Thursday, August 10, 2006

You can't pace a steak

The death of religion

Late in the course of trying to resuscitate someone, a doctor is liable to try inserting a temporary pacemaker. There are techniques to quickly get a wire into the heart to drive a heart rhythm directly, when medications and electricity through paddles have failed to get a decent rhythm on the EKG. It's a last ditch thing to do. It also doesn't necessarily work. One can get an electrical signal into just about anything, but it doesn't mean the heart will contract effectively. It may be too metabolically disordered or otherwise on the way to death to contract any more, even when there is a good rhythm electrically. There is a saying that summarizes this, "You can't pace a steak."

This may just sound like crude humor to some, but it's more than that. People in health care need to learn that it's OK to quit. They also need to know when to quit. I'm not sure which is more important. They both are important. In the case of a heart that won't even be driven by a pacemaker, it doesn't matter so much. The most perfectionist doctor might only find things to keep trying in such a situation for another 30 minutes. Even the temporary pacemaker isn't used that much. Situations are often too hopeless to go that far.

Still there are plenty of situations where it does matter if a doctor knows to quit, when it's time to quit, before someone's death has been dragged out by hopeless efforts to change reality, causing suffering to both the patient and loved ones, as well as wasting resources. The right time to quit is never going to be something that can be defined precisely. People just have to have some sense that there is such a time, that it's not only OK to quit, but best to quit, though it's probably better to err on the side of doing too much, despite that "first do no harm" expresses the opposite. "First do no harm" dates to a time when there wasn't that much good a doctor could do.

This applies to everything one might do, in any part of life, not just medicine. In any part of life it's good to think about whether what you're about to do might hurt someone, even you. There is this other issue, though. When do we quit? Now some might learn by having someone kindly and softly say, "It's time to quit," maybe with a long explanation about why, all of which has current data and makes sense. It can be hard to put all that together in one moment. Sometimes you need something blunt to soften up those of us with thick skulls through the surprise and brevity of a saying like, "You can't pace a steak," meaning you can pace current through a piece of dead meat, but it won't contract, so why not give up at that point?

It worked for me. I'm capable of much longer discussions about when it's time to stop treating some specific disease, but the principle beyond the specific details is something I have down cold. You can't pace a steak. You can't beat a dead horse. You can, but you'll just have to stop and be unhappy about it. I've never wanted to do the latter, but when it comes to hopeless causes, I have found myself metaphorically pacing a metaphorical steak, hoping that it would become a metaphorical heart again. Horses aren't the same metaphor for me. I don't know horses. I know medicine, and I know steaks. One can argue with both sayings that you can keep doing something hopeless, that people do, but then such an argument lets people see the truth even more strongly, something that is so rare in life.

So it's not crude. It's an effective way of speaking, attention getting, penetrating and true at the same time.

Now the reason I bring it up is that I think we may be at a point where we can see religion as a steak, useful in at least one way, but not in every way religion could be useful, not any more, not fully alive now. It's debatable. I believe it's correct to say all religions are false, whatever truth might be in them, rather than all religions are imperfectly true. It's debatable, but I know my side in that debate. All religions are false. None are worth that much as an isolated package of beliefs and ways to live. There is something to be gained from integrating religions between each other and with other experiences of life, but I don't think it's that much. It's debatable. I don't feel like stopping to argue my side of that. I'd rather talk about what I'm ready to say instead.

What I'm ready to say is that religion is dead. It's still warm. It even breathes. It even walks, but it's a dead man walking. The moment of death just hasn't come yet. I’m not watching a clock in order to write out a death certificate. That’s not for me on this death. I just see what’s coming. What is my greatest evidence for this? It's the behavior of religious people.

I've been watching this for a long time. I think I can tell roughly how religious the clients are at the charity where I volunteer now, as I could with my patients. Religious people may be more polite. They may be calmer. But does religion make any difference beyond that? I used to tell the story of a Catholic woman whom I diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in her forties, at a stage where her only symptom was legs too stiff to sit cross-legged. She worsened and died over the usual course of a few years, handling that with such peace that it might have been the greatest display of faith I've ever seen. That's one.

Now where is everyone else with faith like that? They might be waiting for some challenge to demonstrate their faith, but I feel more certain about faith if it has people living to end poverty and living to end conflict. Where are they? When I look for people on the internet fighting poverty and conflict, I'm not sure they know anything about God. I'm suspicious their efforts are useless, driven only by rationalism as they are.

Maybe I'm wrong about that, but maybe not. Maybe God is headed away from religion, realizing as well as anyone that it's not so much religious people who want to end suffering from poverty and conflict. Maybe not only do people who want that need God more, but God is willing to give Himself to them, even anonymously. Does God care more about compassion than religion?

If He does, He may have as little use for religion as I do. I'm with Him, wherever He’s going. Religion is currently walking and talking, but without the real God, it is surely dead. God will do what He will do. Whatever He does is fine with me, even reviving religion if He wants, any of them, even Scientology if He wants. But the other day, I heard God say, "You can't pace a steak," and I know exactly what that means.

God is very much alive and will remain so. Religion is not, even atheism. When religion can’t do more than it does to end poverty and end conflict, not to mention so many dead-end beliefs, I think religion is dead. It still walks and talks, but its heart doesn’t work, and even God can’t make it live without a heart. Now someone might point out that religion never has had much more of a heart than it has now. That’s true. Religion has been about God, but has it ever been that much from God? God says no. That’s good enough for me.

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