Dealing with Death
In the introduction to “Dealing with Dying” (Free Inquiry, October/November 2007), Tom Flynn wrote: “How strange, then, that, despite the comfort and support their beliefs are said to brin g, most religious people appear to fear dying and dread death no less fiercely than any secular humanist. . . . Or maybe, when it comes to the capital E End, some believers feel less certain of what lies beyond the grave than they had hoped they would.” This only goes to show how little Mr. Flynn knows about how “religious people” feel about dying and what they believe lies beyond the grave.
I am a nontheist, but I know a lot about how theists view death and what they believe is supposed to happen when they die. Without going into lengthy detail, I have spent a lot of time in nursing facilities. I doubt how much Mr. Flynn knows about these warehouses for life’s cast-offs, where death is an all too frequent visitor. I befriended many for “whom the bell tolled,” who, at one time or another—before death knocked on their door—said they were tired of life and wanted to go to their eternal home. They were no less certain about about what lies beyond the grave just before death claimed them than they were long before embarking on life’s greatest adventure. Their faith, whether misguided or not, never wavered.
Atheists, who prefer calling themselves secular humanists and free thinkers, would love to hear one theist who, knowing death was near, rose up and shouted “Hooray! I’ve seen the light. There is no god, no heaven, and I am about to become nothing more than a cosmic cinder.” It would send shivers of delight down their spines. But I can tell you from experience, Mr. Flynn, it ain’t gonna happen.
Harold R. Larimer
Thomas Flynn replies:
My point was not to suggest that large numbers of believers grow doubtful as death nears—I’m sure that’s an extremely infrequent occurrence!—but rather to note how incongruous it is that most believers, who claim certainty regarding what awaits them after death, nonetheless strive so mightily throughout their lives to keep from dying. At least that is usually the case until the suffering associated with a terminal illness becomes exhausting, as with the tragic nursing home patients whom Mr. Larimer has befriended. No, I don’t suspect that many such sufferers waver in their faith; I do suspect that their growing openness toward death has less to do with their still-constant faith than with the grinding suffering that has become all that life has to offer them.
In any case, healthy people also think about the “capital E end” that awaits us all. Believers claim great benefits from their afterlife beliefs. How odd, then, that they seem not to differ from atheists in behaviors like buckling up, wearing bicycle helmets, vigorous hand washing, or cooking their burgers well done. (At least, I’ve never noticed a cultural stereotype about atheists turning into hypervigilant Felix Unger clones because they know this life is all they have.) If believers are no less likely than unbelievers to engage in self-protective behaviors, believers’ afterlife views would appear to have limited efficacy.
“The Gift of a Wise Man” by Janet L. Factor was very beautiful and inspiring.
When I used to talk to my young son about the possibility of life after death, I would always close the conversation with the cursory remark, “Who knows, who can really say?” After all, the issue is beyond the purview of science and reason, and hence beyond the purview of tenable human knowledge.
One thing is for certain: Neanderthals buried their dead ceremoniously. This seems to indicate that they considered death something other than the mere cessation of biological life. Illusion as it was, this may have served an important evolutionary function. Ritualizing death implies compelling interest in life and, therefore, incentive to value our earthly existence and make improvements in living. This makes sense. If life had no extraordinary incentive, we would only take it for granted and be content with tawdriness and banal mediocrity.
John L. Indo
Covering All the Bones
Tom Flynn’s article, “Why Bother?” (FI, October/November 2007) conveys how I feel about dealing with dying. My instructions to my wife, in the event that I precede her in death are:
- If possible, disavow any relationship to the corpse, thus avoiding paying money that you may need for your remaining years.
- If (1) is not feasible, have the body cremated as soon as possible.
- To avoid an extra trip to town, let the crematory dispose of the ashes unless they charge a fee for disposal that is greater than the cost of a trip to town and back. If that is the case, pick up the ashes and dispose of them however you like. The nearest trash can comes to mind. Also, using them as an ash barrier for slugs would be a way of having me participate in the gardening that you would have liked me to do, but which I never did.
- Don’t have a get-together of any kind.
- After (1) through (4) have been attended to, and not before, notify my children that their father has ceased to exist.
Knowing my wife, the only one that will be completed as requested will be the quick cremation, but hey, I tried.
I found the articles on dying very interesting. I was puzzled, however, that no writer approached the subject in the way I find most satisfying.
Both my wife and I have willed our bodies after death to the anatomy department of the University of Cincinnati. We are both atheists, do not believe in a deity or heaven or hell, and believe that once we are dead, we have ceased to exist. We do not believe in life after death. We do not want to be put on display. We do not want a funeral, and we do not want a memorial service.
I am a retired botany professor, my wife is a retired art professor. We are happy and satisfied with our decisions and our relatives agree with us.
Dr. Diederik C. D. De Jong
The Roots of Catholic Incredulity
I am puzzled that Professor Lüdemann found the thesis of Pope Benedict XVI remarkable (“An Embarrassing Misrepresentation,” FI, October/November 2007). According to Professor Lüdemann, Benedict in his book Jesus of Nazareth proposed “that faith alone can enable one to discern the profound harmony underlying the New Testament portraits of Jesus. . . .” I don’t find this surprising. It seems to me that a tenet of the Roman Catholic church is “first faith, then reason.”
In his book, The Trouble With Principle, Stanley Fish says “The difference between a believer and a nonbeliever is not that one reasons and the other doesn’t but that one reasons from a first premise the other denies. . . .” Fish cites Milton’s Paradise Regained:
Satan is the very type of those who would reason before they believe. Such a one, Augustine insists, has things exactly backward; if you begin to reason before the mind has been cleared of error, your reasoning with be forever errant. . . .
Thus, it seems to me that Benedict’s misstep simply reflects Augustine’s. This isn’t surprising. More telling is that Benedict apparently regards his book as historical despite his precondition of faith. On this point, I agree with Professor Lüdemann.
Allan D. Halderman
Environmentalism and Humanism
Delightful and valuable as Christopher Hitchens’s column is in Free Inquiry, his thoughts in the last issue ended on a sour note (FI, October/November 2007).
“I have the vague impression that a majority of secularists are also environmentalists of one or another stripe. It might be time to look out for the indications of religious fanaticism, or primeval nature worship, in the ranks of the apparently “scientific.”
No doubt environmentalism is the newest refuge for the self-righteous and the guilt-ridden, but that does not make it wrong, or necessarily beholden to superstition and theology (Gaia theology and new-ageism notwithstanding). Just as Dawkins can argue that passion in defense of evolution does not equal fundamentalism, having a moral or ethical position with respect to the environment (or any other topic) does not equal religious unreason.
It should not be hard to imagine that we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave a planet that is not a clear-cut monoculture on land and a bacterial cesspool in the water. One paradigm comes to us from ten thousand years ago, when the Clovis hunters appear to have extirpated the rich megafauna of the Americas, as detailed by Paul Martin in his book Twilight of the Mammoths. They did not have the consciousness to consider what they were doing, but surely we can and should do better.
It is precisely the lack of religious millennialism and apocalyptic thought that enables current environmentalists to imagine that humanity may still be around in one thousand, ten thousand, even one million years, and that those humans might appreciate some fraction of the natural diversity and wilderness that clings to life today. Unfortunately, the environment is the ultimate commons, subject to unthinking tragedy as a matter of economic course. Thus, environmentalists have a steep hill to climb to preserve not just isolated species but functioning ecosystems. As a new and proud citizen of America who professes to marvel at the glories of the cosmos brought to us through the Hubble telescope, Mr. Hitchens might consider those glories that disappeared ten millennia ago as worth pondering and those remaining as worth preserving.
Burkhard R. Braun, PhD
San Rafael, California