If there's one thing religion does very well, it's dealing with death and the afterlife. And I'm not talking about death itself, or rather life after death as a concept, but of the way religion helps people deal with the loss of their loved ones. The idea of life after death appeals to the child in us, the part that wants to believe we'll live on forever with the ones we love, to that naïve little boy or girl who instead of acknowledging that their little puppy is dead, they just imagine that he was sent to a farm where he'll be running free and playing with other dogs for the rest of time.
I'm writing this because a great tragedy occurred today. The son of one of Israel's greatest heroes – the late Col. Ilan Ramon who died in the Colombia crash in 2003, died today when his F-16 plane crashed in southern Israel during a training exercise.
Lt. Assaf Ramon (Captain as of today), was only 16 years old when his father died in that tragic crash, and vowed back then to return and represent Israel in space and continue his father's legacy. He subsequently joined the Israeli Air Force when he turned 18, and passed the Israeli Air Force Flight School with great honors, earning the "Sword of Honor" as the top cadet of his graduating class.
Today, only three months after his graduation, his path back to the stars was cut brutally and abruptly as all communications with his F16 fighter jet were lost during a high-altitude training mission, not to be seen or heard from again until reports started to pour in of a major crash with massive debris falling in Mount Hebron.
The tragedy is of course heart breaking, and as atheists, it's hard for us not fall back into those comfortable non-agnostic clichés. We want to say that he and his father are now united in the stars, or that he and his father will forever remain in the black of space, watching over us, but… sadly, as atheist, we know that isn't true.
It's no truer than believing that there was some sort of connection between the two deaths, those two tragic crashes. Some will say that it's a sign from above, a warning, or perhaps even a punishment for trying to reach too high. Like Icarus or Babylon. But those claims are as ridiculous as they are offensive.
If anything, Icarus represented the greatness of human kind, the wonder and spirit of human freedom and exploration. It also represented the foreknown repercussion of that need to explore, to go up – up and beyond. Icarus knew that his journey may cost him his life, and still he went upwards, wanting to explore, desiring to expand his horizons.
Babylon however represented the aspirations of human kind. The bible makes the Babylonians appear corrupted and misguided, pompous in their egos – and perhaps they were, but nevertheless - the people of that time made some remarkable achievements which are not understood to us until this very day, all in the name of trying to reach the stars, trying to go upwards.
So sure, as an atheist, who am I to make biblical or mythological analogies? But I believe that as atheists it's our job to look at those stories and examine them from a present-day point of view. They had Icarus, we have disasters involving astronauts. They had Babylon, and we have the World Trade Center. I'm not saying that any of that is the work of Gods or mysticism, only that these stories existed back then for the same reason they remain in our collective memories still today, to give reason to the daily tragedies that engulf us, that make it easier for us to turn to religion to help us cope.
And today's tragedy is especially reminiscent of that. We don't know yet what caused the crash in Assaf Ramon's F-16, and to this day there is controversy on whether or not the Colombia crash was inevitable.
But one thing is certain – those tragedies occurred as part of an attempt to go forward as a species, to go upwards and onwards, out of our little corner that is this tiny and puny world. Assaf Ramon may not have reached his father's title, rank, or altitude, but he was following him on the same pursuit for human knowledge, in that same aspiration to soar and rise above all else, and for that – he is as much a hero as his father was. And as an Ex Israeli Air Force soldier, as a soldier of the army of Science, and as a member of the human race, I salute them both. May their sacrifice not have been in vain, and may the Ramon family know no further agony.