God and Girls in Thailand

In honor of Valentine’s Day, John Allen Paulos has sent us the following expanded excerpt from his new book Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up:

PaulosI found myself at loose ends in a beach town in Thailand on Christmas morning, 2006. Away from my family in Philadelphia, I was visiting a friend who was planning an early retirement in Southeast Asia. While wandering near the edge of town, I spotted a spirit house, a sort of miniature temple mounted on a pedestal like a bird house. Although irreligious, I noted the fruit offerings strewn around it and was attracted to its makeshift beauty.

Pausing at the shrine, I saw a small Internet café just beyond it, empty except for three nubile young women who were giggling and periodically running up to one or another of the many computers in the room. The desire for my morning Diet Coke, the need to check my email, and the palpable mirth bubbling out of the women drew me into the place.

Despite the goings-on, I first took care of my caffeine and correspondence demands. Soon, however, I noticed there were Webcams on all the computers. It was obvious that the young women were multi-tasking, sending instant messages and occasional pictures in quick succession to nine farangs (Thai for Western foreigners) scattered around the world.

Feeling unmoored and a bit voyeuristic, I eavesdropped and soon gleaned that the girls had met the men on their earlier trips to Thailand. (Perhaps sexist-sounding, “girls” nevertheless seems the more apt term for them.) I noted with amusement that when new pictures of their admirers appeared on the various monitors, the girls would chortle, and the English “expert” among them would write something endearing. The three girls would then quickly move on to the samey (Thai for boyfriend or husband) of another of the girls. Each girl seemed to have three.

Seeing my obvious interest, the girls started to ask me what certain words in the e-mails meant. “Sawatee (hello), Mr. Diet Coke, what ‘pine for you’ mean?” I explained that “pine for you” meant “miss you very much,” that “obsessed with you” meant “think about you all the time,” and so on. The men seemed strangely oblivious to the girls’ limited English vocabulary. They also seemed lovesick, lonely, and mooning over their “true loves” at Christmas.

After I proved myself as a translator, the girls asked me what else they could say. I suggested that they write how lonely the beach was without their boyfriends and helped them a bit with their spelling. My lines elicited good responses from their sameys, causing them to laugh uproariously. They pumped me for more good lines, which I happily provided. The girl who had distractedly taken my money for the Diet Coke now offered me another one gratis as well as various coconut candies, which I accepted, and some fried insects, which I declined.

Christopher Moore, A Bangkok-based novelist whose compelling mysteries are set in Thailand, once jokingly remarked to me that Thai has no common word or phrase to describe integrity of a rigid, abstract type, but many frequently used terms for “fun.” And great fun it was helping the girls dupe farangs on three continents out of their money via the Western Union office in town. (Perhaps “dupe” is the wrong word since I think the bargain was a fair one and inexpensive at that: a Yuletide fantasy for a few dollars.)

After a while, however, the pain underlying the men’s instant messages began to weigh on me. The girls had taken to reading me all the messages, and it was clear that most of the men were somewhat forlorn. They seemed to be unmarried, isolated, and searching for a connection, for some sort of emotional salvation. My supercilious attitude toward them and the idealized fantasies they had constructed was morphing into empathy. In very different circumstances fortunately, I nevertheless could acknowledge some kinship with them. After all, I had myself entered the café to make some email re-connections of my own. The girls too, I began to see, felt a bit more than their charmingly mercenary behavior might suggest.

Since it took place on Christmas day, this vignette comes to mind when I meet people who seem to have a fierce yearning to believe, whether in a person or a divinity. Even if aware of the illogic and gaping holes in the arguments for God, they may continue to believe as willfully and needfully as these farangs believed in their Thai girlfriends, their goddesses.

So what of my role which, despite my rationale above, was problematic? I was doing the opposite of what I often do in my professional life, which is to espouse critical thinking, numeracy, skepticism. Here on the Gulf of Siam I was facilitating a chimera, albeit an emotional one with which I have considerably more sympathy than its religious analogue.

Why? I’m not sure. It may simply be that, though I don’t believe in God, I do believe in love, even deluded love. Or maybe it was a lark. Or perhaps I saw the incident as a telling sidelight on the effects of globalization, on mixing spirit houses with Diet Cokes. All I’m sure of is that I don’t want to scoff too much at yearning and need, whether it be for love or for a divinity. I just don’t possess the latter.

John Allen Paulos is a mathematics professor at Temple University and the author of, among other books, Innumeracy and the just released Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up.