I take a certain pleasure in telling people I am an atheist. I like to mention it as casually as if confessing that I am a Baptist or a Lutheran. Living, as I do in the Bible belt, where Christianity is axiomatic, it never ceases to raise eyebrows. Actually I am a member of an organized religion. Buddhism has no required official position on the existence of a supreme deity or even an afterlife. Many Buddhists believe in a God of sorts and reincarnation. None of my fellow Buddhists have ever asked me my position on these issues and I doubt if any will. The historical Buddha himself is credited with dodging the question of the afterlife, saying only that followers of the teaching should concern themselves more with the issues of the here and now.
One of the main arguments advanced by traditional monotheists for the value of religion is that it gives comfort to those facing the final moments of life. Of course there never has been and probably never will be definitive, scientific evidence for the existence of an afterlife and the eternal survival of the human psyche or soul, New Testament accounts and the experiences of near death notwithstanding. Unless the near death is personally experienced, these are at best second hand accounts and non-reproducible.
The higher theology extant even in the traditional monotheistic systems states that the personality or the ego must be shed in order to enter the heavenly kingdom. For most people, unfamiliar with the transcendence achieved with advanced spiritual practice, the worldly obsessed personality and the ego are really all they have. Their chief consolation in the afterlife is meeting up with lost family members and even favorite pets. Practical observation leads most to a realistic understanding that the body falls to dust after death. If the body, why not then the so-called soul? The New Testament offers a consolation in the existence of a spirit body endowed with all the reflected physical attributes of the cast off body.
“It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” Corinthians 15:44
The extent to which physical malignancies, addictions, bad habits, and an obnoxious personality survive within this spirit body is unclear. The higher metaphysical implications of this “spirit body” are also unclear to me. I think that this concept is misunderstood and abused by many clergy to salve the anxieties of the credulous. How much easier is it to believe Grandpa has been reunited with Grandma and their favorite terrier Roxie, than to have to deal with all the unresolved disagreements and conflicts now silenced by his passing? The belief that the old bastard is somehow, somewhere still kicking also relieves the survivor’s guilt that occurs to every live person upon hearing of the death of a loved one, “Better him than me.”
Terror Management Theory (TMT) “... focuses on the implicit emotional reactions of people that occur when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die.”
The human responses to reminders of personal mortality can be quite irrational, intense and often violent. Religion and social institutions provide people with many strategies to assist in his/her attempts to assuage these anxieties concerning death. Religion’s tales of an afterlife in which the saved have an eternal experience of a personal immortality of sensual bliss of course have no rational basis. TMT helps explain the reason why this belief exists as well as why it is defended with such furor against anyone who would question its validity.
Do I dare call ours an empirical age? Certainly the world’s major monotheistic religions seem to be leading us ever further down into the mired pit of irrational faith and superstition. Nevertheless those who have some historical knowledge of the Age of Reason, science as well as those possessing minds trained in logic need to stand against the attempts of Religion to pander to human ignorance, weakness and fear. Am I afraid of death? Yes, certainly. Am I willing to allow this fear to stampede me into ideas and beliefs that in bright noonday light have no rational or empirical basis? Certainly not.
How often have I let pass without comment a grieving family member who says. “Oh John has gone to a better place.” It is as hard to hear as when the President says that of soldier, killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, “He died defending our freedom.” They are both lies and fairy tales presented not as a truth but to somehow make the survivors’ grief easer to bear.
Of course it is in exceedingly bad form for me or a reporter to correct the bereaved statements and try to set the record straight: There is no empirical evidence of an afterlife. Your son, daughter, husband died for in a military campaign that most assuredly is making the world and this country distinctly less safe because of his/her ultimate sacrifice. This is no more appropriate to set the record straight in these circumstances than to argue the first amendment rights of American Nazis to march through Skokie, IL to a Holocaust survivor. Clearly this is not the forum.
And yet we must find some forum to demonstrate that it is possible for death to have a meaning of sorts without all the metaphysical hocus-pocus and the ego’s masquerading. That is why Christopher Hitchen’s testimony is so valuable.
Some time ago I heard a lecture by Randy Pauch who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008. As a result of his now famous Last Lecture delivered at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, he became an amazing inspirational figure to countless millions. His humor and no nonsense approach to his final days found resonance to many hungry for a victorious approach to tragedy that did not deny the ultimate realities. I have searched in vain for any reference Pausch may have made to God, survival or even a hint of religious metaphysical speculation concerning his condition or his future. As close as I have been able to come is a note that he was a Unitarian and the following quote from his “Last Lecture”:
"I have experienced a deathbed conversion... I just bought a Macintosh."
We need to celebrate people like Hitchens and Pausch who have the courage to face the abyss without the benefit of religious, metaphysical palliatives. Perhaps “celebrate” is not quite the appropriate word. We definitely need role models that represent courageous myth free approaches to death.
Dylan Thomas said of poetry that it teaches us "We are alone and not alone in the unknown world, our bliss and suffering forever shared and forever all our own." So it is with death. I think a realistic approach to end of life issues would be of far greater benefit to a majority of people who have substantial doubts concerning the existence of a supreme deity or the existence of a hereafter. Facing death as an existential reality is no picnic. Combine this with the unrelenting pain many face in connection with terminal illness and you have a perfect recipe for despair.
Pausch seems the more upbeat of my two examples and yet even he in the last days seemed to be fighting the pain of losing his wife and children and the even worse ache at the prospect of their despair over losing him. There is no palliative for this pain; the best we can do is face it with courage and acceptance as a part of life every bit as important and essential as birth. Those who would offer us pie in the sky alternates to the physical reality of death should be sent packing as the marketing representatives of lies and false hope.
Here is the link to a wonderful interview with Anderson Cooper. http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/07/video-extended-interview-hitchens-on-cancer-and-atheism/
There is also a good interview at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/10/christopher-hitchens-im-d_n_676681.html
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