One of the headlines last week (Actually, September 24th, 2015) concerned over 700 people crushed to death in a stampede in Mecca while making the hajj, or pilgrimage to the holiest places of Islam, that is required of devout Muslims who can afford to make it at least once in their lives.
The first reaction of many heartless jackasses like me was "Doesn't this happen every hajj?" It seems to me so, so much that the word "stampede" seems to follow the word "hajj" naturally in English, like the words "Philippine ferry" are almost always followed by "capsizes."
This is the biggest hajj disaster since 1990, when almost twice as many people were stomped to death trying to get right with Allah. The Grand Mufti, which sounds like something cozy you wear on cold nights but who is actually the religious leader of Saudi Arabia, says the stampede was caused by events beyond human control.
This is not quite correct, as are many things said by revered religious figureheads, from the mufti to the Pope to anyone in the Graham family. Those 700 plus people could have saved their own lives by simply becoming atheists or even atheists' less angry and litigious cousins, agnostics. They could have said to themselves "Instead of chancing a painful death under a brutal desert sun trying to stone the devil, I can save my money for a once-in-a-lifetime trip somewhere else. Hawaii looks nice."
Of course not getting run over by hundreds of your fellow religious sympathizers is not the only convenience of not cultivating a relationship with some God. You also never have to fast, or say "No, thanks," to a pulled pork sandwich. Fasting was strongly encouraged in my Catholic youth. It was required of the adults. Starving yourself was considered good religious form. Back in the day, if you didn't fast, it was widely believed that God would send a famine your way to starve you out for real. That wasn't likely to happen to American Catholics in the last century, but they fasted anyway, and gave up stuff for Lent, mostly drinking, and subjected their children (me) to ordeals like Forty Hours, the only period of the year when the consecrated hosts (Body of Christ, for the uninitiated) were removed from Catholic churches.
Naturally, when Jesus wasn't present in the church, a couple of altar boys had to be. The logic of this remains eminently escapable. Who decided that when the Redeemer of the world couldn't be present, He could be replaced by a couple of low-attention span youths trembling on the cusp of puberty and thinking constantly of the rich opportunities for sin that would soon come their way?
Probably some long-dead Pope, but there was no getting around it. We took turns kneeling for one solid hour at a time in front of the altar. You couldn't get up, stretch your legs or wander outside for fear some random priest or nun would catch you doing it and beat you.
Now, as a non-believer, I would have to move to some country where they beat you for being that if I wanted to get lashed in the name of the Lord. I'm not doing that, because we atheists and agnostics are free to follow the natural inclination of the individual, which is to avoid suffering instead of embracing it. We eat what we want, whenever we want it and do whatever we please on those holidays or holy days others feel obliged to observe by sitting at some service being bored to tears to honor their deity. We also feel certain that if we're wrong and there is a Tunnel of Light at the end of life's journey, we'll scoot through it just as nicely as all of you who think you are buying your tickets for it in advance.
In short, we feel blessed.