Matt Dilahunty and Martin Wagner (of the Atheist Community of Austin) hosted an episode of the Atheist Experience, two weeks ago, in which they briefly touched on the subject of death. It was a well done discussion of the messages Christians use to scare people into accepting a belief in God/Christ by appealing to the natural, human fear of death. They also made the point that I'm fond of making, in that the fear isn't really a fear of dying, but a fear of the unknown. Martin astutely pointed out that humans like patterns and they like to have answers, even if the answer to a problem might be incorrect. They'll take an incorrect answer over an "I don't know.", because, by giving ANY answer, you're setting some parameters for the experience and taking some anxiety out of the unknown.
Anyway... I thought it was an interesting episode and it's something I've been thinking of lately. As most of you know, I have SLE and it's not treating me very well. Every day is an exercise in pain and frustration. But, I want to discuss why *I* think that atheism is a better approach to death than buying into the Christian concept of heaven (or the afterlife).
1. Accepting reality. I'm a big fan of it. What has ever been gained from lying to a person about what they face in the future? Seriously, aside from temporary comfort, what benefit is genuinely gained by either believing there's an afterlife or convincing someone else that there's an afterlife? And, how comforting can it indeed be? Whether you believe in heaven or you accept the reality... you're still going to die. If I believed in the token of a heavenly afterlife, would it change the fact that I'm going to die? No. If, however, I accept the fact the reality (that death is the end of the game), then I can benefit from that approbation because I can choose to make each day count. This leads to point number two...
2. Action. I think the cognitive dissonance involved in believing in an afterlife while you are dying is counter productive? What do you think a dying person is more likely to realize before death? "I'm so glad I'm dying because I'm going to heaven!" or, simply, "I have lived my life." I would think that most people would realize, at the end of their life, that all they have is what they've lived. Accepting a flawed belief that there's another life after this one doesn't really encourage people to get out and live the life they have to its fullest. If you believe you're going to see your dead relatives in the afterlife, then what's your impetus to work hard at maintaining a relationship with your dying relative/friend? I think people believe in the afterlife partly because they are lazy and want to assuage their guilt over "being busy" and not devoting time to their loved one as the loved one was moribund. It's easier to self-soothe your guilt over not giving a crap if you can pretend that you'll be able to make amends and see the deceased again someday. Also, if you think there's this wonderful "great beyond", then what's the point of fighting your disease to hang around a few more days?
3. Duplicity. If there's some extraordinary hereafter, then why is euthanasia (and suicide, to a degree) a sin? If there's truly some wondrous and enviable heaven, then you'd think theists would be enthusiastic about a dying person wanting to get to that place sooner. Any motivation for keeping a dying person alive becomes a selfish act and/or philosophy. After all, who are we to keep Aunt Myrtle from heaven? Theists become hypocrites when faced with the process of death. In the Christian philosophy, heaven is a fringe benefit of suffering through life on earth. However, most Christians are firmly against any procedure or ontology that approves of speeding the process of death along.
4. Honesty. If I walked up to you and said, "Dude. If you do "a", I will give you "b"...but, I don't have any proof that "b" exists, then I am lying to you. Heaven is an illusory promise! No one can prove that heaven, or any afterlife, exists. So, why are so many people completely willing to believe that heaven exists? And, why would you promote something that you can't deliver or prove?
As an atheist, I react to the above points with the following;
1. Acceptance. I know that the one constant truth in this world is that every living thing eventually dies. Some organisms sooner than others, but death is indubitable. We will die. The only unknowns, for most, are "when?" and "how?". By accepting that you are going to die, and that there's no afterlife, you stand a better chance of appreciating life for what it is. If you accept the 100% certainty of death, you can better view each day alive as a treasure. A heavenly afterlife is out of the cards, but you can accept that each day should be your heaven on earth. People should strive to make every day their best day. If you can accept this, you're bound to face death with a healthier perspective. And, a healthier mental outlook is often responsible, for whatever reason, in extending life and boosting physical health.
2. Action. When you know and accept the above, you can then set about living for each day. Rather than living life and hoping that you'll get some sort of deific prize, you can become extremely proactive about making the here-and-now rewarding, alluring, and extraordinary! I know that I am dying (probably sooner than most people my age). I have accepted it. Accepting it, with the atheistic perspective that "this is it", I've become focused on appreciating what I have now and taking every opportunity to make memories for my children/husband/family/friends. The MEMORIES are what persist and soothe us in grief and recovery. I find the idea of spending hours in church every week to be an enormous waste of the numbered hours we have to live. Does anyone ever stand-up in a funeral (or memorial service) and talk about how wonderful spending time in church with a loved one was? Or, do they remember, and talk about, the times spent; having fun, building relationships, DOING meaningful things, spending time with, and/or experiencing life with the deceased? And, let's get real for a moment - why do we care about what the dead would want? They're dead!! You know what I "want" when I die? I wish for my children to be surrounded by love and laughter. I want people to pay as little attention as possible to my dead-ass body decaying in the coffin (awaiting cremation). Focus on my children!! Share with them every memory that we share and every hope that I've ever spoke of for them. When we die, as atheists, we're pretty sure that OUR lives are finished, so why not focus on the life still to come in those we love? Why not delight in the shared memories and experiences, rather than say prayers for the dead person to be at peace or in heaven? It's a waste of time!
3. Duplicity. Atheism requires no hypocrisy about death. When you're dead, you're dead. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. If someone is suffering from cancer and is exhausted from the pain, atheism presents no ethical or moral antimony. If peace is what the goal is, you can give someone the most peaceful death possible without worrying about some eternal or divine punishment for acting in a humane fashion. With atheism, there's no impending, illimitable accounting of a person's sins or good deeds. Rather, our sins and good deeds have, presumably, already impacted our lives and the lives of those who will go on living. Therefore, there's no worrying about someone ending up in heaven or hell. Death isn't a punishment or reward. It's just death. It's natural.
4. Honesty. Atheism doesn't use death as some sadistic, guilt inducing tool. I keep thinking of the child whose father died in the Sago mine disaster. This little boy was told to pray to God and ask for his father's life to be spared. So, he prayed. Then, the false report of the miners being alive was announced and this kid's grandma said, on national television, "See... your prayers mattered and you saved your daddy. God saved daddy because of your prayers." Of course, when the news filtered down that the child's father was dead,... well, no one brought up this boy's prayers. How fucking dishonest, shrewd, and reproachful was it for adults to insinuate that this child was, in ANY way, in a position to effect the outcome of the disaster? No survivor should feel that sort of guilt or responsibility for the death of someone for whom they had NO capacity to affect the outcome! And, how can anyone, in good conscience, tell a child (or any one) that there's a heaven wherein their loved one will be waiting for them? And,...to go further...how can any religious person spend uncalled for amounts of time lecturing people about hell (or worrying about hell), when almost no one in a position of religious authority would stand-up during a funeral and say, "Yep. He/She is in hell! Let's go have some funeral potatoes!" It's a lie- either way. You shouldn't make claims about things that can't possibly be proven...especially when vulnerable people are involved.