Don't give up the ghost

NOT LONG AGO I was having lunch with Penn Jillette, during which the atheist magician was explaining how I was wrong to have the wishes I've had. "One thing you'll hear half-assed atheists say is, 'I wish I believed in God. I wish there was an afterlife,'" he said. I told him that I am an atheist and confessed that I've said those things. "That's always been repulsive to me," Jillette replied. "It takes all the truth and joy and humanity and love out of our lives. If there's an afterlife, then the life we have here is not precious. I don't wish that's the way the world worked."

I understood what he meant, and he made a convincing argument, especially because he is a loud and imposing man. I don't want to take one moment of this life, my only life, for granted. And yet I can't help wishing that I believed in God. My wife's grandmother, Barbara, is a faithful person, and when she talks about death, she talks about reuniting with her lost husband, Jack. She has accepted the terms of her departure because she believes with all her heart that she will see him again. The hard part about not believing in God is how many other things I can't believe in. I have to accept that tragedy is just tragedy and not part of a larger plan. I can't pretend the people I've loved who are gone are anything but a small pile of bones in the ground. I can't believe in ghosts.

My envy peaks when I'm watching sports. Not when an athlete thanks God for a touchdown, which seems like something that should be offensive even to the truest believers, especially the ones on the losing team. But it's amazing how often athletes talk about their having been guided by someone or something outside of themselves -- which, despite Penn Jillette's protestations, I still find an alluring idea. I was nearly struck down by desire watching the Ryder Cup, for instance, when members of the European team talked about how Seve Ballesteros, who died in 2011, had been walking beside them. Just the idea of that gave me those shivers that I'm sure have a biological explanation but I wish had something to do with spirits.

And I could see on that Sunday afternoon, I can still see now, how they might have really believed that Ballesteros was there. So many things had to happen for the Europeans to win that it's hard to fathom how all those things did happen without outside help. Do you remember? Depending on which side you were on, right now, thinking back, you're feeling either your heart lift or your stomach drop. You're being physically moved by something that you saw weeks ago, probably via satellite. That seems like it shouldn't be possible. Our biggest sporting events -- from the World Series to the Final Four to the Super Bowl -- are such elaborate and beautiful constructions that they seem as though they can't be ours alone.

I remember particularly how Europe's captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, looked to the skies and wept after Martin Kaymer's winning putt, and I wanted so much to believe what he believed, the way I'd like to believe that when Barbara leaves us, Jack will be waiting for her. That Ryder Cup was so awesome, in the original sense of the word, I've spent the time since trying to find a way to reconcile what I know in my head with what I wish in my heart. I hope I've found a way.

I covered the 2000 World Series between the Yankees and the Mets, and the instant Roger Clemens threw the broken bat toward Mike Piazza remains one of my sharpest memories. I was in the press box at Yankee Stadium, and the sound that crowd made, it was almost something you could grab out of the air, as though it had weight, and that old place listed like a sinking ship, and I swear my laptop danced across my table all by itself, by magic. That moment happened outside of me, but I felt it all the same. I still can.

Time after time, sports have given me my religion: Do you believe in miracles? YES! Or, I don't believe what I just saw! I had the same feeling when Olazabal looked up, and I know some baseball or basketball player will do me the same favor again soon, the way they always have. Maybe I don't have to believe in God to believe in ghosts. Maybe ghosts are just memories of people who were so important to us, they stay clear enough to live forever.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.