks as one of the greatest. Especially is this true of the monotheists, or 'One God religions'; Islam, Christianity and Judaism, but the Hindus have done their share too. In the world today there are over a billion Christians, over a billion Muslims, and some eight hundred million Hindus, so all together, these warriors constitute over half of the world. There are only about fifteen million Jews, but they too have done their share of war, from ancient times until the current Middle East conflict."

To support his thesis on religion and war, he quoted Pope Urban ll, who, in 1095 , had laid the groundwork for conflict between Christians and Muslims when he characterized the Muslims as "wicked, accursed, and alienated from God." Professor Abrams also liked to quote Adolph Hitler, from a 1933 proclamation to the German Nation: "The National Government¼ will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality¼ " And from George W. Bush: "God will bless America in its struggle against evil."

Anticipating a question he usually received, Professor Abrahms told his class. "One reason religion leads to war is that people need affirmation that what they believe is true. If you storm the world converting others by force, you don't have to deal with the doubts caused by opposing views. This is important to the religious because no one can prove God even exists, much less one's own version of God. The Jews are too conceited to go about trying to convert others--they don't believe that gentiles can just decide to become one of God's chosen people, so they make conversion difficult." He figured he could get away with that because he was Jewish.

When the lecture was over, Marilyn, with the long wavy brown hair, raised her hand.

"Doesn't religion do anything good?"

"Sure, for believers religion can be a great comfort, and many churches do good social work, but that's not what this course is about. It's about the relationship of religion to war."

Next was Ed, a skinny kid with a shaved head who did not look like a scholar, but at that age, hardly anyone did. "Why do so many people support institutions that do so much evil?"

"It is a testament to their skill that religious leaders are able to frame their actions as the will of God."

When he got home that night the professor sat down with his wife Elizabeth and his first martini. Most nights there were only two, but when the pressures of life seemed great, there were three. Elizabeth had one per evening. She made the drinks because she enjoyed doing things for Tom, and she associated them with their quiet talks when he returned from his day on the campus. She had majored in art at the University of Oregon, and now she occasionally painted, usually floral scenes, and one portrait of Tom which embarrassed her, but Tom said he liked it so she kept it in the den. Her career was taking care of Tom and their home, and her volunteer work at the local homeless shelter. For her, the homeless were the most deserving of her time and energy. Her reward was visiting the shelter's converted apartment building and talking with grateful residents, especially mothers with children. She was a good listener, and occasionally found a way to offer advice. As an advocate for the poor, Tom often told her how proud he was of her work.

"Well, how did it go in class?"

"Fine. I think this might be a good class--they asked questions the first day."

"What kind of questions?"

"Oh, the usual, about whether organized religion is really that bad. I try to make the course description as clear as possible. I think they show up knowing what the course is about, but then they don't want to hear it."

Elizabeth's parents were Catholic, and so was she when she lived with them, but she no longer felt the church to be part of her life. She thought she might have drifted anyway, but she knew Tom's views on religion had hastened her fall from the church. Still she was not entirely comfortable with Tom's views on religion. She occasionally thought about the character ,Philip, in Maugham's "Of Human Bondage." Philip hoped that the God in whom he did not believe would not punish him for not believing. Elizabeth, like Philip, was not quite ready to shut all doors to salvation, forever. When Tom had begun teaching his course on religion and war, Elizabeth had told him about these thoughts of hers. His reply was "Then you should keep the door to your faith open. I say, God exists for those who believe, but that doesn't include me." Usually Elizabeth deferred to Tom on intellectual questions, but she knew this was not a subject on which either of them were experts.

Tom Abrahms had been raised in a Jewish home, and at age 16 he rebelled from the notion that he was of God's chosen people. As he had told his father, "I hate that idea, and what would my Christian friends think if I told them? Besides, how do you even know there's a God? I don't see any reason to believe there is." His father had said "The Bible speaks of God and it has been read by Jews and Christians for hundreds of years--In fact, it is read more than any other book in the world. Do you think all of these people are being fooled, and you have the answer?" Tom could not answer his father, and he felt his father had not answered him either.

Arriving at the University of Oregon with his ideas, he had found himself attracted to the sociology major. He thought it would give him an objective look at humanity. By his senior year he had become more sceptical , but he had no regrets about sociology. In fact, he had decided to go for a Ph.D. so he could teach it. When he graduated, he accepted the offer to teach at Reed and he remained there.

In recent years Reed had often been called upon to defend Tom's right to espouse his radical views, which they did, not only out of respect for academic freedom. The chairman of Sociology, Frank Lessor was not only a colleague, but also a friend of Tom's. In private he would say, "Tom, can't you tone down that class--maybe talk a little about another point of view?" But when complaints came in from students or parents, Frank would remind Dean Saunders," Tom publishes much more than most faculty members, and students consider him one the best lecturers. They also appreciate his time with them in coffee houses and the informal seminars. He's worth the trouble he causes, and we know he could easily get a job at another school, probably for more money than we can pay him."

On the evening following the first class, the Abrahms finished their drinks and had a leisurely dinner. It was Elizabeth's special lasagna which Tom loved. It took a long time to make, and usually signified something special in their lives. "This is great, Tom said, what's the occasion?"

"Oh, nothing special, I just felt like making it."

Tom noticed Elizabeth seemed uneasy, but after dinner and the dishes which they always did together, they watched the news, as usual, and got into bed to read. As soon as they were settled, Tom found out why Elizabeth had seemed uneasy.

"I'm not sure but I think I felt a small lump in my breast."

Tom felt a shock of fear which he tried to conceal, but he did not offer to see if he could feel it. He wanted it to be a thought and not a thing. Calmly as possible he said "We'll see Dr. Goldman right away. I understand these things are not dangerous if they're caught early."

They neither one slept much that night. For the first time in their lives, they were afraid to talk to each other.

Elizabeth made the appointment the next morning, choosing Thursday morning, when Tom could come with her. As Tom drove them to the doctor's office, he asked "Is it this Saturday the Millers are coming for dinner?"

"No, it's next Saturday."

After a few more strained attempts at small talk, they gave up and drove in silence, trying to appear as if everything were normal.

When they got to Dr. Goldman's office, he gave them his usual warm greeting, and asked "What brings you here today?" Elizabeth repeated what she had told Tom, "I think I felt a lump in my breast, but I'm not sure."

In the same calm manner, Dr. Goldman asked his nurse to take Elizabeth to his examining room. When she was ready, in her cotton gown, he did a preliminary exam, and sent Elizabeth to X- ray. Left in the waiting room, Tom was unable to control his thoughts. He pictured Elizabeth lying pale, on her death bed. He pictured himself, coming home alone, making his own martinis, sitting and crying with no one to talk to. He tried to read a magazine, and flung it down. All he could do was sit, rigidly upright, waiting; wanting and not wanting answers.

After twenty minutes, the doctor took the couple into his office.

"There is a growth, small but definitely there. I want a thorough exam--biopsy, mammogram, MRI, the works, before I offer advice."

That night was a three martini night for Tom. He hoped Elizabeth was not as terrified as he was. "What kind of treatment do you suppose the doctors will give you?"

"I don't know, maybe some drugs, chemo or something." That night in bed they held each other, not wanting more and not wanting to be separate.


One week later the test results were in Dr. Goldman's hands. Tom and Elizabeth sat across from him at his desk, in frozen silence.

The doctor was not smiling this time. " I'm sorry to tell you, it's malignant."

By now there was no pretense of calm. "What will I do? Is it very dangerous? Can it be cured?" Elizabeth's questions came in staccato. She put her hands to her head and looked down in agony, searching for something that would take away what she had just heard. Tom looked up, with tears forming in his eyes, and no voice to say anything.

"Any growth is potentially dangerous, but this one is small. Fortunately you check yourself regularly. We're going to recommend a lumpectomy, which will not be large, followed immediately by chemotherapy."

Tom turned to face his wife, and he thought that he had never seen her look so white. He imagined he looked the same.

"Will I lose my hair? Will I get well?"

"You probably will not need enough chemotherapy to cause baldness, and yes, I am hopeful we can stop it now. Generally speaking, your prognosis is good."

So calm and rational thought Tom, but of course it's not his wife. He realized that his anger was spilling over onto the messenger and he vowed to control it because he believed in the healing benefits of a positive attitude.

When they got home Tom said "Doctors usually give you the worst case, then they look better when you get well. If that's the worst case, it doesn't sound very bad."

"Oh God, I hope¼ " Elizabeth was feeling grateful she had not totally dismissed God, because, she thought, I need Him now.

Tom told her, "I have always envied the comfort that comes to those with faith when they face a crisis.

The Abrams did not have children--they were everything to each other. They had worked through most of their problems and they were happy with their marriage of twenty years. Now they each kept their dark thoughts to themselves as they sat haunted by their world of "what ifs?"

The surgery seemed as minor as the doctor had said it would be. Early in the morning Dr. Goldman came into Elizabeth's room. "The surgeon said it was not much bigger than a pea, You will be home in two days. How do you feel? "

" Physically, sore, mentally, scared."

"That's natural," Dr. Goldman said, now back to his smiling self.

The next Monday she began her treatments.

At the end of six weeks Elizabeth told Tom," I'm not losing any hair, and I don't feel nausea, but I am in constant fear. I've been praying for the first time in my adult life. I don't know anywhere else to turn."

"Good idea. It can't hurt, and who knows, it might help."

" I'm very grateful to hear you say that. And what about you. Where do you turn?"

"Medical science, your healthy nature and good thoughts are all that I know."

What Tom did not tell her was that he had been saying to himself, Oh God, don't let them take my Elizabeth." This was a prayer, and he was not yet ready to talk about the major change in him which praying would suggest.

During this time Tom was having a hard time caring about his lectures, his students. or his research. When Frank asked him what was going on in his life, he let it all out, and to his surprise, burst into tears. "Elizabeth is being treated for breast cancer. It was small, and her chances are good, but it will haunt us forever. God, do you know what she means to me?" Frank hugged Tom, and told him "I do have some idea. If there is anything I can do for you here, or anywhere, just let me know." That evening, Tom told Elizabeth what had happened, and how moved he had been. "I always saw him as a friend, but his empathy was incredible. I guess there has to be some good from this."

Tom decided not to teach "Religion and War" next semester. It was too painful to be thinking about God, a subject that had taken on new meaning in his life, though he was not exactly sure what meaning. He would, instead, teach his course, Consumerism and the Mass Media, which would carry his thoughts away from his wife and their problem.


At the end of six months Dr. Goldman told them "We have good news--you have NED, which means "no evidence of disease." The Abrahms hugged each other and they hugged their doctor.

Nothing could have given the Abrams greater joy than that word, "NED." They went out for an expensive dinner and laughed for the first time in six months.

"Remember our first date, when I picked you up in the library?"

"I sure do. You were trying so hard to impress me as a big man on campus. I was not sure if I would like you, but I did imagine what it would be like to sleep with you."

"You never told me that before. I didn't know you were so naughty. Well, what did you decide?"

"I thought it would be great, and it was. And it is"

The doctor had also told them "The dosage will be reduced, and then ended, but you will have to be tested for the rest of your life." Even this sounded good. "The rest of your life" sounded like a long time.

When they got home from their dinner, Tom said," I have been sort of praying too, in a way. You know what they say about no atheists in fox holes."

Elizabeth was surprised. I guess it wasn't easy to say, or to do after all these years of being against religion."

"That's true, its a strange thought to me at this point in my life, and I don't know what will come of it, but I told you because I don't want us to have secrets from each other. I've always known I love you, but the thought of your life being threatened made me realize how much I love you. I can't imagine life without you."

"That's so dramatic. If this treatment hadn't worked there was still the option of more radical surgery. Could you imagine life with me with one breast?"

"Easily. That would have been a bigger issue for you than for me, but let's quit this morbid talk--we don't have to face these things."

Even as Tom said this they both understood that it was not necessarily true. She might stay well but she would always be at risk, and that was something they would have to live with.

Tom thought their reprieve from tragedy might restore his interest in his course on religion. But in fact, near the end of fall semester, he told Frank "I think I've got about as much as I can from that course--I would like to drop it for now ."

Frank did not know the process that led Tom to this conclusion, but he said. "Well, its a good course but I won't miss the irate parents in the Dean's office."

That night Tom told Elizabeth, "I haven't exactly become a believer, but my faith in no God has been shaken a bit. After all, I always said there was no proof of God, so I guess there's no proof of the opposite either."

Glowing with happiness, Elizabeth smiled at Tom over the rim of her glass. "If I ever have to face this thing again, you will be even greater comfort to me than you have been. Now let's take more vacations and appreciate our life together every day."

Tom smiled "Yes. Yes, we will, Elizabeth dear. Let's do something fun every weekend, and let's plan a summer vacation. Maybe its time to go to Europe again--where would you like to go--back to Italy or someplace new, like Greece?"

What grabbed her attention was the word "dear." She had never heard Tom sound so romantic, but then they had never faced a crisis either. She thanked her rediscovered God, and led Tom to their bedroom.