Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda… Did!

I suppose that some translation is again in order: “woulda, coulda, shoulda” is “American speak” for “I wish I would have… I could have… I should have…” In particular, the “woulda-coulda-shoulda moment” that I have in mind was one of the many times when I later reprimanded myself: “Why didn’t I say…?!”

In my own defense, I’ll quickly point out that, normally when I find another proselytizer at my door, I just abruptly say “No thanks” and shut the door. This time, however, I was too startled to respond as usual: when I opened the door I found (standing in front of her mother) a pretty little girl about six years old in a pink dress. In her crystalline voice she said (as nearly as I can remember): “We were in the neighborhood and wondered if you wanted to ask any questions of God.”

Disarmed by her innocence, I blurted out “Oh, you poor little girl”, added “No thank you”, and began shutting the door. Through the closing crack in the doorway, the mother shouted out: “What do you mean ‘poor’?” Would that, before I shut the door, my mind had been open enough to say something similar to: “To have such a mother as you!”

Think of it. That mother could have been teaching her child critical-thinking skills, by showing her how to apply the scientific method in her daily life (“guess, test, and reassess”), in activities from finding a lost toy to determining how to get the neighbor’s dog to stop barking at her and from how to fix a broken toy to how to make friends. She could have been teaching her child some basic physics (how all matter is composed of atoms, the composition of atoms and some examples of nuclear reactions, how carbon atoms are formed in the Sun and how heavier atoms are formed in dying stars – which now reside in her), some basic chemistry (how atoms interact with each other in solids, liquids, and gases, how atoms form molecules, how molecules interact in chemical reactions from cleaning to cooking, how our bodies use chemical reactions – so she can live and play and think), some basic biology (how some molecules can serve as catalysts, the nature of autocatalytic reactions, replicating molecules, DNA – which contains the information to make her what she is), and so on.

Thereby, that mother could have been teaching her child that she was a part – a thinking part – of the entire universe, leading her to understand the Swedish author Rolf Edberg's beautiful summary:
On a little speck in the universe, there is a species in which billions of years of evolution have led up to a mind through which the cosmos can experience itself, and nature can investigate her own nature.
Instead, that stupid woman was teaching her child the science of savages: that some giant Jabberwock in the sky made the world, was watching her every move, and would punish her fictitious “immortal soul” for “eternity” unless she obeyed her mother and the mother’s damnable, stupid clerics.

But in contrast to the woulda-coulda-shoulda moment with that stupid mother at the door, one of the few cases when I did look back and tell myself “Good job!” recently occurred while I was in the dentist’s chair having my teeth cleaned with some ultrasonic blaster – guaranteed not to hurt – except, of course, when the blast gets near two of my sensitive teeth, in which case it rockets me out of the chair.

This particular “dental hygienist” (as they like to call themselves) seems to be a nice-enough Mormon lady (though maybe with slight sadistic tendency, for she seems to take pleasure in going over my sensitive teeth, still another time). She also seems to take pleasure in babbling away (e.g., about her son, studying to be a chemical engineer). But every few minutes she does have the courtesy to take that blasted thing out of my mouth, to permit me to respond to her latest half-dozen-or-so questions (which thereby, apparently seem to be mostly rhetorical): Isn’t it a nice day? What did you think of that storm? Do YOU understand why our taxes are so high?

Anyway, in one of those rare instances that she apparently thought it polite to remove the apparatus from my mouth after asking only a single question, she asked (I don’t remember why, but it must have fit in with the monologue she had been delivering): “Are you a Catholic?”

In a daze, having returned only an instant earlier from a painful orbit from that launching pad called a dentist chair, with my sensitive tooth still smarting, with my mind still reeling from the noise of the blaster, and just before I dutifully re-opened my mouth for another of her assaults on my stamina, I responded: “No… I’m free.”

“Oh,” she responded, seemingly startled, but she quickly regained her composure and went back into my mouth with her ultrasonic blaster. But for the rest of the session she was uncharacteristically silent, with no more questions, rhetorical or otherwise.

Well, okay, maybe it doesn’t seem like much to you, but when driving home, I thought to myself: “Yah, good job! For a change, I said what I meant and meant what I said.”

Now, whereas I’m a registered Bright, perhaps fellow Brights are disappointed. Probably they would prefer if I had said: “No, I’m a Bright.” But come on, Brights, be honest: not only would that have been ineffective, it wouldn’t have seemed right.

It wouldn’t have worked, because after saying I was a Bright, I’d need to explain that a Bright is someone with a naturalistic worldview – and then, no doubt I’d need to explain to that particular dental hygienist what “naturalistic worldview” meant, while she continued to wave her ultrasonic blaster around, trying to get back to her torture routine.

And it wouldn’t have seemed right to say I was a Bright, because although it’s great if someone identifies you as a Bright, it doesn’t sound good if you identify yourself as such: it can leave the impression that you consider yourself bright, in contrast to all the dimwit theists.

So, you see, I liked my response: “I’m free.” She knew (she knows) what ‘freedom’ means – and I suspect that my response made her think.

Think about what? Well, I don’t know about her, but I know what it made me think about. After I returned home (my safe house – no ultrasonic blasters!), I checked again to see how Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899) said it.

And I’ll end this communication with his – because I don’t want any more of my dribble polluting his magnificent statement: when “Ingersoll the Magnificent” speaks, the rest of us mere mortals should sit quietly in awe and maybe even reverence that once, such a one walked amongst us.
When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths – there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world – not even in infinite space.

I was free: free to think, to express my thoughts – free to live to my own ideal – free to live for myself and those I loved – free to use all my faculties, all my senses – free to spread imagination’s wings – free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope – free to judge and determine for myself – free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past – free from popes and priests – free from all the “called” and “set apart” – free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies – free from the fear of eternal pain – free from the winged monsters of night – free from devils, ghosts, and gods.

For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of my thought – no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings – no chains for my limbs – no lashes for my back – no fires for my flesh – no master’s frown or threat – no following another’s steps – no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words.

I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds. And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain, for the freedom of labor and thought – to those who fell on the fierce fields of war – to those who died in dungeons bound with chains – to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs – to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn – to those by fire consumed – to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.


  1. Here's one fellow Bright who would feel the same pleasure in having responded with "No, I'm free."

    Great posting, and great Ingersoll quote. It's apparently well known, but I'd never seen it before. I'm corresponding with a close Christian friend who believes that freedom can only be found "in God." I'm going to refer her to Ingersoll's vow.

  2. Joel: You might want to refer her, also, to the ideas of the Russian author Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), for example:

    They [religious idealists] say in a single breath: “God and the liberty of man,” “God and the dignity, justice, equality, fraternity, prosperity of men”—regardless of the fatal logic by virtue of which, if God exists, all these things are condemned to nonexistence. For, if God is, he is necessarily the eternal, supreme, absolute master, and, if such a master exists, man is a slave. Now, if he is a slave, neither justice, nor equality, nor fraternity, nor prosperity are possible for him. In vain, flying in the face of good sense and all the teachings of history, do they represent their God as animated by the tenderest love of human liberty. A master, whoever he may be and however liberal he may desire to show himself, remains nonetheless always a master... A jealous lover of human liberty, deeming it the absolute condition of all that we admire and respect in humanity, I reverse the phrase of Voltaire and say, "If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him."