I GREW UP in an apartment on the 12th floor of a World War II era red-brick apartment building in lower Manhattan, with my parents and a goldfinch. In an identical red-brick building, across from the playground where I got m), head stuck between iron bars and had to be rescued by the rite department, lived Berenice, an elderly lady who had been my grandmother's best friend during their days at Cornell. Berenice was a pulp fiction writer who had carried on a dalliance with a celebrated author, but never married. She wrote and lectured on the "great experiment" of Soviet communism, and kept a daily journal which by her death at age 97 had grown to 85 volumes.
Her conversation was a pastiche of recitations from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and other works a photographic memory had engraved upon her mind. I can still hear the plaintive "hwy, hwence and hwither" with which she breathed out the melancholy lines of Edward Fitzgerald's translation from the Persian: "Into this Universe, and Why not knowing, / Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing; / And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, / I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing."
Since Berenice had no surviving kin, it fell to my mother to look after her, and I was a frequent visitor. From the time I first evinced interest in religion, visits to Berenice meant a barrage of questions served up with cookies and juice. Berenice was haunted by a childhood memory of having cursed God on a whim, and she never quite forgave him for it. "I'm a determinist," Berenice would proclaim, with a determination that belied her doctrine. Yet she was obsessed with finding evidence for God, freedom and immortality. In her 90s she went deaf, but kept asking the same questions long past the day when she could hear my response: "'What's that you say? Ontological argument? First cause? Design? Mysticism? Morality? Parapsychology? Common consent? I'm sorry, but you'll have to do better. I need proof!"
Last month Berenice came to mind when I read the newspaper accounts of British philosopher Antony Flew's defection from the atheist fold. His politics couldn't be more different from Berenice's (her FBI file is a family heirloom), but he has devoted his distinguished philosophical career to holding God accountable to Berenicelike standards of evidence. In The Presumption of Atheism, Flew maintained that the burden of proof rests with religious believers. In his famous essay on "Theology and Falsification," Flew argued that if the assertion that God exists cannot be falsified by any state of affairs here below, religious belief dies "the death by a thousand qualifications." Coincidentally, on the day the Flew story broke my philosophy of religion class was discussing the closing lines of "Theology and Falsification":
Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. …